Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Developer: Eugen Systems
Release Date: March 15, 2005
Buy 'ACT OF WAR: Direct Action': PC
It's been a long time since I've seen live-action cut scenes in a video game. A really long time. The last time I recall them appearing at all was the campy (read: awful) cut scenes from the Command & Conquer series, but then again, they were supposed to be a joke (I hope). The last time I can remember good live-action in a video game was the latter members of the classic Wing Commander series of games, but then again, they hired real actors like Malcolm McDowell ("Star Trek: Generations"), John Rhys-Davies (Lord of the Rings), and Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker, duh!). But then Eugen Systems had to go and try and resurrect this dead horse, and somehow it works. Act of War: Direct Action, the new RTS on the block, is ready and set to blow expectations out of the water.
Although this may look a lot like Command & Conquer, it feels nothing like any of the games from that series. The game feels like they took old-school Starcraft gameplay and made a modern military RTS with it. This is a good thing, as Starcraft set the standard of what a competitive RTS should be, a standard that to this day I do not feel has been surpassed. What you get with Act of War, however, is an engaging and fun RTS with superb graphics and excellent gameplay, not to mention live-action cut scenes that, while not movie-quality, are better than they should be for appearing in a video game.
The plot of the single-player game is fairly complex, surprisingly good, and quasi-realistic to boot. Get this: they actually worked with a real author of techno-thrillers, Dale Brown, to come up with this stuff. In fact, the game's plot is closely related to Brown's most recent novel, Act of War (surprising name, huh?). It's amazing what happens when you hire real actors and writers, instead of having the janitor do it on the side.
Basically, without giving too much away, the world has finally reached a major crisis with oil. Oil is selling for $75 a barrel, driving the price of gas in America above $7 a gallon and threatening to tumble the world economy. Most of the major oil companies claim that the wells are just drying up, that it's a simple lack of supply causing the insane prices. But is that the real cause? What if there were a global group, say an evil Consortium (wink, wink) behind this? When an independent oil company announces that it's invented a new drilling process to tap previously inaccessible oil reserves in Egypt, and that they will sell for 10% less than the current market price, all hell breaks loose.
You're Major Jason Richter, the commander of Task Force Talon, an elite military unit under the direct control of the President. It's up to you to uncover what's happening and fight against the forces of this dark conspiracy on a global level. Early on, the game feels a lot like an interactive movie, with cut scenes segueing into short bursts of gameplay, followed by more cut scenes. However, as the game progresses, it begins to feel more and more like a traditional RTS, with all of the base building, resource collecting, army producing, and tactical combat you would expect.
There are three sides in this conflict: the US Army, Task Force Talon, and the mysterious Consortium. In the single-player game, you'll mainly be playing as Task Force Talon and working in concert with the US Army, with the Consortium as the enemy. However, Consortium is fully playable in the skirmish and multiplayer modes. The sides are all different enough to be interesting, and from my experience with the game, it seems to be fairly well-balanced.
The US Army has units that, for the most part, are only really good at doing one thing, butt what they lack in versatility, they make up for in power. Their constructor unit is the slowest moving of the three sides, but they can build anywhere on the map with no restrictions, and their units also excel at defense. If this were Starcraft, this side would be the "Terrans."
Task Force Talon has expensive, but powerful and versatile units. Many of their vehicles can fill multiple roles, and their infantry are very powerful at the start of the game. Their constructor units are cheap drones that get used up every time they construct a building, and they're limited to development only near other structures you control. However, unlike the other two sides, they have an infinite supply of power for their buildings as long as you keep your headquarters alive. Definitely the "Protoss" of this title.
The Consortium are somewhat bizarre. Early in the game, you have access to decent but very cheap units, the kinds you'd associate with a simple terrorist organization. Their major tech upgrade grants them Revealed status, after which their buildings take on a futuristic high-tech appearance and start producing the most powerful and expensive units in the game, such as the Akula stealth tank and the Optical Camo soldier, both of which are invisible until they attack. They also get a flying constructor unit, which can double as a scout, so as you may have guessed, I'm calling them the "Zerg" of this game.
There may not be a truckload of brand new innovations in the gameplay department in this game, but everything about it just works so well. Urban combat plays a vital role; infantry are relatively weak in the open field and can be run over by vehicles rather easily, but become very strong when they take refuge and fire out of buildings, or hide behind trees or other cover and perform ambush attacks. Trying to fight against infantry entrenched in buildings with nothing but vehicles can be hard, and generally is a losing proposition (infantry typically are much cheaper than vehicles, so if they kill even a few of your tanks, it's a great trade). The best way to deal with infantry inside buildings is with your own infantry, which makes them a vital unit throughout the game and considerably ups the value of vehicles with the ability to carry passengers. I would say that they finally found a way to make infantry interesting and useful, and even vital to winning.
Another interesting idea they've put into this game is that damaged units should be less effective than perfectly healthy units. When a unit is at around half life, it begins to move slower than usual, and at around 20%, it loses the capability to fight or move at more than a crawl. Units, however, also gain experience for fighting the enemy and living, which allows them to level up and get a slight boost to their total life bar. This leveling isn't anything major, but in a way, it rewards players for keeping their troops alive and repaired battle after battle, as it's a "free" way to upgrade your troops.
There's only one resource in the game – money – which is obtained in one of three ways. The most basic method is to build an oil derrick and a refinery near a patch of oil, which provides a fairly steady income. Some maps also contain special bank buildings, which start with a set amount of money, and the side that controls the bank slowly drains away the money. Surely the most interesting way to generate revenue is through the use of prisoners of war. Sometimes when you kill enemy units, instead of dying they will go into a critically wounded mode, allowing your infantry to capture them. Each capture provides a small monetary reward, and if you have a prison camp set up, it can hold a certain number of prisoners, generating a small cash flow for each imprisoned PoW.
Since seizing key sites such as oil fields and banks is important early on, you'll come into contact with the enemy very early, making the game a constant fight almost from the very beginning. Having a superior strategy and pulling off better tactics than your opponent will almost always lead to victory, as it should. Micro-managing your troops can give your side an edge in each battle, at the expense of taking your attention away from doing other things. This is a game where a small number of the right units used properly can take on and win against much larger forces. Massing a ton of the same unit is rarely the best way to achieve victory, and everything has an effective counter, which makes almost every unit in the game useful in some situation or another.
Keeping track of what your enemy is up to and controlling key portions of the map are both heavily emphasized and key to winning. There's just something ever-so-sweet about scouting out your enemy to determine their defensive position and state of their army, finding a weakness, developing a plan to defeat them, and then having the tools available to actually perform your strategy and see if works. The sheer amount of possibilities can be overwhelming, but once you get a grip on the game, things just begin to flow smoothly. Say your enemy is in control of an oil field set up on a plateau and has forces positioned at the mouth of the only ramp up to the top. You want to call in your bombers to destroy his refinery, but he has anti-air turrets set up in the area. Perhaps you could build a Black Hawk helicopter to airlift some Marines and Javelin (rocket-launcher troops) soldiers onto the roof of a nearby building, destroy the AA guns, and then call in your bombing runs. The ability to use multiple units in tandem to accomplish your goals is one of the best features of this game.
Graphically, this game is state-of-the-art. The buildings, tanks, and aircraft are all rendered very well, and for once, the tanks actually look like they should. If you just recently got a new system and want a game that can show it off, this will do the trick. You'll find a lot of "That's sweet!" situations in this game, like when you carpet bomb their base with your B2 Stealth Bomber or call in a tactical nuclear missile to pay them a visit. Practically everything can be destroyed, and doing so rewards you with explosions and swirling plumes of smoke. At the highest settings, the attention to detail is amazing, with buildings crumbling under barrages of shells, and smoke trails coming off of the backs of missiles as they zoom to their targets. The minimum requirement for the game is a 1.5 Ghz system, although a 2.2 Ghz is recommended. A decent video card with at least hardware T&L is recommended as well. On my Athlon XP64 3500+ with a Radeon x800 Pro the game runs beautifully with all the goodies turned on max. However, it's still easily playable on my 1800+ with a 9800 Pro.
For once, I can't really complain about the voice acting in a game. This sounds like they hired professional voice actors (which isn't surprising since they hired real actors for the live-action sequences), and the sound effects are pretty sweet, with tons of machinegun fire and explosions going off in every battle. The music isn't exactly great or memorable, but given how good everything else is, I can't really say I mind much.
I would recommend this game to anyone looking for a serious RTS … heck, I think even you casual RTS fans would love this one. The developers have put a lot of effort into every aspect of the game design, and it shows. Besides, in this day and age, who can say no to a long single-player campaign with a good plot and decent live-action cut scenes?
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