Building a real-time strategy game on consoles has always been a challenge tackled by few developers, especially given the limitations in processing power. Due to large amounts of independently controlled units on screen, RTS games tend to burn through more CPU power than GPU power – which is currently one of the biggest limitations of the Xbox One.
On top of these limitations, Halo Wars 2 is also going to take on the daunting task of making RTS gaming accessible and interesting for console players. This is going to require a much simpler gameplay system – at least, compared to what you would find in say, Total War Warhammer or StarCraft 2, and that’s just due to limitations of console controller interface. Microsoft has also made the decision to release Halo Wars 2 on Windows 10 as well, which means that Creative Assembly is also going to have to nail how the game handles on PC with a mouse and keyboard too.
Both aspects present a massive hurdle for the newest Halo project to jump over in order to succeed, but so far developer Creative Assembly has a pretty decent start.
In Halo Wars 2 players will once again lead the Spirit of Fire and her crew as Captain James Cutter in a campaign against the Banished. Led by a Brute warlord named Atriox, the Banished boasts an impressive array of modified covenant weaponry this time around – including units like the artillery ship known as the Blisterback. While we don’t know much more when it comes to the story behind the sequel, we do know that it takes place after the events of Halo 5 from a timeline perspective. While I doubt it could mean we would see an interaction between the two, it’s definitely an interesting implication for Cutter to be unaware of the new formed alliance between humanity and the covenant.
From a gameplay standpoint, Halo Wars 2 feels exactly like the original Halo Wars. Many of the units may have new names and new skins but as a group they operate the same, with the simple rock-paper-scissors combination still in play. Infantry is easily defeated by vehicles, vehicles are easily defeated by air, and air by infantry. Some units are designed to be specific counters that go against this rule too, which allows for interesting counter opportunities if played strategically. In my time with the game though, I noticed that many players instead focused on building up large amounts of their factions most powerful units in order to try and steamroll through my own.
The most significant change I’ve noticed is that Creative Assembly added an additional resource to the mix, with units now costing a mix of energy and resources. While it seemed like an interesting addition that could ease out the pace of the game at first though, it turned into something that I didnt even think about once I built up my base to a certain degree. Not to mention, it took up a construction slot that prevented me from having a little more fun with my unit composition.
In Halo Wars 2 commanders are present too, each with a unique ability tree that gives players access to powerful abilities such as ODST airdrops, healing drones to keep your men alive and giant orbital strikes to hammer your foes with. Most of these abilities are powerful enough to turn the tide of battle and feature some amazing visuals – but it didn’t seem like many players took advantage of them during my matches in the beta. Honestly, it’s probably because the game does such a poor job of informing players about the way abilities work in the tutorial video, but I’m sure the campaign will fill that gap on release.
As an entire package in its current state, Halo Wars 2 is a fun experience that needs some serious work in the performance department. Nearly every engagement feels epic and looks great on screen for a console RTS project, with soldiers shouting out and explosions going off left and right. The problem though, is that Halo Wars 2 can barely keep a steady frame rate during every engagement like this. During my time with the beta I noticed my frame rate dropping well below 30 when I was engaged with an enemy army, specifically when I utilized one of the games many area of effect abilities to hammer down my opponent. While this sort of performance certainly won’t be a problem on PC its a notable issue that needs serious improvement before the game releases next February.
The good news is that Creative Assembly and 343 Industries have a lot of time to improve the game, with eight months remaining until the game’s release. Hopefully the optimized version of Halo Wars 2 will see a drastic increase in performance on the Xbox One – plus a few gameplay changes based on community feedback from the beta test this week. It’s a great project working to accomplish a difficult task and we hope to see it improve in the coming months.