After six months of new leaders, units, and a mini campaign following a squad of ODSTs, Halo War 2 rounds out it’s DLC with the largest, and best, one yet. A new campaign told from the Banished perspective, two new multiplayer leaders, a new Firefight, two new maps, a spectator mode, and the glorious return of the parasitic Flood, Awakening the Nightmare is a marvelous package that will leave you blinded by its majesty and very much worth the $20 price tag.
Story: A Desperate Fight for Survival
Awakening the Nightmare’s story is a simple one. Sent on a salvage run around the ruins of High Charity, the former capital city of the Covenant empire that crashed on the Ark during the events of Halo 3 after the Gravemind took control of it, the Jiralhanae brothers, Voridus and Pavium, begin to assault the Sentinel defense system, put around the city by the Installation’s monitor, and clear a path to the crash site. After a brief run in with the UNSC, Voridus disables the Sentinels and his forces find themselves at the entrance to High Charity. Soon after, they find themselves overwhelmed by the remnants of the Flood lurking inside the city after Voridus ignores the warnings, claiming that they are nothing more than rumors and legends, and has his men cut a hole in the containment shield and enter the structure.
With the Sentinel defense system disabled, the Flood quickly begin to spread and infect the surrounding area. Pavium and his forces have no choice but to hold the line until they regroup with Voridus and his surviving men before retreating and planning a means of containment. It’s pretty straightforward from there. The Brute Brothers devise a plan to contain the Flood by re-activating the Sentinels and put it into action.
Don’t expect to be blown away by it or have the Halo universe flipped on it’s head because of it. It’s a very simple story, though an enjoyable one. There’s a clear beginning and middle, as well as an ending that leaves room for more tales of the parasite. The Brute Bros. were also very enjoyable and well written characters. Voridus and Pavium have a lot of excellent chemistry and it really shows.
There was also a huge missed opportunity with the UNSC. They only appear once throughout the entire campaign, and it’s for a very brief moment in the first level. We learn of a large scouting party and quickly take them out on the way to High Charity. That’s it. That’s all we see of them.
This was the perfect campaign for Morgan Kinsano, the very first DLC leader and commander of the Hellbringers aboard the Spirit of Fire, to make her debut in the story. Every other DLC leader that is canonically alive during the events of Halo Wars 2 have appeared at some point in the campaigns. Colony was the main bad guy of Operation: SPEARBREAKER while Pavium and Voridus are the stars of Awakening the Nightmare. Everyone but Kinsano has appeared in a story for Halo Wars 2 and it’s really disappointing, especially since she’s the only new human character introduced.
It’s really upsetting to not see her in her modified cyclops fighting the Flood alongside some Flame Warthogs or Hellbringers. It’s also annoying that we don’t know why the UNSC was present near High Charity and now I pray for a comic or novel to expand on what they were doing, as well as their reaction to the Flood’s return.
Gameplay: The True Star of the Show
Awakening the Nightmare features five brand-new missions, and boy are they good. Each mission is unique in level design and experience and it really feels like Creative Assembly have a strong grasp on the Halo Wars 2 sandbox. The Flood force you to change how to approach the game in clever and exciting ways, while the levels themselves force you to mix things up a little.
Being overrun and forced to retreat, with little downtime to prepare for the next assault from the parasite, balancing resources between building and upgrading units and powering three giant drills as the unstableness of the area unleashes hordes of Flood from all directions, navigating tight spaces filled with Flood pods and defense lasers, Awakening the Nightmare’s level design is the true start of the show and offers hours of replayability as you tackle the levels with new strategies and at higher difficulties.
Creative Assembly took risks with these missions, flipping the Halo Wars formula on it’s head in a beautiful and challenging experience. I’ve only completed the campaign on normal, but I hear legendary is a true challenge that I can’t wait to experience.
I wish the campaign was a mission or two longer, simply because it left me craving more. I would love to have seen how else the team could’ve challenged the player to play the game in a way previously unseen in Halo Wars, or even the RTS genre as a whole.
Multiplayer: Polar Opposite Playstyles That Play Nice With Others
The Brute Brothers are also the newest leaders added to the multiplayer roster. Bringing the total number of leaders to sixteen, Voridus and Pavium change how to approach an online match in interesting ways.
Voridus: The younger of the brothers, Voridus focuses on infusion gel, the result of experiments with Colony’s weapons.The infusion gel slows down and burns the enemy inside of it, with leader powers that increase the damage done or heals targets.
Because of this, you want to spread this stuff as much as possible, and the game makes it very easy for you to accomplish this task. With a variety of leader powers from mines to a cleansing beam-esque infusion painter, the battlefield will quickly find itself covered in the stuff.
The new Engineer and Scarab variants, who sacrifice their shield abilities and replace it with the ability to spread infusion, will further help you achieve this task. And you’ll really want to make sure you can get infusion gel on the field once you get the new Brute Grenadiers on the field. These guys fire grenades from a distance and can absorb infusion pools to boost their states for a short time.
Pavium: Where Voridus is all about the early rush and aggressive behavior, Pavium is the exact opposite. He’s a turtle leader who will lock down his base and do everything in his power to make sure nothing destroys it. And he accomplishes this with some of the coolest additions to Halo Wars 2 ever. The deadly Mega Turrets see a return from the first game, now a buildable and upgradeable turret that takes up a building slot, a orbital designator that not only reveals units in the fog of war, but can be upgraded to do damage to those revealed units, a deadly series of plasma beams that cover a small area, and the ability to deploy a Liche to secure an area of interest and deploy units directly from it. Pavium also has a new APC-style vehicle in the form of a Wraith Invader, the Banished counterpart to Jerome’s Mastodon.
The two leaders work exceptionally well together and mesh well with the other leaders in the game. The new strategies that one can create from the Brute Brothers are insanely powerful, yet can be countered in a way that doesn’t make them stupidly overpowered.
The expansion also released two brand new maps, Mirage and Fissure, for everyone, regardless of whether they bought the expansion or not. While I have yet to play on them, more maps is never a bad thing and the fact that they released them for everyone means we don’t have to worry about a split playerbase.
There is also a new spectator mode, which allows players to view custom matches and watch others play the game
Terminus Firefight: A Beautifully Crafted PvE Experience
The newest in the Firefight family, Terminus firefight tasks players with defending a Terminus from endless and randomized waves of the various factions encountered in Halo Wars 2, with the faction changing every five waves. Able to play solo, or join two friends or randoms over Xbox Live, Terminus Firefight is an exciting addition to the Firefight family, and just what Halo Wars 2 needed.
The game adapts to the number of players, closing off or opening pathways for the enemy AI to us to advance on your position, as well as limiting the number of bases one can build based on the player count. Communication and picking the right leaders are key to making it to the higher waves.
Terminus Firefight also sees the introduction of a new building type: Fences. Three types of fences exist for each playable faction, so having at least one UNSC and Banished leader is heavily suggested. Some fences stop enemies in their tracks until they are destroyed, others feature explosives that can do heavy damage to the hordes of units coming your way, while others will slow down and damage, but not stop, enemies that cross over it.
The gamemode doesn’t do a lot to mix up and change the done to death Horde mode, but it’s nevertheless a very enjoyable experience.
Audio and Visuals:
The return of the Flood also means the return of their disgusting and warped appearances. Combat forms from the trilogy make a return, while new pure forms offer a new visual for the Flood not seen in the other games. The Flood very much looks like the Flood and 343i have done a wonderful job keeping in tune with the classic and iconic look of the parasite, while also introducing their own artistic style into them. New forms such as the Spawner and Abominations will glow orange while they using their abilities against your armies, a cut unit also makes it’s debut in the new Infestor form, a cut Flood form from Halo 3 that now acts as an anti-vehicle unit, turning the machines against you as biomass spreads on the hoods of Warthogs and the barrel of a Scorpion tank’s cannons.
Blur also returns with three brand new and glorious cutscenes. They are short, roughly seven minutes in total length, they play at the beginning, after the first mission, and the very end of the campaign. While we saw the Flood in Halo 2 Anniversary’s cutscenes, they were really only the Gravemind and Infection forms. Now, we see combat forms, the new Abomination, Spawners, and more in action in these beautiful cutscenes. They show off just how disgusting and horrific the Flood can be.
There is also a new half-hour soundtrack for Awakening the Nightmare. While nothing amazing, it does add to the atmosphere the Flood bring to the table. One particular soundtrack piece, Corroded, sees the return of the classic Flood music you’d hear in some levels like Floodgate or 343 Guilty Spark. Sadly it went unused in the campaign itself.
A Communication Error:
Awakening the Nightmare’s biggest drawback is perhaps it’s issues with communication. The expansion was revealed back at E3, and while plenty were excited for it, many were also seriously pissed off. Not only was the expansion sold separately from the season pass, but it was revealed before all of the season pass content was revealed, including the Operation: SPEARBREAKER mini campaign that was included in the season pass.
Awakening the Nightmare should’ve been saved for an event like PAX or Gamescom, big gaming events that were held later on in the year and around the time that the season pass would be wrapping up. Many people refuse to buy the expansion because they feel they’ve been ripped off because of this issue with communication, and it’s a lesson I hope 343i takes to heart.
Another issue came with the new Phoenix Logs, which detail some of the new Flood forms. Previously entities known as Key Minds were referred to as Graveminds that have converted an entire planet. Key Minds now act as Flood coordinators, with the new Abomination being one of them. They command local infestations until they reach critical mass, when they then form a Proto-Gravemind. These changes threw the lore community through a loop as they tried to make sense of these changes. It wasn’t until 343 employee and writer GrimBrotherOne came along with a community update that addressed these changes and helped to clear things up. While nothing major, it was still a confusing time for fans, especially since the Flood lore was very simple to follow and understand until that point.
Halo Wars 2’s Awakening the Nightmare is a must-have for fans of the Flood and RTS Halo. The campaign is highly replayable, multiplayer sees the addition of powerful yet balanced leaders, and the addition of Terminus Firefight brings us a proper and enjoyable PvE mode. Despite some slip ups, the expansion is easily worth the $20 price tag and will keep me playing Halo Wars 2 well into the future.
+ Flood are back
+ Amazing campaign levels
+ Powerful and fun new multiplayer leaders
+ Terminus Firefight
+Beautiful Blur cutscenes
– Story plays it too safe
– Lack of UNSC presence
-Communication issues both before, and after the release of the game
-Minor frame drops on the Xbox One S