Halo Wars 2 Review in Progress
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Halo Wars 2 Review in Progress

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Real-time strategy might never be great on a gamepad, but this one's pretty good.

February 17, 2017 - I've now had some time to dabble with the PC version of Halo Wars 2 (available exclusively through the Windows 10 Store and Play Anywhere-enabled) using the mouse and keyboard controls, and there's good news and bad news. The good news is that Halo Wars 2 runs reasonably well on PC Ė I've had no issues running it at 4K resolution on a GTX 1080, and I haven't yet seen any of the same bugs on this version (but that doesn't mean they're not there) as on Xbox One. The bad news is that especially in the multiplayer modes, controls are not up to the standard we've come to expect from the RTS genre on PC.

Some of it is just sloppiness. I hate to use terms like that to describe developers' work because making games is extremely difficult and complex, but when the Blitz Mode controls have no default bindings at all for recalling control groups you've set (because the 1-4 keys have been reassigned to the four available cards in your hand) I have to wonder how that made it past QA. You can fix that yourself in the clumsy, made-for-gamepad menus, but there are some notable exceptions. For example, I couldn't map the zoom in/zoom out functionality, or anything else, to the mouse wheel because that's permanently linked to scrolling through the unit types in your current selection.

But there are other problems that might not be as easily solved in patches. The big one is responsiveness in the UI, or lack thereof. We've been seeing issues with the minimap periodically becomes unresponsive to clicks, which is no fun when you're trying to juggle between bases and battles, as well as units sometimes deciding not to move when told. And while there are a few tweaks to the interface to make it more mouse friendly, it's still very much designed for someone sitting on a couch instead of up close at a desk, with large icons taking up more of the screen than is necessary. The zoom is also locked to what I consider a claustrophobic level, though that's arguably a design choice rather than the more likely case that they wanted to keep the view close enough to see small units from across the room.

In short, it's playable and has all the same strengths as the console version, but constantly reminds me that it wasn't designed to be played with mouse and keyboard, despite the advantages they offer.

I'll polish off this review over the weekend, and will have a final version ready next Tuesday. Thanks for sticking with me, folks.

We only received Halo Wars 2 a few days ago, which was enough time to complete the campaign but not to get a full sense of its several multiplayer modes, or how they work in a live environment. Below youíll see my thoughts on what Iíve played so far, and soon Iíll update with more thorough impressions of multiplayer and Blitz, plus my final score.†

I admire Microsoftís attempt to expand its prized Halo series into something that spans beyond an endless procession of first-person shooters, and with Halo Wars 2 (and Halo Wars before it) we get to experience this sci-fi universe from the overhead perspective of a real-time strategy game, which emphasizes the scope of its battles. The controls for a game of this complexity may never quite comfortably fit onto a gamepad, but its an otherwise decent if technically rough game with a couple of ideas to throw at the wall to see if they stick.

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Halo Wars 2 is an attractive-looking real-time strategy game that does a good job of representing the Halo universe in both graphics and sound. And the story - while not as large in scope as a main Halo game - introduces a threatening villain as the leader of a new faction that rises from the ashes of the Covenant, the Banished. On the other side, a relatable new AI character carries some cardboard-cutout co-stars, including the returning Captain Cutter and his three interchangeable Spartans. Occasional CGI cutscenes look fantastic, to the degree that they really make me want to watch that Halo movie that will probably never happen.

The single-player campaignís 12 missions took me roughly eight hours to complete, including restarting a couple of them a few times. The designs are nothing special Ė though they avoid the trap of basic ďgo destroy the enemy base,Ē they lean heavily on hero-focused objectives of leading your Spartans around the map and holdout missions against waves of enemies. Thereís enough variety to keep them from feeling repetitive, but only a couple think outside the box of what StarCraft did almost 20 years ago, and the static base management on pre-determined plots doesnít give a lot of flexibility when it comes to build orders. Much of it is in the vein of the ďcampaign as tutorial for multiplayerĒ model, teaching you which units counter what and how to capture the majority of a mapís control points to win. Each one does come with a range of side objectives (such as keeping a unit alive, destroying extra bases, or collecting resources from the map) to give them replayability on top of simply turning up the difficulty, though.

Halo Wars 2 feels most limited is in its controls - and that's not surpising.

Where Halo Wars 2 feels most limited is in its controls, and thatís not at all surprising. Gamepad controls for an RTS are always going to be clumsy at best, and though I didnít expect it to fully solve this problem, developer Creative Assembly doesnít seem to have done a lot to design around it, either. For example, the speed with which units tend to die in combat isnít very forgiving when you consider how slowly most people are likely to be able to react. Itís definitely workable, using a very similar layout to what the first Halo Wars has, with some clever changes like using a double-tap of the right bumper to select all units. But even things like that canít make up for the shortage of buttons and precision on the controller relative to a mouse and keyboard.

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If, for instance, youíre trying to get your Warthogs and Scorpion tanks out of range of the anti-vehicle gun of a Hunter before they can inflict real damage and move up your anti-infantry Hellbringer flamethrower units to counter, itís tricky to pull off in the heat of battle. You have to select all units on screen using the right bumper, then use the right trigger to cycle through the available unit types Ė which can be a lot in a large army Ė and then you can move that unit type independently. It works, but usually not quickly enough, especially if you have multiple vehicle types to move to safety. Then it might be faster to double-tap a unit with the A button to select all of that type, then hold right-trigger and double-tap one of the other types to select both at once. Good luck with that if youíre working with air units.

Most people will likely throw all their units at a target and hope for the best.

That said, itís impressive that Creative Assembly was able to pack all the controls you need, with the ability to assign up to four control groups to the d-pad and even queue up move commands, onto a gamepad. The catch is that much of that is accessed by holding the right trigger to change the functions of the rest of the buttons, which means you basically need to learn twice as many controls as you do for most games. Again, itís not insurmountable or unusable, but itís no picnic. Iím sure some people out there will get good enough with these controls to be relatively fast and become competitive with them, but by and large I expect most people will get through the campaign and many multiplayer matches largely by selecting all units on screen and throwing them into battle to fend for themselves.

Seemingly to compensate for the lack of micromanagement dexterity, youíre able to turn the tide of many of those battles from above by casting support abilities that can buff your troops or rain down fire and reinforcements on the enemy. Some of these are strikingly powerful when fully upgraded, such as the Archer missiles that destroy a swath of enemies and the extremely useful ODST soldier drops, and using them at the right moment feels great.

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What did not feel great about the campaign was the frequent bugs I encountered when playing on Xbox One (Iíve yet to try the PC version), which was much greater than I expected from a Halo game. Iíve had crashes, infinite loading screens, five- to 10-second freezes, stuck units, mission events failing to trigger (forcing me to replay the mission) and more. I got through it, but I was surprised to see such technical roughness. Fortunately, thus far the glitches have been limited entirely to the campaign.

Domination gives support powers lots of moments to shine.

Most of Halo Wars 2ís long-term appeal is in its multiplayer modes, which are to its credit significantly more diverse and in some ways interesting than you typically see in an RTS. On top of the standard deathmatch mode thereís the territory-control Domination style (reminiscent of Relicís Company of Heroes and Dawn of War 2 multiplayer) which really gives the support powers a lot of moments to shine. Spotting a bunch of enemy units camped on top of a control point is an excellent time to use a bombardment ability, for example. And because youíre given the choice of one of six commander characters (three per side) with different sets of support abilities, you have lots of options there - including some who can temporarily cloak groups of units or create holographic diversions. But again, the base building options feel limited by the predescribed locations and very limited build orders, which means much of the variety is going to be down to which of the handful of maps youíre playing on.

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In its own section of the menu, separate from the conventional multiplayer modes, is Blitz Ė a faster, more frantic mode where instead of building bases to produce resources and more troops, you summon soldiers using a deck of cards youíve prepared ahead of time. I generally like this kind of randomization because it prevents you from falling into patterns and repeating the same successful tactics over and over again, because you might not have access to the card youíd want to use at the moment you want to use it. Improvisation feels good. Alas, I donít think itís a great fit for a competitive multiplayer game, because all too often you win or lose based on a combination of your own luck and the enemyís, rather than the test of skill on the asymmetrical but level playing field I expect from an RTS.

Blitz's dependence on luck may shorten its long-term appeal.

Blitz is fun, but I think that dependence on luck is going to shorten its long-term appeal. And when that luck extends to giving you random new cards, some of which are unique to the six leaders, in upgrade packs that are also for sale in the store, I worry even more. You canít directly buy the power you want, but you can buy another shot at it. Hopefully the matchmaking system is smart enough not to pair people with crazy-powerful cards in their decks against those with more modest decks, but that remains to be seen.

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Finally, thereís a single-player and co-op variant of Blitz called Firefight thatís about holding out against ever-increasing waves of enemies as they try to overwhelm you and capture two of three points on the map. Iím having some good fun in there, where the randomness is about creating unexpected scenarios without the shame of losing to another human you think you shouldíve beaten, and the balance is tweaked so that swarms of enemy units explode easily under my Banished lasers. Thatís a very good use for the card mechanic.

I'll keep playing and will have more to say about multiplayer by the time Halo Wars 2 fully launches on February 21 (it's now available for early access with a preorder), so check back then for my final score.

Dan Stapleton is IGN's Reviews Editor. You can follow himon Twitterto hear gaming rants and lots of random Simpsons references.