At face value, Halo Wars 2 might seem like a risky proposition.

While real-time strategy titles enjoy solid popularity on PC, the genre is near non-existent on consoles. The original Halo Wars, launched on the Xbox 360 back in 2009, sold well over a million copies but paled in comparison to the likes of Halo 3. The legendary team behind its creation, Ensemble Studios, was sadly closed down shortly before Halo Wars' launch.

There's an obvious reason there aren't many RTS games on consoles, but Ensemble Studios made a valiant effort to make Halo Wars intuitive with a controller. Micro-managing units is far easier with a mouse and keyboard, which is one of the reasons Halo Wars 2 will make its way to Windows 10, as well as Xbox One. And, that's really what Halo Wars 2 is all about.

343i and Creative Assembly have shown a keenness to make Halo Wars 2 playable in various ways, by various kinds of gamer. Whether you're on PC, on Xbox One, interested in casual RTS fun or hardcore strategic action, or a Halo fan that hasn't touched real-time strategic before, Halo Wars 2 has something for you.

In Brief

Windows Central Choice Award

Creative Assembly and 343i have worked hard to create an RTS package that will appeal to everyone. Halo die-hards will enjoy the new lore, that definitively Halo feel, and its engaging story.

Hardcore RTS fans will relish its well-balanced strategic multiplayer gameplay on PC. And FPS fans might find themselves at home with Halo Wars 2's Blitz mode, with its fast-paced, instantly-gratifying skirmish warfare.

There's something for everyone in Halo Wars 2, and it's a little incredible that 343i and Creative Assembly were able to create something with so much breadth. Nothing in Halo Wars 2 feels tacked on for the sake of it. Each mode is polished to a mirror sheen and offers wildly varying ways to play.

For me, the real triumph of Halo Wars 2 is its campaign, which expands the mainstream Halo mythos in important ways. By focusing on a smaller subset of strong characters, Halo Wars 2 delivers a more focused, cohesive narrative than even Halo 5. Atriox and his Banished are some of the greatest villains Halo has seen yet, and their inclusion already has me hyped for the future of the franchise.

Whether you're a pure Halo fan or a die-hard RTS gamer with uber micro, Halo Wars 2 is crammed with satisfying content, and well worth your attention. See below for our detailed review.

Halo Wars 2 is available on February 21st, 2017 as an Xbox Play Anywhere title for Xbox One and Windows 10.

Majestic, ambitious, stunning

Halo Wars 2 Visuals, Audio, and Setting

One aspect of Halo Wars 2 that I expect will win it unanimous praise is its visuals and audio. Halo Wars 2 is an assault of sensations, with vivid effects, majestic scenery and big, sweeping sound treatment.

Much of Halo Wars 2 takes place on Installation 00, otherwise known as the Ark. Like the Halo rings, the Ark features artificial naturalistic landscapes that intersects with futuristic alien tech, and Creative Assembly and 343i have realized the essence of Halo with confidence in Halo Wars 2.

One aspect of Halo Wars 2 that I expect will win it unanimous praise is its visuals and audio.

Verdant forests, rainbow tinted waterfalls, and gigantic Forerunner constructs await those who dive into Halo Wars 2's campaign and multiplayer maps, with spectacular lighting and detail for good measure. There's not a slither of screen tearing, and you won't notice dropped frames without an FPS counter on Xbox One, and its PC version is well optimized. 343i and Creative Assembly have made tons of improvements since its previous beta tests, even when the action on-screen is its most intense and complex. Halo Wars 2 even runs incredibly well on my Surface Book's lower-end GPU, making Xbox Play Anywhere a viable (and valuable) option for gaming on the go. Stay tuned for some more in-depth PC version testing in the near future.

While Halo Wars 2 is played entirely from a top-down perspective, you can zoom in and enjoy some wonderful detail on the individual units. Both the UNSC and the Banished are well-realized, and some of the game's leader powers, such as the Archer Missile barrage or the orbital MAC blast have absolutely killer effects.

It's not only the visuals in Halo Wars 2 that really deliver, but the audio as well. Halo Wars 2's soundtrack, penned by Brian White, Brian Trifon and Gordy Haab, is a triumphant and quintessentially Halo experience, mixing classical majesty with action-packed militaria. Halo Wars 2's music shifts to the flow of combat dynamically, building up as the tension mounts and subsiding when a skirmish ends.

Not only does the music react to the ebb of battle, but also the units at your command. Their reactions and responses get more intense, more desperate, based on the current situation. It makes combat feel a whole lot more dynamic, and gives those legions of throwaway units a twinge of emotion. Design-wise, Halo Wars 2 is a wall-to-wall success story.

Diverse and deep

Halo Wars 2 Gameplay and Story

When it comes to gameplay, Halo Wars 2 really does have something for everyone, and it was smart of 343i and Creative Assembly to try and cater to the diverse range of players who enjoy Halo. Like Halo 5 before it, Halo Wars 2 comes with three staple game modes that should cater to all sorts of players, with each sporting enough value, polish, and depth, that they could have launched as standalone entities.

Multiplayer

Both of Blitz's modes are explosively addictive, rewarding participants with instant gratification and the opportunity to play with Halo Wars 2's most destructive toys.

For hardcore RTS players, Halo Wars 2 features signature RTS modes, including custom games, Deathmatch, Domination, and so on. While we haven't had much of a chance to experience these in a live environment just yet, the factions do feel relatively balanced at face value. Nothing stands out as being critically overpowered, and every unit, strategy, and manoeuvre has a counter.

Halo Wars 2 takes a rock-paper-scissors approach to its gameplay, making hard counters obvious. While there are exceptions, vehicles excel at taking down infantry, air units excel at taking down vehicles, and infantry excel at taking down air units. You can see what a unit's strengths and weaknesses are relatively easily by selecting them, and noting the color-coded icons for each type.

Beyond the usual RTS gameplay modes, Halo Wars 2 also features Blitz mode, which is something I have been able to play in a little more detail. Unlike classic multiplayer, Halo Wars 2 is a lot more fast-paced, and a little less competitive, while retaining much of that RTS depth. Standard matches in Blitz should last less than ten minutes, requiring far less time commitment than Deathmatch and so on.

Blitz mode should appeal to RTS newcomers a little more than Halo Wars 2's classic multiplayer modes. Its economy management is a lot less taxing, and gameplay revolves around deck building and playing cards, countering enemy units as you attempt to dominate three control points in up to 3v3 matches.

Still, if you're only interested in playing co-operatively against the CPU, Blitz mode has something for you too. Teams of up to two players can partake in Blitz's Firefight mode, which is similar to Gears of War's Horde mode.

In Blitz's Firefight mode, you will battle against endless waves of increasingly difficult enemies. Firefight will be a good way to test new decks, and even work out how to create decks and combos to complement your friends' set-ups. Both of Blitz's modes are explosively addictive, rewarding participants with instant gratification and the opportunity to play with Halo Wars 2's most destructive toys. It also serves as a gateway to ascent to Halo Wars 2's more classic, hardcore RTS gameplay modes, which should give players the full strategic breadth expected of the genre.

Story Campaign

Every Halo Wars 2 player will have a favorite mode and feature, but for me, Halo Wars 2's campaign is what really makes it standout.

Captain Cutter's stirring speech near the start of Halo Wars 2 ought to go down in video game history as one of the medium's great monologues.

Without giving too much away, Halo Wars 2 takes place 28 years after the events of the first Halo Wars game, as the crew of the UNSC Spirit of Fire wake up after a long period in cryo-sleep. They have arrived at Installation 00 — otherwise known as the Ark — and they're not entirely sure why.

As Captain Cutter and his crew begin to investigate, they discover an abandoned UNSC research post down on the surface of the Ark, and encounter Halo Wars 2's big evil — Atriox. Atriox is a gigantic Jiralhanae "Brute," and commands legions of Covenant deserters and mercenaries, now known as The Banished. Banished tech is retro-fitted from stolen Covenant arms, repurposed with deadly, reckless abandon. Familiar vehicles like Wraiths, find themselves covered with malicious spikes and large blades under Atriox, whose totalitarian aims unravel as the story progresses.

During your first encounter with Atriox, he quite easily dispatches not just one, but three Spartan super-soldiers using his bare hands. Few Halo villains have enjoyed such a spine-chilling introduction, and it could be a sign of things to come for the franchise as a whole.

Halo Wars 2 focuses on a comparatively small amount of characters, but in doing so, it manages to build them up in very powerful ways. One of the ways Halo Wars 2 does this is through its utterly gorgeous, industry-leading cinematics, created by the CGI wizards at Blur. Captain Cutter's stirring speech near the start of Halo Wars 2 ought to go down in video game history as one of the medium's great monologues. The campaign is scattered with great lines and powerful dialogue, both from major and minor characters, supported with some excellent voice work.

Halo Wars 2 does play it quite safe, however, seemingly shy to stray too far from the very typical Halo format. I think Halo Wars 2 could have afforded to get a little grittier, as promised by its brutal opening cinematic with Atriox. 343i and Microsoft Studios seem overly cautious when it comes to Halo's story, and I think it's about time they took some risks. Still, Halo Wars 2's story is decent in length and satisfying overall, and will leave you yearning to see more of its fresh and returning characters.

Halo Wars 2's campaign easily takes place among the franchise's greatest stories.

Gameplay wise, Halo Wars 2's campaign follows the theme of diversity, easing players into learning Halo Wars' core features and functions. I reviewed the game primarily on Xbox One, and the control schemes pioneered by the game's prequel still hold well in 2017. You can select local units, or all units with shoulder buttons, and assign groups of units to different d-pad buttons. You can also double-tap 'A' to select all matching units on-screen, which makes it easy to shift countered units out of harm's way.

Halo Wars 2's campaign takes you through a meandering set of unique objectives, set-pieces and even reactive boss battles I'd sooner attribute to Diablo rather than Halo Wars. The campaign, playable in 2-player co-op, never gets stale, placing the focus on different units and strategies to give you a deeper sense of their use in the wider game.

I would have liked Halo Wars 2's campaign to have been a little longer perhaps, and while it wraps itself around Halo's current events extremely well, its conclusion leaves you with a familiar sense of frustration due to, yet another, increasingly unwelcome Halo-style cliffhanger.

Criticisms aside, Halo Wars 2 is a wild ride of strategic fun that plays to the series' strengths overall, benefitting from a sharper narrative focus. Halo Wars 2's campaign easily takes place among the franchise's greatest stories.

Halo Hall of Fame

Conclusion

Halo Wars 2 is a near-perfectly realized example of how RTS games should work on console, without sacrificing the depth and complexity that makes the genre so rewarding on PC. Its new villains wield that apocalyptic malice that the franchise has been without for quite a while, giving its heroes, both new and old, a true sense of purpose.

Halo Wars 2 proves that the franchise is strong enough to work extremely well in other genres. Under the careful scrutiny of 343i and Creative Assembly, Halo Wars 2 doesn't feel like a spin-off. Instead, Halo Wars 2 stands proud among the greatest games the franchise has to offer.

Pros:

  • Rich, well-optimized visuals
  • Tremendous audio work
  • Diverse, polished gameplay
  • High-value package

Cons:

  • Story plays it far too safe

Outstanding

4.5/5

Still, I'm increasingly concerned that 343i's careful scrutiny is preventing Halo from maturing as a franchise, or growing with its audience. As unnervingly malevolent as Atriox is, I feel like Halo Wars 2 was the perfect opportunity to experiment with something a little murkier, a little darker, without losing the essence of the game series in general.

One thing is for certain, though. Between Multiplayer, Blitz Mode, and Halo Wars 2's stellar 2-player co-op campaign, there's truly something for everyone in this wonderfully polished package. This is the best strategy game on Xbox One today, by far. And it's a stunning entry in the Halo pantheon.

Halo Wars 2 is available on February 21st, 2017 as an Xbox Play Anywhere title for Xbox One and Windows 10.