There's a player tip in one of Halo Wars 2's loading screens which describes all of its problems quite neatly: "Spend your resources as efficiently as possible, the bigger army often wins." It's a basic statement, but it speaks volumes about the issues at the heart of the game.
Halo Wars 2 is a real-time-strategy title for Halo fans, a premise that is both its strongest advertisement, but also a millstone around its neck - the attachment to Microsoft's blockbuster FPS franchise winning it an audience, but the task of having to make it accessible to both that audience and fans of the RTS genre proves its biggest undoing.
Creative Assembly - in collaboration with Halo gatekeepers, 343 Industries - has created a game that's accessible, action packed, and feels like a valid extension of the Halo "brand". Despite being teeny tiny, the Spartan units under your command during the game's campaign feel like the real deal, leaping up onto screaming Banshees to hijack them, or unleashing the hurt with a Spartan Laser up close. Halo Wars 2 feels almost small-scale, with a lower population cap than many other RTS titles and a camera angle that's almost claustrophobic.
The care and attention put into making sure that this game feels like part of the Halo franchise is incredible, and its campaign is at its strongest when it cribs design notes from its FPS big brother. For example, an early mission has you using a Warthog jeep to escape a desperate situation, rocketing over jumps and sliding around corners while scrambling to an escape, all in a way that will be immediately familiar to those who have sat behind a Warthog wheel in any main series Halo game.
The underlying story of Halo Wars 2's campaign also feels every bit as interesting as one of the numbered entries in the franchise, for better or worse. The Spirit of Fire crew return from the original Halo Wars, waking up after 30 years of cryosleep only to immediately find themselves in the throngs of a big shooty punch-up with a faction of Brutes, the Banished, who have gone rogue from the Covenant.
The big bad here is Atriox, introduced during a cutscene where he takes on three Spartans without too much trouble, establishing himself as a terrific nemesis in one fell swoop. Unfortunately the game promptly forgets about him, as he vanishes for nearly the entirety of the campaign, which is a real missed opportunity. Otherwise, cutscenes are routinely excellent, well-acted and full of all the things you might expect from a Halo game: gruff space soldiers, smart scientists and plucky artificial intelligence avatars.
The campaign itself has 12 missions, with each taking around 30-60 minutes to complete. It is interesting enough, although several levels feel like advanced tutorials, teaching the basics of capturing objectives and other mechanics rather than encouraging any independent thought. The opposition AI is pretty weak on the normal difficulty and is a cakewalk when playing with a mouse and keyboard combo, as being able to easily select and control units makes responding quickly to threats a little too simple. The AI was predictable too, often favouring repeated harassment, hoping to achieve victory via the death of a thousand Grunts instead of tactical mastery. Once you figure out a way to endure these attacks — in 95% of situations, by building turrets around important bases — the threat of this harassment quickly diminishes.
You can find collectible Skulls to act as gameplay modifiers, making it harder, easier or just outright different by activating a mix of them before replaying a level. Unfortunately, the structure of the missions and the relatively by-the-numbers approach means they're often not interesting enough to coax you back for a second run. The first time I guided a team of snipers towards a crashed Pelican transport flight was tense, but I found I had no desire to do that, or any of Halo Wars 2's set pieces, a second time.
The multiplayer offerings of Halo Wars 2 are varied but, in a nod to the franchise's FPS roots perhaps, rarely take very long, and often end in an apocalyptic battle. Multiplayer is where the game is going to find its real longevity, although at the moment the best tactic seems to be building a mob of units and using it smash the enemy to pieces. For those looking to pick sides, tactically both the UNSC and the Banished play similarly, albeit with slightly different units.
However, there aren't really enough units or strategies to offer much complexity in multiplayer, leading to much of the variance coming from the different leaders you can choose in online battles. These leaders all have a different collection of powers for you to use, and although I tried several different heroes I found their power overlaps, with strengths and weaknesses to be an interesting twist, though no one hero felt essential.
There's also a Blitz mode, which plays out like the same game but with several collectible card game elements. I struggled to find games of this on the quiet pre-launch servers, but did enjoy the gameplay deviation of having to build decks to summon units. The mode is laden with some pretty heinous microtransactions however, and the underlying game itself is too shallow to really support deep strategic play.
Note: I reviewed Halo Wars 2 on PC, and tried playing with both an Xbox One controller and a keyboard and mouse. Keyboard and mouse was by far the most responsive way to play, although everything is on a radial menu so you're not too far behind with your controller in hand. However, the Windows 10 version of Halo Wars 2 had some slight stutter when the explosions kicked in, and suffered from some weird control issues.
Halo Wars 2 isn't a bad game, but compared to the wealth of excellent strategy games we've been spoilt by over the last few years, it feels positively ordinary. Exceptionally well-handled Halo fan service obfuscates a mediocre game that doesn't really have any new ideas. Fans of the franchise will appreciate what is here, but RTS buffs will be better served elsewhere.