Halo Wars is an underappreciated sub-series of the Halo franchise despite the fact that it's actually what Halo was originally supposed to be. Back in the olden days of 2000 and 2001, Halo was originally envisioned as a real time strategy game. Probably realizing that they would be literally ripping off Starcraft (UNSC = Terrans, Covenant = Protoss, Flood = Zerg), they made changed it to a first person shooter. Eight years later, Microsoft says "Hey, that whole strategy game thing for Halo? Yeah, do that." And thus Halo Wars was born, receiving moderate praise and quickly being forgotten by most Xbox players. Fortunately, however, there were enough to justify the release of Halo Wars 2 (we just had to wait another eight years).
For those who haven't played the first Halo Wars, fear not; while the second game plays very similar to the first one, the stories in each are completely self-contained, and no knowledge of the events of Halo Wars is necessary to enjoy Halo Wars 2. And that's a good thing considering that I'd completely forgotten absolutely everything about Halo Wars except how good the game looked for a console RTS and how well it controlled and performed for a console RTS. In those regards, Halo Wars 2 continues to impress. The game is beautiful (which, for one of the few console exclusives that the Xbox One has to boast, one would hope), and like its predecessor, it performs far better than most would expect from a console RTS game.
Since I've praised the game's visuals and controls and set an overall positive tone for my review, let's get my complaints out of the way. The game's story was okay. That's it. Just okay. There are three Spartans who are featured during the plot (although only two of them get any real exposition), and while their personalities are interesting enough, you never really feel like you get to know them. I know that's typically harder to do with real time strategy games than with other genres, but it is possible; no one who plays through all of Starcraft can tell me that you don't get to know the personalities of Zeratul, Sarah Kerrigan, and Jim Raynor. The story certainly isn't bad, but it's not particularly memorable. It feels like a plot from one of the mid numbered Call of Duty games; not bad, per se, but painfully average. With such a short campaign to boot - only 12 missions that take, on average, 45 minutes each - it's a fun but not particularly noteworthy single player experience.
Alright, so on more positives! The battles are EPIC, and I didn't notice any slowdown whatsoever, even with a Scarab tank and 14 Scorpion tanks all attacking an enemy stronghold at the same time. It's also - as one would expect with Halo - very approachable for players of all skill levels with four difficulties. The default is Normal (obviously), and that's not too bad for those with any RTS experience at all. If that's too much for you (and, admittedly, a couple missions can put you in a tough spot if you don't have a strategy), you can bump it down to Easy. For those wanting more of a challenge (or a brutal massacre), you can also raise the difficulty to Heroic or Legendary.
I haven't dabbled much with the multiplayer, but the game does allow for co-op multiplayer vs AI over Xbox Live, so if you're a non-competitive person like me, that's perfect and adds a lot of potential replay value. The only downside is that from what I've read, unlike with Gears of War 4, there's no cross-platform play between Xbox One players and PC players, and that's a major let down. The game's mechanics, however, feel very solid, so even without cross-play, there's definitely enough to keep players coming back for more. The base building has a very Command and Conquer feel with a central base hub and building slots in pre-determined positions around that hub. In the past, I've felt rather restricted by that method of base building rather than freely placing buildings wherever I want, but between the first Halo Wars and this one, I've started to get a feel for it, and it's really grown on me. It just...works, you know?
All in all, Halo Wars 2 isn't a perfect RTS, but for one on a console, it's damn good. The visuals are beautiful, the controls are tight and solid, and the battles are absolutely epic. It's definitely a must for hardcore Halo fans, and it's a must for fans of RTS games. If you play Halo every now and then and/or think strategy games are pretty cool sometimes, I'd say pass, but if you're a strong fan of either (or, like me, both), you definitely shouldn't pass it up.
My Rating - 4 Neps
I'm Mr. Deck
And I like to play video games. I like to collect video games. I like to talk about video games, and I like to write about video games. During the day, I teach history at a high school in central North Carolina; during the night, I spend my spare time gaming. Then I write about it.