Reviewed: April 25, 2005
Released: March 15, 2005
Even for a hardened spec ops soldier like you, watching while San Francisco burns is a breathtaking and terrible sight. As your gunship transport swoops below the Golden Gate Bridge coming in to a hot LZ, you can hear explosions coming from Fisherman’s Wharf; see the flames engulfing the ritzy hotels and townhouses near the waterfront. Terrorists now control the port and are blasting their way out with the heavy guns they sneaked aboard a super freighter. Police SWAT and National Guard are doing their best but they won’t hold out long against heavy battle tanks.
That’s where you come in. You’re Sergeant Major Jefferson, leader of the Top Secret, super hi-tech anti-terrorism unit, Task Force Talon. You’re America’s best garbage man when the trash needs taking out, and saving a major U.S. city from all-out assault will be the biggest clean-up job of your career. No one could have imagined the war on terror would hit so hard so close to home. This isn’t just another skirmish in the battle against terror; this is an act of war.
Act of War: Direct Action, the new title from Eugen Systems and Atari, combines the frantic pacing and plot twists of a techno-thriller with challenging real-time strategy action. That’s not surprising considering the plot and characters are based on the latest novel by best-selling author and former Air Force officer, Dale Brown. Act of War takes players on a roller coaster from San Fran to Egypt to Moscow and even Washington D.C. as Jefferson hunts down the ruthless terrorist cabal known only as “the Consortium.”
Sound farfetched? Sure – Act of War’s story ranks on the believability meter somewhere above Bourne Identity and below this year’s season of 24. Melodramatic acting, horrible Russian accents, and just silly dialogue often get in the way of an otherwise solid RTS campaign. Here’s a prime example of the so-bad-its-good dialogue.
Richter: Good job, Jefferson. Take your men back to base for some R&R.
Yeah, I remember fondly cracking sex jokes with high ranking officers during my Army stint. Quite frankly, I expected a much better background story in a game inspired by Dale Brown’s work. The developers may get kudos for shooting on location instead of relying on computer animation, but they skimped out when it comes to hiring decent actors.
On the other hand, I’m grateful strategy fans finally get a new shot at modern warfare gaming, instead of the first-person shooter crowd having all the fun with the Tom Clancy titles. Act of War does little to change the winning formula set forth by the Command & Conquer: Generals series, the last game to tackle modern warfare. Although resource-gathering is streamlined, this game is still all about building a base, collecting cash, then cranking out units to blast the other guy’s base off the screen. As with most RTS titles, you get to challenge up to eight other players on the GameSpy server after you’ve completed the solo missions.
But don’t write Act of War off as a tired knock-off yet, soldier. This game breathes fresh life into the strategy genre with amazing graphics and an over-the-top combat system that thrusts you onto the front lines of tomorrow’s war. As both a modern thriller fan and strategy game lover, I loved the cinematic plot twists and background story of the first-person campaign.
Act of War offers:
Act of War throws you straight into the action with no tutorials. You learn the game by playing the campaign, which starts off with small infantry skirmishes and graduates to full street battles. While new strategy players might be confused at first, the campaign does a great job of introducing new tactics, such as how to call in air strikes or protect your base from tactical nukes.
The cut-scenes suffer from melodramatic acting, clichéd writing and horrible editing, but the missions themselves are a rush to play. You join SGM Jefferson, Major Richter, and the sultry Lieutenant Vega on a hunt for the shadow leaders behind the Consortium - a hunt that will lead all the way back to the White House.
I don’t want to give too much of the storyline away, but the game is set in the near future when worldwide oil reserves are dwindling. There’s heavy unrest in the Middle East and Russian, and back home gas has hit $7 a gallon. Only one American company, TransGlobal Energy, is trying to use new technology to keep prices down and conserve energy.
What a coincidence that TransGlobal keeps getting targeted by terrorist attacks. Jefferson and Task Force Talon get pulled off hunting terrorists in Libya to protect an important energy summit at Buckingham Palace. During the summit, the CEO of TransGlobal gets kidnapped by terrorists, prompting you to fight a pitched gun battle from the palace into downtown London.
Things go from bad to worse. Soon Task Force Talon will be called on to defend San Francisco from a sudden all-out terrorist attack, to rescue TransGlobal oil fields in Egypt, and to help the Russian president when half his army stages a military coup. Of course, the terrorist groups and rebel Russians are all pawns of the Consortium, a group of powerful political and business leaders who want to rule the world by gaining a stranglehold on the last remaining oil supplies.
I’m sure many RTS fans feel the same way I do about constant base building in campaigns – bored to tears, that is. I give Act of War lots of credit for offering several infiltration or rescue missions where you have a set number of troops, or else giving you a pre-made base to add on as you please. The campaign pacing is also impeccable. Just as you think you’ve built up enough forces to win the day, Lt. Vega breaks in with an intelligence update that throws a big monkey wrench in your plans. For example, in the Russian missions I was almost about to march on the Russian command bunker when I got detoured to stopping terrorists from causing a melt-down at a nearby nuclear plant.
I was also impressed with how Act of War has such great balance between different units and between combat and resource gathering. All three factions have their strengths and weaknesses. The U.S. Army has some of the best tanks, artillery and air support in the game, but lacks super units with advanced technology. Task Force Talon is a high-tech lover’s delight – SHIELD battle suits that rush into battle with Gatling guns blazing, Spinner heavy tanks that can deploy bomb drones for blowing up strongholds from a distance, Comanche helicopters with stealth technology.
However, Task Force Talon’s weaponry is expensive and fragile compared to the other factions. The Consortium is an interesting mix of both cheap Third World units and the best equipment corrupt money can buy. Consortium players can field AK-47 armed militiamen and lightly armed BTR-80 armored personnel carriers side by side the Akula rail-gun tank. Did I mention the Akula also has stealth technology?
Every unit in the game has a function and vulnerabilities. Since Act of War is all about urban combat, infantry are crucial for grabbing buildings and setting up ambushes. Even the hardest battle tank can be scrapped if it wanders down an alley lined with anti-tank soldiers waiting on the rooftops. Likewise, one blast from a howitzer can wipe an entire platoon of Delta Force commandos. Air strikes are a quick way to clear a path for your troops, as long as your opponent doesn’t have SAMs or intercepting aircraft waiting.
The economy system is bare-bones and guarantees heavy fighting for scant resources. Players who try to “turtle” inside their fortress base before venturing out will soon find themselves out of cash. You can build oil derricks and refineries near your base to keep a steady income coming in, but to gain the upper hand you need to take and hold banks and key office buildings for extra funds. Oil drilling is a build-and-forget affair, but Act of War does demand micro-management when it comes to rescuing downed pilots or wounded soldiers.
When a vehicle blows up, sometimes the crew escapes and must make their way back to base. If you reach them first, you get money back, but if your opponent gets their first, he will earn the money instead for taking prisoners of war. Badly wounded soldiers must be quickly medivaced or else they can be captured or die. Keeping track of downed pilots and soldiers can be a pain in the ass during a major battle, but I vastly prefer sending out a helicopter to look for the wounded then sending out scouts to look for the next gold mine or mulberry bush.
The AI is decent yet not overwhelming on standard difficulty, but can certainly pack a wallop if you select expert mode. I played on standard mode to get through the campaign quickly, but most RTS veterans will find going advanced or expert to be a worthy challenge. The mission selection for multiplayer fans offers both small maps where resources will run dry almost immediately, as well as large team maps that allow for one or two frontline players to concentrate on defense while the rear echelon players provide the offensive punch. Competitive gamers will enjoy the military ranking system that promotes you for online victories, and every player will appreciate that Act of War is relatively lag-free.
The one thing really holding Act of War back from getting a top score is the clunky interface and poor path finding at times. You can zoom in the camera, but it is almost impossible to pan to different angles if you want to see around tall structures. This is a big problem if you’re trying to assault that building from two different directions. If a building is on fire, smoke will totally obscure the surrounding area, making it near impossible to find units. Storming buildings can be a confusing affair since units only appear as silhouettes inside structures.
The one command that drove me crazy was the basic move command – which orders units to continue to an objective without stopping to return fire. You have to click the assault button to keep your columns from merrily walking into a deathtrap. I also would have liked better controls in for formations, so that I could have vehicles travel in columns down narrow streets, or order infantry to spread out if they came under fire from artillery.
This game has the best art I have seen in a modern or sci-fi based RTS game. I was amazed at the campaign settings – Buckingham Palace, San Francisco’s Embarcadero, the Mall in D.C., are all recreated in perfect detail. The game seems to also get the look of modern aircraft and tanks (at least the ones I’ve seen in real life) down pat. At times I felt like I was watching the action from a top-secret Pentagon war room.
Most RTS games now offer landscape interaction, and Act of War incorporates nice details such as buckling fences, breaking windows and parked civilian cars that explode when you run over them with a Bradley. I’ve found air combat is the hardest thing for most RTS titles to depict well, but Act of War does a great job of capturing bombers coming in for air strikes or helicopters hovering over rooftops.
I’ve already discussed my major complaint with the limited camera options, which unfortunately killed any feeling of complete immersion.
The music and sound effects are just what you would expect for a techno thriller game. The gunfire and explosions sound realistic and the musical score is appropriately foreboding. Too bad the voice acting is forgettable at best or downright horrible at worst. The Consortium units are the worst offenders, with accents that sound like Russians who learned to speak English in Southern California. The cut scenes are even worse, with Major Richter’s obligatory tough guy talk and a Russian master villain who sounds like he’s auditioning at the community theatre’s Halloween production of Dracula.
Act of War has plenty of old-fashioned combat that will keep RTS fans happy for quite some time, but some glaring problems keep it from getting a higher score in this category.
I expected better writing and acting, for one. If the Act of War box didn’t claim to offer a “gripping story by NY Times best selling author, Dale Brown,” I wouldn’t be so picky. No major studio would put out such a low budget performance if Dale Brown negotiated movie rights, so it galls me that developers consider it ok to churn out half-baked storylines and brag about how they’re so cutting edge for the video game industry.
In regards to game play, I would have liked to have seen more factions or a chance to play the Consortium in a single player mission. The game does urban combat superbly but the open desert battles leave a lot to be desired. Combat is so deadly units desperately need city buildings or wooded areas for cover. There are no artic or jungle themed maps, which are now considered standard for many RTS titles. I’m also disappointed that the multiplayer maps are so generic when the campaign offers such lovely rendered maps of real cities. Replay value would have increased ten-fold if Act of War shipped with scenarios that gave teams the chance to slug it out in L.A., D.C. or Paris.
Despite these shortcomings, Act of War is still a solid, if not overly innovative, strategy newcomer. Longtime RTS fans will get their money’s worth spending full price, especially when they get to storm the U.S. Capitol in the campaign finale. Gamers who love techno-thrillers but are not particularly huge strategy fans may want to wait for the price to drop. It really comes down to whether you enjoyed the Starcraft and C&C series or not. Armchair generals will be pleased to find traditional gameplay updated with cutting edge graphics, strategy haters will find nothing new to grab their attention.
2004 was not a bad year for strategy games, but I’m sure many fans longed for a good modern warfare title to follow up C&C: Generals. Personally, it was a nice break for me to get the chance to blast away terrorists with 35-mm sniper rifles instead of hacking barbarians to death in Rome: Total War. The only problem is Act of War follows too closely in the footsteps of prior best-selling titles.
Modern warfare is an area developers could really get creative with, but Eugen Systems plays it safe by giving gamers more of the same. I admit the campaign is fun despite the sub-par cut scenes, and the urban combat is some of the best I’ve played to date. It’s too early to tell if updating the old RTS model with stellar graphics and realistic units will be enough to make Act of War a bestseller, but at least this title offers an interesting glimpse into what war might look like several decades from now.
I am glad to see that big time novelists are no longer just working with first-person shooter developers. Think of the future possibilities –a second Korean War game based on Larry Bonds’ Red Phoenix, a spy strategy game inspired by Tom Clancy, or a World War II strategy title with historical writer W.E.B. Griffin. I can only hope game companies will at least invest in some known actors and a good writing and film team if they want to continue adapting books for the computer.