Reviewed: July 15, 2004
Released: : June 22, 2004
Were there “Ground Control Fan” card to carry, I would be carrying it. The RTS without base building to capture my interest, GC made what I assumed would be a shallow experience, truly entertaining and engrossing. With gameplay mechanics that focused almost purely on combat strategy, Ground Control succeeded at delivering an RTS that cut straight to the action but still gave the player plenty of cause to think and room to improvise.
With their newly released sequel, Ground Control II: Operation Exodus, Massive Entertainment and Sierra has set out to bring this successful formula up-to-date with deeper gameplay and a serious facelift. However, with so many other games now putting more focus on action, does Ground Control II have what it takes to compete?
Ground Control 2 features:
Part of Ground Control’s beauty was its simplicity—in many ways the game acted like a tactical sandbox, allowing the player room to experiment and approach any given situation as they saw fit. Of course, when unrestrictive gameplay is one of you selling points, adding depth is not always easy. Luckily, sticking to increased unit control, improved battlegrounds, and more adaptable A.I., Ground Control II has succeeded a creating a better overall experience.
Basically, each level starts either with the player having either a Landing Zone (LZ) or a handful of units to (usually) capture a landing zone. These LZ’s are extremely important to Ground Control II as they allow Dropships to land. Dropships are not only universally cool but also your lifeline, providing offensive and defensive units. You then set out to the task of accomplishing a series of missions (usually given during a real-time cut scene or on the fly).
Really, that is all there is to it. Aside from “buying” new units throughout the mission by gaining credibility through your achievements, that is the surface of Ground Control II in a nutshell. The actual depth comes from some excellent level design and the complexity of GCII’s combat engine.
Level design in GCII is almost patently brilliant and backed by a tactical engine that takes full advantage of the possibilities. Taking for more than elevation into consideration, GCII’s trees, for instance, block larger units while providing cover for smaller units.
When terrain plays such an important roll in the gameplay, level designers can make huge changes simply by adding a small patch of trees. The designers clearly made good use of this. Every level features plenty of terrain changes creating multiple defensive strongholds as well as weak points. This ensures no battle ends too quickly or ends in a stalemate. The oftentimes deceptively complex layout of these levels also allows for some creative thinking on the player’s part.
Ground Control II’s units are equally well thought-out. The humans arsenal is immediately recognizable as each unit closely resemble its modern-day counterpart. Aside from the engineering unit which heals and repairs structures and allied units, everything is immediately recognizable as a tank or a helicopter and so on. Surprisingly, this actual goes the same for most alien units as well despite their obvious extraterrestrial origins.
Each equipped with a primary and secondary mode, every unit does double in your army. Whether it be your foot soldiers warming up their rocket launchers for a little anti-vehicular mayhem or you howitzers digging in for some extra range, no one mode alone will win a skirmish. Instead, each mode is instrumental in victory. This also gives the player more tools to tinker with which in turns gives Ground Control II added depth.
Additionally, Ground Control II introduces an RPG-like experience system to its units. Those troops that have seen the most action begin to gain experience and, in turn, do more damage. This means that units who have, for instance, invested a good deal of time defending a hot spot will not only do their job better but, for the player willing to do a little juggling, be invaluable when it becomes time for the final push.
The variety of units is also key. As an example, a successful attack could launched from a base defending by your AA and shielding units (both provided by the same type of unit), snipers, and massive tanks that are as strong as they are slow. Howitzers would launch a steady stream of fire towards the enemy base, weakening ground defensive and tearing trough any hapless air units caught in this arch of devastation. Suddenly, the howitzer fire stops. Foot soldiers hidden in the nearby woods suddenly emerge to attack the bases preliminary defenses. Nimble air and ground units also scramble in to help soften enemy defenses. Soon, medium-sized offensive tanks roll their way into the picture while large helicopters drop off the sluggish and highly vulnerable engineering units along with a few of the aforementioned enormous tanks to play support roles.
It is this depth and complexity that really makes Ground Control II stand out as an excellent game. Although I am hard-pressed to think of a feature I haven’t seen in a game before, GCII mixes them perfectly. The results are balanced, engaging, and fun.
In terms of controls, Ground Control II gets the job done but not much more. In reality, there is very little to get wrong in this area if, as GCII does, the game follows the genre standards found in the Age of Empire series. Unfortunately, GCII hits something of a snag when it comes to camera control. While its rotation works fine, the camera has an unfortunate tendency to slide down at importune times and never seems to rise high enough to let you take in the entire battle.
Ground Control II’s graphics, especially when considering its genre, are nothing short of stunning. It is immediately apparent that GCII’s developer knew the look that they wanted and were willing to invest the time needed to only create it. Better still, they also created an engine capable of delivering said look at a healthy frame rate on my middle-of-the-road hardware.
Continuing the original Ground Control’s focus on highly detailed units, GCII features some amazingly complex models, each with its own fluid and stylized animations. Watching what is effectively the howitzer unit switch into its secondary mode is fascinating. Its metallic arms stretch out from the hulking chassis and its wheels slide inwards, Back to the Future style. This degree of detail where you will normally be too far away notice shows just how much love Massive Entertainment put into ensuring GCII presented a believable vision of the future.
In the end, however, There is no one aspect to highlight here—each facet of GCII’s graphics are almost unerringly impressive as the next. It is GCII’s overall aesthetic appeal that is so exemplarily. Whether the camera is in close to the action or pulled back to take in the entire battlefield, GCII’s graphics always shine. From gorgeous skies, rippling water, fluttering birds, and gorgeous weather effects, to brilliantly detailed buildings, dust-stirring dropships, and breathtaking artillery fine, virtually every facet of GCII’s graphics works to enhance or compliment the rest.
Generally I always struggle with what to say about the audio end of a game. It is not that I think it is unimportant; it is just that most games generally put less effort into this portion of their game than I would prefer. While GCII’s music and many of its sound effects hover above “average,” a few sound effects truly exceeded my expectations.
Bass, for instance, is used to great effect where larger vehicles are concerned. For instance, there is no mistaking an approaching Dropship as the noise from its engines turns from low growl into a thundering roar.
This also raises another point—Massive Entertainment has done an excellent job of allowing the player to discern one unit from the next by listening. There is enough variation that even similar units firing similar weapons have a distinct and unique sound. Hardly Earth shattering but a welcome addition nevertheless.
Ground Control comes with a host of versus and co-op multiplayer modes, two full campaigns, and a full-featured skirmish mode. The multiplayer portion provides the standard replay value one would expect and the campaign modes are of a healthy size and even tell a decent and well-delivered story.
Additionally, Ground Control II’s gameplay in skirmish mode lends itself to replay. GCII’s AI is highly flexible, appearing to respond to equivalent situations in distinctly separate ways. Because of this and GCII’s tactics-focused gameplay, each game in skirmish mode tends to play out very differently to the point where I happily played countless games on a single map.
Ground Control II is an excellent game, one of the better RTS’s out there, and arguably the best entry in its genre so far this year. Despite its stripped down gameplay, Ground Control finds a perfect balance between action and strategy. The result is a game that will appeal to explosion-addicted gamers and tactics fans alike.
RTS fans worried that GCII may be too barebones can put their fears to rest. Gamers who avoid the genre due to resource management and oftentimes-repetitive gameplay should give the demo a spin. Ultimately, Ground Control II is an expertly executed game from beginning to end.