Halo Wars 2 is an RTS game designed for people who don’t play RTS games; it’s mediocre, simplistic and with clunky controls due to being designed for an Xbox controller. I never played Halo Wars 1 since it originally didn’t come to PC, but from what I’ve seen and heard, Halo Wars 2 is very similar to the original. It’s a rather generic RTS designed with console gamers in mind, so don’t expect any deep strategy and tactics. Micro is almost non-existent, as you would expect, so the gameplay doesn’t have much going for it. Halo Wars 2 relies on its rich universe, the popularity of the Halo series, excellent presentation, and the narrative-driven campaign.
As a hardcore RTS enthusiast, I tend to skip the campaign and go straight to Skirmish and Multiplayer. Surprisingly, I’m enjoying the campaign in Halo Wars 2 more than the multiplayer, something I never thought I’d say about an RTS game. Halo is one of the most immersive sci-fi universes; the great cutscenes drew me in from the start, and witnessing Halo from a commander’s perspective is cool. While the units aren’t nuanced enough to make them fun from a gameplay perspective, there’s something oddly satisfying about interacting with the Halo classics, such as hooning around Warthogs like all those LAN parties on Blood Gulch or watching a Spartan hijack an enemy vehicle.
Once the novelty wears off, you’re left with bland gameplay and very hit and miss scenarios. I played on Legendary, where some missions were challenging in a fun and competitive way, while others were challenging in a long monotonous grind. Several missions boil down to sitting back and slowly amassing an army until you reach population limit, then doing as much damage as you can with it until it gets wiped out and needs to be rebuilt from scratch. One mission went on for over an hour of rebuilding an army countless times, so I resorted to scrolling through my Facebook feed while waiting for resources to accumulate and my units to build. The campaign can be especially tedious with artificially inflated play time because the AI gets Orbital Strike powers every few minutes which nuke your army. After spending minutes in your base watching and waiting as your army gradually grows, it is incredibly frustrating to have huge chunks of units annihilated from the sky and being helpless to avoid it, over and over again. The Orbital powers look cool and are fun to use, but it baffles me why the AI also has them in the single player campaign.
While Halo Wars 2 offers a lot of content, it’s probably only enjoyable if you like Halo since the multiplayer doesn’t hold up. Concluding it as just a simple RTS with a casual player base in mind is too generous and lets them off the hook for all their bad design decisions and compromises from being designed for a controller. One of the most egregious examples is how almost every unit in the game attacks on the move with no penalty, making it impossible to disengage. If a player finds themselves outnumbered or in an engagement they didn’t want to find, there is no choice but to attack suicidally until the army is wiped out. Retreating is futile given the entire enemy army can chase afterwards with all guns blazing. Not being able to retreat discourages players from pushing out and being active, making the game way more passive than it should be, especially combined with the inability for any meaningful harassment.
The majority of matches involve players sitting back and building up until their big blob of units meets a big blob of enemy units. Engagements are primarily decided by which army is the biggest, but army composition is also a factor. Some units counter each other due to a rock-paper-scissors system between the different unit types such as Infantry, Vehicles and Aircraft. This kind of counter system always has the potential to create tactical gameplay, but the passivity of Halo Wars 2 often results in unit counters being blind luck, instead of scouted and deliberately managed like you would see in StarCraft. Scout units do exist, but they tend to die before getting any useful information, and they require taking away too much attention from the taxing and demanding unit production and base management.
Halo Wars 2 lacks a traditional RTS interface, instead, actions are performed with obnoxious and obscuring radial build menus. On PC, rather than being able to use hotkeys to select structures and train units, almost every action must be done with mouse clicks. This becomes especially problematic when the limited base building system requires that structures are scattered throughout the map. In what should be instantaneous and without having to leave the action, queueing up new units takes several seconds of panning around the map between multiple bases to click on specific structures, to then click on a selection in an ugly radial menu. This frantic clicking all around the map is exhausting and RSI inducing for a game that’s supposed to be aimed at casual RTS players. If Halo Wars 2 wasn’t going to get a proper RTS interface for PC, they could have at least lowered the rate of income so that macro is reduced to a more gentle pace.
The limited base building has other consequences as well, being restricted to finite predetermined building locations removes all creativity and fun from designing your base and guarding it with strategically placed defences. New bases can be deployed on any predetermined site, including ones on the other side of the map right next to your opponent. Forward bases are balanced in most RTS games due to the risk/reward of sending out a fragile and unarmed builder unit which can be denied if scouted. In Halo Wars 2, forward buildings and defences are dropped from the sky and are very durable, so it becomes extremely difficult and unpleasant to try and dislodge an enemy base. If the game wasn’t going to get a proper build system, they could have at least introduced a Company of Heroes style territory system where forward bases can only be deployed if they are connected back to the HQ.
It wouldn’t have been that hard to turn Halo Wars 2 into a compelling RTS on the PC, had the will and knowledge been there. Halo is such a strong and well-financed IP; everything on the surface of Halo Wars 2 great, it’s the underlying systems (or lack thereof) which prevent it from being anything special. I’m sure the current implementation is fine for Xbox One, but the standards and expectations are much higher on PC. Converting it into a proper C&C Generals or C&C3 style RTS could have made it a masterpiece; all it needed was free base building, an overhaul of the supplies to make them contested, a traditional RTS interface and some reworks to the unit abilities. RTS has become such a stagnant genre, leaving a huge void waiting to be filled by a great new RTS which isn’t as challenging as StarCraft. It’s disappointing that Microsoft half-arsed the PC port, and there are so many other smaller issues which I don’t have the time to go into such as horrific options menus, lack of replays, no ability tooltips, and the minimap locking up every few minutes.
I’m glad Halo Wars 2 came to PC, but it feels quite disingenuous, and I’m not convinced Microsoft cares about PC gaming all of a sudden. Microsoft claims to love PC gaming… unless you’re on Windows 7 or 8, then screw you. Not only is Windows 10 is required, Halo Wars 2 can only be bought and played through the Xbox store, just like how Halo 2 was only released on Vista and required Games For Windows Live. It was a huge issue when EA, for the first time, forced us to use Origin to play Battlefield 3, but Origin isn’t actually too bad, it’s just not Steam. The Xbox store, on the other hand, is absolutely awful with terrible navigation and functionality. On top of that, Halo Wars 2 is plagued with hefty micro-transactions, including a day -7 DLC. Day 0 DLC is a well-known repugnant business practice, but Microsoft took it to the next level when I opened up the game a week before launch to find a prompt about “New DLC Available.” I was able “buy” it for free, I believe because it was a pre-order bonus, but day -7 DLC is not good. If Microsoft wants to prove they care about PC gaming, they should release Master Chief collection on PC.
The most nefarious outlet for micro-transactions is the Blitz mini game, a simplified version of an already simple game. Instead of through production and economy, units are summoned onto the field by deploying certain cards which are collected and assorted into various decks. The idea is great since RTS is notorious for being stressful and daunting for new players, so a casual action-heavy game mode can serve as a gentle introduction to the game or to the genre as a whole. The concept of Blitz would work great in StarCraft 2 or Command and Conquer, but in Halo Wars 2 it falls flat on its face. After stripping away the production and economy, Halo Wars 2 is left with almost nothing, controlling small groups of units isn’t fun due to the lack of any meaningful micro or tactics. On the other hand, hearing the classic Halo Announcer declare certain phrases such as “First Blood” is fantastic, and I wish more RTS games tried to offer that level of instant gratification. I wanted to like Blitz, but it felt like it was designed from the start as an excuse for microtranscations.
Most concerning is the pay-to-win element of collecting cards. “Pay-to-win” has become an overused term as a lazy way to criticise micro-transactions, but I’m invoking it here for a good reason. Micro-transactions in multiplayer games usually involve cosmetics or buying additional content which may or may not be stronger than the free content. In Halo Wars 2, receiving a duplicate of a card levels it up and improves its stats, objectively, up to 7 times. Not a case of strengths and weaknesses, you are directly buying power, up to $140 at a time! Extremely distasteful for a game that is already more than full price at $100 AUD for the standard edition, which then also tries to sell you a season pass and DLC sub-factions. Not cool, Microsoft. Not cool.
Halo Wars 2 almost filled a niche of being a simple and less challenging RTS, designed to appeal to casual RTS gamers or people new to the genre entirely. While the campaign is okay, Halo Wars 2 missed the mark with its gaping design flaws, clunky controls and many other issues. Less hardcore RTS fans may not be bothered by these issues or be able to look past them, but I can only recommend Halo Wars 2 to fans of the series who want more of their beloved franchise. While Halo Wars 2 comes with a lot of content, Microsoft needs to be called out for their unsavoury business practices.