Yes, the folks at 343 Industries decided to give me an early copy of Halo Wars 2 (the Ultimate Edition, no less) – which, as you would probably expect, I am ecstatic about!
It’s been eight years (eight long years) since the original game launched Halo into the RTS genre for consoles, which, at the same time, sort of brought the series back to its roots from its earlier iterations as an RTS title. As I’ve previously discussed, I really love the original Halo Wars, and having fully played through the campaign for the sequel now I’m excited to share some of my thoughts on the next chapter of the Spirit of Fire’s journey.
WARNING: This post contains spoilers for some aspects of the first four missions, including two cutscenes – both of which have been prominently featured in the game’s marketing since it was announced, so these are only minor. There is also brief mention of the Phoenix Logs, as well as vague tonal/thematic statements about the game as a whole. All images used are from officially released trailers and previews.Before we get into the meat of this preview, let’s talk a bit about how Halo Wars 2’s story has been set up and marketed, and how that’s reflected in the way the campaign ‘feels’.
Halo Wars 2 feels very much like a marriage between Halo CE and Halo 4, the former of which we’ve been told by Kevin Grace (narrative director) to be intentional.
“We probably took most inspiration from Halo CE, frankly, as far as the tone and the arc and how contained things are and the thread.” [Kevin Grace, Gamespot interview – 13/6/2016]
The story itself is more reflective of Halo 4, but the way it’s told has more of the ‘military campaign’ style of Halo CE, with these two commanders – Cutter and Atriox – acting and reacting to each other in their tug-of-war over gaining control of the Lesser Ark. The way it looks is more akin to Halo CE as well. A lot of the artwork for the Banished (the UNSC too, but the Banished especially) really reminds me of early Halo CE concept art which lends a stylistic sense of authenticity to the way in which the Banished are visually established as part of this setting.
The basic set-up for the plot is the same as Halo 4: a ship adrift in space with its crew, having been out of the setting during a significant period of time, suddenly awakening.
The type of setting is the same: focused on a singular (Forerunner) location which is detached from the main events of the galaxy.
The emotional core of the story is centred around an AI character and some sense of loss that defines their actions in the game.
And, obviously, there’s a central, major antagonist who is the leader of a new faction.
Frank O’Connor also assured us back in the SDCC 2016 panel for Halo Wars 2 that there are ‘plans’ for Lesser Ark going forward – that it will not be destroyed at the end of the game. It seems that, after four years, a new idea that doesn’t involve throwing a major Forerunner setting into the sun (or blowing it up) has come up. I’m grateful for that. Snark aside, it’s clear from having played through the campaign that criticism of the last few Halos (particularly Halo 5) has absolutely shaped the way in which 343 and Creative Assembly approached this project.
That’s what I think people will enjoy about Halo Wars 2: its simplicity.Where previous entries have had the recurring criticism of being so heavily steeped in the mythology and lore to the point that the more casual audience has trouble engaging with the story, that is absolutely not the case with Halo Wars 2.
This is the ‘ice-breaker’ Halo game of 343’s run. If you’re a newcomer to the series, or you’ve been out of it for a while and want to jump back in, you can hop on with this game without scratching your head in confusion at plot points and character beats mired in complexity. People who know me, who know that my home is in the thickness of that complexity, might be scratching their heads as to why I’m so approving of this…
Honestly, I kind of find it refreshing – particularly after Halo 5, which I’m sure many of you know my thoughts about. A return to this simple, winning formula of storytelling feels absolutely warranted. And those of us who are into the deeper lore aren’t excluded either, as each mission contains a number of collectible items knows as Phoenix Logs – which were briefly discussed in the last issue of Canon Fodder.
Similar to its predecessor’s collectible Black Boxes, which unlocked Timeline entries in the game’s menu, the Halo Wars 2 Phoenix Logs are accessible from the game’s campaign menu and contain codex entries that are unlocked by both feats of completion as well as collection. These entries cover a pretty wide swath of units, characters, and other yummy universe-related tidbits. You’ll learn everything from details on function to yet-unrevealed backstory bits, so get ready to jump in and start collecting them all! [Canon Fodder: Log of War, Issue #97]
This was honestly one of the highlights of the game for me.
In fact, I implore 343 to consider making this a standard feature for all future titles. Halo CE Anniversary’s Library might have been a Kinect exclusive thing, but it was an awesome idea and feature that could potentially be implemented into the gameplay of the series itself – with the Artemis Tracking System, one could simply push a button on the d-pad to activate a scanning mode and log details about certain characters, vehicles, weapons, environments, and so on.
The codex in Halo Wars 2 is split into nine sections, encompassing a wide variety of things. The first eight sections are split between details about different portions of the Ark, some of the backstory for the major characters and setting, lore tidbits for individual units on both the UNSC and Banished’s forces. That’s all good stuff…
But it’s the ninth section that you’ll want to pay the most attention to.
These essentially take the form of short stories, encompassing a wide variety of little tales you’ll come across as you scour each mission for the Phoenix Logs (I missed a couple on my first run though, so I’ll be going back to find them after finishing this post). From one-off pieces, such as a notice of complaint made by a Jiralhanae commander about typical Unggoy disobedience, to a thread of ONI communiques spanning a period of years regarding what Atriox has been up to over the Halo universe’s timeline… this is where the bulk of Halo Wars 2’s more complex narrative material is located.
As Grim posted in the Log of War issue of Canon Fodder, the first set of logs focus on Nathaniel J. Palmer who is a researcher at the Henry Lamb Research Facility – for those of you who have read Hunters in the Dark, the name Henry Lamb ought to ring a few bells. In fact, there’s more than a few under-handed references made to previous fiction here and there. Palmer reflects on the excitement and drive that the research teams are feeling, having come out of the other side of the Human-Covenant war not only as survivors but victors, and now they have the chance to take a breath and investigate this grand mystery of the Forerunners…
Until, of course, the Banished arrive, and their hope (quite literally) turns to ashes.These logs tie into the main game as well, as Nathaniel Palmer was one of the people who worked with Isabel – the game’s central AI character. She’s very much the heart of Halo Wars 2’s story, similar to how Cortana was in Halo 4, but there’s a rather interesting twist on how her arc plays out.
I mentioned before that Halo Wars 2 is still very much built on the commonly recurring thematic motifs that define a lot of 343’s fiction.
One of those themes is revenge.
Typically, we tend to see Halo’s antagonistic characters in-pursuit of (or motivated by, to some degree) revenge. The Ur-Didact, Jul ‘Mdama, the Gravemind, Parangosky, and many other characters have had this on their to-do list at various points in the series. It has become a bit overly expected and frustrating to see antagonists have their motives and logic simplified to such a degree at times, but Halo Wars 2 does something a little more interesting by having one of ‘the good guys’ be motivated by revenge instead.
Isabel thinks of the people she served with as her family, you get a glimpse of that in the Phoenix Logs but also at several points in the game – including one awesome, climactic scene that has been shown in a couple of trailers thus far.
The Banished came to the Ark and steamrolled their way over the human presence there, wiping out the people who Isabel felt affection and a duty of care towards. Naturally, she wants to watch Atriox burn for that. She’s recovered by the Spirit of Fire and they become her new ‘family’, in a sense, who are likewise set against Atriox.
She’s not a combat AI, she’s somebody who handles logistics and resources. She’s very much out of her depth when we meet her and I’ve got to give huge congratulations to Erika Soto – the actress who portrays her – because her performance really manages to elevate the character from her first scene all the way through to the end.
When you’ve got a story that’s simple in the way that Halo Wars 2 is, you’ve really got to fall back on the performance of your actors to lend the right kind of emotional weight to their characters because that’s one of the three main pillars of what stories are driven by.
This is particularly important for an RTS, where the storytelling is very different to an FPS in that it relies a whole lot more on dialogue and text-based logs. You’ve really got to make the performance count and I think that’s one of the definitive aspects of this game in how it articulates its story – the voice and mo-cap actors (the latter of which includes the marvellous Courtney Munch and Damion Poitier from Halo 2 Anniversary) did a fantastic job.
Let’s be honest, the Spirit of Fire cast in the original Halo Wars was great (strong performances, a fun dynamic between them, and so on), but they did very much fit into rather archetypal roles. While Halo Wars 2 doesn’t necessarily overhaul that, it feels like there’s at least a little bit more going on because the core of the story is driven by two opposing characters (Isabel and Atriox) who both want something. While we’ve got this CE-inspired military campaign going on as the main way in which the gameplay set-pieces are presented, the story is still driven by characters who are doing more than just reacting to a move the other makes.
There’s definitely a lot more that I’m going to properly analyse when the game is out and I’m working on the full analysis…While we’re on the subject of great performances and the Reclaimer Saga’s central themes, I’ve got to at least talk briefly about Gideon Emery’s portrayal as Cutter as well.
Yes, I said ‘Cutter’. I resisted the urge to say ‘IsoCutter’ because Emery has more than proven himself worthy of picking up on this character. And I’m not just talking about those two godly live action advertisements… Emery portrays Cutter in the game with a believable drive and passion that just wasn’t really present in the first game. Cutter was quite cool and collected in Halo Wars 1, despite how off-the-chain some of the things that were happening were, but he’s come out the other side with more of an emotional dimension informed by certain personal losses we see in the original Halo Wars game and the semi-recently released Tales From Slipspace (specifically, the story Something Has Happened – which I’m still a bit salty over, to be honest).
There’s a moment very early in the game where Isabel tells Cutter that they need to run from Atriox and the Banished. As far and as fast as they can. They just have no hope standing against this titan who made his own stand against the Covenant at the height of its power and succeeded…
Cutter, though, has faced some of the worst things that Halo’s setting has to offer. And he responds with this awesome rallying speech that neatly encompasses three of the four major thematic motifs of the Reclaimer Saga:
“We are just one ship… and an old one at that. But here we are. Thirty years past what anyone could ask of us.
Our war is gone. The lives we had are gone. The worlds we knew have moved on. And now, all that we may have left are those standing beside us and the duty that defines us – battle after battle, fighting side-by-side together.
Where you see half a crew, Isabel, I see family, courage, and a thousand heroes who swore to fight their way through hell before they’d ever turn their backs and run.
And where you see one old ship… I see home. And that is always worth fighting for!
If we don’t stop Atriox now, we leave the galaxy at the mercy of a monster. So no, Isabel. We won’t be running anywhere today.”
Duty. Family. Home.
This is really well-reflected in the dynamic between the Spirit of Fire crew, even the Spartan-II characters of Red Team (Alice, Douglas, and Jerome) are given ample material to work with in the game. Alice in particular has become one of my favourite Spartans, voiced by Nika Futterman (who you may recognise as Asajj Ventress’ voice actress in The Clone Wars), she leads two of my favourite missions in the campaign – only one of which I can talk about, which I’ll get to in a bit.
My criticism, though, is that this dynamic doesn’t extend to Atriox and the Banished as much as it really should…In the original Halo Wars, you never played as the Covenant during the campaign, but you often cut to their perspective to see their side of the story and how the plot reached its moments of confluence. I praised this in my rumination piece on the original Halo Wars because it made Ripa ‘Moramee a very different kind of antagonist to any we’d seen before.
But if you’re going into Halo Wars 2 hoping to see that done with the Banished, I would advise that you drop that from your list of expectations. For the sake of not putting yourself in a position where you’re going to be disappointed, you will not see Atriox as often as you’d like, which is unfortunate because what we do see of him is really good stuff and it just leaves you wanting more.
That’s how I’m quite sure you’ll all be feeling by the time you finish the campaign. You will be staring at the screen and wanting more, and I mean that in both a positive and negative way.
Atriox and the Banished offer an interesting parallel to the thematic triad of duty, family, and home.
Their duty was to the Covenant, but they threw off the chains that had them sent on suicide missions time after time to break the front lines and formed their own alliance
(with blackjack, and Unggoy hookers!) where their duty was going to be decided on their own terms.
Thus, a somewhat dysfunctional family was born. You’ve got Atriox, the visionary, strategic, and intelligent leader for his people. Decimus, the ‘traditional’ Jiralhanae who represents the old way of things and respects strength above all else. And Let ‘Volir, a Sangheili Shipmaster who doesn’t really fit in, but, like Cutter, values his crew above all else. Let will commit every cultural taboo in Sangheili society and subject himself to the shame of serving under a Jiralhanae in order to keep his people safe.
That is a hell of an interesting set-up for these characters and it demands that we see the dynamic between them actually play out. Just… don’t expect to see a whole lot of it.
Don’t expect to see the story play out like it did in the original Halo Wars, as it’s far more driven by gameplay than it is by cutscenes. For the most part, that’s fine, but when it comes to introducing this new faction into the series it really does seem detrimental – particularly with how Atriox was built up in the marketing. It’s nowhere near as dishonest as Halo 5, but it does leave a lot to be desired in that regard. And… this is a strange thing to say, but I’m glad that Halo Wars 2’s issues are its own, rather than being caught up in the singularity effect Halo 5 had.
On that note: If you, like me, were not the biggest fan of Halo 5 and are concerned as to how much that game’s events might influence Halo Wars 2’s story… Don’t be. That’s all I’ll say on that.
Maybe the future campaign DLC will remedy this problem with the Banished to some degree, but it’s my biggest disappointment with the game. I’m sure that there’s a bunch of reasons behind the scenes as to why this ended up being the way it is – undoubtedly the folks at 343 and Creative Assembly wanted to do more – but this is unfortunately the way it is.
In summation: It feels like you don’t really get to Know Your Enemy™However, Halo Wars 2 more than makes up for its insubstantial balance of perspectives with a hell of an intense campaign gameplay experience. I alluded to this earlier when I talked about Alice-130’s role in the game…
Red Team encounters Atriox at the Henry Lamb Research Facility at the start of the game – we’ve all seen this scene numerous times in the trailers.
When we last saw Red Team, they were decimating an army of Sangheili at the Apex site of Shield-0459. And now, at the start of this game, we see the three of them overpowered with ease by Atriox – a single Jiralhanae. This is not only something we’ve not really seen before, but it brilliantly sets the tone for the rest of the campaign as this tug-of-war for the Ark plays out between the UNSC and the Banished.
As Red Team makes their retreat, Alice decides to stay behind to give Jerome and the critically injured Douglas a chance to escape. This plays out in the form of in-game vignettes, which are a lot more common in this game to set the table for how the missions progress. As an aside: these scenes actually slightly remind me of Haggar (the criminally cancelled Mega Bloks Halo game that we learned about recently)…
From that point, the Spartan-II family is effectively split up. Alice is on her own, fighting the Banished with guerrilla tactics, which is where the fourth mission of the game – titled One Three Zero – picks up.
It’s a mission that very much feels akin to playing as the Master Chief in the original trilogy where you have to rescue a captured group of Marines (by the way, the diversity of the units in this game is a really awesome touch and lends a whole lot of character to them), but articulated in a totally different genre. I was concerned that this wouldn’t translate over well, but it ended up being one of my favourite missions in the game because it pointedly conveys the feeling of Halo Wars 2 that sets it apart from the rest of the series.
Halo Wars 2 feels like a war story to Halo in a similar way to how Rogue One was a war story to Star Wars.
And I love that.
Additionally, I couldn’t help but pick up on a few beats that made it feel like a war story influenced by the way in which Eric Nylund wrote Ghosts of Onyx – particularly thinking about the ways in which the Forerunner side of things is handled. That was the thought which kept coming into my mind as I was playing. It’s not just a re-run of the military campaign style of Halo CE, it uses the RTS genre to leverage a sense of scale that the FPS titles just can’t capture and that’s what lends Halo Wars 2 its distinct flavour as a ‘war story’.
Those brief scenes in the trailers that show off the space battle with the Enduring Conviction?
Halo Wars 2 is a really strong entry into the series. I think it does a good job of bridging the gap for people who want a simpler, more approachable and digestible story while retaining the interest of lore fans through the plentiful supply of Phoenix Logs. I’ve not touched the multiplayer yet, but it’s clear that they’ve been mindful to appeal to the traditional RTS fan while also trying something new with Blitz mode – and I really hope that pays off upon release.
An argument could be made that this game feels a little too self-contained, it could definitely have made reference to its predecessor a little more at certain moments. It does end up feeling more like the first act, setting up a continuation, rather than a traditional kind of sequel. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing because the set-up material is interesting enough to warrant a continuation.
Overall, I would say it’s a definite net-positive. Even with its flaws, I am far more excited to see how the story of the Ark continues from here than I am for the stuff going on in the galaxy as of Halo 5. And that means something to me. It’s been a damn long time since I’ve felt unenthused about the series the way I did after Halo 5, but Halo Wars 2’s more contained, smaller-scale narrative has provided me with a considerable confidence and excitement boost for where this aspect of the series is going.
I can’t wait to write a more thorough analysis on it all over the coming months…
While I’ve done a lot of talking and analysing, if you want to actually watch some shiny new footage of the campaign (including the Atriox vs Red Team cutscene), I would advise heading over to the Youtube channels of the veritable Halo Canon and HiddenXperia.