Real time strategy still doesn’t quite belong on consoles, but Halo Wars 2 makes the most of it

By Alex Donaldson, Monday, 19 September 2016 11:27 GMT

Halo Wars 2 feels familiar, for better and for worse.

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The original Halo Wars was a curious thing, but it also wasn’t exactly out of place. It arrived in a time when the real time strategy genre was having something of a resurgence – Starcraft 2 wasn’t far out, of course, but it wasn’t even alone on console, with EA porting over the third entires in the Red Alert and Tiberium branches of Command & Conquer.

Now, however, Halo Wars is alone. Starcraft 2 has closed out and Command & Conquer is sadly dormant – but that also leaves a gap in the market that Microsoft’s strategy spin-off can perhaps fill.

Halo Wars’ closest comparison remains Command & Conquer and Starcraft – faster paced and more immediate strategy battles.

I recently had a chance to have a multiplayer hands-on session with a handful of other players and, well – so far, so Halo Wars. It’s exactly what you might expect. That’s no bad thing, but on console that means some more fiddly aspects of its predecessor remain in play.

This is being made by SEGA’s Creative Assembly for Microsoft – the studio most famous for their excellent Total War strategy titles on PC. That’s a good pedigree. This is a very different beast to Total War however; Halo Wars’ closest comparison remains Command & Conquer and Starcraft – faster paced and more immediate strategy battles.

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The maps you fight on support that; they’re modest in size and designed so that you’re never more than a short march from the enemy. On the map I play there’s a variety of bases scattered about. My team of three start with that many bases but are encouraged to expand to other empty bases. The enemy team has to do likewise, and therein we’ve got the makings of a fight.

Strangely, this hands-on of Halo Wars 2 doesn’t let me get stuck into the nitty gritty of what I feel makes strategy games in the vein of C&C and Starcraft really tick – the economy. Instead we’re given more than enough money to build whatever we want without a worry, but this does expose another wrinkle – the unit cap, which limits exactly how big your army can be.

It seems to me as if there’s the making of a strong RTS here, with a satisfying variety of units, powers and mechanics.

Here unit cap becomes the second largest enemy after the opposing armies. Larger units will take up more population and if you’ve only got a maximum of 50 population that can run out quickly. Taking bases increases your population, thus incentivising aggression. It feels right away that turtling, the act of holding back to build up a ridiculously large force, won’t pay off so well here even in casual matches.

Beneath all this is a pretty typical and simple rock/paper/scissors system of hard counters for units. If the enemy is going heavy on one kind of unit then the response is always obvious, and mixed armies are always the ideal to aim for – but too mixed and you could leave yourself open to a force that’s constructed slightly more intelligently. Some specialisation seems like it’ll pay off, but that is an inherent gamble without proper scouting ahead.

If you’re in a particularly bad spot there are special powers your commander can use on a cool down to call in things like orbital strikes or a sudden drop of additional ODST troopers. All this feels pretty good, and it seems to me as if there’s the making of a strong RTS here, with a satisfying variety of units, powers and mechanics.

The nature of Halo Wars 2 being a console and PC release brings with it some interesting adjustments to the typical RTS formula, then. The game is far more focused on being okay with you selecting all units and ordering them into an area without a massive amount of micromanagement. That has to be the case – high levels of ‘micro’ ala high-level Starcraft just isn’t possible on a controller. This makes sense, and for what it’s worth I’ve always had a taste for the slightly simpler RTS – I’m the type who prefers classic C&C to classic Starcraft.

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This is the best controller-based representation of the genre, but this hands-on reminds me that it simply can’t compare to a keyboard and mouse.

The game is built well around the necessity for decent controller-based handling then, but the controller still proves a problem. There were PC Halo Wars set-ups in the room, but I deliberately made my way towards the consoles instead. I wanted to know how it controlled, and the answer is… not that differently to the original Halo Wars.

This second entry has the same sort of functional but sluggish feel about its controls, though I also remember getting remarkably proficient with the controls of the original game over time. In this I was rusty, but what I take away from that is that it isn’t as immediately accessible as one might hope.

I actually regard both the original Halo Wars and the console ports of C&C3 and Red Alert 3 to be fairly remarkable achievements in their attempts to make RTS work on a pad. This is the best controller-based representation of the genre, but this hands-on reminds me that it simply can’t compare to a keyboard and mouse. It’s a decent approximation, but it stops there: it’s in no way competitive, a far wider gap than that between controller and mouse users in shooters, even.

Halo Wars was a great attempt to make the RTS genre work on console. It was a fine system for a campaign experience but one I honestly didn’t end up playing online much because I didn’t feel I could be truly competitive while battling the controller as well. Halo Wars 2 fixes that, at least, by offering a PC version with the traditional type of RTS controls. On console the problems remain, though some of Halo Wars’ unique and satisfying pacing and styling is thanks to the limitiations of the Xbox One’s default input method.

I enjoyed my controller-based match of Halo Wars and am sold on the full product already – but I’m more convinced than ever that the real place to play this game is on PC.

Halo Wars 2 is February 21 2017 on Xbox One and PC.

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