'Halo Wars 2' offers new enemies, great story in RTS fashion

“Halo Wars 2” returns to the real-time strategy genre with an enticing story, brand new bad guys and, not one, but two cliffhanger endings.

The RTS game challenges players to move and fight with squads of troops on the fly across a battlefield, much like “StarCraft.” Resource and military management skills are put to the test to achieve victory in the mission.

The campaign follows the adventures of the Spirit of Fire, led by Capt. James Cutter, who are awoken from cryosleep after 28 years from their last contact with the UNSC. Finding themselves in an unknown part of the universe and with no knowledge of the events of the main “Halo” series., they are quickly engulfed in a war with a new enemy, the Banished.

The Banished resemble orcs crossed with gorillas crossed with a whole lot of bad attitude. Originally used as fodder by the Covenant, they became expendable but rose up against the longtime “Halo” enemy, overpowering them and anything else in their path.

Atriox, the Banished leader, truly is a force of nature. He faces off in the prologue with three heroes: Jerome, Alice and Douglas. This sets the stage for a series of battles as the humans struggle to survive against what appears to be an overwhelming force.

The gameplay is neatly broken down into a rock-paper-scissors type of conflict. Air units generally do better against vehicles, which do better against infantry, which does better against air and so on. The UNSC heroes add additional abilities, like being able to take over enemy vehicles, turning the Banished mechs against them.

Units also level up as the battle continues, so the more skirmishes they fight, the stronger and healthier they become. Suicide missions, where players keep producing more and more units just to throw at the enemy in waves, become more of a selective thing when keeping units alive has its benefits.

The game is available on the Xbox One console and on PC as part of the Play Anywhere program. However, the controls for the units diverge between the platforms.

For those who have played other RTS games on a computer, the mouse and keyboard will seem very intuitive for controlling specific units or groups of units. There will be scenarios where having multiple, complex groups of units is not only key but necessary for victory.

The controls for the console are a little more difficult to manage. Shortcut buttons let players easily select all visible units or all units on the battlefield. Trying to pick out only the Warthogs in a massive army to send them on a flanking run is unwieldy at best.

If players can get them into the smaller groups, there are shortcuts to allow those units to be quickly selected and moved using a shoulder button/D-pad combo. The D-pad can also be used to easily jump to bases or units.

Leader points are earned for healing troops, calling in airstrikes or passive buffs for the units. These are gathered in game and are instrumental for that extra boost to achieve victory.

The bases constantly produce supplies and power, which can be used to build various military units. Add-ons to the bases create an opportunity for specialty units, and turrets are the best defense against potential damage.

The missions have enough variety, from chase scenes to waypoint holding to getting to a key location on the battlefield. Each mission required different thinking from the last, so there is no one way to win and was challenging while playing on normal mode, even with some setbacks.

From a visual point of view, the battles look and sound great. There is great detail in how the combatants skirmish against one another. Some of the audio does get repetitive after a while, but not so much that it's distracting.

The cinematics are amazing and do a great job of filling in the blanks between missions. They also help connect players to keep people in the game and invest a sense of purpose for the overall battles.

A new multiplayer mode, Blitz, combines collecting cards with the RTS feeling of battle. The cards act as in-game boosts, providing stronger troops or buffs during fights.

However, as in many card-based games, players can be on uneven footing when competing, merely by one side have more cards at their disposal. Card packs can be purchased by players, which means pay to play could be a quick way to victory.

Those types of games can quickly lose their appeal, so it will be interesting to see how long Blitz becomes a playable option for people.

Overall, “Halo Wars 2” flexes its RTS muscles, providing solid gameplay and an interesting story to back it up. While the controls can be a bit tricky for the console, they can be managed if players take the time to set up their forces before heading into combat.

It isn’t the greatest “Halo” game, but it is a very good one. The double cliffhanger endings (one of them is after the credits) means there could be more stories with the Banished coming up. Cutter and his crew, it seems, are just getting started.

“Halo Wars 2” is available now for the Xbox One and PC. It is rated T for Teens for Mild Blood, Mild Language, and Violence. This post was done with a provided digital code for the Xbox One and PC through Play Anywhere.