Late last week in a conference room at 343 Industries in Redmond, 343 strategy chief Daniel Ayoub tells me and a group of other journalists not to expect significant graphical differences between the PC and Xbox One versions of the studio's upcoming Halo Wars 2. He's doing his people a disservice. After playing the single available campaign mission of the Halo-themed RTS for the better part of 30 minutes, I switch over to the machines running the console build and find the difference so striking I have flashbacks to a week last year when I was forced to bump around with outdated contact lenses.
The Spartans in the PC version I play march through forests and streams so clear I tell myself I can see individual leaves and ripples; the console version looks as though someone took that imagery and smudged each line with an eraser. No doubt it helps that I'm on a rig that's capable of pulling off such good looks, with a "mere" Nvidia GeForce GTX 980. Is it unforgettably beautiful? Not really. But it's enough to convince me the PC version is getting its fair shake.
David Nicholson, executive producer of Halo Wars 2's co-developer Creative Assembly, urges me in an interview not to think the final product will look so different.
"PC certainly has an advantage at this stage because we can just put a badass machine under there and that lets us just do a lot of things while we're still optimizing," he says. "It will obviously look amazing." But if you do have a powerful PC, "you can do some pretty incredible things with it."
Already it runs at a steady 60 fps and other goodies will supposedly come with launch, such as support for 4K and ultrawide displays. Some of the devs at the event say these things are already available on the build I'm playing, but strangely no one knows of a readily available monitor that can show me such miracles even on Microsoft's front porch.
But the true beauty of Halo Wars 2 is not how it looks but how it plays. The first Wars from 2009 was an Xbox 360 exclusive, but the sequel was designed with both the Xbox One and PC in mind from the start—and I’m thankful that it shows. Halo Wars 2 feels like a real-time strategy game made for the PC. It lacks some of the depth of Warhammer 40000: Dawn of War 2 or StarCraft 2's busy micromanagement, sure, but 343 Industries is careful to hammer down the idea that they're trying to "reinvigorate" the RTS genre rather than saddle it with intimidating complications.
Muscle memory leads me to click on my minimap when orc-like Brutes ambush my Spartans in some distant corner of the map, and I'm rewarded an instant God's eye view of their troubles. I don't have to worry much about micromanaging the three groups I've got running around because Halo Wars 2 lets me group them into manageable squads. When I find myself sweating, it's more out of failed strategies than frustrations with the interface or controls.
"I think the biggest proof that we've got that we're not dumbing the genre down, if I can be so direct about it, is the guy sitting right here," Ayoub tells me, nodding at Nicholson beside him. "Creative Assembly is certainly not known for creating dumbed-down RTSes."
True enough, but I can't say the one campaign mission I played is enough to tell how well their efforts translate here. It's basically a field test for the tutorial, involving little more than disabling four energy sources so I can knock out a shield protecting a space orc who keeps yammering nasty things. I never actually finished it because it crashed right at the climax (being a beta and all that), but I'm able to see how it ends by peering over the shoulder of the dude beside me. It’s a simple scenario, but it's told well enough that I'm eager to learn what happens next.
But Halo Wars 2's best hope for longevity lies most in its Blitz multiplayer mode that lets you build card decks featuring the game's units which you can then slap into a battlefield between two to five players. It works particularly well on PC, as I'm able to dart around the map by clicking on the minimap and precisely play my cards on the field with hotkeys.
Plenty of players around me do fine with the console gamepads, but I like the way the PC lets me check out what's going on at the three nodes I'm fighting for control of, or manage a Warthog that I've devoted to picking up more energy so I can play more cards. It's like Hearthstone with real units, and it could be big. Never once do I feel the PC controls hold me back.
"That goes back to what we were saying, it needs to feel native, right?" Ayoub tells me. "It needs to feel like it's taking advantage of the uniqueness and the benefits of the [PC] platform. We absolutely have invested a ton of drive into this to make sure this is the case."
Microsoft’s renewed interest in PC gaming had a rocky start, but Gears of War 4 for the much-maligned Universal Windows Platform. Halo Wars 2 looks to be on the same path. It's way too soon to tell if it's worthy of being mentioned in the company of some of the better real-time strategy games out there, but the Blitz mode and the one somewhat underwhelming scenario I played at least show potential. There's a great foundation in place here for success on the PC, as long as they can get past issues like that one crash in the handful of months before its February 21 launch.