This is an odd one. It stands to reason that a game set in the Halo universe would be released; I feel at this stage you could whack a Halo sticker on a plastic cup and it would sell gangbusters. So bringing Halo Wars, an actual video game, back makes sense certainly from a financial perspective. Yet its strange because its been nearly 8 years since the original. One would presume that we haven’t had a sequel in that time because there wasn’t the demand/market for it. The original sold a million units in it’s first year. Respectable for many games, perhaps quite underwhelming for a Halo game, especially when you consider just how massive the Xbox 360 user base was at that point.
Presumably Microsoft crunched the numbers, polled the data, examined the chicken entrails and were left with an immutable truth; we need a Halo Wars sequel (or they realised they had nothing to launch in Q1 2017 and hashed all this together, who knows…). The fact is, it’s been released and the verdict; yeah it’s okay.
Its very difficult to come down too heavy either way on Halo Wars. It isn’t a mess by any means but it doesn’t do anything too spectacular either. The great worry shared prior to the original being released was rightly the control scheme. Specifically; how do you make a traditional real time strategy game work using a console pad? Conventional wisdom dictates that RTS games are too fiddly for the imprecision of a console thumb stick and this was backed up by all the past failed attempts to port the genre to consoles. Halo Wars mitigated (but couldn’t remedy) this by simplifying the game to the point where one-button controls were sufficient. The problem was that this meant the game felt lightweight and uninvolved, eviscerating any chance of real strategy beyond ‘everyone go here and kill the fuck out of these people’. This would not satisfy an established strategy fan and did little to turn the heads of those with a passing interest.
So the real draw for the original was its story and in this regard Halo Wars delivered brilliantly. Set right at the start of the conflict betwixt humanity and The Covenant, players were thrown headfirst into the first stages of a war they were already familiar with (and indeed had seen the culmination of 2 years previously in Halo 3). Stepping away from the giant green death dealing demon, Halo Wars presented a cast of new characters whilst all the time ensuring they felt familiar. The campaign of Halo Wars (a fairly tepid experience, in of itself) was punctuated with some brilliant CGI cutscenes that provided genuine insight into the established series lore, added a few new things and even threw in some fan service for funsies (three Spartan super soldiers laying waste to a pack of baying Elites has been burned in my memory). It told a story fans wanted, and the game was a pleasant backdrop to this.
However Halo Wars 2 was never going to be able to rest on this particular laurel. We are now out of prequel territory and into events that run parallel to those of the current series. This is a risky move, there is an old rule in story telling that goes ‘is this the most interesting thing that’s happening right now and if not, why aren’t you showing us that’. So Halo Wars 2 has backed itself that it’s campaign story is worthy of the players time. The set up is that those characters established in HW1 now face a new threat in the form of ‘The Banished’; a ‘legendary’ band of Covenant rebels that literally nobody has mentioned in any way, shape or form prior to this point. You would have thought it would at least come up in conversation. I won’t get into the detail of what makes their existence puzzling for fear of losing you, but trust me, it makes very little sense.
It’s a contrivance that makes me sigh heavily. You already have an extremely powerful antagonist for your game, you can’t raise the stakes by simply saying ‘you think those guys were bad, wait till you see this lot’ and expect people to care. We don’t know them. They didn’t kick in the doors of The Pillar of Autumn all those years ago, slaughtering all and sundry as we frantically tried to escape amidst all the chaos, vowing revenge that these monsters would pay for what they did (just as soon as I figure out how to throw a grenade instead of switching my torch on). The Banished never destroyed Reach as Noble team valiantly sacrificed themselves to save as many people as possible. And they certainly didn’t try and explode the shit out of everything in a mad crusade against life itself.
To make this mess of a narrative even worse, there’s an insinuation that the Covenant tried to destroy The Banished at some point then gave up. I’m 89% sure that it not how wars work.
‘Meh, we gave it a good go. War over’.
If these Banished characters are so great, why are we only just learning about them now? Why would the Covenant not try more to get rid of them? And surely they would have made fairly useful allies against the Covenant? Too many questions, not enough giving a shit.
So the story is pants, how about the game itself? Specifically, is it able to build on the foundations of the original to provide a more satisfying and involved strategy experience? Sadly, it isn’t. Its just more of the same ‘select all, go here, kill them and try not to die’ rinse and repeat. This isn’t fun, and it isn’t cerebral, so its a whole load of nothing.
Bang average story. Unremarkable gameplay. 5/10