When thinking about the port of Halo Wars 2, one word can only come to mind: disappointing. Halo Wars 2 is a real-time strategy game for Windows 10 (and Xbox One) developed by Creative Assembly and 343 Industries. It is important to note that the original Halo Wars, developed by the Age of Empire wizards Ensemble Studios, was only released on the Xbox 360, so it stands to reason the console DNA would be alive and well in Halo Wars 2. However, the question going into it was how prevalent would that DNA be found in the much anticipated PC version?
Unfortunately, you’re made all too aware that Halo Wars 2 is a console port right from the get go.
Don’t get me wrong, the game, for the most part, runs smoothly. There usually aren’t any hitches in framerate, I don’t remember seeing a single instance of screen tearing in my 20 hours of playing Halo Wars 2. The problem is with every movement of the camera, every time you try to quickly select an army, when you try to select a leader power quickly the consolification of Halo Wars 2 is abruptly thrown into your face.
Halo Wars 2’s menu systems are a clear indication as to how deep the console DNA runs. The highly stylized menu system at first glance doesn't cause too much concern. However, it’s when you dive into the menus – especially the keybinding menus – you start to notice a disturbing trend. When going through your keyboard/mouse controls, you’re left to sift through 15 separate tabs of keybindings with no rhyme or reason as to how to easily navigate the menu.
By default, the keybindings themselves are outrageously unintuitive. Regular camera control conveniences, such as zoom in/out or camera rotation are mapped to the keyboard and not handled at all by the mouse. Using page up/down and insert/delete, respectively, to control vital camera functions simply does not work properly – yet at the time of this writing I have been unable to remap those to either buttons on the mouse or the mouse wheel itself. It’s almost as if Halo Wars 2 doesn’t recognize the mouse as an input device to which you can map bindings. As such, I’ve been forced to remap some of the quick unit selection, such as local unit selection from Q/E to control at least the rotation of the camera. Zooming in and out still requires me to reach all the way across the keyboard or take my hand off the mouse to do – again, completely unintuitive. However, even at its farthest, the game still feels too zoomed in, so for my own personal comfort it’s not a huge loss.
The problem is the thought process behind this, especially from a team as accomplished as Creative Assembly. We know they are competent when it comes to mouse/keyboard controls – this was on full display as recently as Total War: Warhammer. Part of me wonders whether or not Creative Assembly is using an engine of their own design, or were forced to use a modified version of the engine originally designed for consoles first. However, the fact simply remains the way that the keyboard and mouse controls are laid out, the game clearly favored the controller as the primary input device – even on Windows 10. And honestly, it doesn’t feel terrible on controller. However, a genre that excels on PC thanks to the elegance offered to a traditional RTS control scheme shouldn’t have the feeling it was never really meant to be handled with anything other than a gamepad.
A clear difference In how the control bindings are displayed - gamepad controls are displayed in a recognizable state - keyboard and mouse controls are displayed in a wall of menus. A microcosm of the attitude towards the input devices
The issues brought about by the menus doesn’t stop there, however. When you are playing the game and maybe need to pause it by opening the menu, or maybe you want to tweak the settings mid game, the game performs noticeably worse each time you open the menu. It’s almost as if there is a memory leak, or that the memory isn’t being cleared when you close the menu. However, thanks to the nature of UWP apps, any overlay I try to use to measure this is met with either crashing the overlay or the game, or both. With no way to accurately measure what’s going on, I can only guess as to the reason – but the fact remains that whenever you use the menu during the game, the performance is demonstrably worse and worse.
Which is a shame, considering the performance otherwise is pretty rock solid. It’s a competently running port. It’s not the most attractive looking RTS out there, but it runs considerably well otherwise on my i7-6700K/GTX 980 equipped system. Even downsampling to 1440p doesn’t impact performance negligibly. It’s only when I decide to dive into a menu mid-game when you see that downward spiral into crushing performance issues.
Halo Wars 2’s port is a mixed bag. It’s clearly a competent port from a performance standpoint – for the most part. However, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that the PC version played second fiddle to the console version, which unfortunately is par for the course for many PC games nowadays. It’s especially disappointing when you remember the pedigree of one of the developers involved in the project. It simply comes down to whether or not you’re willing to either completely remap your controls to suite a standard RTS game, or deal with the controls as they are – or goodness forbid a controller. Also, until a fix is issued (I’ve reached out to Microsoft for comment or a time-table for a possible fix), do your menu navigating before you hop in a game. Your framerate will thank you for it.