March 31, 2009
It seems like strategy games are the new black (weird fashion reference but bear with me) as they are certainly cropping up like the latest fad and seem to be emerging from all over the place. Obviously we have been treated to the Command & Conquer series, Supreme Commander, Halo Wars, Civilisation, Endwar and so on, but now we have SEGA trying their hand at the console market. Before we get all excited about our dream RTS which pits an army of Sonics (perhaps you need to build up some base defences using emeralds?) against Dr Eggman and his battalion of spiky evildoers, we should point out that the game is set in a grim future ravaged by disaster. Kind of like Sonic then, but not quite. Still with a number of innovative design features can it carve out a niche amongst the big boys, or will if be pummelled by cheap rush tactics?
Developed by Creative Assembly, more commonly known for their Total War titles, this is a strategy game with a difference. Console owners might only know the developer through the hack and slash title Viking, but it is safe to say that they have gone back to what they do best and that's RTS. However, rather than out and out base building like Command & Conquer, or limited units to accomplish each mission, a la Endwar, they have struck somewhat of a middle ground. Throw in some innovative game mechanics and, looking at the developers track record, you should have all of the hallmarks of success.
After an ecological disaster destroys most of the planet through a series of firestorms there are only a few survivors. The Echelon try and save as many people as possible but only have room for so many, so close the door on hordes of screaming civilians. Most of those that were saved are then put into a state of deep sleep until the planet recovers but upon awakening, discover that those they left out in the cold (or hot, as the case may be) have changed into something other than human, that being the Sai. Thus the two factions must fight for supremacy over the ruins of our civilisation. The thought of just sitting down and talking about this over a cup of hot chocolate obviously never came to mind.
You take on the role of Geary, a deeply moral individual who was crushed by the thought of leaving so many people to die, and as the story progresses you will uncover more than a few home truths about the actions of the Sai and your own supposed benefactors, the Echelon. Truth be told though, everything is done in an extremely heavy handed way and the obvious double crosses and ‘startling’ revelations come exactly when you would expect them to. The story is far from terrible but the characters on offer are all too heavily clichéd and the banter from your team mates is often laughable when it is not meant to be. Still as a plot driven RTS, it does a good job of setting the scene and driving you forward, though the fact that you will dabble with both factions during one campaign rather than having a separate campaign for each is somewhat of a missed opportunity.
As with any RTS the game breaks you in with a couple of training missions and introduces units on a drip feed system. You will start off with the basic grunts, before moving up to more advanced snipers and heavy weapons men, next up is light vehicles and then you finish off with advanced units. The Echelon favour technologically advanced warfare and nice big guns, while the Sai rely on aggressive close combat troops and giant, deadly creatures to crush their foes. All of the units are fairly well balanced and the weakness of the cheaper units is outweighed by their strength in numbers, each unit also has access to certain special abilities that make them extremely versatile. Smaller units can also reach areas of the battlefield that your nice, stompy Matriarch might not be able to. This is where the verticality innovation comes into play. As almost every area of the battlefield can be accessed and it is up to you to use that to your advantage. Get your infiltrators up to the highest vantage point you can find and they will rain down fire on your foes with very little fear of a reprisal. By the same token it can prove hard to dislodge a foe that has swiped the high ground from you, so you will need to come up with a suitable counter.
Contrary to most standard RTS games you do not build bases and units in the traditional sense. Instead you capture control points on the map, which you can then upgrade with defences and energy harvesting facilities. This energy can be spent on further upgrades to the control points or on shipping in new units to aid your cause. You can only have so many of each unit though, so it pays to figure out exactly what you need to succeed. The real issue here is that you can only group a maximum of three units together, so ordering your army about can prove extremely frustrating. Surely it would have made sense for you to be able to send in your troops en masse? Which brings us to the second, and less successful, innovation: the whip system.
The whip system is the main control mechanic of the game and sees you using the right stick to leap between your units by highlighting the icons above them. You can also leap to any control or warp points under your control too, and then order units or build defences as you see fit. The problem here is that it gets extremely hard to pick out individual units – especially when they are grouped together. If one unit is in combat and you want to bring in some support it can be amazingly frustrating to suddenly leap to a control node at the other end of the map. It does not seem to get much better with practice either and, considering the whole point of the system is to allow speedy access to your troops, it can be far too slow and twitchy to line up when you want to grab a specific individual. The idea is a good one but the implementation could have done with some tweaking, as it makes the whole game far too cumbersome.
While the graphics are decent enough, with plenty of units moving smoothly across the screen at once, the real problem comes in the form of the camera and path-finding abilities of your units. As you see the battlefield from the point of view of whichever unit you are in command of, you can often struggle to direct them exactly where you want to go. The real problems arise when you move a unit too close to a wall, which can lead to the camera often getting stuck on said obstacle and you being unable to navigate to higher ground because of it. Your units will also take extremely bizarre routes to certain objectives too, and if you click on an enemy, they will wait until they are right on top of your foes before opening fire, by which time they have probably been cut to ribbons. It is a shame really as the camera does add a dynamic view of proceedings, but it is all too often responsible for most of your problems and can lead to a few choice words.
If you are after a good mix of achievements then you have come to the right place, there are plenty of points on offer both online and offline. The campaign will net you a goodamount of points, more so if you choose to tackle it on hard difficulty and destroy a certain number of units and structures. You will then have to emerge victorious on all of the skirmish maps before stepping online to win a massive ninety-nine ranked matches. The community is not exactly thriving at the moment so this may be a tough one for most people. Still with the right amount of perseverance this is all very doable, and the 1000 points will be well deserved should you get there.
If you are tired of the same old RTS games then this might well be the breath of fresh air that you were looking for, however, the controls and camera ensure that you will be in for a punishing ride and it can make your appreciation of the admittedly good ideas on offer diminish. Personally I hope this game does well enough to justify a sequel, as with a few kinks ironed out this game could well be great. In its current form though it falls way short of the standards you have come to expect – not least from Creative Assembly themselves.
The voice work on offer is actually pretty good, though they are working against a rather cliché ridden script. The musical score is fairly forgettable though and hearing your soldiers give the exact same response when you have to constantly flick between them soon grows old.
A fairly nice vision of a futuristic post-apocalyptic wasteland, but things are decidedly rough around the edges. The cut-scenes and graphics are never going to compete with the big hitters but do a good enough job.
The controls are innovative but far too twitchy which will result on you ending up on the far side of the map far too often. Only being able to group a maximum of three units is a pain too and results in a lot of bits-and-pieces style tactics.
A solid RTS but one that is ultimately let down by the control mechanic and intrusive camera angles. The fact that there is only one campaign rather than two separate ones for each faction is also perplexing. Online the game is decent but plagued by all of the same issues.
The achievements are actually a fairly decent mix of online and offline challenges, though trying to win ninety nine ranked matches may be something of a chore for most people. Plus playing through the game on hard makes struggling with the camera even more frustrating.
This is a game with plenty of good ideas and a decent enough storyline that keeps you interested, but it all gets far too bogged down by the cumbersome camera and twitchy controls. There is some real promise here though that could possibly be built upon for a sequel, but as it stands this game will struggle to tear people away from the likes of Command & Conquer or Halo Wars.