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GAME Reviews - Halo Wars 2
Microsoft's real-time strategy spin-off makes a successful leap to the current generation.

In 2007 Microsoft, alongside the developers at Ensemble Studios, proved the real-time strategy genre could work on console with the release of Halo Wars. Now, eight years later, Microsoft has created a sequel that evolves rather than revolutionises the formula pioneered by its predecessor.

Time to wake up
Halo Wars 2 is set 28 years after the events of Halo Wars and shortly after the events of Halo 5. Fans of the first game will remember it ends with the crew of the UNSC warship Spirit of Fire entering cryosleep and drifting into space. As the crew snoozed, the war between humanity and the Covenant ended, and the Spirit of Fire was declared lost.

The action begins when Captain Cutter and crew wake up at the Ark, the gargantuan Forerunner installation that built the Halo rings. Upon receiving a signal from a distress beacon, the UNSC travels to the surface of the Ark. There they encounter the Banished, a previously unheard of group that broke away from the Covenant.

The Banished are led by the Brute warlord Atriox. This guy is incredibly tough - as evidenced by one early scene in which he decimates an entire squad of Spartans all by himself. Over the course of the campaign you battle to prevent Atriox from sweeping across the galaxy, destroying everything in his path. It is not an easy task.

Fans of the first Halo Wars and Halo lore buffs will get a kick out of seeing how Captain Cutter and co get on the Ark, but really Halo Wars 2's story is by-the-numbers science fiction - and one without the draw of Master Chief and Cortana. Still, you can tell Halo custodian 343 has spent a lot of time - and money - on the cutscenes. Halo Wars 2's cinematics are a joy to behold.

A safe pair of hands

Halo Wars 2 on Xbox One and PC at
As for the gameplay, with Ensemble Studios no more, 343 turned to Creative Assembly for heavy lifting development. The UK developer has an impressive pedigree when it comes to strategy games - it's behind the superb Total War series - and when it has dabbled with consoles, as it did with Alien Isolation, it's done a wonderful job.

Creative Assembly's approach was to take the control scheme created by Ensemble and refine it. As before, you can select all the units on-screen with a single press of R1 and select all units with a double tap of R1. So far, so good. But where the developers have been really smart is in the creation of a simple, intuitive system for creating groups of units.

Now, by holding down the right trigger you can assign selected units to a button on the d-pad. Say for example you want to group together four Hellbringer squads. All you have to do is select them, hold RT then assign them to the d-pad. Then, to select those units, all you have to do is hold R2 and press the assigned button on the d-pad. Simple.

The brilliant thing about Halo Wars 2's new grouping mechanic is it means you can be more efficient and more effective than you could in the first game. You can group together air units and call upon them in an instant, or group together infantry for a quick ground assault.

This is important because Halo Wars 2's combat is based on a rock, paper scissors system that means you can counter pretty much any unit with another type of unit. If you see an enemy Covenant player, for example, assault with Hunters, you should counter with infantry. When Halo Wars 2 kicks off good and proper, being able to send your troops in with a couple of button presses is invaluable.

Finish the fight

Elsewhere, Halo Wars 2 plays similarly to Halo Wars. The base building of old returns, with basic resource gathering and economy management that comes from building power generators and supply pads. With a decent population cap, you can end up with pretty sizeable armies if matches go into the mid and then the late game. Halo Wars 2 isn't Starcraft, of course, but it is a proper RTS at its core, and the impressive explosion effects and physics make the action really pop.

Perhaps the most interesting new game mode is Blitz. This accessible, fast-paced multiplayer battle fuses traditional RTS gameplay with a card system. In Blitz, your card deck is your army. As the action plays out, you focus on trying to play the right card at the right time, and hopefully steer your army to victory in the process. It's a huge amount of fun, and while RTS purists may prefer the more traditional 3v3 competitive multiplayer, Blitz could be the mode that helps Halo Wars 2 break free from the shackles of its genre.

Overall, Creative Assembly and 343 deserve credit for having the sense not to mess with the proven Halo Wars formula. Where it has added new features to the controls, it's improved things. Where it has introduced a new mode, it's created a genuinely new and fun way to play. Halo Wars 2 probably won't end up on anyone's game of the year list, but as far as RTS on console goes, it's top of the tech tree.

What's Hot
Smart Console Controls
Blitz Mode is Great New Way to Play
Stunning Cinematics

What's Not
Lacks a Punchy Narrative
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