Here's everything we know about Halo Wars 2 so far, compiled from information at E3 2016, this summer's closed beta, and our recent hands-on tour at 343 Industries in Redmond.
Halo Wars 2 takes place 28 years after the events of the first game, during the end of the war with the Covenant. An all-new military junta has risen, known as the Banished, led by a dangerous and intelligent Brute called Atriox. Microsoft, 343i and Creative Assembly are aiming to "reinvigorate" the classic RTS genre with Halo Wars 2. Can they deliver? Only time will tell.
Halo Wars History
The first Halo Wars was developed by Ensemble Studios, creators of the Age of Empires franchise. Ensemble closed its doors in 2009, shortly after Halo Wars' release on Xbox 360. Halo Wars 2 is being co-developed between Halo stewards 343 Industries and Creative Assembly, known for the Total War games and more recently, Alien Isolation. Creative Assembly enjoys a 20-year history developing PC strategy games, and have been described as the obvious choice to partner up with 343i on Halo Wars 2.
The first Halo Wars takes place 10 years before Halo: Combat Evolved, making it one of the earliest playable entries in the Halo mythos. It stars Captain Cutter, the commander of UNSC warship Spirit of Fire. The Sprit of Fire has its own Cortana-like Artificial Intelligence known as Serina, and sports a large army capable of deploying at a moment's notice. Captain Cutter and his crew battle the series' central antagonistic faction, The Covenant, while also encountering the parasitic Flood. Without spoiling too much, as the events of Halo Wars 1 unfold, it ends with the remaining UNSC crew stranded in space.
In our interview with 343i's Dan Ayoub, he told us that a Halo Wars sequel had been at the top of their community most-wanted list for some time, and the studio decided that now was the time to deliver on that feedback. Halo Wars 2 will launch in February 2017, for Xbox One and Windows 10 Store.
Halo Wars 2, like many capable RTS titles, are comprised of various gameplay pillars that fans of the genre should find themselves familiar with. Halo Wars 2 takes on a three-pronged approached to gameplay modes, and these are split between Campaign, Multiplayer, and Blitz.
Halo Wars 2's campaign, as noted, takes place 28 years after the original game, during the events of the present day timeline. Without giving too much away, Captain Cutter and his crew will take on Atriox's violent Banished Covenant remnants and battle for control of Installation 00, otherwise known as the Ark.
Despite its position in the timeline, Halo Wars 2 will be an entirely self-contained story. 343i's Dan Ayoub told us in our interview that the game assumes no prior knowledge of Halo or its external lore, and that the game will recap events of the last 28 years as Captain Cutter and his crew learn exactly what they're up against.
To help the Spirit of Fire crew get back up to speed, 343i revealed that a brand new A.I. would be joining the crew in the form of Isabel, a logistics computer that serves as your primary source of information on Halo Wars 2's all-new enemy. As mentioned, the Spirit of Fire will face a surviving Covenant faction known as the Banished. They are led by Atriox, a member of the Jiralhanae (Brute) race. The Brutes are an ape-like species first introduced in Halo 2, known for their formidable strength and ridiculous endurance.
Atriox is an incredibly dangerous foe because he not only possesses incredible physical strength, he also excels as a military strategist. During Atriox's introduction, he easily defeats not one, but three Spartans in close quarters combat, while wielding a gigantic red gravity mace. We don't know a great deal about Atriox's motivations or what implications Halo Wars 2 could have for the story as a whole, but during our sessions at 343i in October, the studio said that Atriox is intended to be a major franchise villain — certainly not just a one-off for Halo Wars 2. Also, 343i hinted that Halo Wars 2 itself could have a big impact on the overall story of the series, so fans should be in for a treat.
Gameplay-wise, Halo Wars 2 plays similarly to the first game. There are no gathering units, as the economy is generated right from your base or the occasional pickup found on the map. Halo Wars 2 introduces various new controls to give console players greater agency over gameplay, but it is also the first Halo Wars game to hit PC via the Windows 10 Store, with full keyboard and mouse support.
There will be many familiar units for players of the original Halo Wars, including Warthogs, Scorpion tanks and so on, but various new units will join the fray. I can confirm that Halo Wars 2 will not feature the Flood, but it's possible Promethean enemies will be involved in some capacity. We'll have to wait and see.
Skirmish: This is your practice mode. Players will be able to fight against an array of A.I. with varying difficulty. You can also group up with friends to work on co-operative strategies for each game mode, or practice against one another.
Strongholds: Strongholds is designed to offer more fast-paced gameplay with a hard 15-minute time limit. Two teams of three will battle over small bases scattered throughout the map called Strongholds. For each base you capture, your population cap increases, allowing you to grow and eventually overwhelm the enemy. The team with the most captured bases at the end of the game wins.
Domination: Domination in Halo Wars 2 is similar to that of the previous game, only with all the new additions and factions of the new game. Domination is a two on two game mode, where each team attempts to gain as much control of the map as possible, building up their army and bases as normal. Players will battle for specific capture points, depleting the enemy team's tickets. The first side to fall to zero is defeated.
Deathmatch: Deathmatch is the classic RTS mode, where players are tasked with the construction of their bases, the loadout of their army, and ultimately, the destruction of the enemy player.
Blitz Mode is a unique cross between a MOBA's fast-paced, more personal action-strategy combat, a light RTS-style economy and a deck-building card game. In Blitz, players will begin earning cards that represent various characters and units from the Halo Wars universe. Across Blitz' two modes, players will be able to bring decks of up to 12 cards with one leader card, which defines the deck's role in combat. Leader cards provide passive bonuses, unique cards of their own, and can completely change the playstyle of your deck.
You can select from one of four cards at any one time, and each time you spend a card, it is replaced with a random one from your deck. You can re-roll a card at any time, but doing so spends energy, which serves as the primary resource in Blitz. Energy spawns randomly on the map during play, and opposing teams must fight to recover it, making Blitz mode as much a game of energy management as it is countering and reactive strategic play.
Cards will be unlocked randomly through packs accrued throughout Halo Wars 2's various modes, and duplicate cards can be used to "level up" existing units, providing bonuses and progression. Players will always be matched based on skill and deck strength, so there shouldn't be any team imbalance during play.
Blitz is split across both PvP and PvE modes, with more cards and new gameplay features to arrive in post-launch content.
Firefight: Firefight is a Horde-like mode which allows either one or two players to fight together against waves of increasingly powerful enemies. Enemy waves spawn infinitely, and players will be awarded points and killstreak scores arcade-style, similarly to the Halo Spartan mobile games. Firefight presents interesting opportunities for players to make complementing decks. For example, one player could focus on support units, while another focuses on skirmishing gameplay.
Versus: Blitz PvP takes place in Domination-style gameplay, with 1v1 and 2v2 game modes. Players will battle for control over three points on the map, paying careful attention to harvest energy while building up their score for each capture point held. The first team to hit the score cap wins. Blitz PvP games are designed to last anywhere between 8 and 12 minutes, accessible for players more accustomed to the first-person shooter Halo games, or players who want to practice RTS-style gameplay before tackling the core Multiplayer modes offered by the game.
Xbox Play Anywhere
Halo Wars 2 is an Xbox Play Anywhere title, meaning that a single purchase will net you a license for both Xbox One and PC. Unlike Gears of War 4, however, Halo Wars 2 will feature zero cross-play between PC and Xbox One, even in its co-operative modes.
The studio told us that the reason for this is the wide gulf between control schemes on Xbox One and PC and the fact that the games are balanced differently between versions to complement the diverging styles of play. Still, your unlocks, gameplay progression, Blitz decks, and achievements will roam between devices via the cloud, allowing you to pick up and play from anywhere.
Note: Xbox Play Anywhere titles are only offered via the digital version of the game purchased from either the Windows 10 Store or the Xbox One Store.
If you're planning to pick up Halo Wars 2, you'll have to decide between the Standard and Ultimate editions of the game. The Standard Edition is just the base game and will cost around $59.99. The Ultimate Edition, at $79.99, is a little different.
In addition to the base game, Halo Wars 2: Ultimate Edition also comes with four day's worth of early access, the Halo Wars 2 season pass and a remastered version of the original Halo Wars.
- Halo Wars 2's season pass is slated to add a wealth of content to the game, including new cards for Blitz, new units for multiplayer and a significant expansion for the campaign which will progress the story.
- The Ultimate Edition also adds Halo Wars: Definitive Edition, which at least for now, isn't planned for a standalone release. Halo Wars: Definitive Edition will also be an Xbox Play Anywhere title, available on both Xbox One and Windows 10, complete with cloud saves and achievements. I played Halo Wars: Definitive Edition, and was impressed by the effort put into its reimagining. 343i hasn't just done a resolution pass and called it a day, the UI has been updated, the game has new effects and visuals, and it's hitting PC with dedicated keyboard and mouse controls for the first time.
Reinvigorating a genre
Real-time strategy arguably saw its golden age in the 90s, where games like Command and Conquer, Age of Empires, and Starcraft reigned supreme in an era before 3D visuals. While titles like Starcraft II and Total War continue to make headlines, the RTS spotlight has arguably been diluted by the rise of DOTA clones like League of Legends and casual mobile strategy games like Clash of Clans.
343i and Creative Assembly have set themselves the lofty goal of reinvigorating the RTS genre, bringing it to a new generation on the back of one of the world's most popular franchises. Halo Wars wasn't perfect, but it was quite easily the most credible attempt to bring RTS to consoles, with intuitive controller schemes and accessible gameplay.
The real question is whether 343i and Creative Assembly can navigate the delta in expectations between console players and seasoned, hardcore PC RTS fans, who will expect depth and complexity that simply isn't viable without a mouse and keyboard.
From what I've seen so far, 343i and CA seem well on their way to offering something for everybody with Halo Wars 2, across its ambitious campaign, classic RTS multiplayer and unique and addictive Blitz mode. We'll have to wait until February to find out for certain if the duo can pull it off.
Halo Wars 2 launches on February 21, 2017, or February 17th for Ultimate Edition owners.