Friday, 13 October 2017

Halo Wars 2 - Review

Developer: 343 Industries/Creative Assembly
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platforms: PC, Xbox One (version played)

As I explained in my Halo Wars retrospective earlier this year, the most interesting aspect of this series isn’t the games themselves, but rather their ability to work with an input device that’s hardly suited to the demands of a real-time strategy game. It’s also worth noting that there’s been a long gap since the initial Halo Wars release. Eight years is a long time for a sequel, long enough that a lot of your potential player base perhaps never got around to playing the original.

This might explain Halo Wars 2’s attitude of playing it safe. Everything returns pretty much intact from the original. The rock-paper-scissors structure of units still forms the foundation of the game’s combat, with each unit type, be it air, infantry or vehicle, being weak to one type and strong against another.

This makes for a broad brush approach to strategy. The main challenge comes largely from working out what the enemy force is specialized in, and then finding the appropriate counter measure. So, if the enemy is building up tanks, you send in an aerial force. If they’re building up lots of marines and other infantry, some tanks of your own will put a stop to it.

Of course, there are a few additional wrinkles in order to complicate the typical combat encounter. Whilst vehicles are typically at a disadvantage when it comes to aerial units, the Wolverine comes with potent anti-air capabilities, meaning that, even if you invest heavily in one unit type, you always have some counter for an opponent’s counter.

The game’s base-building has also undergone some minor alterations and improvements from the original, whilst still remaining pretty much the same as it was. There’s now two resource types; supplies and power, that must be acquired in order to expand your forces. This presents an interesting tug-of-war for base-building decisions that wasn’t in the original game. Supplies, typically, are used for building forces, whilst power is mostly used for improving said forces and upgrading your base. Too much supply and you’ll end up with an underpowered army that’ll risk being wiped out by a more advanced force, too much power and you’ll not have much of a force at all.

The macro-focus of the game’s general flow culminates with the leaders that each force can select prior to a skirmish or online match. Here again, it’s the decisions that a player makes before the game even starts that have the most impact. Ostensibly, each of the three factions leaders for both forces (there’s a bevy of additional leaders as part of the game’s extensive DLC) focuses on one third of the game’s units. This is especially true of the game’s human forces; pick Capatain Cutter and it’s clear his focus is on infantry, whilst A.I. assistant Isabel is slanted more towards vehicles. Each leader comes with an array of powers, with more potent ones being available to unlock as battles progress and fights breakout and are a mix of cooldown-based abilities and passive bonuses.

It’s here where the Banished, the rag-tag coalition of Brute and Covenant forces, seem to have had a little more love poured into them. Whilst the UNSC’s core leaders all fit into cookie-cutter strategies; take Cutter if you want squads of marines, Isabel if you want tanks and so on, the Banished are far more loosely defined and offer a broader array of tactical applications, making them more interesting.

 Atriox’s focus is on area control, he wants to literally colonise the map as you play, with cheaper forward bonuses in order to produce a stronger economy for late game fights. His underling, Decimus, meanwhile, is happy pounding everything into the dirt at the nearest opportunity. It’s a minor aspect of Halo Wars 2 but it’s moments like this, when its game design creeps out of that nice comfortable shell and tries to experiment, as it does with the Banished, that it becomes a little more interesting and grabs your attention a little more.

Whilst the leaders, powers, build-orders and economies are all important for the game’s multiplayer, and that’s clearly the game’s focus, there is still a story mode buried in here. It plays out like a tutorial mode for the human side, slowly unveiling new units to play with each chapter, and switching back and forth between full-blown engagements which involve defending positions and building up your bases, to quieter more micro-oriented scenarios such as navigating a series of snipers and artillery along a cliff side to take out the enemy.

The game’s story mode isn’t going to win any awards, it’s hamstrung, more so than the multiplayer, by the fact that you can’t really organize individual elements of your forces. Even with the new gamepad shortcuts, which, to be fair to make wielding a pad less cumbersome, this is still a game that’s always making allowances for the hardware it’s being played on.

It explains the focus on pitched battles so much throughout the campaign. Defending fixed locations is still the primary goal for most chapters, as it was in the original, almost transforming some of the levels into a quasi tower defence game as you shuffle your forces to whichever choke point is in most need of support.

The story itself is the same convoluted mush of swishy alien tech, with the fun, gloopy Flood being replaced by no one’s favourite morass of bland Sentinel designs. The game’s plot, what there is of it, is always hamstrung by the fancy cutscenes that bookend each mission. Oh, don’t get me wrong, those cutscenes developed separately by Blur Studio, are gorgeous. However, they force whatever story-telling the game makes a stab at to bend to the whim of the game’s slick post-chapter animations, resulting in a plot that’s not just convoluted but bordering on incomprehensible, not to mention culminating in a frustrating non-ending.

The biggest bugbear here inevitably goes to the way the game’s been released. Whilst the multiplayer is undoubtedly the game’s strongest suit, anyone wanting to try out any of the new leaders is going to have to fork out for the season pass in order to get hold of any of them. Likewise, a series of new story missions are delivered as DLC.

Halo Wars 2 isn’t the worst offender with how it markets its paid expansions, but at this point it does feel like players are only getting half a game unless they shell out for that season pass. It perhaps explains why the game retails for slightly less than other AAA titles, with Microsoft perhaps experimenting with lowering the entry fee in order to pull in more revenue with the DLC pass.

Whilst charging for the additional story content is perhaps understandable, the actual “meat” of the DLC, the new leaders, doesn’t really warrant charging an arm and a leg for what amounts to a slight tactical variation on whatever force you happen to use. When Overwatch can dole out new characters for free, it’s baffling that Halo Wars 2 would let half of its potential player base feel left behind for what amounts to a few additional character types. Halo Wars 2 is too shallow for the additional leaders to dramatically change the way the game is played, but by actively cordoning them off behind a paywall (and advertising them each time you boot up the game) it leaves the impression that part of Microsoft’s intent with the game is exploring new ways to reduce the title’s pre-owned value, by all but forcing invested players to shell out for the game’s season pass. All this does is gut whatever draw the game’s otherwise competitive, multiplayer focus would seem to set out to achieve.

This becomes more apparent with Blitz mode, a horrible aberration that fuses the game’s RTS structure with that of a collectible card game. Any other time this would be casual fun; a throw away mini-game that has players building decks of “cards” (read: units/powers) and battling against other players in an area-control map. Needless to say, it’s an unbalanced mess and reeks of a developer trying to foist what would otherwise be a free-to-play title onto a paid release.

Taken on its own terms Halo Wars 2 is a decent(ish) real-time strategy game. As a way for newcomers to dip their toe into the genre, it does a good job, whilst the Halo brand helps paper over the shallowness of it all. Were it a little more daring, and didn’t nickel-and-dime its playerbase, this could have been something more, but as it stands, it’s safe, predictable, and just about pulls it off.

It has the tactical depth of a paddling pool, but it’s a comfortable paddling pool.


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