This unexpected sequel is not a departure from the original Halo Wars. It refines the controller-based inputs that make a serious RTS on a console possible. The "select all unit" strategy that was the most popular in the original game is now a more sophisticated one, likely because Halo Wars is a real, honest-to-goodness PC RTS. Halo Wars 2 is, however, at the mercy of its namesake's worst and sometimes best habits.
Halo Wars 2 opens with the UNSC ship, The Spirit of Fire from the previous game, being awakened after an extended cryosleep deep in uncharted space, out of touch with humanity for decades. They find that there is more conflict. This time, it is The Banished. A nightmarish force made up of exiles from the Covenant who are so brutal and powerful that even the Covenant's combined might could not eradicate them. A giant Brute named Atriox leads the Banished, determined to destroy everything in his path.
Although the character seems thin, it is fleshed out through extensive use of pre-rendered cutscenes, which have a production quality that is remarkable, Atriox has a sense of menace and personality I haven’t seen in Halo games in many years. Halo Wars 2 takes place on the side of a larger conflict. The stakes are somewhat lower than the fate-of the-universe decisions the Master Chief is responsible for. It feels more like a movie about war involving two sides rather than a sci fi savior epic. The story and themes work in a way few shooters can achieve, even Halo.
Because I was curious to see what was happening, any frustrations I felt initially were quickly overcome by the desire to learn Halo Wars 2's console controls. This is a good thing, as if you are new to Xbox One, it can be a steep learning curve.
Halo Wars 2 appears like a classic RTS from the top. There are usually one or more bases that can produce different types of units and upgrade your army. These you can then use to accomplish various objectives, including destroying an enemy compound.
Halo Wars 2 is similar to its predecessor. The controller has only around a dozen buttons available at any one time. This is evident in part: you navigate the battlefield using the left analog stick and zoom in and out with the right analog stick. You can also rotate the camera and rotate it with the right. Amusingly, the latter is a more intuitive way to do these things than any PC RTS. I found that rotating the screen a lot was necessary to offset the awkward feeling of moving a cursor across the screen using an analog stick.
This particular contrivance is Halo Wars 2’s greatest problem, just like the first game. Selecting with an analog stick rather than a mouse is difficult. Halo Wars compensated for this by making "select all unit" a command that can be accessed with one button press. This strategy was a winning strategy that became the standard in the first game. You can create a bunch of units, then select all of them, and then run over your enemy. It was not perfect, but it worked most times.
Halo Wars 2 makes this less possible. This is due to the fact that there are too many things going on at once for one army. Many missions have multiple objectives. The Banished can retake many of them if they are not tended to. If multiple units are chosen, the group moves at the slowest unit speed. This is not fast enough for everyone on the map.
This is all enhanced by a series of well-thought out modifier commands. The right trigger can be used to create and access user-definable groups of units that are assigned to the dpad. These units can then be selected by pressing the appropriate direction and holding the trigger. The camera will focus on these units by pressing the direction twice. The d-pad will cycle through buildings and units if the trigger is not held.
In many ways, the controller can feel quicker to complete certain tasks than the keyboard in the Windows 10 Halo Wars 2. Although it is more difficult, Creative Assembly has the tools you need to do the job right -- at least most of them.
In my main playthrough, Halo Wars 2 was difficult. The moments when I failed missions were often unexpected, as the enemy moved in ways that I had not anticipated or for which I wasn't prepared. Halo Wars 2 has a charming, old-school approach to this. It's almost like a trial and error, with the exception of the frustration that I felt when having to restart levels multiple times.
The game offers a challenge for intermediate to advanced RTS players on Xbox One. Normal felt almost comically simple on PC. It's much easier to select units and their special abilities using a mouse than with an analog stick. Halo Wars 2 is a classic, but streamlined, RTS that emphasizes action.
Halo Wars 2 doesn't propel the RTS genre forward. It does however make an RTS accessible that doesn't feel dumb. And it reminds us how Halo's world, fiction, and universe lend themselves to spaces other than the first-person shooter.