There's a new Halo game in the wild, and it has nothing to do with shooting squishy aliens in the face as Master Chief. Halo Wars 2 brings the franchise back to the real-time strategy genre, allowing you take control of huge armies of soldiers and vehicles as you battle for tactical supremacy against a menacing new enemy faction. Whether you're new to the Halo Wars series or just want a quick refresher before taking on Atriox and The Banished, here's everything you need to know about Halo Wars 2 before it hits Xbox One and Windows 10 on Feb. 21.
What is Halo Wars?
First launched in 2009 for the Xbox 360, the original Halo Wars was a real-time strategy (RTS) spin-off of Microsoft's flagship sci-fi shooter franchise. The game focused on the The Spirit of Fire, a ship comprised of lesser-known good guys that fought in the same Human-Covenant war as the Master Chief. As one of the few successful console RTS games, Halo Wars earned big praise for making the notoriously PC-centric genre fun to play with a controller.
Combat in Halo Wars is standard real-time strategy fare. You build bases that generate resources, and spend those resources to put soldiers, Spartans, tanks and aircraft on the battlefield. You can also utilize special "Leader" abilities, such as calling in airstrikes and sending in drones to heal your units. Both Halo Wars games feature full single-player campaigns, as well as a variety of multiplayer options.
What's new in Halo Wars 2?
Halo Wars 2 picks up 28 years after the events of the original game, and follows the events of Halo 5. The crew of the Spirit of Fire wake up from cryosleep to find themselves at war with a new enemy faction known as The Banished, who are led by the terrifying warlord Atriox. How bad are these dudes? Let's just say that they broke away from the Covenant army that you fought in the early Halo games — and lived to tell about it.
Aside from featuring new leaders, abilities and battlefields, Halo Wars 2 marks the first time you can play the Halo Wars series on PC. If you're an RTS purist who yearned for the ability to play Halo Wars with a mouse and keyboard back in the day, your prayers have been answered.
What multiplayer modes are there?
Halo Wars 2 has a standard smattering of real-time strategy multiplayer modes for up to six players, including traditional Deathmatches as well as territory-control contests such as Strongholds and Domination. You can also play through the entire story campaign online with a friend.
But where Halo Wars 2 really shakes things up is the new Blitz mode, which is a fresh, fast-paced take on multiplayer RTS combat. Instead of having to build up bases to get units on the field, you simply deploy soldiers, vehicles and special abilities using a randomized deck of cards. Collecting powerful Blitz cards and building decks looks to be a key aspect of the Halo Wars 2 experience — you can unlock card packs by completing in-game objectives, or by buying them with real money.
Can I play the game early?
You sure can. Folks who buy the $79 Ultimate Edition of Halo Wars 2 can jump into the fight on Feb. 17 — four days before everyone else. That package also gets you a Season Pass that grants access to new characters, missions and Blitz cards, as well as Halo Wars Definitive Edition: a remastered version of the first game.
Do I have to buy the game twice to play on Xbox One and PC?
Nope! Halo Wars 2 is an Xbox Play Anywhere game, meaning buying the game digitally will let you access it on both Xbox One and Windows 10. Your progress and achievements will carry over between both versions.
Unfortunately, Halo Wars 2 won't support cross-platform multiplayer — at least at launch. According to PCGamesN, 343 Industries studio head Dan Ayoub said that the team didn't quite have the time to make cross platform play work in time for release, but that they're "certainly looking into" the feature.
What do I need to play Halo Wars 2 on my PC?
Halo Wars 2 won't demand much from your PC; you can even get away with playing it without a discrete graphics card in some cases. Here are the official system requirements, via Microsoft:
- Operating System: Windows 10 Anniversary 64-bit
- DirectX Version: 12
- CPU: Intel Core i5-2500/AMD FX-4350 (Minimum); Intel Core i5-4690K/AMD FX-8350 (Recommended)
- GPU: Nvidia GTX 650 Ti/AMD HD 7750/Intel HD 520 (Minimum); AMD RX 480/Nvidia GTX 1060 (Recommended)
- VRAM: 2GB (Minimum); 4GB (Recommended)
- RAM: 6GB (Minimum); 8GB (Recommended)
- Hard Drive Space: 25GB
Should I play Halo Wars 2?
Based on our time with it so far, Halo Wars 2 is well worth checking out whether you're a fan of the original or a real-time strategy newbie. The game's intuitive console controls make it easy to command full armies with a few button taps, while its PC version allows genre veterans to finally feel at home with a mouse and keyboard. Blitz mode is a great addition to the series, blending tactical strategy with the fast-paced action of the core Halo games.
Halo Wars 2 is also simply an enjoyable piece of Halo fiction. It features some truly incredible cinematic cutscenes that pull you into the plight of the Spirit of Fire crew, and promises to connect to the larger Halo universe in some key ways. We'll be playing a bunch of Halo Wars 2 in the coming weeks, so stay tuned for more coverage.
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Mike Andronico is Senior Writer at CNNUnderscored. He was formerly Managing Editor at Tom's Guide, where he wrote extensively on gaming, as well as running the show on the news front. When not at work, you can usually catch him playing Street Fighter, devouring Twitch streams and trying to convince people that Hawkeye is the best Avenger.