All things considered, 2004 hasn't been a bad year for RTS fans. In fact, we've been spoiled, with the likes of Rome: Total War, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn Of War and LOTR: The Battle For Middle-Earth. Even lesser-knowns such as Kohan II and Codename: Panzers have been better than anyone expected. Whether 2005 will be as kind to the genre remains to be seen, but Parisian developer Eugen Systems is promising to give it a decent start with Act Of War: Direct Action.
At a presentation at Eugen's central Paris HQ, producer Bob Welch wasted little time explaining exactly what its goal was. "We want an action game with the sheen of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie," he explained. "We want to do for the RTS what Medal Of Honor and Call Of Duty did for shooters - total immersion. And for that, we need an environment that looks almost real."
Techno Techno Techno
Part of its strategy in achieving this has been to hire ex-US Air Force captain
and author of several successful techno-thrillers Dale Brown to consult on the
units and weapons, as well as the story itself. Set in the near future, a group of scurrilous oil companies known as the Consortium are launching terrorist
attacks around the world, prompting the involvement of our very own wholesome world police - the US Army.
This roughly translates to a game of three main factions, two of which are playable in the single-player campaign. You'll primarily take control of US task forces assigned to track down the terrorists, although you'll also get to mess around with a group known as Talon. In addition to playing around with Black Hawk choppers and Paladin tanks, you'll be able to get your mitts on prototype and theoretical technology. Talon not only has programmable drones at its disposal, but stealth units that can travel undetected.
Among the upgradeable bases opening up new steps in the tech tree and the superweapons reminiscent of C&C: Generals lie a few innovations. Resource collection is handled partly through capturing banks and oil derricks, although the latter soon run dry due to the world shortage of oil. The only option left to keep the coffers filled is to send your men out to capture prisoners of war. Keeping them locked up will bring in a steady stream of cash, although you also have the option of sacrificing one or two by torturing them for map information.
Perhaps the most promising aspect though, is the presentation. The graphics look great in the screenshots, but are gorgeous when moving. The effects aren't finished yet, but the real-time shadows look brilliant even at this stage, and still look great when the camera's
fully zoomed in.
It was also nice to see that several real-world locations have been recreated to fight across. As well as a promising-looking jaunt staving off a terrorist attack at San Fran's Fisherman's Wharf, we managed to sneak a peek at the unfinished London level. "We've arranged the game into chapters like a DVD," commented Eugen's co-founder Alexis Le Dressay, "to keep people playing to the end."
Even if it doesn't, there's always the multiplayer option. In this case, a skirmish mode playable with up to eight players on LAN or over the Net will be offered. It was this part of the game that we had the most fun with but, again, it offered few surprises.
It seems that AoW will have little new to offer upon its completion, and yet we still had a great time with the preview code. The multiplayer in particular feels instinctive, combining the splendid graphics engine and solid, satisfying unit combat to its gameplay. At the least, AoW promises to be a fine tribute to the genre that C&C made its own - we're unlikely to see a revolution, but it does seem likely that Act Of War could easily end up slotting into the gap that Generals seemed to inadequately fill.