Halo Wars 2 is a big rock, paper, scissors match. Infantry beat aircraft, aircraft beat ground vehicles, and ground vehicles beat infantry. At times it’s a bit more complicated than that, but you’ve got to keep that in mind when creating your army in Halo Wars 2.
The Halo Wars 2 multiplayer open beta currently running on Xbox One features a domination game mode on a sandy map called Ricochet. Two teams of two build armies in order to capture five points around the map. Holding points depletes the other team’s tickets, with the first team to reach zero losing. Matches in this mode tended to last 15 to 20 minutes. At times it felt too short. Just when you start building up a threatening army, the game ends. Additionally, the team behind at the ten minute mark often does not have time to build up their army again and fight back. I played 10 games of Halo Wars 2 before writing this, and about 8 out of the 10 ended up being a whitewash. Domination is an attacking focused game, you have to have a bigger army to win and losing a fight, even early in the game, puts you at an often unrecoverable disadvantage.
Keep in mind that the real-time strategy genre is not a common console genre, and many players jumping in to the beta, including myself, are just learning the game’s mechanics. In its current state, Halo Wars 2’s tutorial does not do a good enough job of explaining how certain aspects of the game work, but this is only a beta eight months away from release.
On the other hand, Halo Wars 2‘s intuitive control scheme could act as an example for other studios thinking of bringing real-time strategy to a game-pad. The left stick moves the cursor around the screen, and the right stick controls the camera. You can hold down LB to move your cursor faster. Creative Assembly is making the most out of the limited functions of the controller by adding different actions based on tapping or holding buttons. The A button selects individual units, or you can hold it down to select a group of units. Tapping RB selects all units on the screen, or holding it selects all of your units. X commands selected units to move or attack. The d-pad is used to move quickly between your bases and your units, as well as set a point for newly spawned units to automatically gather at. Being able to quickly move between bases and units made micro-management more accessible because I could quickly survey what was happening with each unit and base and move back to whatever my key focus was.
The view/back button pulls up your command tree which you can use to unlock special abilities such as dropping airstrikes on enemies. These abilities are very important in tight fights. In one match my massive grunt army came up against another grunt army of roughly the same size. I quickly used one of my commander abilities to launch a Covenant laser beam from the sky, destroying some of his army and turning the fight to my side. Losing such a big fight put my opponent on the back foot for the rest of the game, and I went on to win the match. During that fight the frame-rate dropped dramatically, but this is a beta build early in development.
My favourite part about Halo Wars 2 so far has been the variety of upgrades and units available. In each of the three unit categories (infantry, land and air), there are about four units each with different uses. Vehicles like the Warthog are great in the early game for moving around the map and taking out the basic soldiers, while Scorpion tanks are slower, but carry more firepower in the later game. They also cost more. I found myself constantly agonising over which units to build and which upgrades to unlock, each game tweaking my plan to find the perfect strategy (I haven’t found it yet). Should I take the risk and overwhelm my opponent with numbers early on, or take the time to build stronger units for the end game? You’ve got to decide on a strategy early in Halo Wars 2, but also be willing to alter it should your opponent counter it.
Being in charge of a UNSC or Covenant army is fun, especially when you see a huge collection of grunts and brutes racing across the battlefield in a cloud of dust. It captures the giant scale of war that is somewhat contained in the traditional games because putting that many enemies up against the player would be cruel.
Overall, I’ve enjoyed my time with Halo Wars 2. It is fun taking control of and building an army from the beloved gaming franchise, with enough variety to encourage experimenting without overwhelming. Considering the real-time strategy genre’s mouse and keyboard roots, Creative Assembly has found intelligent game-pad compromises for the controls. I do worry that resource gain and army building times are too long for the shorter multiplayer game modes to really creative the feeling of all out war, but there’s plenty of time to make tweaks.