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Last Friday, PC gamers got to try their first hands-on experience with Halo Wars 2, the first in the series to do so. This beta departed from the initial beta of the vanilla multiplayer featured earlier on the Xbox One, and focused exclusively on the Blitz Multiplayer mode. Xbox News touted the mode’s fast-paced nature that depends on the selection of units from a deck with the hope that players rely on their quick thinking to achieve victory. With several hours of initial testing underneath my belt, here are some initial thoughts of the new mode.
Players familiar with Eugen’s strategy simulator series Wargame will immediately understand the basic tenants of Blitz mode. Players choose a faction, three UNSC and three Covenant, and can customize the decks that consist of infantry, vehicles, aircraft, superweapons and super units. Whether alone or with teams, the players set out to maintain control over three points on the map until their score reaches 200. To afford the costs of raising an army, players collect energy that randomly dispenses around the map. The point system and unit deployment share some similarities with Wargame’s cornerstone gameplay, but on a much more intuitive level.
Like Wargame, Halo Wars 2 features hard counter and soft-counter units. Some units are specialized entirely at killing one type of enemy, while others are more jack-of-all-trades. More expensive (especially super), units tend to be capable of fighting well against everyone, while superweapons are single-use abilities that, when used well, can drastically alter the outcome of the game. All of the cards contain quick descriptions and symbols for players to understand their strengths and weakness before deployments. As one invests time into Blitz mode, they gain levels that award them card packs (also accessible through an in-game market) that improve a random unit or ability’s stats.
At the beginning of the game, players start with a few token units, and four cards in their deck they can deploy, given that they have the points to do so. Deployment can occur anywhere the player has line of sight, including allied vision. Deployment is nearly instant, so players learn to manage resources with immediate situational needs.
Unlike many other RTS games, Halo Wars 2 requires controls suitable for an Xbox One. This limits players access to traditionally crucial features, such as control groups and hotkeys. This drastically lowers a player’s actions per minute (APM), and APM factors crucially into a player’s success.
Because Blitz mode does not feature infrastructure and unit production, success for players is measured entirely by their grasp of tactics and their quick reflexes to act on them in time. Multitasking, even on PC, proves difficult. Situational awareness becomes a must, and without teamwork victory remains impossible.
Due to random card draws in gameplay, combined arms proves both an inevitability and essential for success. ten minute matches amount actions and reactions. Both sides have to make do with the cards they’re dealt as they try to counter emerging strategies. As a result, balanced decks generally stand the best chance.
The luck of the draw still seems to decide the outcome of games, however. Player skill factors much towards the outcome of the game, but bad hands still snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. With that said, I offer a few parting thoughts on the mode’s fairness.
Balancing the strengths and weaknesses of each side often makes or breaks an RTS game. Right now, I believe certain tweaks of the game could improve the current model.
As a tip for prospective Blitz mode players; NEVER rely on the pre-made decks. They lack any sort of balance and makes it easy for the enemy to exploit weaknesses.
Additionally, Captain Cutter’s Archer Missiles ability seems terribly underpowered. It lacks the stopping power of other weapons of equal price, and leaves much to be desired. Isabella’s MAC strikes, in my personal experience, have proved much more reliable.
The cheapest units are so ineffective as to prohibit effective use. Because the cards are randomly drawn, such units do not appear with enough frequency to be meaningful.
Player with more time to invest into Blitz mode generally succeed more. This is not due to their developing skills, but simply that they earn enough duplicate cards that improve their level and stats. The stat boosts alone can turn the tide of a battle.
That being said, some units come at a natural bargain when considering their vast stopping power. Perhaps the players that use them know how best to support them, and possess the micromanagement skills to collect energy necessary for the offensive. Even so, their presence on the battlefield usually deters any counterattack players muster. Considering the potentially damning results from the luck of the draw, games snowball quickly.
In my experience, RTS games naturally favor PC controls. Using the mouse for the cursor remains more intuitive than the use of a control stick, and the APM of a PC player will consistently score higher and with greater efficiency than a console player. Even when hamstrung with traditional RTS controls, I conclude that Blitz multiplayer favors the qualities that best manifest with the controls of a keyboard and mouse. Micromanagement and APM inherently favor PC, and those two factors determine the win in Blitz mode.
If nothing else, this beta proves that Halo Wars 2 engineered significant innovations in its multiplayer. The mode abandons traditional RTS base infrastructure in favor of pure tactical knowledge and reflex. This serves as a useful tool; with it, players can raise their APM in meaningful ways to micromanage individual units and outmaneuver opponents. Given enough practice, I’m confident Blitz mode will improve players’ skill in other multiplayer modes and promote competitive excellence. My only worries at this point stem from the balance of certain units and abilities, and its awkward controls optimized for a limited platform.