Early on in Halo Wars 2, I kept getting the feeling that I had lived this all before in an almost dream-like way. I played through campaign mission after mission, trying to shake the feeling and find my 'Ah-ha!' moment that would set the game apart, letting me tell my friends and associates of the special moments I wanted to share with them, but, those moments never came, or, rather, they never came in 2009 with the launch of the original Halo Wars.
As sequels are released, we often see improvements rather than groundbreaking innovation. Titanfall 2 featured a campaign as well as tightening the features that made the first so good. Assassin's Creed improved on its interesting concept, by making climbing, swimming and movement a joy in the historic success that was Assassin's Creed 2. However, this is not always the case. In the case of some game series life they will fall from grace and lose their ability to innovate and improve on what may be an interesting or genuinely good idea or series of ideas; so is the case for Halo Wars 2. Halo Wars 2 was released 8 years after the original Halo Wars, and, on a completely different console, but that simply does not seem to lend itself to any kind of interesting or even noteworthy changes to the game. It is an RTS, a clean and simple Real Time Strategy, and that is all it achieves even when it tries to make the player feel pressured or invested. I simply did not, knowing that the looming evil could be out maneuvered by systematic and proper base-building and army-deployment, get that feeling.
I was first introduced to the game by the E3 trailer in 2016. The trailer did an amazing job on conveying a threat of new scale and intelligence for the Halo universe. This trailer held strong in my mind as I began the campaign, with early cut scenes showing the pure power of the enemy that I was to face. However, upon playing the game my strong interest in the new foe, Atriox, was depleted very quickly as missions made him seem approachable and frankly, beatable. I forgot the power I was to face, forgot my excitement to survive on a campaign level, and focused on the tiny troops I was to help survive and their mundane going-on's; each mission as formulaic as the next, saturated with cheesy writing and characters that would feel more at home in a TV space sitcom rather than in the Halo universe.
Two is One, One is One.
After spending some time in the campaign, it was time to try the co-op campaign. If you are a fan of the Halo series, you will be pleased to find out that the campaign formula is exactly the same. You play through the same levels, with your partner, choosing to skip scenes together. If your friend has played further ahead than you and they are hosting, you can play their levels, the same works in reverse. The game is strong, in that the features added are never game-changing, so if you happen to stroll into a later campaign level, the formula you learned so long ago still holds true, meaning you are an asset to your partner.
The greatest highlight of having two players is the ability to control twice as many troops. Often, my partner and I would find ourselves under fire, but because one of us could coordinate the army and the other could focus on upgrading or creating more troops, the foes we faced were never much of a challenge, so long as communication was taking place. Co-op is not the game's strength, but it by no means is a weak point. If I had my say, I would opt to play the game with a friend, whenever possible. The levels are simply more fun when you are holding a beach and your buddy has a swarm of his Hornets (the flying, fighter-type of units) enter into the airspace in the nick of time.
On the other hand, the greatest setback of having a partner is the shared resource pool as well as the shared population limit. If you are not well in sync with your teammate, problems can arise quickly. A partner who wants to develop first could leave their combat-heavy partner without the power to build an army. As always, cooperation while playing co-op is everything. Your units, once queued up, belong to the player who assigned the unit to be built. Again, coordination is everything; if one player monopolizes the army, the other will have little to do but wait for units to die off before they have control."If I had my say, I would opt to play the game with a friend, whenever possible."
Blitz Firefight mode is another interesting co-op idea, but it does not add much to the formula that was introduced. The decks you gather while playing other game modes, do not truly change the game any more than placing a self-imposed handicap or 'greatest hits' into the player's hand, depending how they build their deck. The system is fine mechanically and does what it ought to no fault, but it simply does not breathe more life into the game past what the campaign has to offer with a bit of added pressure, as it is set up in a horde-mode format instead of campaign's objectives. On the positive light of Firefight, the co-op allows the two players to be completely independent, meaning that building a deck with a friend and playing your cards right together can be just as fun and well thought out as doing it alone.
There are other co-op and versus type multiplayer modes. Many are standard, skirmish style, with variations and objectives that can tweak gameplay. None of this adds to the flow of what you do; you build bases in designated spots and hold, capture or destroy things as best you can. The game simply has no more to offer.
PC Impressions by Nicholas Puleo
Halo Wars 2 is another Xbox Play Anywhere title, meaning one copy gets you both Xbox One and PC, which is great for a title like this. The experience of playing an RTS with a mouse and keyboard vs a controller is akin to the difference between cutting a tree with a hand saw vs using a chainsaw. Microsoft and Creative Assembly did not gimp PC players with console like controls, your full QWERTY arsenal is at your disposal and all the common RTS advantages like dynamic groups, precise unit selection, and quicker navigation via the mini map are all present.
The downside? There is no cross play between Xbox One and PC - even for co-op. It's an odd decision because a game like Gears of War 4 allowed it in co-op but not competitive, but according to Microsoft "engine differences" prevent it here.
The game looks great, plays great, and runs fairly smooth thanks to a recent patch. It almost makes it difficult to play on Xbox One after experiencing the PC version.
The game reaches a very odd tipping point, it is not bad - because it is good. But, it is good - because it is not bad. The mechanics in place work well. It is very easy to hop in and start leading your army into a foray of space marines, tanks, flying rockets and lasers, explosions and moments where, after holding your breath, a well-placed missile strike will change the tide of battle. However, if you played the original Halo Wars, none of these moments will be new to you. The game offers very little in innovation or any sort of interest past a few hours worth. If you want more Halo Wars, you got it.
As I wake up from the dream-like state I started the review in, I realize that eight years had passed. Eight years of technology in video games and lore in Halo moving forward. Maybe Halo Wars should try and move forward as well.