Publisher: HD Interactive/Sierra
Developer: Most Wanted
Release Date: September 12, 2006
Wow. I never want to play Joint Task Force again. I think it's an accurate recreation of the hell that is war, but not because it recreates it so well as much as it makes your leisure time activity into a painful, dog-walking, micromanaging nightmare that will give you post-traumatic stress disorder. I'm not entirely stupid in the RTS genre; I can hold my own in Star Wars Galactic Battlegrounds, Homeworld, and Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War. There are just so many little things wrong with Joint Task Force that even seeing the box again may give me conniptions.
Take the story, for starters. I won't linger long here since a good RTS doesn't rely too heavily on story, but every mission has obligatory movies to watch during the intro, another before the mission starts, and even during the mission there are news flashes covering your latest greatest hits. It's mostly throwaway and it ends up getting in the way of playing more than drawing you into the story.
JTF is a fairly pretty game to look at. It's not going to win any beauty pageants, and the arid desert motif will be plenty tired by the end, but the vehicles and characters and everything appear to scale, and without any rough edges on which to snag your eye. Explosions and combat in general look nice, but it's never an edge-of-the-seat thrill. Any potential excitement there is overshadowed by the mundane details with which you're forced to contend.
You set up shop in a corner of the map and have no budget (money is the only resource to fight for). You start building defenses with rocket artillery. You get attacked, and the first wave depletes your rocket supply. If you can't afford or access rearming materials in time, your vehicles sit there defenseless while the second wave rips through your now-hollow fortification. I swear, I don't know how the enemy builds units so fast. I have three tanks out, and they're moving four dozen panzer columns on my starting position. Did I miss something? Zergling rush, anyone?
The Campaign mode in JTF leads you around on a leash from point to point through each mission, with boringly simple objectives and no room for improvisation. Worse than the jabs at your intelligence is the in-game unit AI, which is so terrible, the developers included a Direct Control feature, designed not to pull you into their world, but rather to make you manually fix the path-finding they couldn't be bothered to put in the game.
Go forth, and save the world by blowing everything up. The first mission warned me to play it by the book to atone for my lead character's past transgressions and out-of-line behavior, but blowing up everything from start to finish (innocent cars, structures, fences, etc.) but saving the civilians didn't seem to really change a thing about how things played out. In fact, since the survivors of one mission get promoted and carry over to the next, it seems quite in your best interests to level the whole area if you can to prevent casualties.
Oftentimes, you'll have to flatten the landscape just to be sure, because the intel you're given is inconsistent. For instance, the "intel" can tell you that there is a house with some hostiles in it, but it can't somehow tell you where fixed gun emplacements are located, or how well-armed the bad guys are. You get a false sense of security since the fog of war shows all of the ground and buildings, but none of the hazards. Enemies can spot you before you can spot them, and clicking to attack requires Jedi-like precision, or else your troops just start walking, which is dangerous because they usually aren't bright enough to fire when being fired upon. They sometimes won't switch weapons automatically to deal with different situations, either (machine gun vs. tank = lose). There's a lot missing from the A.I. here that requires you to jump around and do way too much.
At least JTF offers Skirmish and Multiplayer modes to keep thing interesting when the Campaign mode gets old. However, this is where the bulk of my frustration came from, getting outnumbered and overrun mere minutes into each battle.
The upside to these modes is the variety thrown in for beyond good measure. You get standard presets like Deathmatch and Domination, but you can also set up a custom game where you can configure tons of things, ranging from how often you get money awards, to earning a percentage of the cost of each enemy vehicle destroyed. There are even crazier modes like Armageddon (all vehicles blow up after a set amount of time), Sudden Death (all units have health reduced by 90% after a set time), and Danger Zone (portions of the map progressively disappear from the edges and moving inward, and all units on disappearing areas are destroyed). You can also enable or disable the ability to get reinforcements and how much sponsorship money you get for each round. However, despite all of these good ideas, the game into which the devs slapped these modes doesn't hold up long enough to make them worth playing.
The games aren't terribly strategic, and the classes aren't nearly as clearly defined as you might like. Your medic will break ranks and leave his squad if he detects someone in need of aid, often running right out into a crossfire. Medics can't heal themselves, either. Everyone else is just a mish-mash of similar colors carrying a rifle, and all of the units can take so little punishment that the idea of building a solid fighting force goes right out the window. It might be more realistic, but I don't think it helps the gameplay at all.
While the voice-acting in JTF isn't anything special, the sound effects and music are decent, keeping the pace of things as upbeat as it can be, given how much downtime there is while you reload vehicles, properly arm and equip your soldiers (who will get killed two seconds later, even when using cover), and keep frantically trying to take a foothold on the map before being overrun by the relentless, non-adjustable enemy A.I. It's a good thing the title screen music is sharp since you'll spend so much of your time there. The standard in-game noises consist of the usual bang, ratatatat, boom, and some inane soldier chatter. I've heard entertaining soldier banter ... it was in another game called Full Spectrum Warrior: Ten Hammers. The stuff here was just to break the silence of standing around. Once given orders, each unit has about two responses they randomly spout, which get old after about three clicks. Your best bet is to go to the Options screen and turn off the speech.
The controls are pretty standard — you use the mouse to drag-select and do most of the legwork. The cursor keys move the camera, and the mouse wheel positions and zooms it. I didn't see much in the way of keyboard shortcuts, at least not in any intuitive way. You can refer back to the Options screen to see some of them, but it just adds to the tedium. You can assign squads to quick-select with the number keys, but again, they'll sometimes wander apart, especially those medics.
There are some technical concerns about JTF, too. I ran it on two video cards, a Geforce 7400 128MB and a Geforce 7900GT 256MB, and while it worked fine out of the box on the 7900GT, it wouldn't display properly at all on the 7400. This prompted the downloading of the 1.1 patch, weighing in at 191MB. Applying the patch fixed the big problem, but then it wouldn't draw any of my vehicles or characters in the actual game. After a few more minutes of fiddling with display settings, I finally got something, so about 1.5 hours after installation had completed, I had something I could play.
Despite the annoyances in Joint Task Force, I kept going back for more, just hoping that maybe I'd missed something, that maybe there really was a good RTS buried somewhere beneath all of the missteps. Alas, I couldn't find one, and I'm looking forward to getting it off my hard drive. Maybe if you only play multiplayer with other people who have to share in the frustration, you can salvage some good times from this, but since the computer never misses a beat, it's always got a leg up on you. Joint Task Force isn't as bad as Faces of War, but it's nowhere near the quality of Company of Heroes.
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