​Halo Wars 2 Is Surprisingly Good and Looking To Win Over RTS Newbies [Hands-On Preview]

The Halo series is known for being one of the most famous FPS titles on the market. But about eight years ago, they also released a real-time strategy game set before the events of the first game. In Halo Wars, you played as the commander of an army of marines at war with the covenant, taking you to various locales in the Halo universe, all from the view of overwatch as you lead your crew into battle. Though RTS games on consoles had a hard time finding success, Halo Wars turned out to be the exception and fans still hold a deep respect for it. And finally after such a long time, the follow-up Halo Wars 2 is finally set for release next month.

Ahead of the upcoming multiplayer beta on Xbox One and PC , which is set to run from January 20 to the 30th, Microsoft invited us out to get some hands-on time with the early parts of the campaign, while checking out the various multiplayer and online modes. We also got to chat with the developers to hear about their vision for Halo Wars, and what they hope to accomplish in the series’ next outing in the RTS genre.

Set 28 years after the events of the first Halo Wars, and shortly after Halo 5: Guardians, Captain James Cutter and the crew of The Spirit of Fire awaken from cryosleep to find themselves in an area of the universe that is unknown to them. With no knowledge of how the war between the covenant and humans concluded, The Spirit of Fire intercepts an emergency signal and comes across an ancient forerunner structure known as The Ark. They discover the ruins of a UNSC base and learn that a rogue covenant faction known as the Banished, led by the Brute warlord Atriox, have all been taken control of The Ark. Pooling together their resources, Captain Cutter and the remaining crew head out to battle the Banished, and learn what the forerunners left behind on The Ark.

The first Halo Wars turned out to be a seminal title, as far as console real time strategy games go. It’s still an odd pairing, as most RTS titles are fairly rooted in the PC space, but Halo Wars succeeded in translating the RTS gameplay to the controller, and many die-hard fans took a liking to it. Unfortunately, the original developers Ensemble Studios have since shut down, and in order to continue the series, Microsoft reached out to the developers at Creative Assembly, makers of the Total War series and Alien: Isolation, to create the follow up. Speaking with Executive Producer David Nicholson from Creative Assembly, he spoke about the changes that’s been made to the Halo RTS, and what fans and newcomers can expect from the sequel.

“The original one developed by Ensemble was arguably one of the best implementations of RTS controls on a console, it was fantastic. It’s been awhile since the last one, and there was a lot of fan expectations, and it was a great opportunity now to bring it out on Xbox One and also on PC,” said the executive producer. “We’ve really enjoyed working on it, we brought a lot of new things in, added to the controls, updated the visuals, new units, new modes – what we really wanted to bring was the fun and excitement people have with RTS to people who aren’t so familiar with the genre, and who have maybe even been put off by the learning cliff.”

During my session, I got to experience one of the early campaign levels where the crew had to retake a section of the Ark from the Banished. During that level, I took control of the returning Spartan soldier Jerome-092, who used his new jet-pack ability, and his Spartan laser cannon. With Jerome, I commanded a group of marines and several warthog units to retake towers, while the Banished called in backup in the form of Covenant elites and Siege Bikes. While RTS levels are known to be fairly lengthy, I was pleased with how brisk the pace was. After some careful planning, I was able to retake all the towers and push back the enemy forces.

 

“…we brought a lot of new things in, added to the controls, updated the visuals, new units, new modes…”

Playing on the Xbox One, I got to experience the updated control scheme of the console release. Taking what Ensemble worked on and advancing it, CA did a largely solid job with making the setup more presentable. Though I’m normally accustomed RTS games on PC, I was very impressed with how smooth the setup was. Guiding and selecting units was simple, and targeting foes to use specific unit abilities was easy to accomplish. I’m impressed with the ease of it, and Creative Assembly wanted very much to make the barrier for entry for newcomers to RTS game easier to pass.

“We wanted to bring new people into RTS games,” said Nicholson. “We’ve always really liked that depth, but we do notice that a lot of people don’t get into it that much. There’s a bit of a cliff when it comes to RTS because there’s a lot of things going on at once. So what we did was boil down what makes these types of games fun, and one those things are the unit vs unit battles. With that in mind, we included easy pick-up and play modes such as deathmatch, strongholds, and domination.”

One of the big modes they’ve added to Halo Wars is the new Blitz mode. Essentially a pick-up and play option with single and multiplayer offerings, players can choose a leader and outfit them with a custom deck of units to pull from. In standard modes you’d have to build bases and collect resources to work your way up to the unit tiers. In Blitz, you carry a very specific deck, and resources are gathered from exploring the map and taking out enemy units. It’s a much faster mode, and far more intense if you ask me. I was playing the Firefight mode in Blitz, which is essentially a survival mode against AI or other players online, and I went about 14 round before biting it.

 

“We wanted to bring new people into RTS games”

The new deck packs essentially function as cards, which can be leveled up by finding similar cards, and acquiring new packs can be as easy as clearing levels of the campaign, leveling up, or simply just buying them via the marketplace. During my playthrough, I had an abundance of unopened decks, which gave me plenty of options, and the devs definitely wanted players to have multiple ways to build out their leaders, which all have unit preferences and special abilities. The Blitz mode was a feature that CA wanted to include so that players can play with an entirely new dynamic.

“In Blitz mode, which came from the idea where what if you picked your units at the beginning of the round and you were able to use them throughout the match without having to worry about building up your base. It’s far more dynamic,” said the Nicholson.

I was really pleased with how Halo Wars 2 is shaping up. Though I seldom play RTS titles, and I’m a little annoyed with how more micro-transactions are creeping into games, I really dig Creative Assembly’s vision for the next Halo RTS title. And with the promise of future updates for the story campaign, new leaders to play as, and new gameplay modes, they’ve got a lot in store for the game after its launch on February 21.