It's strange to think there was a period in the '90s when real time strategy games were completely mainstream. Games like Age of Empires, Warcraft 3, and Command and Conquer sold briskly, and the genre was among the most popular. Since then, RTS titles have slowly become much more of a niche affair, with sales slowing, and MOBAs stealing a large chunk of what was once the RTS audience.
The burgeoning console market is also partly responsible for the shift away from the base building RTS titles of old, with the complex and layered systems of the genre proving too difficult to navigate using a console controller. Even so, Halo Wars did an admirable job back in 2009, and a section of Xbox owners have been clamouring for a sequel ever since.
Halo Wars 2 is an experience which demonstrates both the continued pitfalls of RTS on console, but also the potential. This potential can be seen in the assortment of game types on offer in Halo Wars 2, including a full campaign, multiplayer skirmishes and the game's coup de grâce, Blitz mode. Though all three offer substantial experiences, it is Blitz that truly shines.
Blitz is a card-based skirmish mode that removes all base management and focusses purely on troop deployment and strategy. Here, players start with only a few units and spend a slowly accumulating energy pool to send in more forces. These forces are selected randomly from a deck constructed before a match, and different troop types require different amounts of energy to deploy.
The goal is to hold as many of three capture zones as possible, and in doing so, generate enough points to win. It's a simple idea, and it turns out that's the key to making RTS work on console: strip out base building and upgrading, and streamline troop deployment. In doing so, Blitz condenses the RTS experience down into a series of short, surprisingly intense battles.
For example, as you come upon a point, you spot the enemies forces and notice that they have a large number of air units. Instead of going back to the base, generating the anti-air units and then transporting them back to the zone, you can simply call down whatever anti-air unit you have in your hand and run right in. This makes battles feel like a fierce game of cards, with your opponent sending in troops to take advantage of your weaknesses, and then you quickly responding in kind.
The immediacy of everything gives this mode a more frantic pace than many other RTS titles, and makes it perfectly suited not only to consoles, but to the modern multiplayer market. Of course, it is easy to see how what a console player might see as a streamlined experience, a veteran RTS player could see as a bastardisation of the genre. Regardless, Blitz is a fun, strategic experience.
Adding to the draw of Blitz's gameplay is its alluring progression system. There are currently seven playable commanders: four UNSC and three Banished (exiled Covenant). The human and Banished commanders all have access to the same basic troop types, but each commander has their own set of unique cards, which allow for new approaches to be taken. For instance, Captain Cutter of the UNSC has a focus on Spartan troops with high endurance and medium strength, whereas when you play as Isabel (a ship's AI), your unique cards have an emphasis on abilities which allow you to trick and disable enemy forces.
These unique cards are unlocked through blind packs rewarded through levelling up or completing daily or weekly challenges. As well as unlocking new cards, these packs offer duplicates to existing cards, which when you collect enough, upgrade your troops. This progression system works well, encouraging the deck-building aspect of Blitz, as well as pushing you to approach play in diverse ways through the challenges.
Unfortunately, it is also possible to unlock these blind packs through purchase with real money. However, in my time with the mode, it seemed that matchmaking was determined through the relative level of your cards. So, any pay-to-win strategies should be undermined by these players only being able to compete against each other, or high-level players. Where this may become an issue is with the introduction of ranked play, which is expected at some point post-launch.
The other multiplayer mode the game offers is a straight skirmish over capture points. The difference, however, is that it includes more traditional play in which you manage a base and generate troops throughout the match.
In comparison to Blitz, this mode feels cumbersome, especially as once the intensity rises, the flaws with these kind of management systems on console start to reveal themselves. For instance, there are hot buttons to transport you to points around the map, but you have to cycle through them. So, if someone starts attacking a base, you have to cycle through bases until you get to the one in trouble. It is a small issue, but most systems have a small issue like this, and they quickly add up.
What's odd is that, despite this, this mode still feels like it is handling traditional RTS action as well is possible on console – it just really highlights how inappropriate this traditional approach is for the platform. However, as the best possible permutation possible, it is still a fun and engaging experience weighed down by some slight frustrations.
The campaign of Halo Wars 2 takes place soon after the events of Halo 5 when the crew of the Spirit of Fire are pulled out of cryo-sleep after drifting through space for 20 years, presumed dead by the UNSC. They have come across a Halo-like structure called the Ark, which is shaped more like a flower than a ring. When they go down to investigate, they are attacked by a force that mutinied from the Covenant called The Banished, led by a Brute called Atriox. The game's goal is to take the Ark back from Atriox's control.
The bulk of the surprisingly effective storytelling is delivered through incredibly gorgeous cut scenes made by Blur. I was surprised how much I grew to like the UNSC commanders, and even more by how interesting they managed to make the character and motivations of Atriox.
The campaign is broken up into levels, with the gameplay of each typically consisting of building a base, gathering resources, and generating troops in order to destroy an enemy's base or a boss. What keeps these missions engaging is both the unfolding narrative of each level, as well as the diversity in level design. For example, portals to other areas of somke levels add an extra layer of strategy.
Each level also offers a ranking of bronze, silver and gold. To achieve the gold rating you need to accomplish secondary objectives throughout the level, some of which are very difficult, offering ample opportunity for replay.
There is a lot to learn from Halo Wars 2 on Xbox One. The game accomplishes traditional RTS gameplay as well as seems possible on console, and yet it still remains cumbersome. As such, it seems clear that the genre needs to pivot in order to successfully exist on these platforms.
Thankfully, Halo Wars 2 also offers an elegant solution to this problem through its Blitz mode, offering a smart, stream-lined RTS experience which is right at home on console and in the multiplayer space. I can't help but imagine how awesome Halo Wars 3 would be if it combined the strength of this game's storytelling with the mechanics of its Blitz mode.