The title “Best Console RTS” is a strange one, as it seems to be universally understood that strategy games are best played using a mouse and keyboard. However, as there haven’t been very many of them in the past, and because the ones that do exist weren’t very fun to play, the genre is stagnating. The reason for all this usually boils down to a single factor: control. Fortunately, Halo Wars 2 nails that department, and adds polish and an arcade-y gloss to the strategy formula to create a great RTS-lite game that is not only a great addition to the Halo lore that improves upon its predecessor, but the best strategy game created for a console.
This is where games like Command and Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars trip over their own complexity, and games like Battalion Wars strip down too many features. Here, Halo Wars 2 shines, with a wealth of control options that are designed smartly enough to make good use of every button on the Xbox GamePad.
Of course, being part of the Play Anywhere program, Halo Wars 2 is just as easily playable with a mouse and keyboard. In that setting, the game pales next to its tried-and-true RTS neighbors.
Before we discuss what makes Halo Wars 2 so great in this department, it would be helpful to mention the things that make other console strategy games so awkward to play:
Use of the control pad
On most modern controllers, there exists a D-Pad, usually on the left side of the controller. Very rarely is the D-Pad used for movement in a full 3D space, because, well, it would be unwieldy. But for some reason, RTS games on console have tended to use the D-Pad for this exact reason, eliminating four button presses that could, whether in combination with other button presses or not, be used for more complex commands.
Here, Halo Wars 2 uses a different approach. Instead of using the D-Pad to move (or worse yet, to issue specific commands) it uses each direction to “jump” to an oft-visited area on the screen, such as bases or gathered units. In combination with a trigger button, it controls a user-defined ‘control group’ of units onscreen.
Without a mouse to click and drag, developers have to test out the various ways units can be selected with a “fixed” pointer. Previous entries into the world of console RTSes have tried ‘highlight’ commands, ‘select all units’ commands, and the worst of them all: “tap unit to select” commands. All of which have their pros and cons, but none of which are a joy to use on their own. In a game about selecting units about 90% of the time, mistakes in this department are borderline unforgivable.
Halo Wars 2 opts for a clean middle ground. While offering the option to ‘highlight’ units, there are also shortcuts to ‘select local units’ (all units onscreen) and to ‘select all units,’ which is something you do in this game far more often than in your average RTS. Yet another selection method is to double-tap on a unit, selecting all units of its type. This is a useful way to clear out a specific type of enemy, or to designate a scout group. Even in some keyboard configurations, this particular command is tricky, so seeing it incorporated so well into the formula is fantastic.
This specific component is the result of a major decision on the developer’s part: “are we making a PC game and porting it to console? Or are we making a console game?” In most instances, the lack of differences between the two versions on most RTS games limits the console players’ mechanical ability. By nearly always envisioning wide-open spaces populated by long detours like cliffs, hills, and in smaller instances, hallways, console players that have a less accurate cursor are at a tremendous disadvantage by not being able to quickly track their units in-motion.
Halo Wars takes a different approach, most reminiscent of the RTSes of old, like Command and Conquer: Red Alert, which makes a tradeoff between total-map management and squad control. Halo Wars generally nudges you to push units forward wholesale, adjusting rally points on the fly, grinding past small squads of enemy units until you reach their base. This design is far more suitable for consoles, simply because it doesn’t require the player to engage in as much precise motion across the entire map, but rather follow groups of units on their path to a goal, base, or control point.
Being a fan of the Halo lore (admit it, you all read the books), I was thrilled at the setting and context of the campaign. Playing it however, it becomes clear that there are very few surprises on par with the other games in the franchise, and within the first few missions, the campaign establishes itself as a muddled mess that is somehow both too simplistic and too confusing. It’s best compared to the travesty that was the Halo 4 campaign (does anyone remember what happened in that game?). In a lot of ways, it’s the same old Halo: content discussed ranges from religious zealotry to rebellion to hope and courage, to “hoo-rah! We’re military guys who do military things!” It won’t engage the part of your brain looking for a thoughtful and contemplative story, but then again, it would be folly to expect such a thing in the first place.
The Spirit of Fire runs into a cabal of heretic/rebel/bad-dudes who have taken control of a sector in the galaxy. You discover that they were banished (they’re literally called The Banished) there by the Covenant in the hope that they wouldn’t destroy everything. Led by a particularly ugly Brute named Atriox, they mean to…break everything? Something like that. You, as a commander, have to break them first. It’s all very straightforward, and it’s nothing that hasn’t been done before.
The campaign has a very “last stand” vibe to it that makes every mission feel like you’re making small steps toward survival rather than overpowering a large army. Which is fine, because it is reminiscent of the stellar XCOM 2 (2016), and it worked so well for that game that I’ve been craving more of that ever since. The missions run with this attitude and often have you either pushing through a map with haste or defending something against a horde of enemies, in classic Halo “firefight” fashion. Both types of missions are enjoyable enough keep you going through the measly 12 missions of the campaign, but no more. A short, 6-or-so hour affair, the campaign offers a couple of side missions and secondary goals, but ends abruptly, which brought back flashbacks of Halo 2 (for the worse). The rest of the game is best played online, as the campaign offers little replay value.
As a side note: the campaign cutscenes are beautifully rendered and simply ooze quality and polish. They are one of the coolest parts of the game, and if you want a reason to complete the campaign after its stale second act, do it for the near-endgame cutscenes. They are fantastic.
Halo Wars 2 clearly takes cues from MOBAs like DOTA and League of Legends in its long, often lane-heavy level design and its ‘defense’ oriented missions, but especially in its novel Blitz mode, which takes a lot of getting used to, and requires a firm understanding that you have stopped playing an RTS and are engaging in something else entirely. The premise of Blitz mode is to unpack cards containing units, weapons and abilities, and bring them to life on the battlefield in an effort to complete a goal against an enemy team (usually capturing points or attrition, or both). It’s fun until it becomes rote, and the built-in system for buying card packs for real money feels cheap and totally unnecessary. It is a mediocre diversion that could have been easily left out of the game without anyone batting an eyelid. But considering the match speed and the ability to try new powers, it’s worth at least giving a shot.
I have the least to say about this because it’s relatively standard (and I didn’t play much of it) but in short, it’s a far more challenging and traditional experience than the campaign, and doesn’t carry over anything from Blitz mode, which is fortunate. This may be the most appealing mode for those looking for a challenge that the short, easy campaign couldn’t offer, but aside from that, it’s hard to see who this mode was meant for. The average player probably won’t spend too much time on this mode before moving on to another title, the RTS enthusiast would probably play a few minutes before realizing there isn’t as much strategy involved as they would hope, and the fan of Halo lore (myself) would see that it doesn’t add anything to the story. The community as of the writing of this review is lively and booming, but come Fall, I doubt there will be much of a following.
Halo Wars 2 is the most well-designed console strategy game to date. Though it is marred slightly by its length and its forgettable alternate game modes, the well thought-out control scheme allows for smooth and refined gameplay that, along with its focus on presentation and cutscenes, make it reminiscent of retro strategy games like Command & Conquer. It is well worth the price of admission for those looking for a quick strategy fix, but won’t offer seasoned veterans of the genre anything new.