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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.

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Jez Corden is a Senior Editor for 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 caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!

  • "Halo Wars 2 is an entirely self-contained story." As every story should be. Nothing wrong with an ongoing and progressive story, and expanded universes are great, but no single work in any expanded universe--especially the leading works, which the Halo FPS games are to Halo--should never require consumers to research externally just to stay afloat.
  • I think there are room for direct sequels, but the amount of research Halo 5 asked of me felt inordinate.
  • To be honest. Halo Wars and Halo Wars 2 aren't strictly new stories. They are part of precious books and lore. On Halo 5, it was made for the fans. Just like MGS4 or 5. There is no way you can remotely understand MGS unless you have played all of them and know all its lore. But people give that a free pass and not Halo5. Something that always seems to happen to MS exclusives. People act differently towards them. I would have been seriously upset if half of Halo 5 was telling me stuff I already knew from the books and other lore as a fan.
  • My thoughts exactly.
  • I played Halo 4 but still didn't have a clue what was going on in Halo 5 half the time. It's not just the external lore that's the issue, it's the over abundance of characters resulting in a diffuse focus. No single character gets enough air time, which reduces all of their charisma. Delivery simply isn't as good as Halo Wars 2 so far imo.
  • I think as I said its due to the characters your seeing in Halo 5 are well known characters in the lore. And from TV series as well as Shorts. Their are some new ones in 5 but not alot. For example DR Halseys arm being gone was a brilliant touch. And one any fan of Halo would have grinned ear to ear to see. This is kinda my point. For Halo fans Halo 5 is amazing. And has so many moments and characters we already know who they are. It was made for the fans. That's all I'm kinda saying. By now at number 4 and 5 if people don't know some of the characters and reasons behind things then its because they haven't really been into Halo. And its not a game made for non fans. Exactly the same as games like MGS 5. I can see people being utterly confused by Halo 4 and 5. But I don't think the game was meant for them. My advise to anyone is play MCC, Reach And ODST before 5. And make sure to read the books and watch all the TV stuff. Halo became much bigger than the game long before 4. Much the same way StarWars is much bigger than the 8 films so far. So much in the latest films people wouldn't get because they probably haven't seen The Clone Wars TV series or read certain books.
  • I disagree. Metal Gear Solid never requires you to read books, watch movies, etc. to keep up with the story. Halo 5 really required it to get full enjoyment out of the plot. I think it's highly unlikely the vast majority of Halo players have experienced the game's expanded universe, especially since Dan Ayoub told me himself that he'd heard the criticism often when I met him in Redmond. I'm by no means saying that it's a bad thing to want to create that sorta expanded universe, not at all, but they should try and bring casual Halo fans along for the ride. I don't think they executed it well enough. I kinda experienced this myself when I saw the Warcraft movie. I know Warcraft lore inside out and backwards, but my friends who weren't acquainted found the movie really difficult to follow. I haven't seen Rogue One yet... but why do you need Clone Wars to watch TFA? I don't recall there being any references. I'd really like to get in touch with you btw and get a run down on the major Halo lore things I need to check out, do you have an email or a Skype maybe? If you were willing of course. :)
  • With MGS 4 and 5 it wasn't books. There is alot of stuff in MGS4 and 5 you just cannot understand at all unless you have played games outside the main series. Stuff like MG Acid. Snakes Revenge. Or even stuff added into Twin Snakes on the GameCube which wasn't in the original MGS. MGS4 is a prime example of what happens when the developer tries to explain stuff not in MGS1-3. It ended up a convulted mess. At some points spending hours and hours going back over the same stuff in cut scenes to try and make it so all those non fans were not confused. It ended up being comical to the point of dreary and plain what the heck is going on. All I'm pointing out is if a developer is onto a 4th game in a series, they just need to make it for fans. There's over 5 million people who belong to the halo story club. Who read everything on that site regularly. The games are made for them. There si no point making a game for new comers on number 4 or 5. The universe and its lore is to big for that. I read a interview with Bioware. Who said they have a similar choice to make with stuff in Mass Effect Andromeda.
  • Sure. I have an email account. Should I post it here??? Or maybe another safer way??
  • Hi Jez, I was lukewarm on HW2, but after this article I might give it a shot. Thank you for the article. I agree with you about the Halo 5 story. Halo Wars 2, from what you have said, seems to have learnt from that.
  • Cheers for reading, stay tuned for our full review of course, but early signs are very promising. I really do feel like they've learned from Halo 5's delivery. HW2 has very strong characters.
  • I'm also extremely happy they are returning to the older art style rather than using the newer style introduced in Halo 4. 
  • It's a shame you feel the Prometheans etc are dull or that the story after 3 is lacking. I actually feel that the story is better after 3. And right in line with the books. The prometheans have long been a part of Halo. Halo essentially is the Star Wars of the video game world. No other world and lore in video gaming comes close. And certainly no other video game story has as big a cult following as Halo. That aside its great to see that Halo Wars 2 is a great RTS. The Blitz Beta was Awesome. And I never doubted Creative Assembly in the slightest. If a console is where you fame and not PC, then Xbox is the only choice if you like RTS games and city/settlement builders.
  • I appreciate that aspect of Halo and I'd like to get more into it given the time, just the Prometheans never resonated with me as a casual fan of the main games. Bring back the Flood!!
  • I think to really understand the Promethians one needs to read the 3 books by Greg Bear (Cryptum, Primordium, Silentium). The 1st book was outstanding, the second was weak, and the third had to much information condensed. Basically the end of the 3rd book can be considered the important events that occured prior to Halo 4. I think these books shed an incredible amount of light about the forerunners, the Halo rings, and the Flood for that matter. The critisism of Halo 4 would essentially be it did not shed enough light on who the Didact really was and what his place in histroy really was. I guess it follows the theme of most of the Halo games, in that there is too much cryptic information, and one has to read the books to know what is really going on. IMHO, I think Bungie really screwed the whole Halo cannon and universe with Halo Reach, as almost everything else so far fits with the expanded Universe except that game. I suppose it is similar to Disney telling everyone that the new movies will not follow the events or timelines of the entire expanded star wars universe.  
  • It's worth noting as many here seem to not know this. The exact same writers for Halo 1-3 story did Halo 4 and 5. The guys left bungie and stayed on at 343.
  • Most of the staff moved, but Halo 4 and 5 were written by Brian Reed, who can't help but ruin everything he touches.
  • If any of you guys (gals) are die hard Halo fans and have read most of the books, then you need to read Halo: Smoke and Shadow. It is a shorter story ($1.99 on Amazon), and is sort of a back story to Halo Wars 2. The main character in the book is Forge's daughter. I do not want to give away much of the plot, but it is a quick read, and I think plays a part in the cannon (and I assume is written with knowledge of what happens in Halo Wars 2).
  • Wow. Thanks. I will definitely pick this up.