Halo Wars 2: this is how a RTS on console is

In 2009, the first Halo Wars was a real experiment wanted by Microsoft, which at that time had set itself the goal of turning in a “consolara” key some typical PC game schemes, like the shooters but also the strategic ones in real time. This made Halo Wars a more unique title than rare, actually different from a classic RTS, but from the other daring from the point of view of the interface system.

The Halo Wars series is of interest to all the fans of the complex universe with Master Chief because it allows you to use the most iconic units of Halo and baste stratified strategies by exploiting in various ways the strengths and abilities associated with them. After the attempt made in 2009 as a result of the development of Ensemble Studios, the team of Age of Empires, Microsoft tries again with this following, entrusted to Creative Assembly, the software house of Horsham, England, which the fans of RTS know well for the work done on Total War.

The ultimate goal remains the same: to make the genre of RTS enjoyable even on consoles, where it is played with the gamepad. A milestone certainly not easy to achieve with a control system where the key “Ctrl” is missing, at the base of the formulation of the strategies of any RTS worthy of the name. The control system of Halo Wars 2, therefore, is very similar to that of its predecessor: all in all, it is sufficiently malleable and allows to baste a number of strategies, but the gamepad obviously ends up upsetting the classic game scheme of the strategists in real time.

Halo Wars 2 is therefore a much more immediate title than the RTS like StarCraft and the same Total War, and prefers solitary actions rather than tactics that provide synergies between troops deployed on opposite sides. The button for the simultaneous selection of all the units on the map, that is the right backbone of the gamepad, becomes very important. Once the selection is made, then, you can move with the triggers from one troop to another. The units are selected with “A” and moved with “X”: it is unclear why we chose to differentiate these two functions, since managing them with a single key would have made everything more immediate.

After selecting the army, just point the units of the enemy to attack to see the options available. When the “Y” key appears then it will be possible to release the special ability of our troops which, as usual in the RTS in which the heroic units play important roles, can subvert the balance of battles by themselves. The conception of conflict itself changes: the player does not have to reason in terms of tracing the appropriate units and their associated abilities but to understand which of the available skills can be used on the basis of the selected army.

In the army there are the Spartans, which can release the iconic swooping. Thanks to this it is possible to damage the area, but if used on an enemy vehicle such as the Wraith, it will lead the player to watch a brutal scene in which the Spartan fights furiously to take possession of the vehicle. Situations dear and known to those who played the various chapters of the main series of Halo, which are at the center of a series of citations in Halo Wars 2. And the same happens with the sounds and the music: for example the typical beep that returns that the shield of the unit has been exhausted and that from that moment on, vital energies are lost.

There are also the Warthog, of course, whose special ability is the ability to ram the enemy in a ram style. In this case, however, they expose themselves to the enemy’s fire, because to hit the opposing units they will go beyond the first line of our army. Also available to the players are the so-called “Leader Powers”, or special powers that allow you to hurl brutal bombardments on specific areas of the map or indiscriminately treat all the troops in a circular area.

Returning to the controls, on the console the directional cross is also very important. This allows you to move quickly from one group of soldiers to another among those scattered on the map, or return immediately to the base to continue the expansion of the structures and training units. The good player on the console must be able to best manage these shortcuts, within a setting that prefers the indiscriminate cluster of units and that makes it difficult to simultaneously manage two fronts of the army, which in the RTS normally it is often used to set up encirclement tactics. Very often, moreover, it will happen to manage solitary actions, like the escape from an army that is literally breaking up the map,

Of course it is then possible to zoom to admire the details of each unit and rotate the camera, which proves to be very useful to manage the units that are impaled against the camera by certain objects in the scenario. From a technical point of view Halo Wars 2 is interesting for special effects such as explosions, while the polygonal detail is somewhat sacrificed, while the audio is well done to the point of highlighting the spectacularity of the action.

From the interface point of view the main difference between the Xbox One version of Halo Wars and the one for Windows 10 concerns the possibility, in the second case, to draw rectangles to be able to assemble groups of units in a free way. In fact, the Windows 10 and Xbox One versions differ in terms of user interface, as you can see in the screenshots. On Windows, the groups managed by “Ctrl” return, as well as the possibility to recall them with numbers.

In short, Halo Wars 2 in this case becomes a more customary RTS, even if there are some oddities in the assignment of the buttons. If it is normally with “Esc” that you call the pause menu with which you save the game and change the settings, here you have to resort to “F10”. In addition, the mouse wheel is used to switch from one group of units to another within the selection, which is what you do on the console with the triggers, while you would normally expect it to be used for zooming. The latter, on the other hand, is managed with Page Up and Page Down. With Ins and Del, however, the rotation of the frame is managed.

Of course, all these functions can be freely reassigned, but it still hits this default setting so far from the classic RTS setting. Halo Wars 2, therefore, on PC is more readable, but remains a child of this conception “comfort” of RTS: this means that the indiscriminate selection of units will remain the most used, and in this case it is done with “E” (always default setting). The rhythms also remain on very slow PCs, while in many cases single troops count more than whole armies, that is to say that the setting of the original version of the game is pursued in order to simplify strategic operations as much as possible.

Beyond the control system, the rhythms and the simplification in the management of troops, Halo Wars 2 is based on the typical concept behind all the RTS, due to the Chinese morra. For example, the Hornets are very effective in moving and hitting from above, but vulnerable to infantry armed with anti-aircraft weapons. Cyclops, on the other hand, prove to be particularly effective against armored vehicles, while soldiers equipped with flame-bombs must be deployed against enemy infantry. As we said at the beginning of the article, just the presence of the iconic units of the Halo universe is one of the most striking elements of Halo Wars 2: among others, in fact, there are Wraith, Covenant, Brute, Marauder. The realization of each of these units is excellent, both in terms of textures and animations.

Obviously there can not be Halo without a good story. Microsoft and 343 Industries have relied on Blur Studio for the realization of this part: we speak, that is, a story told through sequences in pre-rendered graphics of the highest quality and strong impact. Everything revolves around the Brute Atriox, the first to successfully rebel against the oppressor power of the Covenant. The latter have lost control over Atriox, who is now in command of a large army known as the Exiled, and who comes into contact with the crew of the Spirit of Fire, the UNSC ship led by Captain Cutter already at the base of the history of the first Halo Wars. The Captain now has only one purpose: to prevent Atriox from conquering the galaxy.

The cinematographic part is predominant in Halo Wars 2 especially in the first part of the campaign, where very little is played and there are long videos. The setting is very impressive for Halo fans as the events of Halo Wars 2 follow closely what happened in Halo 5 Guardians after the end of the war. The story takes over when Captain James Cutter and Professor Anders, along with the other members of the Spirit of Fire crew, wake up from cryogenic sleep. The Spirit of Fire received a request for assistance from another installation, the Forerunner Manufacturing Ark used to build the Halo. This installation has already appeared in Halo 3, when Master Chief has learned to be the basis for the creation of the Halo that give the name to the series.

On the Ark is restored an artificial intelligence identified with the name of Isabel that informs the crew of the Spirit of Fire of recent events since, because of cryogenic sleep, they do not know that the war is over. We are talking about a single player campaign that runs on 13 missions and supports cooperative gameplay. Players can take sides on the side of the Exiles in multiplayer and Skirmish mode and also in this case find units, weapons and iconic vehicles for the Halo universe. Moreover, the heroes we mentioned are impersonable in some cases in the single player campaign, in others in multiplayer. In the same way, players will have the opportunity to use the special abilities associated with them.

Multiplayer

Besides the single player we obviously have various multiplayer game modes, like Skirmish. This allows you to freely configure the games in the choice of the map and the armies involved. You can mix artificial intelligence, moreover configurable in skill level, and human players; and then determine whether to play offline or online. It is a mode expressly online multiplayer, however, Roccaforti, which provides for the capture and maintenance of some bases on the map. Each player starts with a pre-constituted base and with a certain amount of resources that allow him immediately to train troops and construct buildings. More bases are controlled and more troops can be deployed on the battlefield.

Control is another online multiplayer mode that leads players to build their base and their army with the goal of dominating the map and controlling the Ark. To do this you need to check the energy nodes on the map: the army that controls the amount of nodes needed to bring the enemy counter to zero wins. Deathmatch is not very different, but instead of checking the nodes on the map you just have to face the enemy and destroy it. The last of the armies that remains on the battlefield wins.

But the modality, playable online and in co-op, that makes the most of the extraordinary units of Halo Wars 2 is Blitz. This, in fact, replaces the classic mechanical collection of resources and building with a system borrowed from collectible card games. The units deployed on the battlefield, in fact, depend on the objectives achieved during the single player campaign and the daily challenges offered by the game. Each card corresponds to one of the iconic units of the Halo universe, which allows one to thicken one’s troops and to combine ever stronger powers.

This is only the basic equipment of Halo Wars 2, while other features and game modes will be introduced through the Season Pass. For example, there will be new leaders for factions, new units, new campaign missions and more. Fans of the Halo Wars game scheme also have the opportunity to recover the first chapter, now available in the Halo Wars: Definitive Edition with improved graphics, new Achievements, all the expansion content released over time and compatible with Xbox One and Windows 10.

Halo Wars 2 is an Xbox Play Anywhere title, meaning progress and Achievement are synchronized between the two Xbox One and Windows 10 platforms and players can freely decide which system to play with. This means, for example, that you can start the campaign on Windows 10 and then continue on Xbox One, or vice versa. For obvious reasons of difference of the control system, however, cross-play is not enabled, ie the players of a system can not challenge those of the other within the same competitive multiplayer session.

Graphic comparison Windows 10 / Xbox One

As for the graphic comparison between PC and Xbox One we noticed a clear supremacy of the PC version regarding the quality of the textures. On the PC, in fact, they are much more defined, on Xbox One definitely washed out as well as less precise. The PC also offers something more in terms of lighting and shadows, but there are no differences in the polygon detail and the geometric composition of the game levels. Below you can also take a look at the graphic options available in the PC version, however broadly configurable from this point of view.

Conclusions

Ultimately, Halo Wars 2 succeeds where its developers have set out to succeed: that is, it has well-matched narrative rhythms, well blended with strategic gameplay, and ultimately it’s fun. For console players it will therefore be an experience in some ways original, atypical compared to the classic Xbox games. Of course, PC gamers will be at the same time very confused because it remains a simplistic game designed for the console in its foundations and adapted, not bad anyway, to the PC. To be avoided, of course, if you are looking for a complex RTS experience with several strategic opportunities to be managed quickly and at the same time: from this point of view, it remains one of the best titles in the category, among those we have tested in the recent period, Homeworld Deserts of Kharak.

The control system at the end is learned, but it is practically impossible to control two armies at the same time, while the pace of play is bland, for example very different from those of a Starcraft II. That said, this does not mean that Halo Wars 2 is not adrenaline, indeed thanks to the good graphic and auditory components it recovers a lot on this side. The preponderance of the cinematographic component and the role of heroic units, however, at some points distance it, and even a lot, compared to a normal RTS, to the point that it would be more congenial to ascribe Halo Wars 2 to a hybrid genre rather than within the classic RTS scheme.

To revise some mechanism of artificial intelligence, since during the campaign does not seem “bad” in wanting to prevail over the player. Moreover, the campaign is quite short, which impacts on longevity, already quite compromised by not so innovative multiplayer game modes. The speech does not apply, however, to Blitz, which, as mentioned, exalts the extraordinary units of the Halo universe. Last but not least, the cinematographic component, up to the other games in the series, although Halo Wars 2 obviously remains a spin-off.

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