Welcome to Best Games On Xbox Game Pass where each week I’m going to pick out a game available on Game Pass and explain why I think it is worth playing. While I’ll certainly include some of the bigger titles available on the service, I’ll focus more on other games that you might have overlooked in the hope of leading you to a hidden gem.
The venerable Halo franchise holds a hallowed place in the history of gaming as one of the greatest FPS franchises ever, even if the more recent entries from 343 Industries are more… divisive. But in the midst of that all that first-person goodness it’s easy to forget the two Halo spin-offs that took the series in very different directions. The two top-down twin-stick shooters were terrible attempts to capitalise on the Halo name and should never be spoken of in polite conversation. Halo Wars, on the other hand, fared much better when it tried to help bring the RTS genre to the Xbox 360 in 2009 and earned itself a sequel, albeit a sequel that took eight years to arrive. While Halo Wars 2 is actually the newest Halo game to have been released, it’s also incredibly easy to overlook. I’m here to tell you that Halo Wars 2 is a real-time strategy gem that acts as a great jumping off point for bigger, more awesome RTS titles.
Halo Wars 2 kicks off 28-years after the original game, although you don’t need to have played Halo Wars to figure out what’s going on. The UNSC Spirit of Fire has been drifting through space, but its crew are woken when the ship arrives at the Ark, a vast structure floating in space. Sending down Spartan Red team it quickly becomes apparent that things are a bit messed up. In the ruins of a UNSC outpost an A.I. is found who tells them to get out before HE arrives. He, in this case, is Atriox, a hulking warlord who leads The Banished, a group that broke off from the Covenant and proceeded to devastate anything they came across.
If you’re unfamiliar with Halo that might sound like a lot of nonsense, but I think even non-Halo fans will have a good time with this simple, fun storyline that features some terrific acting and badass cutscenes.. And the graphics during these cutscenes are absurdly good. I’d quite happily watch a full-length movie if it was done like that. It’s almost jarring when you get to the actual gameplay because the in-game graphics look nothing like the cinematics.
In the grand scheme of the RTS genre Halo Wars 2 doesn’t do anything especially excellent or exciting, but that’s largely because it isn’t trying to compete with those games. Halo Wars 2 is mostly made to be an RTS on consoles, which is a whole different kettle of Grunts. Console owners have long been bereft of good RTS titles because of the challenges of making the genre work well on controllers, whereas PC gamers have a plethora of strategy games to choose from. So, first and foremost Halo Wars 2 focuses on nailing the basic foundations of the genre and making it control well. It does both of these things brilliantly.
Base building is kept on a tight leash which might feel restrictive but does also mean you don’t spend too much time jumping back to your base, helping streamline the action for controllers. Meanwhile, every unit has distinct strengths and weaknesses so that battles are all about picking the right unit for the job or creating the right mix of units in your army. It’s a lot of fun to witness Scorpion tanks, Warthogs and Spartans waging war, and in heated battles the screen becomes a riot of colours. Special leader powers add a little extra kick to the mix, too.
The campaign is rock-solid from start to finish, spanning 12 missions that do a good job of guiding you through the basics of learning how to play Halo Wars 2 in preparation for skirmishes matches against the A.I. or heading online where there’s still a surprisingly strong community. Cross-play is included, which does mean you might wind up going against someone playing on the PC where they will simply be quicker than you, but the great job Creative Assembly has done with the controls means you don’t feel like the disadvantage is too huge.
It’s also important to know that Halo Wars 2 is going to feed into Halo Infinite’s story with the Banished being the main faction you’ll be fighting in Infinite. Of course, 343 Industries will reintroduce the Banished, the Spirit of Fire, Captain Cutter and everything else in Infinite so that anyone can jump in and enjoy the story, but playing Halo Wars 2 should provide a lot of extra context for everything that’s happening and will give you an established connection to the characters.
In terms of negatives, there’s a couple. First, the Blitz mode uses booster packs of cards you unlock through playing the game, but they can also be bought with real money which can be frustrating in multiplayer since anyone willing to empty their pockets will get an edge. And second, only the Standard Edition of Halo Wars 2 is on Steam, so you don’t get access to the seven different faction leaders that were added or the two expansions. That’s understandable, though, I suppose. Still a bit of a shame, mind you.
If you’ve ever been interested in the RTS genre but you’re primarily a console player or if you find the genre a bit daunting then Halo Wars 2 is a perfect choice. It’s streamlined, simple, fun and controls well on console, all while telling a good story. What’s not to like?