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Halo Wars 2 review

Rings hollow.

Halo Wars 2 proves once again that an RTS can work on a controller, but that aside there's little to get excited about here.

Halo Wars 2 has been designed, first and foremost, with a controller in mind. An improvement over even its predecessor here, it proves once again that real-time strategy isn't exclusive to PC players.

Unit selection is perhaps the best example of this. With a gamepad you can select units individually or double tap them to grab every unit of that type. If that sounds a bit fiddly, you could hold down a button and paint over those you want to control, or tap a shoulder button to select everything on screen. In fact, double tapping that same shoulder button has you controlling every unit on the map. It all works exceptionally well.

From that point, you can cycle between each unit type and give them orders individually, allowing for some basic micromanagement, or if you're feeling especially fancy: create custom groups and assign them to the d-pad. That last one is particularly great to see, as it's something we expect from the genre when playing on PC and yet Halo Wars 2 is one of the first games to make this work on the consoles.

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'What's that, Isabel? This new splinter faction of the Covenant doesn't like us and wants to have a Halo War? That's unexpected!'

So yes, it plays very nicely with a controller. Unfortunately it does feel like PC players have been somewhat shafted as a result. Even if you're playing on that platform (and you'll need Windows 10, by the way) with a mouse and keyboard, you'll be battling with radial menus and some very awkward keybinding options. It's almost enough to consider playing with a gamepad instead. Gosh, I can hardly believe I've written that. An RTS game on the PC - better with a controller? 2017 is turning out to be quite the rollercoaster.

You can see the Xbox One's influence in more than its controls too. Although micromanagement is encouraged (units typically have access to an active ability), you'll find that Halo Wars 2 takes cares of a lot of the busywork. Units automatically engage enemies, even while moving, selecting targets with some amount of intelligence. And if you're commanding a varied force, it'll only move with the speed of its slowest unit. These may seem like small features, but they make everything a little easier. With the game's pathfinding not being especially brilliant, I found myself relying less on individual units and more on steamrolling through opponents with a large, mostly automated, force.

Some of you will like the sound of that, particularly if you find games like StarCraft 2 overwhelming. But if you're after a very precise RTS game, where micro moments are king, this probably isn't the one.

Aside from the gamepad controls, the most impressive thing about Halo Wars 2 is just how much stuff there is to play around with. As well as a substantial single player campaign (which can also be played cooperatively!), there's a variety of multiplayer options, including matchmaking, custom games and a new, card-based, Blitz mode. There's plenty here.

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That's all the info we're given, as our Hunters card levels up. It'll now do more damage in battle. How much more? No idea.

The campaign itself is a mixed bag. Continuing the story of the previous game, Captain Cutter and the crew of the Spirit of Fire awake from cryosleep to find themselves in orbit around the Ark. That's the place where Halo rings are made. It's a pretty big deal and it's also recently been invaded by a splinter faction of the Covenant called 'The Banished'. Led by an especially large Brute by the name of Atriox, they're renowned for having rebelled against and broken away from the High Prophets without being immediately slaughtered. There was a possibility here for an interesting backstory and a nemesis with some degree of depth, but it never lives up to that. The Banished, it turns out, are just another Covenant group that really don't like humans very much. I feel like the Halo franchise has been there before.

So yes, Halo Wars 2 is a game about the UNSC stopping another Covenant faction from destroying the universe. The missions themselves are varied enough, taking inspiration from a number of RTS tropes (defend this base for 30 minutes) or the multiplayer modes themselves (hold these control points longer than the enemy). This makes for a fairly by-the-numbers campaign, interspersed with some very impressive CGI cutscenes. It's enjoyable, but won't do much to challenge your perceptions of what an RTS mission can accomplish.

The multiplayer, then, is where this game has a bit more to offer. Focusing on just two factions here means that Halo Wars 2 does feel very well balanced. The rosters aren't hugely different to the original game, but the newer units have clearly been created to fill a specific role on the battlefield. The UNSC's Kodiak and The Banished's Blisterback both offer a much-needed artillery option to player's arsenals. With the exception of the hero units themselves, both factions offer very similar playstyles. The differences here aren't comparable to those you'd find between StarCraft's Terran, Zerg and Protoss, but it does mean neither option feels overpowered at present.

It's the game's Blitz mode that offers the most potential for new ideas. Base building, a staple of the RTS genre, is completely replaced here with a deck of cards that are played onto the battlefield. You'll slowly acquire energy as the game progresses, with the option to add to that by destroying drop pods appearing on the map. You then spend this energy as you play the cards themselves, with the best units costing the highest amounts. It's a great concept and a possible alternative for players that find base management and build orders a bit too intimidating.

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Annoyingly, Blitz mode features some pay-to-win mechanics that make it difficult to recommend. Cards are collected by opening packs, which are either unlocked as you play or purchased using real money. Now collecting all of the different card types isn't a problem - you'll have most of them before you even play your first game. The problem comes with the fact that your cards level up as you collect their duplicates (this will sound familiar if you've played Clash Royale). It's unclear how much of an impact this has on the units themselves, as you're never shown the stats, but undeniably, higher level cards do more damage and have more health.

This means, unfortunately, the players that open more card packs have an advantage. If you were to play the exact same units, in the exact same fashion, against someone who'd spent more money than yourself, they'd win. Decent matchmaking could mitigate this problem, sure, but it's always going to be a factor.

Halo Wars 2 does an incredible job of ensuring console players can enjoy the RTS genre and there's certainly a lot of content here, but it's difficult to get really excited about any of it. The campaign doesn't push any boundaries and the game's most exciting multiplayer mode, Blitz, is hampered by the feeling that players who spend more money are given an unfair advantage over their opponents. It's exciting to see another high-profile RTS game released, but this one doesn't do quite enough to move things forward.

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