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Halo Wars 2 is a real-time strategy game caught between console and PC

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Halo Wars 2 is a game that very visibly straddles the divide between console and PC. It’s a real-time strategy game, a genre that — along with the MOBA and the MMORPG — has traditionally confined itself to the home computer. It’s also a Halo game, representing a series that drove the original success of Microsoft’s Xbox consoles, and became responsible for rehoming first-person shooters on TVs after Doom, Quake, and Half-Life started the genre on the PC. But these two opposing aspects of the game never fully reconcile.

In superficial ways, Halo Wars 2 feels like an extension of the Halo shooters. There's the same super-soldier space marines, the same vehicles, the same weapons. The game is interspersed with similarly lavish cutscenes, and the story — about an ongoing battle against a particularly brutish general called Atriox — is just as incomprehensible to anybody who didn't major in advanced Halo studies.

But it also bears all the hallmarks of PC strategy games as old as Command and Conquer and StarCraft. Players command Halo Wars 2's action from above, building bases, training units, and sending them into battle against enemy forces. Two resources — energy and supplies — govern what troops you can train or structures you can put down, and a variable cap on unit numbers forces you to consider what kind of force you want to build.

It's a well-worn template, but Halo Wars 2 has some fun within its confines. Its missions are varied and consistently tense, giving players limited time, resources, or troops, and asking them to do more than just attack or defend. My favorite level was a riff on old tower defense games, giving me time to set up static defenses along a sandy trench before the floodgates opened and waves of enemies flooded toward my base. The last 10 minutes of that mission — with my turrets wrecked, my defenses breached, and my army scrabbling to burn down foes who'd broken the lines — were some of the more memorable I've played in 20 years of strategy gaming.

But while Halo Wars 2's missions are structured well, playing on console, I found them shot through with frustration. Controls are the problem. Real-time strategy games found their home on PC because the PC provides a mouse and keyboard: an easy and precise way to scan around a large map, select specific soldiers, and keep track of several conflicts at once. The console version of Halo Wars 2 instead relies on the Xbox One's analog sticks — an inherently floaty, imprecise tool that always made it harder to do what I wanted to.

Single units can be selected with a tap of the A button, while groups are grabable by holding it down, an action that will let you control all troops in a small area. A press of the right bumper goes further, letting you select all units on-screen at the moment. It was this last option I used most often to corral my armies, finding individual or small group selection too slow for my needs, but it’s still not an ideal solution.

A number of the game's units have special skills they can use in the heat of battle. Marines can throw grenades, warthogs can ram enemy infantry, and the three Spartan super-soldiers you’ll control throughout the campaign can leap onto and commandeer enemy vehicles. Each skill can be powerful in the right situation, but to use them, you’ll need to pick out a specific unit in a swirling sea of green, or painstakingly cycle through your entire on-screen force with the right trigger until you get the thing you want.

This fiddliness is found in the game's base-building element, too. Some units, including basic marines and scouting bikes, can be built from your base’s central structures. Others are constructed inside specialist buildings tacked onto the side, meaning you need to select the garage to build four-wheeled warthogs, or the airpad to call in hovering hornet gunships. But most of these structures look markedly similar from the game’s sky-eye view, and several hours into the campaign I still had trouble trying to discern exactly what each boxy building in my base did, forcing me to flip through three or four near-identical structures until I found what I wanted.

RTS developers often talk about silhouettes — the unique visual profile of a unit or building — being important. Good silhouettes allow players to identify and assess the threat of an incoming force in just a few seconds, but the examples in Halo Wars 2 are difficult to read at that kind of pace. During the campaign, your own vehicles are borrowed from the wider Halo universe, near-future variants of modern tech that are universally green and unremarkable. When you’ve got the kind of large, mixed force that the game requires in its later levels or during the card-based “blitz” mode, it’s tricky to tell the difference between hornets and nightingales, scorpions and kodiaks at the kind of speed you need to pull them out of combat or push them to the front.

Enemy units are, fortunately, slightly easier to spot. They're brighter and shinier, for one, befitting their alien heritage, and anyone who's spent any time in Master Chief's size 20 boots will be able to spot the difference between a Banshee and a Scarab. But there's not a huge amount of difference in how best to combat them, beyond the number of your own soldiers you need to commit to kill them.

Loading screen tooltips explain how best to counter general units — vehicles beat infantry, infantry beat flyers, flyers beat vehicles — but this advice doesn't always parlay into game terms. On too many occasions I won the day by simply building a mixed force and rolling it around the map, squashing foes in much the same way I did in Red Alert, almost two decades ago. Harder difficulties demand more careful applications of force, but the kind of micromanagement required to monitor frontline fights while also building reinforcements at home is made even more frustrating by the gamepad controls.

The PC version should fix those control problems, but although players can retain their campaign and multiplayer progress between both versions, the transfer from console to computer hasn't been smooth. The game hasn't taken full advantage of the mouse and keyboard, making it feel sluggish in the hand compared to recent RTS games like StarCraft II, and highlighting how easy it often is to just build an all-conquering blob of units and beat all comers.

A new "blitz" mode fixes some of these problems, but adds some more of its own. Blitz lets players do away with base building, relying instead on unit, general, and skill cards that they lay down to call in specific units, something like an RTS version of Magic: The Gathering. There's more strategy here: with smaller forces, players can counter specific enemy units causing them grief, and choose whether to build all-rounder decks or specialize for a speedy victory. But while the campaign pays out a generous donation of cards, serious blitz players may need to spend real money to get the cards they want. Ten-packs weigh in at $14.95 at present, with discounts available if you're willing to buy more.

Blitz is a solid idea (despite the microtransaction problem), and during its best campaign missions, Halo Wars 2 takes the strengths of both console and PC to produce moments that would stand out on either platform. But while its action is regularly competent and occasionally great, it doesn't quite pull off its ambitious balancing act.

Halo Wars 2 has split origins on PC and console, but ends up falling between its two spiritual homes, resulting in a game that’s a little too imprecise on console and a touch too simplistic on PC.

Halo Wars 2 launches today on Xbox One and Windows.