Real time strategy has returned to the Halo universe with the follow up sequel to the very popular Halo Wars, now with 343 Industries at the helm of this new endeavour which sees the return of the UNSC Spirit of Fire that mysteriously arrives at the Forerunner installation known as the Ark. The Hype Train assess if this bold new journey was worth your time and money, or if you were better off staying in cryo-sleep for better things to wake you up.
SPOILER ALERT: During this article, there might (will be) be some revelations as to the storyline of Halo Wars 2. If you like to tease yourself with the plot details before playing the game then you’re in the right place, but if you are like us at The Hype Train and want to keep it clean then we recommend you finish the campaign and return here where this article won’t ruin your day.
Now that the semantics are done with where do we start?
The original Halo Wars happened so long ago on the gaming calendar that you can apologise for not remembering it when it dropped on the Xbox 360 nearly eight years ago, in the cold echelons of a bygone era, February 2009. Loved by a community of gamers for its great storytelling and wide scope, the original Halo Wars relied on a rock-paper-scissors unit deployment game mode that tested player’s capabilities in an engrossing campaign and addictive multiplayer. Halo Wars was the final game and swan song of Ensemble Studios, and for many years’ players have cried out for a sequel.
Eight years. Eight long years. That's how long it took us to get Halo Wars back.
The campaign drops you right into the thick of it, with the MIA warship Spirit of Fire being transported to the Ark. Serena, the AI from the previous instalment, laying the groundwork as her transmission to Captain James Cutter lets him know of her rampancy and decommissioning. The general aesthetics have considerably improved right from the off, you’d expect them to after eight long years of gaming absence; the tone much darker, and the overall mood less optimistic than the original game. Cutter takes centre stage as he must lead what is left of his crew on a suicide mission against Atriox, Halo Wars 2 most heavily marketed character. 343i promised a much more enriching campaign in the sequel, a story focused on two leaders struggle over the Ark, as Dan Ayoub kept alluding in the promotional story Vidoc exploring the creation of the game that “RTS players have higher expectations from story and we wanted to make sure we did this in the strongest way possible.”
What you are told you are getting by the developers and what you get when the games finally ships are now normally two different things in the year 2017. During the promotional marketing for the campaign of the lukewarm Halo 5: Guardians it was 343i who ramped themselves up, and we wish they didn’t because there are some similarities about the way they confused expectations of the loyal Halo fans in the name of their own profit. We were told that we were getting a comprehensive Master Chief story in Halo 5: Guardians, and we were told that we would get a full perspective of the Brute known as Atriox in Halo Wars 2. Unfortunately, neither materialised in the way that the game had marketed itself. 343i have a bad habit of doing this now, so eyebrows will be raised ahead of their next project.
This may not be the most obvious thing to ordinary customers of the game, but you may be one of the many players that were surprised with Halo Wars 2 delivery of the promises made by the developer. Instantly there are trust issues with the selling of the game that do matter when you are playing it which we will relate throughout this review, the expectation for Halo Wars 2 was huge, but the biggest critique we can offer for this game is that you will be left wanting more from it when it is over. Halo Wars 2 doesn’t scratch the eight-year itch you’ve been carrying. Atriox is the biggest indicator of this, a new and exciting character who we really wanted to sink our teeth into. Hailed as this brilliant strategist and warmonger who has the capability of dispatching an entire unit of Spartan-II’s with his bare hands.
Post-launch what we get when the dust is settled is the simple question of: Where was he during the campaign? Atriox, the cover star of this feature is rarely seen or heard of outside of the first two cut-scenes of the entire game, and when he is in shot he doesn’t do anything that makes you think he is this exciting new character, and just actually chump meat for the UNSC grinder. There is a real big fear that he could be the new Jul’ Mdama in waiting, at the first chance he could be put to sleep to make way for a bigger enemy. The levels of injustice to the character are immeasurable, and when you complete the game it doesn’t feel the same having beaten a foe who pretty much was non-existent, the level of challenge doesn’t feel as great because they didn’t invest in the Atriox character as they should have done.
Having built up the feud with Red Team and teasing a second fight all we get is foreshadowing with no payoff, everyone wanted to see round two between the Spartans and Atriox but it looks like the paying fans will be made to wait for a comic book series where Red Team have their revenge on the Brute. The serious irk of many Halo fans is the overabundance of new media associated with the extended universe which dilutes the game purpose, with the story progressing light years ahead of the games ever reach, so by the time Halo Wars 3 comes about there may not be an Atriox to speak of anymore. Didact, anyone?
Was Halo Wars 2 a story fit for the extended universe?
The impact of cliff-hangers is exhausting and frustrating for players who have just dedicated time and money into the game, and there are two phrases that just make many either tune out or tune in, ‘DLC’, and ‘Sequel’. Let’s however rewind to the beginning, the moment where Halo Wars 2 kicked off. Mysteriously at the Ark the crew and survivors of the UNSC Spirit of Fire find themselves at another Forerunner installation, and just like before there are aliens there waiting to kill them. This, ladies and gentlemen is Halo. Stepping into the unknown and beating up aliens is exactly what the fans of the series want, and from a campaign point of view it is what you get delivered. The journey is very parallel to that of the original Halo…you wake up from cryosleep, you assess the beauty of the Forerunner creations, and you get forced to walk on its surface to find your way home.
Veteran Halo fans should appreciate this nice touch, a reminder of the days when Halo was about humans exploring the unknown and running into a horde of aliens that scream upon your arrival. A central plotline revolving around the control of the Ark and its Cartographer, Control Room, and Portal network is very much how Halo: Combat Evolved played out. There is even a mission where you must board a Covenant cruiser with just a Spartan and his trusty AI going up the purple gravity beam to get the memory banks working into overdrive on how much nostalgia is packed into this game. You even get abused by local Sentinels for trespassing where you shouldn’t be, the only thing missing from this game to make it even more like Halo: CE is a tinny sounding Monitor and terrifying Library mission; add that and you have a one-way ticket all the way back to the year 2001.
The games conclusion saw no real satisfaction, it is the George R. R. Martin of gaming excuses, and you spend more time in anticipation of a major event than experiencing it. Every good story must have the core principals of a beginning, middle, and an end. Halo Wars 2 does not offer an essence of completion, and if you love lukewarm vague endings and repetitive teasing then you will love every second of it. This was a Halo story at heart, that can’t be taken from this title, but lacking any real depth has hurt its status as of an ‘epic campaign’ as originally marketed.
Where’s Waldo? The Curious Case of Halo Wars 2 Cinematics
The story was largely delivered in short load pages between missions, with dialogue linking together the story from mission to mission. We don't want to be 'them guys', but it was an incredibly lazy approach to take, especially after the original Halo Wars had a cut-scene at the end of every mission. Fans of the Halo appreciate and love the cinematic experience given to them, not all of them were particularly long, but without them the story wouldn't have been any good. This is such an important factor behind our review of Halo Wars 2 because during the entire middle section of the game there isn't a cut-scene for a good six to seven missions, only the clunky load screens which in our eyes were just mission briefs. The game felt tediously rolled into one package when you get into a good flow of the game, and it is disappointing considering the fact that you are at the Ark and most of the character’s stories haven't been told. Twelve missions, six cinematic sequences, and then a post-credits scene with Anders to force the issue of the Guardians. You could very easily cut out the entire middle section and go straight to the Control Room mission without interruption.
What we do get from the cinematic experience is of top quality, the graphical representation of the story is beautiful and we pay homage to the incredible scene above the Ark during the fight between the Spirit of Fire and Enduring Conviction. Seeing all the Sentinel's attack the Banished carrier was breath-taking and dare we say it one of the best cinematics’ out of the entire Halo catalogue. This was reminiscent of Eric Nylund's Halo: Ghosts of Onyx where you get to read about the Onyx Sentinels protecting the Forerunner shield world in equal number, and it is a testament to the quality of cinematics’ in Halo Wars 2 to be able to capture that type of imagination so vividly. That is why it pains us in this review to criticise it so openly, as great and eye-catching the cut-scenes where they were few and far between, and a total lack of investment to create more for this feature was evident. Halo fans are used to regular doses of cinematics, normally at the end of each level. 343i are trying to move away from that for some unknown reason, they pulled the same stunt in Halo 5: Guardians and only wanted to invest in cinematics’ when it was absolutely necessary. This is Halo, and that standard isn't good enough for those who have stuck around long enough. Halo Wars 2 suffers because of it, what is on show is incredible, but it is drip fed and told when only necessary, not because it should be. That is lazy storytelling and leaves very little meat on the bone to chew on, a sour aftertaste is left in our mouths after the first playthrough because we were expecting more, and the games beautiful craftsmanship deserved better than to be hollowed out so brutally.
Perfection was not asked for, but the effort to deliver a legitimate Halo Wars experience was. A major staple of that requirement was investing in the story but it was abundantly clear that this was not the top priority, the game didn't even offer a suitable ending. In hindsight, you must really question what you have been sold as contrary to the belief of 343i the majority of fans play Halo for the story, not the multiplayer.
Halo Wars 2: Cast & Characters
A good story is told through the characters who were central to the plot of the game, and the Halo universe is full of so many colourful characters to pick on. Halo Wars 2 has plenty of them on show and we rank their performance in this highly-anticipated sequel.
The Halo universe has introduced its new ‘good’, Isabel; and whilst at the beginning her dialogue and reaction to Captain Cutter frustrated the plotline she turned out to be a good addition to the universe. As the story progressed it redeemed the character when she took out the Covenant carrier in what was the moment of the entire campaign. At first it appeared as if the AI character who was meant for logistics was easy to be swayed by the words of a long-forgotten Captain Cutter, ended up finding herself in a leading role against the Banished.
The biggest atrocity of the game was the underutilised Atriox, so much of the marketing was about the Brute kingpin and you really don’t get to see or hear a lot of him throughout the entire game. Really does feel like a kick in the teeth for all the fans excited to see him brutalise the Spirit of Fire. Along with Cutter he was the main focal point of the marketing for this game, and he is there when he MUST be and that is it, with such a limited presence it is a bit dissatisfying come the finale. Atriox could have made a last stand against Red Team, a second encounter, a beautiful arc for the game to end with, but no.
Red Team (10/10)
The Spartan contingent known as Red Team were the standout performers in the campaign, they were the focus of the whole thing and the evolution of their characters was a nice touch. You lived the campaign through the Spartans, and most of the cut-scenes featured them. Jerome among all others was the best addition, his moment with Isabel on the Enduring Conviction was a real showcase to behold, harkening to a time when AI and Spartan were friends and not enemies like Chief and Cortona.
Ellen Anders (4/10)
We weren’t sure what they were going to do with Anders now Forge was dead, but she became an integral part of the campaign towards the end. Anders appeared very generic and a one-dimensional persona however; representing a straight arrow shooting character, Anders was a stark contrast to her role in the original. She was used to push and anchor the story through to its ultimatum, forcing the storylines of Halo 5: Guardians and Halo Wars 2 regrettably together.
Captain Cutter (8/10)
Exactly everything we thought and a bit more of the stalwart Captain of the UNSC Spirit of Fire. Cutter’s character was followed through from the marketing for the game and they didn’t let down in this being one of the most legitimate Halo characters they have ever made, very Keyes-esque.
Campaign MVP: Red Team's Jerome
Jerome was the heart of the game, the Spartan responsible for pretty much the success of their plans on the Ark. A commendation is also awarded to Alice who had a significant chunk of the game dedicated to her, and even Douglas made the perfect impact upon his return to make Red Team feel like a legitimate force in the UNSC.
OVERAL CAMPAIGN RATING: 6/10
After a long, drawn out marketing campaign to psych you up for the final release Halo Wars 2, despite its flaws, is a real positive success for Creative Assembly and 343 Industries. This rating doesn't figure in the multiplayer element but just from the experience of playing through the campaign element that was available on launch. The gameplay is thoroughly engaging and the real winner for this new chapter in the Halo universe, albeit a little easy on normal and heroic difficulties. Planning how to use your resources and engage the Banished is very rewarding and quite fun. The narrative is largely told through the involvement of Red Team and is a real lifeline for this game, they have elevated their Spartan contingent to noteworthy roles since the original where they were very much just pieces to your army, but in Halo Wars 2 they take a starring role and it pays off as their involvement drives the story along nicely. By the end of the game we wanted to see more of Red Team and how their story would play out, which is also the main problem that stops Halo Wars 2 from being a great Halo game.
The conclusion of the game which sees a frustrating cliff-hanger with two separate stories emerging, one being the ongoing conflict between the UNSC Spirit of Fire and the Banished, the other being Ellen Anders encounter with an intercepted Guardian in a post-credit scene (don't even get us started on that). Only more questions than answers exist in the end, an undesirable ending considering the hype for the game which is now wasted upon its audience. Political endings to games in this manner are never remembered fondly and Halo fans will remind you of the disappointment of Master Chief's ending in Halo 2.
A co-op campaign looks to add value to this with the added dimension of teamwork making missions more tactically imposed. Legendary difficulty with the option of adding skulls would most certainly enhance the challenge and be rewarding for the hardcore RTS enthusiasts. There is plenty of room for this game to cement itself over time, it is just a shame there are so many things holding it back.
The truth about this game is that it leaves you wanting more from what has been presented and is the Achilles heel of Halo Wars 2. The main disappointment comes from the fact that players won't be disappointed with the cliff-hanger ending and wanting more from the story in the next instalment, but in what they had experienced wasn't enough to warrant the ending to the game in the first place. Should the campaign have fulfilled the original expectations then perhaps a follow up title would be justifiable, but it just isn't good enough as the game doesn't provide any closure on the fate of the crew of the Spirit of Fire and is more geared up at bringing together the story with the aftermath of Halo 5: Guardians. There was no real satisfaction by completing the game and it will have put a lot of people down, it did for us. After an enjoyable experience and having a lot of fun playing the campaign the lack of conclusion is a massive body blow to those who invested their time into the game. Granted, there will be players geared towards the multiplayer aspect but from day one every game in the Halo universe is based on its central story line and it quite simply wasn't good enough once the dust had settled in Halo Wars 2. We'll refer to Atriox who is standing there frustrated at the ‘finale’, overlooking his army, and we feel as if we can resonate with the Brute who now must patiently wait and try again.
About the Writer (@TheHypeTrainSam)
Sam has been playing Halo since its launch back in 2001 and is an avid fan of the original Bungie series. His favourite Halo game in the series is Halo: Reach, his favourite character is former ODST Edward Buck, his favourite mission is the finale of Halo: Combat Evolved. And lastly, he is most critical of Spartan Ops as seen in Halo 4, and praises the death scene of the Prophet of Truth during Halo 3 as the most pivotal part of the entire story.