Halo Wars 2 Preview

Microsoft’s other Halo game.

Loud, thunderous Hanz Zimmer-esque music. A centered shot of Atriox, leader of new-kids-on-the-block mercenary group The Banished, looking all menacing and mercenary-like. A super-cut of action set-pieces and people yelling about war stuff.

Nobody makes a sizzle reel quite like Blur Studio, the too-slick production team behind Halo Wars 2’s cutscenes. I had no idea what was going on during the closed-door E3 2016 demo, but it was all very pretty.

Later I watched as members of The Spirit of Fire, heroes of the original Halo Wars, clashed with the Banished in a violent symphony of gunfire. I could do little else but admire the various particle effects on display during the hands-off demonstration of Halo Wars 2’s campaign. The dying embers in the billowing smoke. The way the Banished weapons seem to sizzle in shades of neon, as if they were fighting with fireworks made in the future. Even the tracer fire coming from the UNSC soldiers stood out, a subtle yet intentional effort to show the player where their units were shooting.

One of the goals of Creative Assembly is to make the battlefield feel alive, whether it’s the various particle effects on display or the way your base transforms as it is being built (or being annihilated, if you play as badly as I do). All of these little details come together in a visually striking way, an area the Halo franchise has always excelled.

On gameplay, what I saw looked like your standard real-time strategy game with a Halo coat of paint. The mission began with the command of only a few soldiers, quickly joined by a couple of Scorpion tanks. Players can quickly micro-manage control of their available units, as the developers demonstrated by commanding the grunts to attack the enemy’s anti-tank units while the Scorpions held back. A base of operations was established after taking down an enemy fortification, and soldiers, now enhanced via base upgrades, made their final push on the enemy encampment. Again, all standard for an RTS, but as mentioned before, it’s the little flourishes that the team has added that make even the smallest of skirmishes play out in epic fashion.

Accessibility is another major goal for the team. Halo Wars 2 aims to please the hardcore RTS crowd in addition to casual fans of the franchise. The developers described this accessibility as a sort of spectrum; everything from the unique control schemes for both keyboard/mouse and Xbox One controllers to the variety of multiplayer modes contribute to this idea of an “RTS for everyone.” In addition, Microsoft’s recently-announced Play Anywhere feature will allow players to play Halo Wars 2, well, anywhere, with cross-save and cross-trophy support. While the original Halo Wars proved that an RTS could work on a console, Halo Wars 2 looks to prove that a console RTS isn’t a limitation, but an opportunity.

The developers said they are shooting for a 10- to 12-hour campaign that begins shortly after the events of Halo 5: Guardians. Multiplayer modes include Skirmish, Strongholds, Domination, and Deathmatch, each with their own objectives and playstyles. Another mode, Blitz, was mentioned and promoted as a new and unique way to play an RTS, but "mum" was the word as they merely promised more to come in the following months. Season-pass holders will gain access to new units and Leaders for multiplayer, as well as an addition to the single-player campaign. Plus, those that purchase the Ultimate version of the game (because there is always an ultimate edition) will get the season pass as well as a remastered version of the original Halo Wars.

While my time with Halo Wars 2 was brief and non-interactive (not unlike my love life), the team at Creative Assembly and 343 Industries are capable of writing checks their pedigrees can cash. Traditional Halo fans will have a second chance to dip their toes into RTS waters on February 21, 2017.