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Act of War blown apart: First impressions and dev interview

We infiltrate Atari's blockbuster RTS and plant a Q&A bomb under Alexis de Dressay from developer Eugen Systems

Sometimes a game comes along that doesn't have a big name license attached, doesn't shout about a particularly innovative feature that's going to 'revolutionise the way we look at games!!!' and doesn't lug a ton of hype-laden baggage with it, but just makes us say, "that sounds cool."

Like Act of War: Direct Action. Published by Atari and developed by French team Eugen Systems, Act of War first came to our attentions last year with a couple of cool screenshots. "It's a PC RTS," we were told, "but the battles take place on the streets of some of the world's most famous cities, and you can blow up even the most well-known landmarks."

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See? That sounds cool.

Luckily, it looks like Act of War could live up to our expectations. We recently stormed Atari's UK HQ for a hands-on with the latest build of the game ahead of its March 18 release, and things are looking good.

The premise of the storyline - which was penned by multi-selling author Dale Brown, by the way - is that a conglomeration of terrorist forces have declared war on the free world. It's the near future, and oil is becoming extremely scarce so everyone's flipping out a bit. In order to ensure that the people who really deserve the oil (rich, developed countries with more cars than anyone else, like the US and the UK) much ass must be kicked with extremely heavy military ordinance.

The gameplay itself is fairly standard RTS fare, but it's done with a level of technical flair that more than makes up for the unoriginal mechanics. The battlefields are clear, crisp, and can be fully manipulated with intuitive flourishes of mouse and keyboard.

We were also especially impressed with the picture-in-picture video footage that pops up as you battle your way through levels, giving you additional TV news-style views of the action and immersing you into the experience more fully. Coupled with the surprisingly adequate full-motion video cutscenes, these aspects give Act of War a pleasingly slick Hollywood techno thriller sheen.

And while the group-and-point-and-click gameplay is familiar, the twist in Act of War is that much of this ass kicking takes place in locales that will be familiar to most of us. Early levels take place in an under siege San Francisco, with battles raging at the Golden Gate tollbooths or down the steep, terraced streets of the peninsula city. Later you'll take on the terrorists in cities like Washington D.C., London and Moscow.

And the inclusion of these real world locations isn't just superficial, either - every building in Act of War can be demolished to a pile of smouldering bricks, even if it happens to be the home of the Queen of England. Sorry, ma'am. As the crossfire starts and the big guns start going off, the amount of carnage in the environments is hugely satisfying - cars crumple under tanks, trees burst into flames, lampposts tumble and tarmac streets slump into craters.

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There's plenty of weaponry to perpetuate this level of carnage, too. Act of War purposefully concentrates on real-world military technology and near-future tech that is already in the testing stages. Units range from the standard infantry battalions to brutally silent stealth bombers, buzzing swarms of Apache attack helicopters, legions of armour-plated tanks and even planet-shagging strategic nuclear warheads. It really feels satisfying to command your troops into action, since the atmospheric effects like dust trails and the sound effects are so convincing. And when it all kicks off, the screen erupts in a hypnotic blaze of pyrotechnic pleasure.

Suitably impressed with how Act of War is shaping up, we sat down for a chinwag with Alexis le Dressay, director general and vice chairman of Eugen Systems. Here are his views on the state of the RTS genre, the terrorist fears of the world, and why Act of War's depiction of real-life cities won't stir up controversy.

The RTS genre has gone through a couple of lean years lately. Do you think there's still life in the genre?

Alexis le Dressay: I agree that maybe the first-person shooter genre has seen the greatest amount of quality improvements in the past couple years, I guess because it lends itself better to consoles and licensed products. Still, titles like Rise of Nations, LOTR: The Battle for Middle-Earth, Dragonshard and our own Act of War are all brilliant titles in their own right, and for totally different reasons.

What does Act of War bring to the table to revitalise the genre?

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Alexis le Dressay: It's important to respect the strengths of the genre and not confuse the player with irrelevant features, but a distinctly unique thing with Act of War: Direct Action is the focus on realism, mainly of course in the graphics department. There is no reason why an RTS game shouldn't be as visually pleasing and realistic as an FPS, or as entertaining or easy to get into. That's why for example, the whole game is to scale and we've spent a tremendous effort on detailed representations of real cities, such as San Francisco, Washington D.C. and London.

It's pretty evident that storyline and plot presentation is a very important aspect of Act of War. How important a consideration were these features during development?

Alexis le Dressay: The game is built pretty much from the ground up with storytelling in mind, from the way that mission objectives are defined and presented to the mix between in-game and live action cinematics. Integrating a complex story in a game is always a difficult exercise, and you need to be sensitive to the fact that some people find story elements intrusive. The pace and overall emotion of the story also reflects in the pace and character of the gameplay; as the story changes pace, so does the gameplay, and as the role of the heroes in the story moves from being reactive to active, so does the gameplay.

Author Dale Brown has penned the storyline. Did you give him a synopsis to flesh out or did he come up with the plot himself?

Alexis le Dressay: We already had a rough idea about the direction we wanted to go in and a bunch of suggestions for the overall storyline, and together with Dale we worked out a framework and structure so that we could start working with the game and level designs, and he could start working on a fully-fledged synopsis. A couple of months later the synopsis was ready, and from that we extracted the storyline for the game, and he extracted the storyline for his upcoming novel.

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What was it like working with Dale Brown?

Alexis le Dressay: It's been a true pleasure, we've kept in close contact throughout the project so that he has had a chance to review our scripts and level designs and game designs, and he's been a perfect bouncing board for all technical details. It's always interesting and refreshing to work with someone who comes from a completely different direction and can provide fresh looks and angles on game design.

Videogame plots are often extremely disappointing. Do you feel the games industry would benefit from a closer relationship with authors and scriptwriters?

Alexis le Dressay: Of course. To be able to grow and become a bigger part of mass-market entertainment, we must also learn how to tell stories that appeal to the mass market, using techniques that work. It's also important however to respect the constraints and potentials of different media, and that people enjoy different types of entertainment for different reasons.

Act of War features a lot of recorded cut-scenes with real actors, something that we don't see a lot of today. Why did you make the decision to use real actors rather than stick to CG?

Alexis le Dressay: Realism is a big part of the overall vision for Act of War, and we felt the only way to realistically convey the drama and tension of the subject matter would be to use live actors. The techno-thriller genre is all about suspension of disbelief, and no matter how realistic-looking CGI is today, it just breaks the boundary immediately when you try and show "human" emotion through CG.

On the flip side, the in-game graphics nowadays are so high-quality that there isn't the immediate quality clash that there was a couple years ago, and that kind of stigmatized live action in videogames. We've used actors for voices for a very long time though, and motion capture is pretty standard today, so I think it's only a matter of time until we will see this in most games.

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As you play through missions picture-in-picture video offers additional views of the action. What influenced you when you were designing how the player would see the action?

Alexis le Dressay: There are of course lots of sources of inspiration, both from TV, movies, literature, comics, and other games. Mainly I think it was just an overall wish to do something a little more cinematic-feeling than what we're normally used to in an RTS game.

You've made a concerted effort to generally stick with existing or experimental military technology. Did you find that doing so hampered your creativity in any way?

Alexis le Dressay: No, not at all, on the contrary almost. Using existing military equipment and realistic next generation technology was a very good starting point for the techno-thriller game like Act of War, just like the realistic cities in the game.

Did you have some cool ideas for weapons/units that you couldn't use or decided not to use?

Alexis le Dressay: Of course, we're saving some really cool stuff for the expansion packs and the sequel! Overall though, the selection of equipment and weapons has stayed relatively intact throughout the process, and I think we have a very good representation of what the future of warfare could be.

Were there any real-life units that you'd have loved to include but couldn't?

Alexis le Dressay: The Leclerc main battle tank... :p Jokes aside, making this selection to get characteristic, interesting and relevant vehicles was pretty tough, there's so much out there which is really cool.

Similar to your choice of units, the localities you use in the game are primarily based on real places and cities. What do you think this level of realism adds to Act of War?

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Alexis le Dressay: An emotional attachment and a sense of reality, and of course very cool and beautiful visuals!

Do you think you might spark off some controversy with your depiction of well-known landmarks and buildings and the fact they can be damaged and destroyed? Would such controversy be welcome?

Alexis le Dressay: Well, we don't really have any political message with Act of War, so I'd be surprised if anyone would take offense. It's more like in a Bond movie or when aliens blew up a number of real cities in Independence Day.

Basing combat within these cities must have been a bit of a programming headache. How awkward was it to do and how worthwhile do you think the final results are?

Alexis le Dressay: Of course mainly it's a technological risk, we throw around several million polygons on each level to be able to show these cities and optimizing down to the minimum specs was a bit of a headache. The obvious path finding problems however sort of represent real life; navigating narrow streets with tanks isn't always that easy. We always knew though that the real cities was going to be a huge part of the Act of War experience and we'd already seen the impact of them during the pre-production prototypes, so it was a no-brainer to keep moving in this direction.

The terrorist involvement in your storyline is also tapping into an extremely sensitive issue in today's global climate. How do you think people will react to that?

Alexis le Dressay: I think everyone has their own relation to the fears and problems in our world today, and will have their individual reactions. Our objective isn't to spark controversy or make any kind of political statement; it's just an action-filled, techno-thriller story with a relevant subject matter.

Do you think it's appropriate for computer games to deal with such contentious issues?

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Alexis le Dressay: Well I don't see that the story in Act of War is that contentious, but even if it were I don't really see why it couldn't be dealt with in a computer or videogame? It's not like we're glorifying violence or intolerance.

Command & Conquer: Generals drew some criticism for its portrayal of terrorist factions and they way it presented WMDs. Have you taken a different approach to the subject matter?

Alexis le Dressay: Well, I think we've taken a rather sensitive approach to a sensitive issue.

Some commentators are comparing Act of War heavily to C&C: Generals. In what ways would you differentiate Act of War?

Alexis le Dressay: Aside from the RTS genre and the near-future setting, there aren't actually a lot of similarities. The resource system is different, the scale, the settings, the storyline, the presentation, the level of detail, etc. You may see the similarities if you only look at the surface, but I think the overall experience is quite different.

What do you see in the future for the RTS genre?

Alexis le Dressay: There's still a lot of work left to do in the areas of user-friendliness and immersion, and the added potential offered by increasingly powerful hardware will of course make everything better and better looking, but RTS is always RTS so I'm not sure of the benefits of fiddling around too much with the formulas that make this genre so addictive.

Do further instalments in the Act of War series feature in that future?

Alexis le Dressay: Absolutely, we've already started an expansion pack and the various feasibility studies for the sequel. At the end of the day though it's the consumers that decide!

Act of War: Direct Action is due for release on the PC on March 18. You can find more screens, movies and additional info on this impressive-looking RTS here.

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