One of the things I love most about strategy gaming is its breadth, and few comparisons speak to that like the pairing of The Creative Assembly, architect of Total War, and Ensemble, the now-shuttered creator of the original Halo Wars. Total War’s real-time battles hinge on the glacial spectacle of formations colliding, subject to a creeping alchemy of terrain conditions and morale. Halo Wars takes a completely different tack, adapted from Ensemble’s Age of Empire series: it’s fast-paced, abstract, finely poised between base management and combat, and more or less devoid of messy variables such as unit psychology. What could possibly happen when one developer takes over where the other left off? The answer, going by the Xbox One beta, is: nothing all that mind-blowing so far.
Halo Wars 2 is cast firmly in the image of Ensemble’s swansong, replicating its miraculously pad-friendly control scheme, streamlined construction elements, wildcard Commander abilities and rock-paper-scissors relationship between infantry, ground vehicles and aircraft. The Creative Assembly has made a number of important – and questionable – changes within those parameters but in broad terms, the beta and Ensemble’s game are indistinguishable. There’s the same angled top-down perspective, the same fluid radial menus, and the same magic selection reticule that fattens to enclose groups of units when you hold the button.
It’s still a formula that seems better suited to mouse and keyboard – and with a PC version of Halo Wars 2 in the offing, the limitations of a controller are more pressing today than in 2008 – but there are once again hotkeys to lessen the pain. You can select all units on screen with right bumper, or hold it to reel in every unit you’ve built, for those super-scientific counter-offensives when somebody smuggles a bunch of tanks into your territory. The D-pad, meanwhile, allows you to flick instantaneously between bases and hotspots.