Place: a stiflingly hot mini-cinema in the depths of London. Time: losing track of. Event: the premier showing of the new Earth 2160 RTS. ?
As I struggle to hear the incoherent mutterings of two pasty developers over the deafening orchestral soundtrack, stunning sci-fi images of beautifully desolate landscapes, intricate pulsating techno-cities and dozens of cyber-troopers storming into laser-battles flash across the large projection screen. Feeling a little disorientated, I am suddenly compelled - after being bombarded by this Clockwork Orange-esque display for 20 minutes - to turn around and politely ask the PR bod in the seat behind me, "What the f**k is going on?"
Sanity. The volume is lowered, and finally I have an opportunity to find out more about the latest instalment in the incredibly popular (mostly in Germany) strategy franchise, that began with Earth 2140 in the mid-1990s and continued with an Earth 2150 trilogy that shifted over two million copies. Earth 2160 is actually an odd title, as the action takes place on Mars and other planets and moons in the solar system after our own planet is destroyed. Three earth factions - the female-only (no snickering at the back) Lunar Corporation, the android United Civilised States and the warlike Eurasian Dynasty - storm the red planet in a battle for supremacy, only in the process, they awaken another deadly force - aliens.
Yes, we've all heard this kind of gumph before, but after the initial shock of how god awful the presentation was, the fog of war started to lift and to my utter surprise, an incredibly impressive, futuristic strategy epic was revealed. Enough of being talked at - time to skedaddle back to the office with the only copy of the game for an exclusive hands-on.
Cripes. Earth 2160 is immensely complex - the keyboard shortcuts alone would fill a tome heavier than the last Harry Potter. However this is apparently what the developer wants to unleash - a game packed with resource management, massive tech trees with unlimited research, a modular construction system, single-player campaigns and multiplayer, graphics comparable with first-person shooters, and a comprehensive editor that allows you to make maps and your own machinima movies. This is an RTS with nowt taken out.
The main innovations are threefold: virtual agents, modular construction and free research. Virtual agents are similar to the heroes in LOTR: Battle For Middle-earth, but with more advanced features than just trainable skills, interpersonal relationships and an inventory. In simple terms, you can hire and fire 12 key agents, who take care of the stuff in the game that you can't be arsed with or have no knowledge of, such as increasing mining efficiency, conducting espionage and researching military tactics. The payoff is that they have a long memory - treat them like a PC ZONE freelancer (bully tactics, denial of food and water, ignoring personal requests, etc) and they won't work for you again, even going out of their way to stab you in the back by whoring themselves out cheaper to your enemies.
On to modular construction, which is basically the ability to create units from a vast collection of parts, enabling you to create custom buildings with different facilities, as well as mechs, vehicles and spaceships with unique purposes. Some buildings can reach six storeys in height - I cobbled together a medical research centre with a pharmacy, hospital, solar panels and research facility in a matter of minutes - and they can also take off and land somewhere else if your base is being threatened by hostiles. Army units can be built with different chassis, engines, armour, weapons and special items, so you can have a spider-bot armed with multiple lasers for frontline assaults, or an anti-grav tank with flame thrower and reflective armour for base defences - it's entirely up to you.