One thing I learned from working in social media and being married is to never write or text message when you’re angry. Just walk away, clear your head, and come back later.
So when I finished the Halo Wars 2 campaign, I went away and started writing this a couple of days later.
Long load times
One of the first things you’ll notice about Halo Wars 2 is the load screens. Before each mission you’ll sit there staring at this screen for a really long time, while the terribly voice acted Captain Cutter mumbles some generic crap that you really can’t being yourself to care about.
It’s draggy, uninteresting and makes you angry that you’re wasting your precious time. And that sums up most of the Halo Wars 2 experience for me (please sit through the following vitriol and read until the Blitz section).
This is compounded by the fact that the game often bugs up and it’ll just load perpetually. Seriously, you’ll hear the characters discuss what they want to do in the next mission, and then when they’re all done, the level still hasn’t loaded and you don’t get the Press A to continue option. You have to quit to the dashboard, restart the game, and sit through the mission dialogue all over again. FML.
The painfully boring story mode
Let’s start with the campaign, the main offender in this game. Say what you want about the repetitive nature of Halo games, but while the gameplay is similar, there’s always that compelling story driving it forward with fun characters that you care about (well, until Halo 5 came along anyway).
I love the relationship between Master Chief and Cortana. The Arbiter’s tale of redemption and his parallel with the Chief in Halo 2 was the highlight. What you have in Halo Wars 2 has none of the drama and charm.
Your crusty old ship comes out of hyperspace and you’re in some weird alien place. Bad guys are here, and you find out from a very expository AI that there’s a new big rebellious bad guy that even the Covenant are scared of, yet there’s been no mention of him in so many Halo games. Despite being outgunned and against allegedly superior future tech (your crusty old ship also has crusty old guns and Scorpion tanks), the Captain decides to stand and fight and makes a self-described rousing speech to announce his noble plan.
Except it’s not. Think of all your favorite speeches from movies. Think of Braveheart, Any Given Sunday, or Gladiator. Now take Mel Gibson and Al Pacino away. Replace them with Bill Pullman, Kristen Stewart, and Sam Worthington. Now you’ve got Captain Cutter.
And that’s the big problem with the story. It’s okay to be bland, it really is. It didn’t stop Call of Duty from being a blast. It’s just not okay to be in denial about it.
There were so many moments in the campaign that I recognized as trying to stir some kind of emotion in my disappointed heart. It was sad, like that friend who tells you a bad joke and then starts gesturing wildly with his mouth open, desperately trying to get you to laugh with him, and not letting you go until you do.
Sorry, Captain Cutter. I’m not amused, I’m not inspired, but most importantly I’m not entertained. Just shut up and let me blow some crap up so I can get to the end credits.
Opposite Cutter is the new AI Isabel. Wow is she annoying! She’s got these expressive high-resolution eyes that scream “I have a tragic backstory” but sadly, her acting and character is more akin to my 3 year-old daughter when I won’t let her eat another gummy bear. I really wanted her to be something special, because she had all the opportunities to be, but she wasted it all like that smart intern with the bad attitude.
And what is with those visual representation of an AI hacking sequences? It’s more Matrix than Halo, and it really doesn’t work.
As for the gameplay itself, I have to say it didn’t blow my mind. There was a new system to create control groups, but I still didn’t feel like I had much control. I could zoom in to select individual units, but then I can’t see enough of the map. Zoom out, and I can’t fine-tune grouped units. It was a constant battle like that, and it definitely wasn’t user-friendly enough to create quick control-groups in the heat of battle.
And the units all looked the same from up high too, so it’s hard to distinguish a sniper from a marine because green is green. I can barely tell a Warthog from a Wolverine when there are too many units.
In all honesty though, it is quite playable with a controller. It’s not bad, but I’d still go for a mouse and keyboard. Using the right stick to adjust the view quickly is great, but not quite necessary at all. I didn’t feel I needed to rotate the view much. It’s an RTS – I could play it just fine from one angle, just like the original Command & Conquer. I have to say I barely touched the right stick at all.
But it’s not like you had to be imaginative for most of the campaign. You just round up the troops, make a lot of them (well, a few since the population cap is so low), and then march towards the bad guys en masse. This tactic works for most of the game, until the last few missions where you actually have to split your army up.
Come to think of it, the last mission was kind of fun, even though you get some stupid super weapon that appears out of nowhere. It’s a hold the line sort of mission, where the enemy comes from multiple directions and you’re bunkered down in the middle. But by the time you get here, frustration will be running high.
When I completed the game, I shut down my Xbox, took the batteries out from the controller, and threw a hissy fit.
Hut hut hut… Blitz!
After all the disappointment that is the single-player campaign, I have to say I really just felt like uninstalling the game. But I came back to it a few days later, and something strange happened. Something called Blitz.
Blitz is the new multiplayer mode in Halo Wars 2. Imagine Hearthstone meets RTS, where the units and abilities you have in the game are the ones you have equipped in a card deck. There are different leaders with different unique units and abilities, and you select one and then build a deck.
Like Hearthstone (and other collectible card games) the bigger and badder units will require more energy to play than your regular marines and grunts. So the idea is to build a well-rounded deck of units and abilities that balances heavy-units with easily playable ones.
You’ll get more cards for doing stuff like completing story mode missions, or doing daily quests like “Play 2 games using Captain Cutter” or “Win a 2v2 game”. That said, it’s probably a good idea to complete the story mode first (yes, even after reading my hate-a-thon above) because you’ll get a ton of cards from it.
Once in the game, Blitz is a pretty fast affair. It’s like Domination style, where you have to capture control zones in order to build up your score. You need more control zones than your opponent in order for the score to start collecting, so it’s a constant battle to control these zones. Hit 200 points, and you win the game.
During the game, energy drops will appear, so you’ll have to split your army to get the energy, or risk being overrun later on if your enemy uses the energy to amass a huge army.
As much as I felt the story mode was a time-waster, Blitz is every bit as fast as its name sounds. I completed quite a few games in 6-8 minutes, and the load issues that plagued the story missions don’t seem to appear here.
Now I don’t know if Blitz is going to be fun forever, because my experience with Hearthstone is that there’s constant game balancing that needs to be done to keep it fun, but for now it seems quite alright. In time, maybe players who buy a ton of card packs will upgrade and overpower their units, but right now it’s balanced and definitely worth trying.
Like I said, I really didn’t expect to enjoy any more of the Halo Wars 2 gameplay, but I’m glad I tried Blitz because I do so like green eggs and ham.
So is it worth it? Blitz is fun, and it seems to be the mainstay of this game. The story is very disappointing, but if they keep Blitz balanced and updated with new abilities, commanders, and maps, then Halo Wars 2 could deserve to stay installed on your Xbox.
Drew used to be a professional videogame reviewer, then he took an adulthood arrow to the knee. Now he is a content strategist, helping brands tell their stories without resorting to overused videogame memes.