Halo Wars 2 preview: A stirring start to what could be an instant classic

I admit, I'm not a diehard Halo fan, but the series has long been a staple of my gaming career. I have always played Halo games — it's almost a tradition in my household. Throwing Halo on Legendary with my brother, going split screen, and smashing Flood into fibrous chunks was a cornerstone of my teen years. Many classes were skipped to play Halo Combat Evolved and Halo 2.

Still, I never felt myself connecting to Halo on an emotional level like I have with other games. Sure, the series certainly has its moments, but Halo 5 in particular, felt pretty weak when it comes to the story. Cortana slipping into the malevolent evil A.I. trope was overly predictable, and the rivalry between Chief and Locke felt underexplored and underwhelming. Don't get me started on how dull I find the Prometheans.

That's why I'm so excited for the direction Halo Wars 2 appears to be taking. Its first three campaign levels are more compelling and memorable than the entirety of Halo 5's campaign, and I can't wait to dig deeper in my Halo Wars 2 full review.

Warning: This post contains minor spoilers related to Halo Wars 2's first three levels.

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Blurring the lines

Bonding with cannon fodder

One of the biggest criticisms I can level at Halo 5 is that much of the campaign requires external knowledge. I'm sure hardcore Halo fans loved all the references and the opportunity to see expanded-lore characters take center stage in a mainline game, but as a casual Halo fan, I felt alienated. Perhaps that's my own fault, but when I spoke to 343 Industries (343i), the studio behind Halo, back in October it said that it had heard the same criticism countless times, which is why Halo Wars 2 is an entirely self-contained story.

Halo Wars 2 is a real-time strategy game, taking place largely in a top-down viewpoint. Naturally, this presents story delivery challenges, but 343i and Creative Assembly have overcome these difficulties with confidence.

Halo Wars fans are no doubt familiar with the CGI studio Blur, famous for its work not just on games, but also movies, ads and various other mediums. Blur lent its talents to Halo Wars 2's cinematics, and they simply ooze with emotion. We're beginning to approach an age where the differences between live action and animated CGI will be indiscernible, and Halo Wars 2 more than exemplifies this fact.

It's not only Halo Wars 2's cinematics that impresse at an emotional level, but also the music, which I think is among the greatest soundtracks on Xbox One to date. I found myself sitting on the menu screen for an inordinate amount of time, listening to the evocative soundscapes composed by Gordy Haab, Brian Lee White and Brian Trifon. Their talents feed into the game itself, which dynamically ramps up the tension and urgency of the soundtrack based on the action taking place on screen, and the effect is tremendous.

Recreating that sense of involvement with the units on the ground has been a top priority for 343i and Creative Assembly, and while the music certainly helps, it's the excellent voice work and the systems that govern them that take Halo Wars 2 to another level.

When you zoom in on the overhead map in-game, the game's various units engage in all sorts of banter, similar to what we get in mainline Halo games. The genius is, though, that this banter dynamically evolves with the course of battle. Those throwaway units react appropriately per the current situation, which makes sending them to their (sometimes pointless) deaths that little bit more meaningful.

Besides making the regular real time strategy (RTS) gameplay a little more immersive, it also complements the story 343i and Creative Assembly are weaving with Halo Wars 2. One of the themes the game puts forward early on is that of family, and that's the way Captain Cutter and his crew see each other. 343i and Creative Assembly did an incredible job bringing this sentiment to life so far, giving Halo Wars 2's campaign a sense of quality I haven't experienced since Warcraft 3.

I haven't played much of Halo Wars 2's campaign yet, and it could certainly all fall apart between now and the end, but I somehow doubt it. If 343i and Creative Assembly maintain this level of quality throughout, I think Halo Wars 2 will not only take up a spot as a great Halo game but as a one of the great modern RTS games, as well.

Atriox Rising

A cast of compelling characters

Many Halo Wars 2's players will be meeting Captain Cutter and the crew of the United Nations Space Command (UNSC) Spirit of Fire for the first time, and 343i and CA have surrounded him with compelling supporting characters.

Captain Cutter and his crew awaken 28 years after the events of Halo Wars, unaware of the events leading through to Halo 5. Halo Wars 2 represents the perfect starting point to get reacquainted with the series, as Cutter and his crew are recapping the state of the galaxy just as much as you are.

Helping them in this endeavor is Isabel, who, like Cortana, is a UNSC artificial intelligence. Isabel is tasked with aiding a UNSC research team working on the Ark, which also happens to be the location where Captain Cutter and the UNSC Spirit of Fire ended up, for reasons as of yet unknown. The Ark is a gigantic Forerunner construct, designed to catalog the galaxy's lifeforms and shield specimens from the omnicide triggered by their Halo rings, as a last ditch defense against the now-eradicated Flood. It serves as the game's setting, and also, it's where you find Isabel.

Isabel is a very different kind of A.I., lacking Cortana's sense of military training and confidence. Isabel is deeply affected by the deaths of her research team, at the gigantic hands of Halo Wars 2's terrifying new villain.

Atriox is the big evil in Halo Wars 2, and he's badass. Not only does Atriox introduce himself by crushing not one, but three Spartans with his bare hands, he commands a gigantic army of Covenant deserters and mercenaries, complete with retro-fitted Covenant and Promethean tech. Isabel fearfully proclaims that at the height of the Covenant war that dominates Halo, humanity's enemy was fighting the war on two fronts: Against Earth, but also Atriox and his crimson-washed Banished.

Joining Atriox is a deadly cast of Banished creatures, including the gigantic cybernetic brute Decimus and the Covenant deserter Shipmaster Let'Volir, who provides Atriox with an endless swarm of Banshees and Elites.

Decimus and Let'Volir both introduce themselves in spectacular fashion in a boss fight with unique mechanics. It'a reminiscent of something I'd sooner expect of Diablo 3 rather than an RTS for its mechanics, and it places the focus firmly on Decimus, rather than legions of faceless units. The highly-involved gameplay set-pieces that go along with Halo Wars 2's classic RTS campaign evoke fond memories of Warcraft 3, where I find myself caring deeply about the game's characters and the mystery they find themselves wrapped up in. Why is Atriox trying to take over the Ark? How will Halo Wars 2 overlap with the overarching story? Could we see appearances from Cortana or other mainline Halo characters? I can't wait to play more.

Classic Halo

No mere spinoff

This article is based on my experiences with Halo Wars 2's first few levels, and I'm already very excited for what I've seen. Halo Wars 2's visuals, environmental detail, and character presentations are nothing short of stunning. The dynamic music systems, voice work, and sound treatment are enrapturing. And for me, best of all, Halo Wars 2 has already invoked an emotional response for its characters and plot in ways Halo 5 simply couldn't.

The Banished forces.

The Banished forces. (Image credit: Windows Central)

If Halo Wars 2 maintains this level of quality throughout its campaign, I think we could have an instant classic on our hands. But Halo Wars 2 is far more than its 2-player, co-op capable story mode. Halo Wars 2 will also feature classic RTS multiplayer combat and an arcade-style, card-based strategy battler in the form of Blitz mode, complete with both PvP and PvE modes, and I'll be looking at every aspect of the game in depth over the next few days.

Stay tuned for our full review, but I'm already confident enough to say that Halo fans probably won't want to miss out — even if you're not typically an RTS fan.

See at Xbox Store

Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden is a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by tea. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his XB2 Podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!