It’s been 28 years since the events of Halo Wars (and, like, 28 minutes since the events of Halo 5: Guardians), and the UNSC ship Spirit of Fire has been floating between the stars, its crew in cryosleep dreaming of cake and reality TV and double-ply toilet paper and the other comforts of home, while humanity’s war with the Covenant has ended. Now, Captain James Cutter, Professor Anders, and our other erstwhile protagonists have been suddenly woken by an emergency signal from Installation 00, a Forerunner Halo factory, and – uh-oh! – the new offices of The Banished, an ex-Covenant mercenary faction led by genocidal beard enthusiast Atriox and his galactic goons.
Things get complicated.
So, here’s a fact. The first Halo game was originally conceived as an RTS, before a series of meetings over at Microsoft HQ determined that it would be a launch title for the company’s upcoming debut console and an FPS instead, because that’s what the kids wanted in 1999. Then, 10 years later, Microsoft, decided to revisit the RTS thing, and in 2009 Halo Wars dropped out of slipspace with fun-sized Spartans and a console control scheme that wasn’t an unadulterated disaster. Despite its potentially somewhat niche audience, the game was moderately successful – due in part, no doubt, to an established fanbase who would buy anything with the Halo logo, just in case they missed something, but also because it was legitimately cool – and a sequel was always inevitable, even if it took almost 10 more years.
The point is, Halo as an RTS isn’t a cheap, cynical side byproduct of corporate profit margins. With its ready-made narrative oeuvre and a collectible sticker-book compilation of instantly recognisable combat units, vehicles, and weapons, it makes sense. And with Total War studio Creative Assembly on development duty, it works too.
Much like the first game, Halo Wars 2 uses somewhat simplified, “rock-paper-scissors” core combat mechanics – basically, vehicles beat infantry, infantry beats air, and air bears vehicles, but some units break those rules to keep things interesting. Bases can only be constructed on predefined locations, and feature a limited number of modular building slots according to the base type or the current base tech level, and resources are generated by certain building types and infinite in supply, precluding additional recon for new reservoirs in the middle of the enemy’s base. Unit management is easy and intuitive, and the game’s AI is clever enough to stop what it’s doing and start shooting if you’re occupied elsewhere on the map when your marines accidentally bump into a bunch of Wraiths (but maybe not clever enough to turn around and run the hell away in that scenario).
Spanning 12 missions and about eight hours, the campaign avoids the otherwise tediously predictable “build stuff, kill stuff, repeat” RTS cycle with a megamix of multiple primary objectives and optional secondary objectives to accomplish. In one mission, for example, you must push forward and expand your bases to assemble artillery units around a central target zone, and in another, defend a base from waves of enemy assaults. There’s also a mission where you don’t even have a base. It’s consistently compelling and a lot of fun, so it kind of sucks that there’s no complementary campaign for The Banished side – a genre-standard feature that’s conspicuously absent here. The campaign also supports co-op for two players, which is fantastic, but for some reason doesn’t include save points in this mode, necessitating a mission restart if you fail a primary objective, so that kind of sucks too.
With a pre-release review copy of the game, I obviously wasn’t able to find regular multiplayer games in public matchmaking, but I played the new, combo card-based Blitz mode with my husband and other local games press people. Mashing up control point gameplay with… Hearthstone, Blitz dumps bases and upgrades and whatever, and swaps in customisable decks of 12 unit cards, each with a deployment cost, to play with instead. It’s fast, it’s totally chaotic, and I think it’s the most exciting thing that’s happened in the genre since Warcraft introduced exploding sheep.
EXCEPT. BUT. HOWEVER. I’m a casual RTS player. Oh, you know, I’ve played Starcraft and Battle for Middle Earth and Total Annihilation, but I’m mostly rubbish at the sort of tactical subtlety required. I like to mass-produce units and watch them die, shrieking, in my own theatre of catastrophe, while I blame the AI or other players for cheating. Halo Wars 2 is an RTS game for casual RTS players like me. I don’t want to use the phrase “dumbed down”, but I just did and so what, anyway? It’s okay to be dumbed down. Making hotdogs is dumbed down cooking, but hotdogs are fucking delicious.