Call us old fashioned, but we really miss traditional strategy games. While they may still be a few biggies keeping the genre alive on PC, it's become a pretty barren wasteland on consoles, with the genre as a whole being nowhere near as big as it was in the Command and Conquer days. And that's a real shame, as there's something intrinsically rewarding about a good strategy game. Setting up your base, getting a basic resource harvesting operation going, and slowly building up your forces, ready to take out your opponent, is a lot of fun, and everyone usually develops their own particular "fail safe" formula they follow.
Still, on consoles in recent years, you can count the number of real time strategy (RTS) games on one hand - and practically on one finger. Perhaps the highest profile console RTS in recent years was Halo Wars - a big budget Microsoft production that did all it could to streamline the genre, to make it more suited to console controls, but still fell somewhat wide of the mark. Fast forward a few years, and a console generation later, Microsoft soon found themselves with a big, Halo shaped hole in their library that needed to be filled - and that's where Halo Wars 2 comes in.
Like its predecessor, Halo Wars 2 is a real time strategy game that's been slimmed down for the console audience, in an attempt to make it more accessible. While all the basic building blocks are still here - the game's played from an isometric/top-down perspective, there are resources you'll need to gather, and you can build a base and manufacture units - almost everything here has been simplified, in the hope it'll make the game both easier to grasp for novices, and a better fit with the slightly less accurate console controls. Perhaps the biggest difference is rather than producing individual units, you'll instead produce groups of soldiers - a move that's designed to make it easier to select units without the speed and freedom of a mouse.
The story here picks up where Halo 5 left off, and begins when the crew of the Spirit of Fire, a UNSC battleship, suddenly come round from a long period of cryosleep to find themselves floating above an Ark - an infamous, space-station-come-homeworld from Halo lore. Unsure of how they got there, or what's happened in the time they've been under, all they know is there's a signal coming from the Ark - and they need to investigate.
No sooner have they got down onto the Ark, though, than they discover a lot's changed while they've been away. Rather than finding perennial series baddies, the Covenant, they instead find a battle hardened tribe of Brutes known as the Banished. Led by the fearless Atriox - the only Brute to ever defy the Covenant and survive - they ruthlessly attack the small search party the Spirit of Fire had sent out - and so begins a mini-war, between you and the Banished.
In fact, the story is one of the highlights of Halo Wars 2. Told through ridiculously fancy looking cutscenes, Halo Wars 2 does a better job of setting up Atriox as an unstoppable monster than almost any other Halo game has managed. Unfortunately, though, the gameplay doesn't quite live up to the lofty standards set by the plot, and the game soon begins to lag.
Underlying the gameplay in Halo Wars 2 is a pretty simple rock-paper-scissors system, whereby different types of units are strong against one type, and weak against another. Aerial units are strong against ground units, infantry are strong against air units, while ground vehicles can power through soldiers, but are sitting ducks for airborne foes. Added into the mix are hero units - in this case, usually the super-soldier Spartans - who not only have a shield, and a massive health bar, but who can also hijack enemy vehicles with their special move.
It's in balancing this mixture of strengths and weaknesses that most of Halo Wars 2's strategy lies. Like most strategy games, you'll almost always have the chance to set up a base, gather resources, and start producing your own units - and you'll want to tailor the units you're building to suit the enemy you're going up against. Build too many infantry units, and a ground vehicle based assault could level you in seconds; send in your airborne units first, and they could get picked off by some hotshot soldiers. It's all a question of balance, scouting, and finding the right mix of units to suit your situation.
There are two resources you can collect in game - power, and supply - but unlike in many strategy games, you don't have to mine these from specific resource fields. Instead, both power and supply bundles can be found scattered across the map, where they can be picked up by your ordinary troops. To ensure a steady stream of resources, though, you'll need to build power stations and supply pads at your base to ensure you stay stocked up, giving you the stockpiles you'll need to build everything from infantry units to the all terrain Warthogs.
With just 12 missions on offer here, the majority of which can be completed in under an hour (some in substantially less time), the developers have at least tried to provide a fair amount of variety. While there are still a fair few build a base, amass an army, ATTAAAACK style missions, others introduce some rather unique ideas to make things that little bit more challenging. Unfortunately, though, rather than making things seem more interesting, they just seem to highlight Halo Wars 2's flaws, and make the game that much more frustrating.
One early mission is a traditional survival style level. With no base, and no reinforcements, it's up to you to work with a limited number of units to get to, and then defend a point until you can be extracted. The only problem is, you end up having to try and defend against nigh on a hundred units when you have, at most, around a dozen to play. Needless to say, this is incredibly hard - and rather frustrating - and in the end, the only way we managed it was to kind of glitch it. Somehow, at one point, over a dozen enemy squads decided they were going to go after our Spartan - and so we told the Spartan to leg it. With the enemies simply endlessly following our Spartan (and never catching up, because they ran at the same speed), all we had to do was get our Spartan to circle around a big batch of our troops, so they could pick the idiot enemies off one by one.
The fifth mission, however, is even harder. Here, you're presented with a level that makes use of teleportation pads. Atriox has set up a massive aerial bombardment straight down the middle of the map, and while his troops can get through fine, yours are guaranteed to be burnt to a crisp should they even dare set foot on the already scorched ground. Instead, you need to jump from teleporter to teleporter to get around - but this brings with it a huge amount of issues, not least the fact that it makes it rather hard to defend your base. While you have to jump through a number of teleporters to reach the enemy, they can just walk in a straight line to get to you - and that means you'll often end up leaving your base rather undefended. If you want to attack them, you'll need to take your squads through the teleporters, meaning you could be several jumps away from getting back if anything goes wrong. And if anything, the features Halo Wars 2 has to make the game seem easier only end up making it feel harder.
Base building has been "simplified" here by taking away much of your freedom. Rather than letting you build buildings (and fortify them) wherever you want, you instead build a main HQ, which has a number of random bays you can use to build your power stations, barracks, and garages, etc. The problem is, this also massively limits your defensive options. As you can only build a maximum of four defensive turrets, and these turrets can only be placed in four specific spots, you can't really build a base to suit the level. If you know your enemies are going to be coming from one direction, you might want to build a whole battery of turrets for them to have to fight their way through - but because Halo Wars 2 is "simpler", you don't actually have the ability to do that. Finding yourself repeatedly dying, because the game's taken away the ability to properly defend your base in the name of simplicity, is a little bit frustrating.
One of the hardest things for a strategy game to get right has always been the controls, and here Halo Wars 2 struggles as well. Despite there being a fair amount of buttons on the Xbox One controller, Halo Wars 2 will still see you holding buttons, pressing buttons twice in quick succession, or holding one and pressing another to get to the command you want, often leading you to trip over your own fingers. When you're in the middle of a firefight, not being able to find the button you want doesn't exactly increase your chances of survival. And while the ability to divide your units up into four groups, each accessed by pressing a certain direction on the d-pad is much appreciated, as it lets you basically divide your squad into infantry, ground vehicles, and air units, so you can take advantage of their strengths, the other simplified controls are less helpful. You can press RT to cycle through unit types if you've got a big group selected, but for some reason, there's an annoying lag when it comes to doing this - not exactly what you need if you're in the middle of a base assault.
But that's not to say Halo Wars 2 is all bad. The more basic strategy missions are a lot of fun, and once you've got your resources coming in nicely, you can create a Halo-themed army of epic proportions, and crush your enemy. Some of the quick controls work pretty well, too - the ability to select either all units on screen, or every unit across the entire map with either a press, or a double press of RB is also helpful in a crisis, letting you call everyone back to base, or direct your local units' firepower on a hefty enemy that's just shown up. And when everything clicks, there's plenty of fun to be had. But that bit more often than we'd like, you'll find yourself struggling with the controls, or ending up being completely over-run because the game's simplification stopped you doing what needed to be done. In all, it's a good effort at making a real time strategy game on a console - but just like Halo Wars before it, the sequel hasn't quite got the format nailed down.