Halo Wars 2 lies somewhere in between an RTS game for Halo fans and a Halo game for RTS fans. It adapts Halo's FPS roots well, taking the series’ classic missions and reformatting them in ways that make sense for a strategy game without sacrificing accessibility. But ultimately, this is a very light RTS experience geared toward Halo veterans, not a robust strategy game, and it runs out of steam quickly.
Halo Wars 2 takes place nearly three decades after the first Halo Wars and chronologically after Halo 5. The crew of the Spirit of Fire emerges from cryosleep and is now taking on a rogue Brute faction called the Banished, rather than the Covenant. At the head is Atriox, a Brute known for his extensive cruelty, and you and your army are tasked with finding him and shutting him down. It’s an interesting story as a Halo fan in that it explores other aspects of the universe, but it doesn’t offer compelling revelations or necessary information for the main Halo storyline. There are, however, some gorgeous cutscenes that make following along worthwhile, and even when characters are saying some slightly cheesy action-movie lines, seeing the emotion in their faces is enough to get pulled back in.
Unfortunately, Halo Wars 2 never develops its characters in a meaningful way, which leaves cutscenes feeling more like eye candy than essential additions to the universe. But most pieces of the story feed into battle effectively. Pre-fight dialogue helps to prepare you for what you’re about to face--including why troops are in certain positions and why you have to defend specific points--and that’s useful when you’re still getting used to the structure of battle. The story integration is smart and not overdone, allowing you to find your footing without the feeling of being coddled by a tutorial.
The campaign consists of discrete missions based around capturing points, defending bases or troops, or surviving waves of enemies. You have control of the entire army, including manufacturing new troops and managing the two resources you need to fight: supply and power. There’s a bit of a balancing act involved when deciding when and how much to produce, and you often have to make those choices quickly. You can flip through different points of interest, like a group of units or your bases, with the D-pad, and battles that involve multiple fronts or more enemies require you to coordinate between those different points as fast as you can.
But Halo Wars 2’s campaign is at its best when it borrows from its FPS source material, and that’s most evident in its mission design. A Warthog sequence in the first mission feels like a bird’s eye version of the Warthog runs in Combat Evolved and 3, and the structure is comfortably familiar even if the big-picture strategy angle isn’t. Slower missions with snipers are bookended by chaotic horde battles in what feels like a typical Halo campaign played from a different perspective, rather than an RTS in its own right.
But Halo Wars 2 can often feel too stripped-down to be truly strategic. On the one hand, it’s accessible, but the campaign is only challenging in the final few missions and is a little anticlimactic. Unlike in Halo Wars 1, you can form custom groups of any combination of units, but you may not need that feature--despite it being a welcome addition--until one of the very last fights. Up until that point in the game, you can get by so long as you keep an eye on your opponent’s unit types and build an appropriate army to counter it, rock-paper-scissors style. Marines make good fodder, Cyclops units counter vehicles, Hellbringers have the upper hand on infantry, and so on. On the normal difficulty, the AI doesn’t seem terribly smart, and they only had an advantage over me when I wasn’t correctly armed (as opposed to flanking me or adapting much to the makeup of my army).
With this knowledge under your belt, which is really the main strategy element at the core of every battle, you can basically end a fight by sending all your troops to one location for an attack. It’s often easier and more effective to just double-tap the right bumper to select all of your units rather than try to separate them by unit type and form a truly organized offense. There are rare battles where you need to build the exact right units in the right amounts--and send each group to separate fronts all at once--to achieve victory, but for the most part, Halo Wars 2’s tactical hurdles are too low to be truly satisfying.
In multiplayer, the only important decision to make is which of several leader powers to pick--otherwise, the UNSC and Banished factions offer pretty similar tactical opportunities. But the modes cleverly take tried-and-true Halo FPS modes and adapt them for an entire army. Domination games--which involve capturing and holding a location, like the Territories mode in 2, 3, and Reach--are an arms race requiring a lot of resource management, for example. And if you’re used to drop-in FPS matches, Halo Wars 2’s RTS adaptations usually have a pretty quick pace, so you can still jump in and play a game or two even if you’re short on time.
Matches are generally hectic enough to be exciting, but that streamlined, FPS-inspired nature of battle is only entertaining for so long. Because options are pretty limited, particularly with control inputs on the gamepad and the several leader powers you can select before the match, there’s only so many possibilities to react to and counter. Once you’ve ironed out a general plan of attack and gotten resource management mastered, there’s not much left. Other than that, Blitz mode is interesting, putting an RTS spin on Halo’s deck-building card game--so instead of being turn-based like most CCGs, you’re using cards on the go and managing things like resource drops. Of course, without a solid RTS foundation for the game at large, that doesn’t mean much for Blitz, and like the rest of Halo Wars 2, it’s not deep enough to have legs.
Halo Wars 2 carries forth enough of the series' beloved elements to make any fan of Halo feel right at home at first, but not in the long run. It’s palatable for those used to the FPS games, taking inspiration from favorite missions and putting a strategic spin on them; but just when things become more challenging and actually interesting, it runs out of steam.