Marrying old-skool RTS action with an explosive cinematic storyline, Act Of War is perhaps best described as 'Command & Conquer goes to Hollywood'. The plot reads like one of those embossed military paperbacks your dad reads, full of power-crazed Russian tycoons plotting to overthrow governments and terrorists attacking oil rigs in the desert - no surprise then, that the story was penned by blockbusting thriller hack Dale Brown.
If it really was a film it would be macho action fluff of the worst kind, but as a game it's a very different story. Here, the formulaic material is forgivable, not only because it's actually kind of fun, but because it provides the backbone for a genuinely outstanding RTS.
Good thing really, as the storyline in Act Of War frankly does not bear repeating. It's very silly and implausible, but suffice it to say the themes are global terrorism and tensions over oil reserves and the style is hard-nosed Hollywood techno-thriller. After a brief scuffle in the Middle East, the game kicks off in London - The Mall and Grosvenor Square recreated with at least partial accuracy - and takes in locations such as Capitol Hill, downtown San Francisco and the Egyptian desert. There's no shortage of substance here, with a 14-mission solo campaign (split into 32 chapters), a robust skirmish mode and the usual online qualifications.
And it all looks absolutely delightful. The graphics are rich and meticulously detailed; the maps are large and packed with furniture - often housing hundreds of destructible buildings and dense foliage. The zoom range too is superb, allowing you to close right in to see the grimaces on your enemies' faces, and the effects are suitably extravagant.
NUTS AND BOLTS
As big as it is on spectacle however, perhaps the finest thing about Act Of War is the way it simply gets all the basics right. Starting with the C&C/Red Alert template, the game tweaks, expands and eschews as it sees fit, keeping only those things that have proven their worth over time. So, you have classic base building, with a familiar assortment of barracks, vehicle platforms, defence turrets and so on. However, to remove the monotony of the building process, base building is semi-automated, with essential buildings often already in place or quickly built for you once a perimeter is established.
You have a single resource - US dollars - but it can be gathered in several ways. One is by drilling oil and trucking it to a refinery, but to take the pain away this always occurs within the perimeter of a base camp. Other ways include capturing financial institutions, rescuing captured soldiers and taking enemy POWs. The latter is particularly interesting, and forms part of what the developer calls 'human resource management'. The idea is to give you more options than just 'dead' or 'not dead', and encourages you to heal injured friendlies, repatriate downed pilots and capture as many enemies as possible. POWs earn you dollars, but they can also be interrogated for information about enemy placement, making them the equivalent of a spy satellite.
There are countless other game mechanisms I could cite, and while few of them are entirely new ideas, all are implemented with the same elegant simplicity. The healing radius of ambulances, the shortcut button to find snoozing constructor units, the way DEFCON levels are used to divide the research tree - all add to the game's general sense of functionality and intelligence. Even things like pathfinding and camera control are pleasingly difficult to fault.