A new nightmare shakes the Halo universe
Halo Wars 2’s journey starts smooth. It starts slick. It starts with purpose.
The leaders and crew of the deep-space cruiser Spirit of Fire have awakened from a frozen nap several decades after the events of Halo Wars. Their shipboard artificial intelligence software has "lived" so long, her first act after waking the crew is to decommission herself, rather than to cling to duty and risk going insane like others of her kind who didn’t know when to down tools.
As the returning James Cutter (Gideon Emery) and his crew adjust to an unknown present without the wisdom of their talking computer, they discover a new planet. Something draws them down to the surface. Signs of life. Signs of strife.
In just a few blistering seconds of on-screen brutality, the Halo universe’s new deadliest nightmare (voiced by John DiMaggio) turns a cybernetically-enhanced Spartan soldier into a victim so pathetic, you can see the value of human life depreciating before your eyes.
For the first time since Halo 4, almost five years ago, real tension returns to the universe in this first foray back into space after the disappointing Halo 5: Guardians.
Sink or swim, Halo. What will it be?
Cutter rallies his spooked troops with a speech from the Michael Bay playbook. The ship’s new AI, freshly rescued from Atriox’s hell on earth, has experienced too much of the alien warlord's hospitality and is sceptical but, by goodness, you can never underestimate the power of an apple-pie-and-ammo speech from the heart. She is soon won over to the cause, buoyed by a hopeful squad of soldiers whose chances of survival are as slim as their cheers are loud.
It is here, as the game finally begins after some swish cinematography, that Halo Wars 2 chooses its destiny: It sinks under the weight of its two chief elements, plot and execution, each failing to comfortably mesh with the other.
This might be the first time I’ve ever taken inspiration for an entertainment review from an article about economics, but there’s resonance in Bernard Hickey’s Newsroom piece about productivity.
He writes: “More people worked many more hours to increase output. That's not a rock star economy. That's a cover band economy.
“It is the central task of any business or organisation or economy: how to produce more of a product or service (or a better one) with the same amount of resources, particularly the number of hours worked.”
This is the plan in Halo Wars 2, the second real-time strategy adventure in a Halo universe that has expanded widely beyond its humble stride-and-shoot origins. (Let’s quickly acknowledge that Halo was in fact originally conceived in the late 1990s as a strategy game for the Mac.)
The playing experience asks for your patient and steady hand in guiding a band of space marines through this world that’s been crushed under the heel of Atriox and his army of disaffected alien diaspora, called the Banished.
Your view is a third-person overhead perspective, giving you unfolding supervision of a succession of battlefields and the resource opportunities, littered throughout, that will help you to avoid defeat.
If you can secure the supplies and electricity units you need, you can use them to resource production of more of the same – promising you an advantage in what is meant to be a carefully-balanced game of rock, paper, scissors. Ground troops, ground vehicles, and air vehicles have a balance of strengths and weaknesses against each other.
By playing like a productivity rock star, you can overcome the odds by building a well-balanced selection of bases and armies, and guiding your military units to key strategic locations to steal the enemies’ resources and win quickly. You will be rewarded for expedient play.
The trouble with this approach is that it doesn’t propel the adventure forward with the tension that Atriox created when he took a soldier who was supposedly nigh-invincible, and pulped him within seconds. It also doesn’t add up with Cutter’s damn-‘em-all-to-hell attitude. So you might give in to the gung-ho gene, take the cover band option and simply swarm the enemy like so many army ants, mission after mission, using your bases to churn out resources and troops as quickly as the systems permit.
Most of the troops might die and your equipment might crash, you’ll take ten minutes to finish a four-minute job, and you’ll get next to nothing in the way of field commendations. In that way, Halo Wars 2 finds an unadvertised purpose as a modern workplace simulator.
It looks like that Hickey comparison wasn’t so alien after all.
Platforms: Xbox One, Windows
Cast: Nika Futterman, Gideon Emery, John DiMaggio
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Playing time: 10+ hours