There's also a nice sense of variety in the level design. Tactics are exposed naturally and gradually, as each new level offers up a challenging new set of objectives and constraints. One level takes you straight
from a scene of relatively open desert combat to the narrow, ambush-strewn lanes of an oil refinery, forcing you to adapt quickly to the new surroundings. Another denies you access to constructor units just as you're starting to rely a lot on familiar infrastructure.
Admittedly, the tactics on offer are not the most complex. 'Assault with overwhelming force' is often your best option, and not necessarily discouraged by the game, especially in the early stages. However, there are plenty of subtleties to discover as well. Infantry units, for example, can be loaded into buildings to give them protection and elevation, something that's often essential to clearing tight urban areas. At the same time, snipers can be used to take out enemies who would otherwise be hidden inside structures - not to mention that all the buildings in the game are destructible. In open terrain maps, a similar effect can be gained by hiding units in trees.
Beyond this, the game simply reinforces the most basic tactics of real urban warfare. The full gamut of combined arms units must be deployed to take an enemy position, as each has its own set of vulnerabilities. Tanks, for example, are useless against an enemy-held stronghold unless supported by infantry - one terrorist with an RPG can make mincemeat of your heavy armour in no time. Air bombardment is a wise precursor to any rolling attack, but anti-air defences are best dealt with by mortar teams and heavy snipers.
It definitely takes time for these factors to emerge, and one major criticism is that the game takes so damn long to get up to speed. For the first four or five levels I was convinced the game was all flash and no substance, and it was only with the emergence of the SHIELD units (see 'Shield Ready', page 73) that things started to get interesting. After that, Act Of War grew on me the more I played it.
Saying that, there are a few issues that need mentioning. For a start - that familiar gripe - the enemy AI is a little predictable, and there is a certain lack (or at least unevenness) of challenge as a result. It's also surprisingly easy to lose units, especially in the more rubble-strewn areas of the maps, and you have to be extremely conscientious with your unit management. On a pettier note, the icons in the build menus are terrible - not at all illustrative of their purpose - and there's an occasional bit of slow-down evident in big battles on minimum spec PCs.
As for the skirmish (or engagement) mode, it's a resolutely traditional affair, with 18 run-of-the-mill maps all turning more or less on a compromise between security and proximity of resources. While it's perfectly playable and sound, it pales next to the spectacle and excitement of the main campaign, and is more of a side salad than a second helping of meat. Hopefully the online game will prove more interesting - see Online Zone in a couple of issues' time for a full report.
Needless to say, none of these complaints is a deal-breaker. Act Of War takes the old-school RTS formula and enriches it in countless cool ways, using the lessons of the past decade to create a single-player campaign that's as valid and exciting as anything else in the genre. Add production values to make EA sweat bullets and you've got yourself a very tasty proposition indeed.
Old-school and loving it
- Stunning visuals and high production values
- Strong (if ridiculous) storyline
- Gets all the RTS basics right
- Some nice innovations, especially 'human resource management'
- A few dull levels, especially at the beginning
- Tactically simple