Reviewed: April 8, 2004
Reviewed by: Miguel Cervantes

Monte Cristo

Digital Reality

Released: April 8, 2004
Genre: RTS
Players: 4
ESRB: Teen


System Requirements

  • Windows 98/ME/2000/XP
  • Pentium 1 GHz or equivalent
  • 256 MB RAM
  • 12x CD-ROM
  • 64 MB DirectX Video Card
  • DirectX Sound Card
  • DirectX 9.0
  • 1 GB Hard Drive Space

    Recommended System

  • Pentium 1.4 GHz or equivalent
  • 512 MB RAM

  • In today’s gaming world, the multitude of interactive adventures offered in the World War II genre are staggering. Whether charging up the shores of Normandy to take out German machine gun embankments on D-Day or parachuting behind enemy lines to secure Pegasus Bridge many of us have become intimately familiar with the most harrowing and famous conflicts of the European Theater of War. Like a tenth outing to Disneyland however, many of these locales have begun to elicit a more subdued awe, handicapped by feelings of repetitive familiarity – the hedgerows of France, the beaches of Guadalcanal or the urban wasteland of Stalingrad – the overwhelming focus on the European and Pacific theaters of war has kept lesser known though just as vital spheres of the conflict on the periphery of the spotlight.

    With the release of Desert Rats vs. Afrika Corps, a real time strategy game focusing on the pivotal North African conflict in World War II, Digital Reality aims to shift the focus away from the green fields of Europe and on to the dusty heat-scorched plains of Tobruk and El Alamein. Desert Rats puts players right in the thick of combat. Using the famous campaigns of German Field Commander Rommel (also known as the Desert Fox) and his nemesis General Montgomery as a historical backdrop players can experience the North African campaign in an original single player storyline that blends both Allied and Axis perspectives.

    Adding a few spicy ingredients - emphasis on unit variety, realistic combat and visual effects so advanced that players may have to wipe the sand from their goggles – doesn’t hurt either, but did Digital Reality manage to capture the heat of North African combat, or does this title just wind up with sand chafing its shorts? Los, los, los - Read on soldat, and find out.

    For those familiar with any recent RTS – Warcraft III, Command and Conquer Generals, etc. – the gameplay in Desert Rats will fit like a warm glove. Utilizing a standardized left click ‘select’ and right click ‘action’ control scheme, Desert Rats gently eases players into the game via an in-depth tutorial and some easy early missions designed to develop familiarity with the controls and main characters. Of course, Desert Rats requires more than just a point here and click there; it introduces some new and unique unit command functions as well as integrating extra features into the interface, and because of this the tutorial bears special mention here.

    Nothing turns a player off from a game faster than having to read through mounds of text just to learn about a game’s special approach to unit-grouping or way-points. Desert Rats goes a long way toward alleviating this by including a detailed, yet very user-friendly tutorial that walks you through each element of the game via voiceovers and hands-on training. This is important, because Desert Rats differs from other RTS games in some important respects.

    Like Praetorians, Desert Rats eschews the traditional (Zug-Zug anyone?) resource gathering made popular by other RTS titles. Instead you are given command of a certain number of troops and vehicles, assigned certain tasks (some optional and some vital) for each mission and sent off into the desert sands to fight or perish as fortune dictates.

    Luckily for the player Digital Reality decided not to let fortune alone decide the outcome of each battle, to which end they included a remarkable interface menu that provides up to the minute information on unit movements, troop types, hero status and objective messages. Unlike another recent World War II RTS, War Times (which uses an interface similar to the original Command and Conquer), Desert Rat’s interface sits at the bottom of the screen ala Warcraft, providing mini-map info, a directional compass, basic command options and special icons, hero icons, unit icons and unit information in an easy to understand, combat ready package. This is important because once you and your troops have finished trekking though the desert sand and engaged the enemy the combat is often fast and furious.

    Anticipating the nature of such combat, Desert Rats allows you to issue orders concerning advance response behavior, so no matter where your units are on the battlefield you can exercise a general degree of control over them. For example, you can order your infantry to hold their fire while moving around, giving ample opportunity for sneak attacks, or order Medics to continually treat wounded soldiers wherever they may find them or even make sure that mechanics will fix enemy vehicles so that your troops can take them over.

    Having this degree of control, and implementing it through the intuitive interface, goes a long way in alleviating the confusion that often arises when controlling large numbers of troops and vehicles in combat. A helpful pause button (default spacebar) exists to stop the action at any time in case further strategizing is needed.

    The centerpiece of Desert Rats is the combat. Here players will find an impressive, gritty and visceral experience delivered with all the wartime panache an RTS game can muster. The arsenal at your disposal, aside from being historically accurate, is striking and diverse. Infantry is broken up into eight different classes – rifleman, scouts, machine gunners, medics, sappers (mines), flamethrowers, snipers and grenade launchers are all at your command and there are seven categories of vehicles, including transports, motorcycles, tanks, anti-tank artillery, anti-air artillery, half-tracks and air support.

    What this all amounts to are some tremendously intense and amazing battles that have to be experienced first hand. My own experiences were a tremendous amount of fun. Buildings can be garrisoned by troops, enemy vehicles can be taken over by your troops, sneak attacks and feints can be made and just about every building is shootable, making excellent target practice for my tanks. Every unit, no matter how powerful, has another unit that can effectively counter it and half the fun in the game arises from selecting the proper unit for the job.

    There’s absolutely none of the unrealistic nonsense you see in other RTS games where a gang of 10 rifleman destroy a tank with small arms fire. Infantry can be chewed up by entrenched machine-gun fire. Placed in the rear behind a pair of Panzer King-Tiger tanks however allows infantry to close in on enemy positions largely unharmed where they can then fan out and secure enemy buildings. In each and every situation Desert Rats tasks your strategic mind, every decision has consequences for you and the men at your disposal.

    As a final note, Desert Rats also adds a slight touch of humanity amongst all the desert carnage. Those units that survive missions gain experience levels. Units with higher experience behave in a manner very similar to their real-life counterparts, utilizing increased precision, coordination and the overall lethal effectiveness one can expect from battle hardened veterans. Once you’ve gained such veterans you’ll want to deploy them often but it’s painful to know that some of those valuable troops will be lost in every conflict.

    One of the first things you’ll notice about Desert Rats is an unparalleled attention to visual detail. From the first cinematic cutscene introducing the game’s heroes to the game’s crisply detailed in-game graphics Desert Rats sports some of the finest spit and polish displayed by an RTS in quite some time. Each and every infantry unit sports uniforms, weapons and utilities that are faithful to the time period in astonishing detail. When they run, you actually seem them run with anatomical correctness.

    Every little detail sparks life. Tank treads grind up the desert sand beneath them. Palm trees sway slowly in the wind. Smoke belches from damaged vehicles in thick black clouds. Explosions rock the area around them, tearing up trees, buildings and sandbags in orange-black balls of flame. Just about every animate object in the game casts a shadow on the ground. Aside from these small touches, everything just looks real – the people, the buildings, the vehicles, the harsh desert landscape – everything bears the unmistakable stamp of authenticity. It’s not made to be beautiful – North Africa in 1942 was not a beautiful place to be – but it becomes beautiful by its loving attention to every environmental nuance, it’s unabashed representation of the harsh environment and its rugged combatants.

    All of this graphical beauty does come at a steep price, however. System requirements call for a recommended 1.4 Pentium or equivalent as well as 512mb of ram. I tested Desert Rats on two configurations, an AMD Athlon XP and a Pentium 4 system, both with 1gb of ram. Both systems pulled through with good marks, but I noticed some slight bumps and jitters with the Athlon. Perfectionists like me will want to make sure that they have at least 512mb of ram for Desert Rats.

    This is yet another area where Desert Rat’s highly polished production values shine through. The sound effects are right on the mark – the thunderous boom of tank fire, the crackle of sub-machine guns, the thud of artillery mortars impacting themselves in the desert sand, everywhere your aural senses turn they are immersed in the sounds of desert combat during World War II.

    The voice-overs are superbly done, quite a rarity even in this day and age of advanced production qualities. During the cinematics each hero speaks English, but with an accent characteristic of their native country. French, German, British accents (even the gruff American Joe) – are all spoken with crisp aplomb, adding to the overall immersion of the storyline. In-game voices are spoken in authentic German, and it is simply a thrill to click on a German infantryman and have him respond to your commands in brisk, military Deutsch. It’s also very cool when dying British soldiers yell “Kraut!” as your tanks blow them to oblivion.

    The tutorial voice-over is another area of excellence, and for the record I think that there should be a law somewhere making if mandatory for ALL games to have tutorials narrated by British females – there’s some undeniably professional quality that’s damned sexy to boot.

    Wrapping up all these wonderful voiceovers and sound effects is a sweeping cinematic musical score that chronicles your journey well, managing to hit the all the right notes at the right times.

    Although the single player portion of the game is definitely Desert Rats biggest draw, the folks at Digital Reality also included a decent, though not massive, multiplayer setup for your enjoyment. Multiplayer supports all the usual TCP/IP/LAN goodies and also features integration with Gamespy (then again what game doesn’t these days?) to help you find erstwhile Jerries to combat over the internet. There are three game modes, supporting up to four players per map. My particular favorite was “Tobruk to El Alamein”, an attack-counterattack mode of play that offered quite a bit of frantic fun.

    When it comes to simulating desert combat in World War II, Desert Rats vs. Afrika Korps is without a doubt the premiere RTS title of its class. An excellent storyline, high production values, sweeping sound, impressive graphics and an attention to detail that would make my professors at Berkeley proud all combine to make Desert Rats one of the best World War II real time strategy games I’ve come across in a long time.

    Regardless of its historical setting, Desert Rats has the broad appeal of a game that gets things right. Fans of World War II or RTS game can’t go wrong with this one, and gamers curious about this era of history would do well to give Desert Rats a try.