The search for the perfect console RTS has been long and hard, with plenty of contenders rising up to try and claim the throne of the Best Non-PC Real-Time Strategy Game…at least that’s what I’d say in Bizarro World. In reality, you don’t often see RTS games on consoles because the control options available don’t tend to suit them very well. Recent titles like Siegecraft Commander have been making an effort to bridge the gap, though, and here we’ve got Microsoft’s take on the concept with Halo Wars 2.
What’s Halo Wars 2 about? Well, you can probably be forgiven if you haven’t kept up with the Halo canon, since it’s twisted and turned all over the place over the course of the past few releases. Here we’re following the crew of the UNSC Spirit of Fire, the same ship from the original Halo Wars, as they explore a Halo factory called the Ark. They’re opposed by the Banished, who are pretty much just the Covenant with an edgier name, and their leader Atriox.
Gameplay-wise, this is similar to the original Halo Wars. It’s an RTS-lite that can be played entirely on a controller; while that’s not unique in the genre, the only other example that immediately springs to mind is the incredibly questionable Stormrise from 2009, so the Halo Wars series wins by default. You’ll train units, command them around the battlefield and activate special abilities all through the magic of the Xbox One controller…or mouse and keyboard if you really want on PC (as a Play Anywhere title you’ll get both for the price of one), but we’ll talk about why that’s not a great idea later.
Combat can get intense, but that’s more because of the units’ health and high damage; as you’d expect from a Halo game, death is quick and common. You’ve also got powerful support abilities you can throw out at will, including healing, damage and stealth powers that can turn the tide of battle. This means that multiplayer matches typically end and start fairly quickly, which is nice given that this appears to be the focus of the game; not that the campaign is bad or anything, but it’s a spinoff of a series that’s seemingly more about shooting than story. There’s still more going on here plot-wise than Destiny, for what that’s worth.
Speaking of multiplayer, one of the big selling points here is the Blitz mode, a sort of RTS-meets-collectible-card-game option that skips the whole resource-management aspects of the game and allows you to summon units Yu-Gi-Oh style. You’ll get Blitz cards through card packs and guess how you’ll get those? If you guessed “through a moderate trickle of ingame currency or, more likely, through microtransactions” you’re absolutely right and have probably also played a AAA game in the past three years! Blitz is a cute idea, particularly the horde mode variant Firefight, but my addictive personality means that I don’t want to get too far into this rabbit hole for fear of spending all my money on Grunts.
Something must be said, by the way, for the platform on which you play this one. You’d think that the PC would be the ideal option for a real-time strategy game, but for perhaps the only time ever you’d be wrong. Not only does Halo Wars 2 work well with a controller, but the game’s PC version is frighteningly buggy; in fact, it’s the only game I’ve ever seen hard-lock my PC, which was enough to send me scurrying back to the Xbox One version for my time with the game. Even when it does work, it doesn’t take especially great advantage of high-end PC hardware, so considering that the visuals are on par with each other and the Xbox One version is less crash-prone you might as well stick to the console. If you’re stuck on the PC version, change that rating up there to a definite “nay.”
If you do play on Xbox One, though, and you’re a fan of real-time strategy games, you might find yourself enjoying Halo Wars 2. It’s not a strategic tour-de-force by any means, serving more as a vehicle for the Halo franchise, but the simpler gameplay makes it a decent choice if you’re not an armchair Patton. Halo fans who want to keep up with the plot in all of its forms should consider this a no-brainer, of course, and the rest of us will find a strategy-lite title that, while not exactly barebones, doesn’t require you to reach South Korean levels of skill to push through.