First of all, I understand that this is a beta. I can imagine how the conversation went over at Microsoft:
So do you have that Halo Wars 2 demo ready for E3?
I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that, it’s not ready. The animations are incomplete, it’s buggy, the performance is all over the place, and we haven’t even finished the assets for most of the units.
OK but we need something to send out, people need convincing that a console RTS can still work, it’s been a while.
This won’t do the job, it’s not ready.
It’s fine, just bundle together the unit’s you’ve done, put it on a weird game mode so people won’t notice the balance issues, lower the unit cap until it runs and just call it a beta.
But it’s barely even an alpha…
Call it a beta.
And so here we have the Halo Wars 2 beta. I was so excited to play it, telling everyone I know who played the old game to go download it so we could relive all that fun we had with the original. Two games in and I stopped telling people to download it.
The biggest problem, aside from the performance, missing animations and effects, and lack of game modes which is just down to it being a beta ( I hope) is that it doesn’t feel like a Halo game. When people think of a Halo RTS they want Warthogs being sliced in half by Brute Choppers, Banshees to be raining down Fuel Rod shots onto advancing Scorpions, squads of marines facing off against squads of elites and grunts, scrambling for cover, using grenades and getting decimated by vehicles that blaze through the combat. They want the opening cinematic of Halo 5, with a Spartan team laying waste to a downhill battle at breakneck speed.
Instead, we get pathetically anaemic skirmishes that mostly consist of a group of vaguely marine-looking people, firing shots randomly at a load of Brute-looking people, why vehicles park up and join in with the neon snowball fight. There’s no sense of impact, no velocity, no excitement in the battles at all. It even feels like there’s a delay in issuing commands so every battle happens at a tortoise’s pace, unlike the fevered warzones of Starcraft or Dawn of War.
The units simply aren’t what you’d recognise from a Halo game. Yes there are warthogs, scorpions, banshees and more, but the warthogs park up to shoot, the scorpions can siege up and are less intimidating that most of the marine squads, and those marines are just the basic unit of the UNSC, more advanced infantry types are flamethrowers units and cloaking snipers. Not cloaking Spartan snipers, just random marines that apparently go invisible. It’s almost as if 343 and Creative Assembly have had a hard time balancing the real kind of units in the Halo universe and just decided to copy Starcraft instead. Scorpions are now Siege Tanks in all but name, sniper units are Ghosts, Hellbats are thrown in for good measure despite not having an equivalent in Halo. On the Brute side you have some Brutes, but they’re not the rampaging death Gorillas we’re used to, instead they are just gorilla-skinned marines, standing there going ‘pew pew’. Grunts come in suicide squads but the explosion animations seem to be missing. There’s no Pelicans to quickly transport troops and equipment, the Banshees are weirdly weak and slow, particularly to marines, even the Wraith doesn’t look quite right. There’s plenty of new units, but they all have an uninspired design that simply copies another unit and makes it chunkier. Creative Assembly have clearly tried to stick to the rock-paper-scissors style of gameplay from their Total War games, but that doesn’t translate well if it means a marine with an assault rifle can easily down a Banshee.
The larger powers at least feature the MAC cannon, but here it does about as much damage as a large grenade, without any of the punch you’d expect from a space-station cannon that’s firing at a planet. You can also drop mines (remember that from Halo, when a load of mines were dropped from orbit and decimated an entire army?) and ODSTs, but the ODSTs look and move just like normal marines, there’s nothing special about them at all, nothing to make them live up to their fearsome reputation.
As it stands, nothing about this game is good. It looks terrible, with low resolution assets and tonnes of missing effects, played out on dull looking maps. The unit capy is unimaginably small, enough space for 2 scorpions, 2 warthogs, and maybe 4 marine squads in your entire army (until you get the upgrade that lets you have an extra warthog or so). The buildings don’t look like buildings we recognise from Halo, the upgrades are nearly all completely soulless and uninteresting, offering things like a flat 15% in damage for a single unit type. Nothing to change up the gameplay at all, just a stat boost to make you kill things quicker.
The controls themselves are barely functional, mostly due to the aforementioned delay in getting anything done. They need to be quick and snappy for any kind of competitive play to be bearable, but instead they’re so and sluggish, leading to all games consisting of players amassing one army (unit cap is too small for efficient smaller groups) that lumbers around the map occasionally coming into contact with another lethargic horde, trading tiny little ineffectual blaster bolts until one of them disappears.
If this had been a new RTS coming out in the era of the original Red Alert, I would still have been disappointed. To be coming out in 8 months, in 2017, and to not even feel like it carries the licence it’s designed with, is appalling. Hopefully 343 will take on board the criticism and delay it another year or two to rebuild most of it, because what exists so far just isn’t worth your time.