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PC Review - ' Desert Rats vs. Afrika Korps'

by Ben Zackheim on April 13, 2004 @ 2:27 a.m. PDT

A real-time tactical game boasting single and multiplayer modes, Desert Rats vs. Afrika Korps immerses you into the explosive campaigns that took place in North Africa during World War II. Set across two campaigns and twenty missions, you take the role of either friend or foe as you follow the fascinating destinies of an English and a German hero who were once friends and who are now constrained to fight each other in this “war without hate”.

Genre : Strategy
Publisher: Encore
Developer: Digital Reality
Release Date: April 2, 2004


Desert Rats vs. Afrika Corps is a Real-Time Strategy game set in one of the most crucial fronts of World War 2, North Africa. The Axis and Allies were at each others throats in the North African theater, struggling to control the British African Empire and the Mediterranean. The campaign was important to the Allies because it was the only land-based fight they could force on the Axis from 1940 until 1943, when the Allies invaded Sicily.

The game opts to tell the story of fictional hero-types instead of historical figures. The choice works, for the most part, with some unique and sometimes-successful cutscenes and diaries. Once again, I have to get this out of the way, PLEASE all you developers out there, get a native English speaker to edit the text of your games for the English release. All the typos are just a real mood-killer for many of us. At the core of the story are two men from opposing sides of the war, bound together by the Olympics where they met only several years before. Also included are beautiful pilots, irritating moles and soldiers who are all bravado. All in all, I bought the character dynamics and ultimately the story of the game works well.

The game itself consists of mission-based play, where you can spy, flush-out, reconnoiter and, of course, siege. The game starts simply with a small circle of characters with different strengths who need to get to a plane. From the beginning you can see the strengths and weaknesses of Desert Rats vs. Afrika Corps. The graphics and interface are well done and the path-finding is just plain awful. Getting the group to move together was next to impossible. When they broke up I controlled them separately only to find that they would get stuck for no obvious reason. Unfortunately, this pathfinding problem would pop up often throughout the game.

In the course of the game you get dozens of characters at your disposal (medics, riflemen, scouts, artillery, tanks, flamethrowers, even air support) who can be assigned depending on the task at hand. The army management system at the start of each level is great, letting you see the strengths and weaknesses of each unit. Unfortunately the default selection of units is almost always dead-on so the management system only comes to life when you’re playing the game through a second time (with knowledge of the level that’s coming up). You might try some different combos if you find one level too tough but my experience was I usually went back to the defaults. The units can take location specific damage, adding to the depth of the game. There are seven types of vehicles at your disposal: recon, tank, anti-tank guns, transport, anti-air artillery, artillery support and air support. The combination of vehicles and units is very deep and adds the majority of the game’s depth.

The thing I enjoyed most about Desert Rats vs. Afrika Corps was the variety. Since you’ll be playing both sides of the battle you get a pretty good idea of the dynamics of this era – who was good at what (and you even get an insight into “why” with the historical summaries between missions). An added feature that is very welcome is the pause feature, allowing you to pause and make moves a la a turn-based game. This is usually an iffy call for a designer to make but I found it necessary to take full advantage of it. You can give up to three levels of commands in the pause mode. In other words you’ll be putting on your tactical cap in Desert Rats vs. Afrika Corps -- as well as thinking on your feet. You certainly won’t be heading into battle guns blazing. If you do, you’ll lose. No, the draw of the game is that you have to think first. For this reason alone, the game can be involving (even with its faults).

Desert Rats vs. Afrika Corps has two campaigns with 20 missions. To move from one mission to the next you only need to accomplish the primary objective. Considering how tough some of these missions can be that is very much appreciated. But if you’re the kind of player who wants to find hidden tasks and attain even more units you might want to tackle the secondary objectives whenever possible. DRvAC also includes hero units. These units are clearly marked with an icon over their head and they have impressive power and range. Many of my missions depended on the hero unit until the very end. You must learn to use them wisely but you also need to be careful. If he dies, game over. The game balance with heroes is brilliant. Many times my hero was the last one standing. Very cool.

The game gives you ample use of the environment which enriches the tactical aspects of the game. If you see a building you can use it for cover. After you flush-out its innards of course. A hill will give you an advantage against infantry and, in some cases, artillery. If you see a vehicle you can fight for it and use it. A nice touch is the ability to take out a vehicle by aiming at parts of it. You can call in your mechanics and have them patch it up and then use it for your own! Battle is dileneated on line-of sight basis. Forget lobbing stuff into a blind spot and hoping for the best. You get a clear circle around your team that dictates whether you can attack with the units at your disposal. You have the option to call in air recon to reveal some of the map which comes in handy.

DRvAC’s depth can be a bit overwhelming at first. With so many units and some tough missions there are a number of times you’ll find yourself frustrated. But the game must be commended for easing you in. The missions are dull and simple at first so you can get the tender loving care you need to learn the units at your disposal.

Even with these strengths the game suffers some serious downers. For instance, the AI leaves something to be desired. While there are basic settings for your own units (hold fire, advance at all costs, etc.) they don’t always work well due to the wonky pathfinding. Many times I left a crucial man behind inadvertently. Micromanaging every step your guys take is too much of a task, especially for a game that can be as tough as Desert Rats vs. Afrika Corps is. The AI of the bad guys is a bit more impressive with flank attacks and good use of the terrain. But even they have a hard time getting around sometimes which only serves to snatch you right out of the moment.

Scrolling over the game screen can be a tedious task. The graphics are beautiful but they also bring my 3 Ghz, 9700Pro machine to a crawl. I had to jack down the resolution which I haven’t had to do for a game in a long time. Funny, I thought it would be Far Cry that would be the first game to make me salivate for a 9800, but as it turns out DRvAC takes the pole position.

To be sure, the graphics of Desert Rats vs. Afrika Corps are quite exceptional with real-time shadows, weather effects and a color palette that conveys the harshness and beauty of the battlefield itself. Everything you see can be destroyed. Always a big plus. You can run over buildings in your tank which is more fun that it probably should be. You can zoom in pretty close and get a good look at your units in all their glory. They look great up close but the farther you zoom out the more difficult it is to see who’s who. This weakness can be overcome if you use the pause feature often but it’s too bad the characters couldn’t be more distinct.

The sound is certainly above average with a great soundtrack by Ervin Nagy and Tamas Kreiner. The two clearly put a lot of effort into the game and it shows. There are some pretty dull levels (especially in the beginning) which were made more fun by the music performed by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. The voices of the game are not as strong though. The accents are awkward most of the times (at least to my ear) and the dialogue itself is more campy than it is dramatic. I wouldn’t say its enough to pull you out of the game all the time but there are some real doozies thrown in.

Game modes include a Blitzkrieg mode which lets you go straight through the missions using the same soldiers (the computer also has to use the same soldiers.) Multiplayer modes include up to four players in Capture the Flag, Deathmatch, and Tobruk-To-El-Alamein modes over a LAN or online (with Gamespy).

Desert Rats vs. Afrika Corps is a fun game. I can’t find much fault with the time I spent with it. But its overall feel is less than stellar. The game will crawl along at even medium resolutions and the pathfinding seriously hampers you at times. The dialogue, both written and spoken, feels amateurish. It should be noted that I was using a review copy of the game so it’s possible some of these issues may be addressed before release. Overall, if you have been waiting for a tactical WW2 game then I can safely recommend DRvAC. Just be ready for a bumpy ride.

Score : 8.0/10

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