Developer: Massive Entertainment
Release Date: June 22, 2004
Buy 'GROUND CONTROL 2: Operation Exodus': PC
Ground Control II: Operation Exodus, released by Vivendi/Sierra, is the latest RTS game to hit the market and while it’s not the most original game created, it does move along well and isn’t a bad effort. There’s a fantastic graphics engine, explosive sounds, appropriately hammy voice acting and a fairly decent story line.
If there’s one thing I loathe about RTS games, it’s base-building and managing my economy; I want to blow shit up, not pretend I’m Alan Greenspan. Thankfully, Ground Control has no base-building or economy to manage. Instead as you destroy enemy units or take victory locations you earn Acquisition Points which are used to call down reinforcements from your drop ships. That means you spend most of the game fighting the battles, and not just getting ready to fight them. Gone are the days of wondering just what that worker really is doing off in the bushes!
GC2’s story isn’t half bad, although it does tend to wear thin across the game’s 24 missions. There are three factions: the Northern Star Alliance, aka “the good guys”; the Viron, a dog-faced alien aka “the sorta good guys”; and the Terrans, aka “the bad guys”. You play Jacob Angelus, a Captain in the Northern Star Alliance. Joining you are Major Grant, a crotchety old warrior who sounds like he’s from Texas; Lieutenant La Croix, who can’t make up her mind what her nationality is; Sergeant Rho, your generic hacker-boy-wonder; and finally, Dr. Alice McNeal, your love interest – voiced by Traci Lords, as an aside. The voice acting is passable, especially on the cut-scenes and scripted encounters. The story is strictly SCI-FI formula and while there are twists to the story, I could see most of them coming. There are two campaigns with one played as the NSA and the other played as the Viron. The campaigns aren’t really separate; just one campaign split in two. As I said earlier, the story wears thin across those missions and wouldn’t have minded losing one or two of the missions to tighten things up.
The missions usually fall into one of the following three categories: requiring you to take or defend key victory spots or bases; escort someone to safety; or sneak into a base to get some intel. I enjoyed the sneaking ones the most and the escort ones the least; I hate it when a missions fails because some key unit forgot to duck. Unlike standard RTS games, where you need to worry about building bases and units quickly, most missions that I had to repeat I was able to identify where I faltered and adjust my strategy for the next go-around. As a result, replays were more fun than frustrating as I learned if my new ideas worked well. The enemy AI is horrid, and most of its actions bordered on sheer stupidity. For instance, one mission required me to defend a base for 30 minutes and the AI had managed to wipe me out several times. However, it wouldn’t take the landing zone I was defending away from me, thus denying me the ability to bring down reinforcements. As a result, I was able to keep dropping a handful of units on the LZ so I could still control it and win the mission; I really should have lost it badly. The AI is also famous for sending one unit down to capture a Victory Location, only to have it get blown away by a nearby defender minutes later. Instead of applying general tactics it will just zerg you with its units. That’s not to say the game isn’t challenging; it will still put up a good fight, although a somewhat brain-dead one. Your own units aren’t any smarter, either, and require a lot of babysitting to get them to do what you want. They are too dumb to scatter when hit by artillery fire and will stand there letting their buddy get shot, doing nothing because the attacking unit wasn’t visible to it.
In addition to the weak AI, GC2 also suffers from control and path finding issues. You can use the standard commands to control your units: ctrl-# to assign them to a group; double click a unit to select all similar nearby units; and right-click to move them. The first problem I ran into was in grouping the units. If I took a unit and made him a member of Group One, but changed my mind and moved him to Group Two, he would be a member of both One and Two; therefore, he’d perform movement commands assigned to both groups. I’ve yet to find a RTS game without path finding issues, so I’m not surprised GC2 has them. Units seem to take arbitrary paths getting to destinations, with half the group one way around a hill and the other half going another. You’ll get units that stay behind, refuse to move for some reason and units that just seem bent on doing their own thing. Getting my armor units across some of the bridges in one mission was an unnecessary exercise in micro-management.
There’s an additional component to the units that aids control frustration as well: secondary attacks. Switching a unit to its secondary gives it a different attack, like anti-armor rockets, but also prevents the unit from moving. This really becomes a pain when you selects units that are not all in the same firing mode - hitting the “toggle position” button first puts all the selected units into secondary mode, requiring you to press it again to get them all out of it. Other times, the secondary attack severely limits some unit types like the Sniper, whose primary attack is actually on its secondary mode. The secondary attacks are a nice idea, but poorly implemented, especially given how vital they are to the unit’s success.
You won’t find much originality in the units themselves, either. You’ve got the usual mix of infantry, tanks, airborne units and scout vehicles – naturally with light and heavy variants of each. The combat model follows the tried-but-true “rock, paper, scissors” model, that while basic, gets the job done. No one unit seems to dominate the battlefield, but the NSA Liberator tank seemed to give me the most bangs for my buck in terms of effectiveness vs. price. The other unit I got a lot of use out was the Siege Soldier, a heavily armored infantry unit with an effective anti-tank secondary attack. One thing that is nice, though, is you can use your drop ship to help defend the landing zone when it drops off new units; that usually gave me that little bit of an edge to help win the map. The only unique thing about the unit types is that the Virons have the ability to meld two similar units into one stronger unit.
The individual maps, while visually appealing, follow the “connect the victory locations” model, leading you through various choke points until you get to the last spot required to finish the level. While they all aren’t like this, the vast majority of them are, with the differences being terrain and how many units the enemy tosses at you. Your infantry units can go in most of the buildings to take cover, but you have no idea how many units the buildings can hold, so you end up with units standing around the entrance getting shot because you told too many to go in. One area that GC2 differs from its competition is in how well the units take advantage of terrain; your units will be harder to hit in forests, and units at a higher elevation get bonuses to hit enemies below them.
Other reviewers have harped on the default control scheme, but it didn’t bother me too much. Like most games, pushing the mouse to the edge of the screen scrolls the map, but in GC2 you can use the 3rd mouse button to change the view angle. The only annoyance I found was the tendency for the camera to hug the terrain, often sinking down to the bottom of a gorge as I passed over it. This made getting units over bridges needlessly annoying at the worst and incredibly frustrating at the best. The rest of the controls seemed fine, though.
Where the game really shines is in its graphics and sounds engines. Simply put: this is the best looking RTS title I’ve ever seen, beating out Command & Conquer: Generals. The water is fully reflective and the terrain and landscaping look fantastic. The particle effects on the explosions and tracer fire are a very easy on the eyes. You can zoom in down to individual units, which shows an amazing level of detail as each of the units have suble actions they perform while fighting. The sound engine packs quite a wallop as well, as the explosions hit the subs quite nicely. The voice work isn’t bad, and the only discontent I had was with the individual units and not the main stars. When the units acknowledge your commands or are getting hit, the sayings get very repetitive and annoying. There’s only so many times you can hear a unit go, “They’re aiming for my ass”, or, “I can do that, Sir” before you start to reach for a whiskey bottle.
Multiplayer is hit or miss, and feels more like an afterthought than a design element. There are two hosting services: GameSpy and their proprietary service, Massgate. While the multiplayer is stable, there are only 10 maps and the game plays out more like a death match than a strategy game. I wouldn’t buy it looking for hot multiplayer action anyway, as there were few people online looking for games when I was doing the review, so as a result, I wasn’t able to get as much time on the MP component as I would have liked. Also, you can also only play the NSA and Virons in MP; it would have been nice to kick booty with the Terrans.
I only ran into one big issue, and it was doozy. About halfway through the game I went to test out the multiplayer component. When I did this, I registered for my account on Massgate and installed the requisite game patch to bring myself in line. The patch completely wiped out both my saved games and my completed missions, forcing me to start over without any warning. I can understand if for some reason the patch voids the save games, but give me a pop-up during the install that tells me that!
At the end of the day, Ground Control 2 is a fun game that’s a decent addition to the library of any fan of the genre. It’s not a revolutionary product, but at least its detractions are standard issues with any RTS game. They’ve made a decent attempt having a plot tie the single-player element together and it’s well welcomed; too many RTS games are just skirmishes strung together hap-hazardly (Command & Conquer: Generals, anyone?). The game play is engaging if you’re willing to work through some control issues. I only wish the multiplayer mode was better and more popular. Even though the RTS genre is starting to get stretched too thin, fans will enjoy GC2; truth be told, there are certainly a lot worse RTS games out there right now.
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