'Halo Wars 2' Feels Like a Fresh Start for the Series

'Halo Wars 2' Feels Like a Fresh Start for the Series

It's Spartans versus The Banished in the follow up to the 2009 strategy game from Microsoft's 343 Industries and Creative Assembly Glixel

After the diminishing returns of the last two shooters, 343's strategy game keeps the 'Halo' flame alive between blockbusters

After the diminishing returns of the last two shooters, 343's strategy game keeps the 'Halo' flame alive between blockbusters

The Halo mythos has always been about digging up ancient, forgotten tech and repurposing it for modern use; Halo Wars 2 is no exception. In returning to the real-time strategy genre eight years after the original, 343 Industries again poses the question of whether or not an RTS can succeed on the Xbox, while also addressing the most obvious omission from the first game: a PC version. Halo Wars 2 is an Xbox "Play Anywhere" title, meaning you can play it on your Windows 10 PC, as well.

Developed in partnership with Alien: Isolation and Total War studio Creative Assembly, the sequel's a meaningful experiment for the folks behind the series. Following the launch of The Master Chief Collection in 2014 – a veritable clusterfuck of performance issues that hasn't been fully remedied to this day – Halo is no longer the groundbreaking, ubiquitous shooter it once was. Every player, from those of us with fond memories of Reach to competitive pro players pining for the days of Halo 2, seems to have their own idea of what a Halo game ought to be. It must feel like a moving target for 343, which is a shame, given how much they've gotten right with 2015's Halo 5: Guardians.

To simply cast this problem aside, and celebrate this year's 10th anniversary of Halo 3 with an RTS rather than something as dull and predictable as yet another high-def remaster, is an inspired move. Make no mistake: Halo Wars 2's most impressive feat isn't making a console peasant like me care about an RTS; it's making the franchise feel new again.

You have to appreciate any multiplayer game in which the campaign mode is more than just a five-hour tutorial with cut scenes, these days. Bungie's trilogy set a pretty high bar for ambitious storytelling, and Halo Wars 2 makes good use of the sci-fi worldbuilding at its disposal – not to mention Blur Studio's remarkable motion capture and cinematic sensibilities, which can often be dazzling in their own right.

Tonally, the narrative is closer to the third act of Halo 2 or ODST than more recent installments. This despite its liberal use of creatures, ideas, and settings (namely, the Ark) from Halo 3. Thawed out after decades of cryosleep, the surviving crew of the UNSC Spirit of Fire – stars of the first Halo Wars – discover the Banished, a heretofore unseen faction risen from the ashes of the Covenant. What this accomplishes, in surprisingly breezy fashion, is the direct continuation of Ensemble Studios' 2009 spinoff picking up right where Halo 5 left off. It's also a chance to introduce a new kind of Halo villain who's equal parts Arbiter (the Master Chief's ass-kicking saurian foil in Halo 2 and 3) and Immortan Joe (the despotic warlord from Mad Max: Fury Road). In the spirit of Halo 3's anniversary, the menacing Atriox and the more prominent among his fellow Banished happen to be Jiralhanae, a.k.a. Brutes – Halo's answer to Planet of the Apes.

In one quick expository scene, Atriox (voiced by Gears of War's John DiMaggio) is said to have been the first of his kind to defy the fanatical "Prophets" who used to lead the Covenant. Fed up with being sent off to die on the front lines as expendable muscle, Atriox and his followers deserted, becoming just another target in their former masters' raging holy war. Anyone who played the first three games in the series will remember the Prophets as irredeemably wicked, of course, so it's easy to sympathize with the Banished. Atriox isn't a cartoonish bullet sponge but a compelling, believable character. These sorts of moral intricacies let us look at Halo as something more than a series of dim corridors and snowy canyons in which to fire SPNKr rockets at talking lizards.

Overall, Halo Wars 2's campaign feels, if nothing else, like a greatest-hits album in RTS form

The character of Isabel, a revenge-seeking AI portrayed by ReCore's Erika Soto, is another standout figure in Halo Wars 2, as is her human counterpart, Ellen Anders (Mirror's Edge: Catalyst's Faye Kingslee). Arthur C. Clarke once said that, past a certain point, "advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," and AI constructs like Isabel have long been the sorcerers of the Halo universe. She and Anders hack into the ancient machinery of the extinct Forerunners at every opportunity, allowing the accepted conventions of the RTS to be given logical in-game explanations that aren't intimidating, but actually inviting, to genre newcomers. The result is some of the best melding of narrative and play I've ever seen.

Overall, Halo Wars 2's campaign feels, if nothing else, like a greatest-hits album in RTS form. The familiar setting of the Ark, the mysterious big dumb object at the heart of Halo 3, takes on new life as the staging ground for increasingly complex top-down battles. Sadly, it lacks a proper ending at release, but maybe that's par for the course in the era of the season pass – a frustration Halo 5 wisely avoided.

The multiplayer component is what will determine the game's longevity, of course, and its flagship mode, Blitz, is where the experience shines brightest. Standard two-on-two matches last about 10 minutes, with victory going to whichever team controls the majority of the three neutral zones the longest. It's an exhilarating, fast-paced battle for resources and territory, replacing Halo Wars' traditional base-building system with a pre-constructed deck of 12 digital "cards" used to summon units via the Ark's portal network. It's more Magic the Gathering than Command and Conquer, and that's definitely the mode's greatest strength. It also opens the door for an evolving metagame outside the usual tug of war between buffs and nerfs; Blitz can benefit from the variety afforded by timed expansion sets, the same way collectible card games like Magic and Hearthstone do.

As for the controls? I can't say that using the Xbox gamepad ever felt like a compromise, but it's still probably best if you check out the campaign or tutorials before dropping into matchmaking. No doubt veteran RTS players will gravitate toward the keyboard-and-mouse setup typical of PC games; therein lies the benefit of buying a Play Anywhere title and getting both the Xbox and Windows licenses at once.

Troop selection has definitely improved since the 2009 game, though the flow of battle isn't always conducive to using the most elegant solutions at all times. Occasionally, holding down the left bumper, using the mini-map for quick navigation, and then throwing all on-screen units at an objective becomes a necessary evil in order to win the day, especially in Blitz.

As an first person shooter enthusiast who generally digs any game with a satisfying story, fun puzzle elements, or open-world role-playing, I should confess I'm not the intended audience for most strategy games. I am, however, a Halo devotee going back to the Combat Evolved era, and can say with certainty that this is an accessible and worthy installment in that enduring saga. After a couple dozen hours spent playing, I'm already eager to revisit the campaign on a higher difficulty – and Blitz remains sheer, unabashed fun. Even 15 years later, Halo's still got tricks up its sleeve.