Halo Wars 2 is a slick reinvention

It's like, Total Halo War, in a good way!

I have a larger than average soft spot for Halo Wars. I’ve scandalously called it my favorite game in the franchise -- a series that I by no means dislike.

I just think that Halo Wars is a fun and faithful interpretation of the source material as a real-time strategy game - and I’d still go to bat for it as the best console-first RTS of all-time. A position which is only tarnished by just how low a bar that was to clear in 2009, and even today.

That, and the fact that it was more-or-less the last of its kind. Developer Ensemble Studios was ground up shortly after Halo Wars’ release, leaving development of Halo Wars 2 some seven years later up to Creative Assembly. That is, the makers of the grand and sweeping and decidedly not console friendly Total War series.

Any worries that Creative Assembly’s very different pedigree from Ensemble’s would make Halo Wars 2 too grandiose -- too unruly -- for controllers dashed themselves against the rocks of familiarity. Halo Wars 2 is really similar to its predecessor. Right down to the way bases are constructed, units are dispatched, and yes, in the way your disembodied Halo men decree “All units!”

More specifically, this means base construction is still constrained. At least it was during my one-match multiplayer demo. During which I, and my handful of teammates, all played as an identical alien baddie called Atriox.

As Atriox we had access to a bevvy of structures and units straight out of vanilla Halo. Covenant forces like grunts, banshees, and wraiths. Our goal was to contest and conquer multiple points on the map. The more zones we held, the more points we earned as a group.

Whether you know it as “Domination” from Battlefield, or “Control” from Destiny this mode is almost certainly familiar to shooter fans. A comparison that didn’t go unnoticed as I considered Microsoft wants to sell Halo Wars 2 to fans of its flagship FPS.

The wrinkle here was that each zone spawned its own friendly base, from which new units and structures might spawn. That’s an especially huge advantage in Halo Wars 2 since, as in its predecessor, real estate is heavily restricted. Every base is comprised of a central headquarters with five or fewer “slots.” You can fit select whatever foundries for land vehicles, infantry, and air units you prefer, but no more.

That seems like a recipe for, ahem, domination if one team or another takes the early lead. Not only do the fleet-footed begin earning points faster, they have more infrastructure to keep it going. Oh, and every point captured raises your maximum population. So the onus of spreading yourself too thin is entirely on your brain’s ability to process what’s going on.

That does involve more than just moving units from point A to B. While troops don’t have nearly the number of active abilities to memorize as in, say, StarCraft 2 there are hero-specific abilities to cut across the battlefield. This facet is, again, inherited from the first Halo Wars. Down to the Covenant’s Cleansing Beam -- a devastating laser you can draw across your foes from orbit -- a healing field, and suicidal reinforcements to be called on demand. All of which operate on severe cooldowns, and add just enough parallel processes to keep your brain warm.

All of which, together, helped me to fall in love with Halo Wars the better part of a decade ago. A game that is more than the sum of its simplified parts. There’s a part of me glad to see the smaller-than-average armies skirmish their way across a tight field of view reflected almost entirely from the original game. All of it leading to the eventual cracking of enemy bases like exploding eggshells.

Given the moratorium on console RTS games (and the decline of the genre in general) I’m alright with Creative Assembly cribbing from 2009’s playbook. At least on consoles.

The only problem I directly experienced with Halo Wars 2 was trying to wield Covenant forces with a mouse and keyboard. Here the developers seem to have skipped a step. The tighter camera, smaller unit count, slower map scrolling than average is as intentionally tuned for a controller as it was in the first game. That same care doesn’t seem to have filtered into the PC version, where the greater speed and precision of a mouse and keyboard now feels artificially limited.

More than once -- more than a dozen times, really -- I instinctively pulled back on my mouse’s scroll wheel, hoping to pull the camera back to a greater, more comfortable view of the battlefield. Sadly it just wouldn’t budge, being tuned for TVs and analog sticks as it was.

This is a problem new to Halo Wars 2, which finds itself serving two very different masters: Windows 10 and the Xbox One.

Microsoft is playing Parent Trap with its two favorite operating systems, hoping we’ll all show up for the wedding. In theory, I quite like the idea of parity and interconnectivity between PC and the Xbox, but Halo Wars 2 might not be the best early showcase. Not unless Creative Assembly puts the same care into unraveling Ensemble’s near-perfect work to make a version better suited to the PC.

There is a precedent for it. Bioware gave greater tactical command to PC users in Dragon Age: Origins during the same year the original Halo Wars came out. Something which they balanced by bumping up the difficulty for mouse and keyboard wielders.

While I’m not familiar with what goes into making Windows 10 and Xbox One play nice I certainly hope the same solution isn’t impossible here. Then again, maybe there isn’t a good business reason for Microsoft to bother reverse engineering the traditional RTS control scheme. I’m sure the company would be happy to sell controller even to those have don’t have an Xbox.

But maybe not. Maybe we just haven’t seen every trick the developer has up its collective sleeves. After all, there’s still a lot left to see of Halo Wars 2. I got the hang of Atriox pretty quickly, but much of the first game’s lasting appeal came in learning different multiplayer character’s personalities. Not to mention I haven’t seen hide nor hair of the game’s single-player. Which was its own unique and repeatable draw in the first game.

Having seen the spirit and execution of, yes, my favorite Halo game recreated almost perfectly, however, I’m ready to discover what’s left unseen.