- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 4, 2017

United Nations Space Command (UNSC) returns to the real-time strategy realm to help save humanity from a new alien threat in the frantic adventure package Halo Wars 2: Ultimate Edition (Microsoft Studios, 343 Industries and Creative Assembly, Rated Teen, reviewed on Xbox One, $79.99).

Set in a time period 28 years after the events of the original “Halo Wars” and shortly after the events of “Halo 5: Guardians,” the game’s story finds Capt. James Cutter and the crew of the massive interplanetary warship Spirit of Fire awoken from cryosleep unexpectedly above the planet-sized, flower-shaped installation called the Ark.

Although the war with the Covenant forces was won, a new threat emerges on the planet’s surface from a splinter group of Brutes (ferocious ape-like humanoids) called the Banished, led by the unstable and ultra-violent Atriox.

Up to a pair of players must cooperatively command UNSC forces on the surface of the Ark, manage resources and defeat the Banished through a 12-mission campaign.

Using a bird’s-eye view of the action, leaders will often establish a zone clear of enemies and build bases, barracks, supply depots, power generators and an armory and then construct vehicles and airships as well as train warriors to take into larger battles.

Building and deploying requires resource credits that are accumulated by destroying enemy installations or amassed from depots and generators positioned on fully operational bases.

That translates into controlling groups of soldiers such as flame-spewing Hellbringers, aggressive Marines, sneaky snipers and rocket-launcher-carrying Spartans.

Also, commanders can build and call upon the garage or airpad to build vehicles such as the Warthogs, a Scorpion tank or the anti-aircraft Wolverine; or an eight–wheeled cannon wielding Kodiak and airpower such as three types of attack Hornets or a Vulture gunship.

The campaign against the Banished features roughly hour long missions and are wonderfully varied and more complex as the story progresses.

For example, one mission may require securing an area using a team of mech-encased soldiers called Cyclops, supported by a group of flying Hornets. A player must establish and defend a base while using it as a deployment center to send scouting teams to secure three heavily defended elevators built by the previous owners of the Ark, the Forerunners.

Or, lead Spartan II red team human warrior Alice-130 to single-handedly rescue groups of UNSC soldiers held by the Banished and then hold off waves of the enemies before a dropship arrives from the air to pick up the soldiers.

Or, establish multiple bases and lead UNSC teams to find and secure portals. They can then jump around the Ark’s various environments through the portals to attack the Banished and ultimately fight an army led by Atriox’ right-hand Brute Decimus.

Described by developers as a “rock, paper, scissor” combat approach — infantry units often beat air units, air units beat vehicles, and vehicle units beat infantry — commanders must always be aware of enemy strengths and deploy the correct mix of reinforcements, or face getting wiped out very quickly.

Although veteran players will appreciate using tactical strategies, the average gamer will find it easier to just amass forces and lead them around hostile areas to fully obliterate of the enemy.

The design of the firefights looks great as a player can zoom into the action and watch soldiers attack amid explosions, battle cries and through fallen opponents cluttering the area.

I played each mission at least twice to not only continue to hone strategies for future online skirmishes and more difficult missions but to complete secondary objectives to level up my squads and find any goodies (such as Phoenix Logs to learn more about the story) hidden on the terrain.

Perhaps the best reason to complete the campaign is to really admire the cut scenes revealed between some of the intense action.

Specifically, the cinematic crafting of the “Halo” universe through life-like digital animation of such characters as Capt. Cutter, Professor Ellen Anders, the artificial intelligence being Isabel and a ferocious Atriox are really dazzling. The scenes had a passing audience member think I was watching an actual movie and not playing a game.

It’s very much a highlight of the campaign that might seem a bit short for “Halo Wars” fans.

Now, simply appreciating the story is just the first part of the “Halo Wars 2” experience.

Up to six players can battle online (versus and co-operatively) as UNSC or Banished forces through four modes of game play including Skirmish, Strongholds, Domination and Deathmatch.

And, new to the “Halo Wars” action, the Blitz mode is a card-based, luck of the draw strategy battle that has players deploy troops and vehicles into fights by using collectible cards held in a virtual deck.

Each card played costs energy points that are found as the player attacks energy cores during the firefights, and finds supply drops or his units perish. The objective is to secure and hold bases long enough to collect more points (tickets) than an opponent.

Packs of cards are readily awarded for success in the campaign and completing other objectives. A player can select from a pre-built deck or create customized decks to take advantage of newly unlocked cards.

Blitz is great for beginners due to not having to micromanage bases and the brevity of roughly 20-minute long skirmishes in multiplayer action.

Solo players even can take part in potentially unlimited survival battles that require holding off infinite waves of the Banished.

Owners of the Ultimate Edition also can freely download the entire original “Halo Wars” game with upgraded graphics for the Xbox One and PC and that includes the Historical Battle Map Pack and Strategic Options Pack.

They also get a Season’s Pass to download all upcoming content packs for “Halo Wars 2.”

Overall, as a real-time strategy fan, I found “Halo Wars 2” a welcomed continuation of the original and the Ultimate Edition and packed with enough content to not disappoint.

However, fans familiar with the traditional, in-your-face, first-person shooting exploits of the “Halo” franchise might suffer from tactics exhaustion and an adrenaline let down.

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