I've been in a bit of an RTS mood lately, so when the preview event for Halo Wars 2 cropped up I was pleasantly surprised. It was exactly the kind of game I wanted to play, right when I wanted to play it.
And after a few hours with the game's campaign and various multiplayer modes, I walked away reasonably satisfied. But as a StarCraft tragic (and by tragic, I mean someone who had two active accounts in Grandmaster back in the vanilla days), not all is well.
For those unfamiliar with it all, Halo Wars what happened when Microsoft took an absolute flier and paid the Age of Empires developers (Ensemble Studios) to make a RTS that was available on Xbox and PC. It ended up being the last game Ensemble would ever make, with Microsoft moving to shut down the studio before the game was even released.
Unsurprisingly, Halo Wars 2 has a lot of ground to make up.
Whether you're playing on PC or console, the basic building blocks are the same. Your main base starts with four slots for main buildings, ranging from resource-creating generators to barracks, the Halo Wars equivalent of a helipad, and so on. As you upgrade your main base, the number of slots expands. You'll find smaller outposts across the map that let you build expansions, which can be upgraded as well.
Macromanagement is pretty simple: while you're required to build harvesters and generators, resources are generated automatically with extras found either lying around the map or at various capture points. It makes Halo Wars 2 mostly a combat-focused game, something that is typically a lot easier to manage with a mouse than it is an Xbox One controller. That's entirely fine - it makes a lot more sense for consoles, it fits the theme of Halo as an RTS and it's fitting for the direction the genre has gone in the last decade anyway.
But it also means each of the game's modes can be affected by the same problem: lag.
Despite having eight PCs connected in the same room, matches were running (quite evidently) through a server in the United States. You don't notice the latency when playing vs AI or in the campaign, but it's a primary source of frustration in multiplayer - especially in the opening moments of Blitz matches.
Blitz is a bit of a strange mode in the sense that it's a bit of a guessing game. As you can see in the clip above, you have a select number of cards drawn from a pre-made (or custom) deck of "cards". Each card costs a certain amount of energy to play, although you can cycle them out for a minuscule fee if necessary. But given that the whole mode is about holding capture points, similar to Strongholds, winning those early fights are crucial - since it means you'll be able to move slightly forward, granting you the vision to see what units the enemy is deploying next (and consequently staying a step ahead).
But it's impossible to understate just how important micro is to the whole experience. Being able to duck individual units in and out of the action, establishing a superior firing arc, or cutting off an enemy's flank at the right time, are all standard things advanced RTS players will want to do.
I smite thee
That aside, RTS fans should enjoy most of the mechanics on show. A lot of them are borrowed directly over from the original Halo Wars, which makes sense given the need to design around a controller. Building units and structures, or using your leaders' special powers, is all done through a radial select menu, although the look has been touched up for 2017.
The basic scissors-paper-rock formula is here too: infantry get flattened by vehicles, which generally lose out to anti-air. There's specialists in each of the three types - suicide squads, anti-air vehicles, and so on. Strongholds doesn't change the formula much apart from maxing out your resources and giving you an expanded population cap whenever you capture an outpost; think of it like Big Game Hunters for Halo Wars 2.
Blitz is the real wild card: it's basically the Clash Royale mode, where your armies are determined by a pre-built deck. Each of the leaders has a different starting army and different powers/troops they can deploy, and after each game you'll earn card packs that - surprise! - can also be bought with real money. I'll cover that a bit more later, but beyond the deck construction and the cycling of cards, the game plays out largely the same.
I'm looking forward to playing Halo Wars 2. That's partially because I wanted a new strategy game anyway, but also because there's enough common mechanics borrowed from the annals of RTS games that everything is immediately familiar.
But as someone who tried to play StarCraft 2 seriously - I won't say professionally, because that's a supreme insult to the skill of the Australians and friends of mine who have - it's hard not to get a little frustrated with where Halo Wars 2 might end up.
Remember, Halo Wars 2 isn't launching on Steam, or GOG, or Origin, or any other third party service that gamers are accustomed to using. It's launching on Xbox One (which has enjoyed a resurgence in 2016, but still nowhere near the PS4) and the Windows Store. The latter has improved as an experience with time - you can choose what drive you want to install games on now - but it's nowhere near as popular as Steam, and that's a problem for a game relies on matchmaking for online multiplayer.
So any Australians devoted enough to pick up Halo Wars 2 on PC - and if you're an RTS nut, chances are that's where you're playing - will probably end up playing against Americans or Europeans. The latency alone will make micromanagement a pain, and considering the game's multiplayer is so heavily weighted towards combat it raises a serious issue.
But come February 28, we'll see. And look on the bright side: after several months, Quantum Break eventually launched on Steam (with a DirectX 11 version to boot).