The Halo Wars games are built on compromise. On one hand, you have the fantasy of commanding an army of UNSC Marines. On the other, you have the reality of trying to play an RTS game with a console controller. The first game for Xbox 360 felt like hamstrung concept - enjoyable but unexciting, fun but lacking tactical depth.
It's a compromise many were hoping Halo Wars 2 (opens in new tab) would address, especially with Total War studio Creative Assembly handling a larger portion of development responsibilities. But one thing Microsoft, Halo franchise stewards 343 Industries, and Creative Assembly are all adamant about: this is not Total War: Halo Edition.
That's not to say Halo Wars 2 doesn't feel like an improvement. Even at this early stage, it's obvious there's more strategic depth for hardcore RTS veterans, while those who don't know their vespene gysers from their additional pylons can still have fun.
Part of that is inherent in the game being designed for both Xbox One as well as PC. It means those who desire more precise controls can use their keyboard and mouse, while those content to watch a battalion of Scorpions steamroll some alien face will likely be satisfied with a controller in hand.
But developer Creative Assembly stresses that it's not just control schemes that will broaden the game's appeal. Maps are now more open, giving players a direct-to-objective path as well as side quests and optional routes. Multiplayer features a traditional Deathmatch mode where you must build up your armies from scratch, but also a Strongholds mode where you begin with fully-upgraded units and bases.
There are two other multiplayer modes coming with Halo Wars 2 as well; Domination and Blitz. If you're playing the public beta which is currently available, you'll get a taste of the former. The latter is being kept under wraps for now.
It's the Strongholds mode that Microsoft brought to E3, and I found myself surprised at how comfortable I was jumping into the fray. There's a plethora of options and strategies to keep in mind, such as special abilities unique to the various commanders in the game, a variety of infantry, vehicle, and air units that can be called in, and objectives to control. But Halo Wars 2 makes the mayhem manageable, with quick shortcuts and smart button mapping to keep things from feeling overwhelming.
Playing as the new faction The Banished (a collective of exiled Covenant species dominated by Brutes), I quickly overwhelmed my enemies and helped my team secure the map's objectives. There are new vehicles, new infantry units, and new strategies to explore, and it'll take much more than a 10-minute floor demo for a decisive verdict on how well these new elements mesh with the foundation laid by the original Halo Wars.
For now, I'm content to say that if you want micromanagement-style gameplay, Halo Wars 2 is doing a better job of giving you that satisfaction. If you want to unleash your armies and overwhelm the battlefield, it's got that too. Either way, it feels like the compromise between the RTS genre staples and console considerations of the first game has been re-negotiated for the better.