When Halo Wars 2 was announced, it came as a pleasant surprise to me and the numerous other fans that saw past the flaws of the original. While far from perfect, Halo Wars still stands as proof that not only can you make an RTS work on a console, if you take the time you can make it work really well. With Ensemble gone (Rest in Peace dear friend), Creative Assembly, of Total War fame, was brought in to consult on the project. As I imagined what Halo Wars 2 would be like and how Creative Assembly could take the series in an exciting new direction on better hardware, I anxiously awaited my time with the beta that launched the week of E3.
What I received, well, it was certainly more Halo Wars, but in the not what I had expected or hoped for. For the moment I’ll ignore the changes to the characters, all of whom are returning from the first game. Let’s just talk about gameplay. The core of the original game is front and center. You’ll still manage different plots connected to your base with a maximum of 7. Units can be selected individually, locally, or with the hold of the A button to select a large amount of specific units. In all, there isn’t much to learn in this regard for someone who played the previous game.
Where things start to get dicey is when you are desperately trying to upgrade your facilities while struggling to earn resources. Halo Wars 2 makes it more difficult to push up the tech tree, something skilled players could do on a single base in the original. Remaining on one base is now a big disadvantage, but unless you’re willing to dedicate the majority of your plots to supply pads and generators you’ll progress slowly even on two bases. Base management worked in the original, but it was also criticized for being too simple and too restrictive. Instead of improving the system and allowing for more diverse base building options, Halo Wars 2 opts for familiarity above all.
Several new units and commanders debut with the new game, though only 2 commanders were in the beta. The new units make Halo Wars 2 more of a rock/paper/scissors type game with units that have specific strengths and weaknesses. Still, tech trumps numbers. My army of Gauss Warthogs made short work of a large enemy armored unit simply because they were not upgraded enough. As someone who regularly plays RTS games, I understand how important upgrades are. An extra point of damage can turn a close fight quickly to my favor. Halo Wars makes upgrades even more important by changing more than just a simple point of damage. Swapping my chain guns for Gauss cannons meant my Warthogs could easily rip through not only infantry, but armored units and buildings as well. It meant that only the strongest of my opponent’s armored units would stand a chance against my army of light and fast death dealers. They were out tech’d and out classed.
Halo Wars 2 maintains the original’s strategy of being approachable by anyone, but it is also exploitable by anyone with experience in the genre. With the game finally making its way to the PC, I expected an evolution of the series to a more traditional style, albeit one that still worked well on a controller. It didn’t have to become StarCraft or Total War, just something less restrictive. Its simplicity is its own weakness, there isn’t enough to draw in genre enthusiasts, especially on PC, and newcomers will be intimidated by anyone who has a better understanding of the genre, even if they aren’t big on the genre. The game will really appeal to the middle ground of players who like RTS games but are intimidated by more demanding titles in the genre. It’s curious that Microsoft would not do more for a title that many were convinced wouldn’t even get a sequel, and choose not to address the criticisms of that game.
I will say that I’ll still be buying the game and I’m hopeful I’ll enjoy my time with it, but I can’t help but believe that Halo Wars 2 plays it too safe, and will ultimately suffer for it.