RTS players are a fickle bunch. We demand innovation, creativity, originality, and we’ll even give a new game its day in court, and like we were to the smelly kid in the second grade, we’re still frightfully quick to shun failure (poor kid). Now, developers and publishers have caught on to us. The secret’s out. And we’ve unknowingly created a monster.
This monster is “Blizzwood,” the illegitimate son of Blizzard and Westwood, a behemoth of status quo that the industry, like the countless schoolgirls in your favorite horror flick, just can’t seem to run away from. We’re now to the point where differentiation has boiled down to small subtle changes in a game model that has been fully developed for some time now, and it’s apparent many publishers are once bitten twice shy. (Have you SEEN the bargain bin at EB lately?)
For good or bad, Act of War: Direct Action is one of these homogenized RTS games. There is no drawing outside the lines for Eugen Systems, no sir. It’s the tried and true formula though and through. Mini map, bottom left? Check. Unit building, bottom right? Check. Super weapons? Check. Unit veterancy? Check.
At its height, the game sports one of the best graphics engines in an RTS to date. It’s a glimpse at what’s in store for the future of strategy games, and Atari is undoubtedly working this asset into a new title as we speak. At its worst, the game is brought down by questionable presentation and a feeling of deja-vu.
Complaints aside, what Eugen Systems has borrowed from its peers has been done fairly well, even if it does seem a bit cut and paste. And if you can shrug off its deficiencies, real-time strategy nuts should find more than a few hours of fun here.
Act of War brings back something we haven’t seen for a while in an RTS– full motion video. If you’ve played Westwood RTS games, you know exactly what to expect. The story is primarily told through movie sequences played between and sometimes during the mission. The problem is the casting and direction, as well as the acting, is below par, even by B-movie standards.
As an example, the sequence that plays during installation, which introduces the main conflict, begins to circle around the actors in the scene, but rotates for far too long. This, combined with uninspired acting, sets a tone for these movie sequences that the rest of the game doesn’t recover from. While I admire Atari’s try at an old trick, execution on this front leaves a lot to be desired.
Fortunately for Act of War (and consumers), not all story elements are presented through video. Some are done using the in-game engine, and the game is the better for it. With an engine this powerful, it’s actually surprising the developers included a video component at all. The in-game scenes actually feel much more natural and are integrated into the game and story quite well.
In an interesting twist, when important events occur, an action box opens up displaying the event, presenting a much more dramatic take on the action below. It acts to reinforce important plot points and draws the player in. Unfortunately, the pop up box covers a large part of the screen, sometimes covering an area you’re focusing on. The developers should have given players the ability to resize and move the action box around.
The first thing you notice about Act of War (in one of its small diversions from the beaten path) is that the game focuses on urban combat. You still build a base, pump out troops, and upgrade units, but you’ll do so in the middle of dense city sprawl. Sound crowded? You bet. In Atari’s defense, this does add something interesting to the strategic aspect of the game, but its one key flaw (it partially obstructs the action) is a real head-scratcher. The action is well done, visually exiting even, but why the developers chose to hide half of it behind buildings is beyond me. It’s true you can rotate the camera for a better vantage point, but no matter how you dip and rotate you can’t seem to find a truly satisfying angle on the action.
It’s amazing that a modern RTS would ship with inept A.I. Considering how advanced the field is today, it’s simply unacceptable. Unfortunately for Act of War, the A.I. isn’t as flushed out as it needs to be. If you’re going to introduce urban combat, you have to make sure the A.I. can handle the environment. There were a few times I watched my troops take fire with no reaction at all. Soldiers would fight for their lives, wouldn’t they?
There are also some minor path-finding issues in the game. Several times I sent unit groupings across the map, only to watch them diverge, sometimes running into pockets of resistance. Again, at this point in the game, path-finding is expected to be polished and superb.
In another small, yet highly successful tweak of the gameplay, enemy units are worth cold hard cash. This seems logical; your enemy spends their resources on training the troops, so why shouldn’t you reap the economic benefits when you crush his or her army? Some units, instead of dying, actually cower and throw up the proverbial white flag. This allows your troops to capture them for, you guessed it, money! It’s almost double dipping when you think about it. Not only do you weaken your foe, but you strengthen your own economy. It’s incredibly satisfying when you get to do it, but infuriating when the opponent does, because you know you’ve just given them a little of your own money.
The Final Word
The recommendation is simple: if you’re an RTS vet who’s played everything out there, you’ll enjoy what Act of War: Direct Action has to offer. It introduces the small changes it needs to make it seem fresh, and Dale Brown’s tech thriller story line keeps you entertained throughout. If you’re new to the genre, or looking to get back in after a hiatus, this probably isn’t the game for you. There’s superfluous micromanagement, poor presentation, and truthfully, there are better times to be had elsewhere.