I had a chance to sit down for a multiplayer bout of the upcoming real-time strategy title Halo Wars 2 at E3 2016 and came away impressed by game’s strategic depth and gameplay.
The “Strongholds” mode, which has teams vying to control the most strongholds around the game’s map by the end of the match, had been pared down to just fifteen minutes in the interest of allowing as many people to sample it as possible. Teams of three players were automatically assigned, and we were dropped onto a battlefield littered with control points. It looked at first glance to be a relatively mundane real-time strategy experience, but how things played out displayed the depth of tactical play in Halo Wars 2.
First, one of our players experienced a crash that pulled her out of the match. A perfectly viable 3v3 scenario suddenly became an uphill battle, with myself and my teammate as the human UNSC versus the triple threat of Banished players. Inadvertently, developer Creative Assembly had given us the chance to see just how much tactical play would affect the outcome of a scenario. There wouldn’t be leeway for us to simply rush the enemy with the maximum amount of units and hope for the best.
The gameplay coach on hand was encouraging, but you could hear the tinge of disappointment in his tone. I’m sure he wanted to make sure our experience was positive, and we’d just ended up in the most infamous of multiplayer scenarios: one of our teammates had effectively abandoned us. As he gave us a rundown of instructions on how commander abilities and unit composition worked, I started formulating a strategy of my own.
I chose a couple of unadvised scout vehicles to lance the fog of war, hoping that some increased visibility would help us compensate for the sheer number of enemy units that would be flooding our positions. With nine control points on the map, it would be a struggle to hold any for a large amount of time, let alone the majority. With those scouts as my eyes, I then picked long range artillery units in lieu of the tougher, more mobile Rhino tanks. I supplemented these with squads of simple infantry mixed in with a few anti-vehicle rocket units. Meanwhile, my teammate was loading up his population cap with a brute force of heavy machinery.
My scouts coasted around the far end of the map, waiting for an indication of the three Banished armies preparing their assault. As soon as I spotted a unit, my scouts buzzed away. Within moments, it was apparent that the enemy would use their superior numbers to capture and hold the map’s center point, allowing them tactical freedom in their approach to the rest of the map. Confident in their sheer numbers, they left minimal defenses behind them.
My scouts flanked the armies as soon as they passed, capturing every one of the control points nearest the enemy bases, cutting them off from quick reinforcement. While I couldn’t wage a frontal assault on their core bases — those start heavily defended to keep base rushing from ending a game within a minute or two — I could slowly asphyxiate them, nullifying their advantage by making it too costly to send units from HQ to the front.
Right about now, the coach saw what I was doing, and a grin split his face in half. “Oh… I see,” he said over my headset, and returned to guiding my comrade through the deployment of an assault on the central position.
The enemy understood my plan too late. While they were trying to deal with the combined air strikes of their two erstwhile foes, they had neglected the seemingly secure periphery. Their units, exclusively the biggest and strongest available, were too sluggish to match the unbridled agility of my scouts. With my artillery, I could hit them long before they could even turn to face me, and then I was gone again. Any time they went after my artillery with a few units, their lumbering behemoths were ineffective at targeting my scattering infantry. Things were turning, and quickly.
The game proceeded apace. Any time they tried to thwart my guerrilla attacks, my ally would pour tanks into the choke points of their strongest tactical positions. By the time the clock was winding down, they’d finally managed to get their bearings. Unfortunately for them, it was already too late.
As the last seconds ticked away in the match, they controlled one of the nine available control points. The rest of them either belonged to the UNSC or were blackened craters. We’d won, against superior numbers and firepower, two minds against three. With a combination of smart unit composition and tactical creativity, we’d taken our own Kobayashi Maru and come out on top.
I walked out of the demonstration more intrigued with the game than I have been with any real-time strategy title in a long time. It wasn’t just the intuitive control scheme, the simplicity of the modes available, or even the spectacular effects. It was the sense that, with no prior experience, we had been able to use pure strategy to achieve victory. We’d tackled one of the biggest tests of any real-time strategy game: we had defeated a “zerg” with the tools at our disposal.
Aside from some framerate issues that Creative Assembly are already working to optimize, I noticed very little of any concern. Obviously in such a short match, and with pre-fortified bases, it was hard to judge what progression in a longer game would look like. The commander abilities — to heal, reinforce, or supplement our troops with airstrikes or explosives — were quite powerful, but not so much as to nullify unit control. While I didn’t get a chance to try the Banished faction, the UNSC had a bevy of interesting units for a wide variety of tactical encounters.
The game carried the same polished simplicity of a Halo game, even better adapted than the original Halo Wars to console control. I did miss the some of the hallmarks of PC RTS, but fell quickly into rhythms very similar to the phenomenal console edition of Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-Earth II. The gameplay was tight and fast and deceptively complex behind the straightforward presentation.
It was a great experience, and one I’m excited to repeat on release when we’ll have a full review of the game. After the match, we met the other three random journalists to exchange highlights and handshakes. One of them called me a bastard and laughed. I agreed.
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