Reviewed: November 8, 2004
Released: October 11, 2004
A buddy of mine, who used to earn his college money fighting wild fires during the summer, once told me it was hard, dirty frustrating work The big payoff, he said, was knowing that you saved somebody’s house from the flames. Then there was one hell of an adrenaline rush taking on a wall of fire that could roast you in seconds if you didn’t stay on your toes.
Wildfire, the new PC action/strategy title by Cat Daddy Games, captures the frustration of battling a forest fire. Wildfire takes the standard elements of a real time strategy game – build a base, pump out units, send them to die in wave after wave – and adds a unique twist. Smoke jumpers and bulldozers replace commandoes and tanks in your battles to bring down the wildfire before it consumes too much forest or burns somebody’s summer lodge.
But look elsewhere if you want heart pumping action or a sense of saving the world. The action is painfully slow, unless a fire begins to spread out of control and you’re seconds away from losing the scenario. Many of the scenarios involve protecting homes or campsites, but I never felt a real urgency to save them. The title also suffers from being too “educational,” passing on tips on how “only you can prevent forest fires” courtesy of Smokey the Bear.
As I stated earlier, Wildfire combines the objectives of a reality firefighting game with RTS mechanics. Players can choose open missions or take part in a long campaign. Each game starts with only a finite amount of money with which to hire workers and vehicles, and I never figured out how to get more money. Not only was I heavily penalized in points for getting somebody killed, but I also had no way of replacing charred units.
The units include basic grunts and bulldozers, as well as elites such as the smoke jumpers. The best unit, in my opinion, are the backburners. Armed with propane lighters, these pyros are supposed to burn off brush ahead of a wildfire, depriving it of fuel. Most of the time, I just made the wildfire bigger, but the backburners were fun to watch. Certain missions gave me the chance to use helicopters and bi-planes for dropping water and fire retardant on trouble spots. The planes only make one pass, so a bit of strategic timing is called for.
Starting with a home base, complete with a Smokey the Bear flag, I started pumping out grunts and bulldozers in the tutorial. Immediately I ran into trouble as I herded my grunts to a small patch of fire and clicked the extinguish command. I was still in the classic RTS mode of assign peasants a task, return to base and make new units. The wildfire spiraled out of control. No hints popped up to warn me what to do; the game only taunted me with “useful hints” in the game over screen. After a few games of trial and error in the tutorial, I learned the name of the game was stopping the fire by digging firebreaks before the flames reached a nice grove or patch of dry grass.
Suddenly, this game was less Command and Conquer and more Dig Dug, as I crisscrossed the map with big brown lines, hoping my little miners could outrace the inferno. Sidebars and overlays showed wind condition and fire intensity, but since I don’t possess a degree in fire science, I only paid attention to the big wind arrow to see where to dig my next ditch. There were only so many ways to stop a fire, so the action became quickly competitive.
The missions ranged from the ho-hum (save a campsite) to ridiculous (prevent the fire from reaching the fireworks stand in the middle of a freaking national forest). My favorite was “backwoods arsonists,” where just as I put out a fire another one sprang up on the other side of the map. I never saw those redneck jackasses, but in the back of my mind I could hear a guy named Jed hackling, “Fires sur’re purdy. And so’s your mouth!”
I will say my gameplay was never interrupted by annoying bugs or crashes, which is always appreciated in small release titles.
Wildfire shines in the eye-candy department. Each map is a gorgeously rendered 3-d wilderness, complete with old growth forests and mountains in the background. The fires are also amazing to behold, especially if the flames reach the taller trees and turn a small fire into a wall of impending doom. Smoke moves in the direction of the wind, which one would only expect from a title boasting “the latest in fire physics.”
As in most modern RTS titles, you can zoom in to watch the fire line or take an aerial view to direct more units to the fire. The vehicles are very well drawn, and it was fun to watch the massive Chinook helicopter take off with a massive water bucket in tow.
The ground pounding units are generic, although the smoke jumpers parachute onto the map, which is cool. When a unit dies, he turns into a little angel that goes up with the smoke. Call me sadistic, but having dying units collapse in a smoldering pile would go a long way toward making me care about my guys.
One thing that is lost easily in this game is scale. Since the map is several screens wide, it’s easy for a new player to think 100 acres is about half a screen. Wrong. A small patch of fire on the screen can represent hundreds of acres lost, and since players are scored on how much forest can be saved, that’s not a good thing.
The sound effects from the roaring fire to grunts shoveling dirt are well done. The music sounds like a made-for-TV movie, overly melodramatic but bearable.
Voice-overs are the weakest part of this title. It’s the same guy spouting lines like “pedal to the medal boss” for every unit. This might have been bearable if Cat Daddy hired Jake the janitor instead of Bob in accounting to do the narration. Having units give periodic radio reports would have been a nice touch, especially when a unit is in trouble. I’d love to hear “the fire’s shifting!” or “Oh my God, I’m on fire!” when one of my grunts took damage.
The first few missions were fun, but overall this title left me with little reason to replay it or even continue the campaign to the biggest infernos. It costs between $17 and $18 according to the websites I checked out, which all in all is a bargain price. Part of the game’s proceeds goes toward the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Program, so that offsets a cost I still think is too high. I might recommend this game when it drops to the bargain rack of $10 just for novelty value.
The sad thing is much of the true joy I derived from Wildfire came from using my backburners to create even bigger infernos all over the map, or watching the fire reach a fireworks stand and create pretty explosions as I lost.
The title is too instructional, too focused on fire “realism” to be fun. Every load screen brings you new and exciting fire tips from old Smokey the Bear, who endorsed this title by the way. I’m also bummed that the game’s scale involves only a few dozen firefighters at a time instead of hundreds battling a fire across a tri-county area.
I can only recommend this title to hardcore fans of firefighting games or professional firefighters looking for a new way to study for an associate’s degree in fire science. The rest of us will just have to wait for the makers of the Grand Theft: Auto series to come out with Backwoods Arsonists: Bubba Armageddon.