For years, the real time strategy genre has been basically owned by two subgenres: Historical military simulations such as Rome: Total War or Axis & Allies, and fantasy/sci-fi themed point and clickers like the Command & Conquer series, Homeworld, and Ground Control II. While these games are and always will be great, they're about to be eclipsed by the next level of innovation, thanks to Atari, developer Eugen Systems, and New York Times bestselling author Dale Brown. The game is Act of War: Direct Action, and if ever there was a game sure to knock you off your feet into a sitting position in front of a computer for hours on end, it's this one, guaranteed. Some hands on time with the game first at the game's wrap party/press event here in NYC, then later at the home office, reveals that everyone involved has put their all into creating what's definitely the best new RTS in years.
Featuring a tense, beliveable storyline set in the not too distant future where gas costs $7 a gallon and a devious bunch of oil execs fund terrorism to profit from skyrocketing oil prices, Act of War's powerful blend of live actors and high-quality CG elements keep the game moving forward at a breakneck pace. The first few missions move you into a number of different gameplay situations and the rapid pacing almost seems like you're in an episode of Fox's 24. Although there's building and resource management to take care of, the game somehow manages to streamline its interface to an easy to navigate format while using amazingly authentic military techniques for the ultimate in tactical realism. Your're drawn in from the beginning and the game rarely lets up the pace, thanks to the seamless transitions from live action to gameplay. With 30+ missions, on-line or LAN multiplayer, and a killer single-player skirmish mode, this is one game that'll be played to death, resurrected, and played many times more.
In the game, you control Sergeant Major Raymond Jefferson and his team as they hit a number of world hot spots as a well-oiled high tech strike force that would make Tom Clancy's characters look over their shoulders. Not to say that this is anything resembling a Rainbow Six clone at all; in fact, Act of War goes beyond the Clancy games in a number of areas in my opinion. You'll be tasked with not only completing your missions successfully, keeping your guys alive through proper useage of those true to life military tactics mantioned above is paramount to success. For example, roll into occupied territory in tanks or do a helicopter fly over without a bit of scouting and air bombardment beforehand, and you'll find that one or two guys with RPGs can send most of your men home in body bags. Try to rush a sturdy gun emplacement or enemy tanks with wave after wave of troops firing their guns, and expect even more casualties. Even in the game's multiplayer modes, simply creating more troops than your opponent is no gurantee of success.
Impressive touches abound, like having to evacuate wounded soldiers off the battlefield, enemy snipers falling from their window perches like well-trained Hollywood stuntmen, trees swaying in the breeze just before they're set afire of blown apart, the amazing reflections on the bodies of water you'll come across, and the accurately detailed city maps, some with hundreds of buildings all vie for your attention. It's almost overwhelming to see all this motion on screen without the game bogging down one bit, then again the folks at Planet Computers (www.planetcomputers.com) have partnered with Atari to become the exclusive PC hardware builder for the game, and based on the units they had humming away, Atari made a solid choice.
As this is just a preview, I won't go into too much detail on the well-written plot and its assorted twists and turns, but from a purely technical standpoint, Eugen has created one of the best, most flexible game engines I've seen to date. In terms of pure visual punch, Act of War is a one blow knockout punch to every other RTS on the market. Every building, vehicle, person, and object is done to 1:1 scale, and it's a sure bet that you'll spend a good deal of time zooming and rotating maps just to check out every nook and cranny. Environments are completely destructible, complete with sweet particle effects that aren't just for show, they reflect the weapon used and its effects on the material being damaged. If that isn't enough to make your jaw drop onto your toes, the game's amazing light and shadow effects add even more realism, and the realistic line of sight and fog of war combined with some excellent AI programming allows for what looks like an unlimited amount of units in some of the more packed missions.
Act of War's stunning visuals are equally matched by the rest of the game's great looks and sounds. With heavy duty production values featuring excellently directed live action sequences by SWAT films, Beyond FX's superb CG work, a stirring Nimrod score, you'll be transported into Dale Brown's scary potential future world the instant the opening cinema starts up. From the information I gathered at the press event, Eugen created the game engine first, then Atari showed what they'd done to Brown, who agreed on the spot to come up with a scenario that would take advantage of Eugen's talents. So far, everyone has done an absolutely fantastic job and it's exciting to see what looks like the next huge RTS franchise from its very beginning. Set aside some major time this March for not only the game, but the Act of War novelization as well, which is in stores shortly after the game ships. I'm reading an advance copy now, and it's pure tension dipped in adrenaline with a spine chilling chaser, folks. Back with a full review of the game shortly.