Reviewed: November 9, 2002
Released: September 30, 2002
Conflict: Desert Storm is the first big release from Take 2 Interactiveís spin-off developer, Gotham Games, and probably one of the most engrossing and exciting action games Iíve played this year. At first glance you would be ready to pass this off as your typical 3rd-person action/military combat game, but if you take the time to sift through the deserts of Kuwait there is a fairly involved strategy game hidden beneath the dunes.
As you might guess from the title, the theme of this game revolves around the Gulf War and the role that US and British SAS troops played in that conflict. Two things surprised me about this game right up front. The missions are based on actual missions from the real campaign, or at least the parts that have been declassified enough to make into a game. This is always a plus for the realism fanatics.
The second thing that was noteworthy was the fact that these missions are very typical of missions found in just about every other game of this type, so either life imitates games or games imitate life Ė you decide. Missions vary from escort and rescue, to recon and search and destroy. In retrospect, what else would you do in an armed conflict? I guess games do imitate life.
As mundane as these missions seem, the fact that they are set in an historic conflict that took place when most people playing it were alive and old enough to appreciate adds some extra involvement for the gamer. Some of you may have a brother, uncle, or even a parent that fought in this war.
Desert Storm plays out like most other third-person action games, but with a few subtle RPG differences that arenít easily apparent at first. There is also some excellent strategy and squad control tactics tossed into the later missions. While the team AI is fairly descent, you will still want to baby-sit your squad just to keep them out of trouble and plan some more elaborate strategies.
The game opens with an amazing movie that captures some of the action you will be experiencing when you get into the game yourself. It really gets you pumped to play this game. Then itís off to boot camp where you take part in some extensive training in weapons, vehicles, and squad commands. Once you graduate from boot you should be comfortable with the commands and more than ready for the rigors of war.
Each of the 15 missions our prefaced with a detailed briefing where you goals and objectives are laid out on an overhead map. You might get some recon photos or satellite surveillance to assist you in locating enemy targets. Everything is presented in a clear and concise interface and can be recalled anytime during the mission. The map is especially useful as it shows your location in relation to any of your numerous waypoints.
You start off as the lone commando for either the US or British SAS. Regardless of which side you choose you will always get the same missions. Only the uniforms and accent of the characters change based on your country affiliation. Still, itís nice to be able to choose and the SAS have some cool uniforms.
After dropping out of the chopper you must rescue a member of the previous strike team who is being held captive in an enemy detention center. He was supposed to have blown up a bridge but got caught during the mission. You must rescue this guy, retrieve the confiscated C4 and finish the job. There are plenty of soldiers, tank patrols, sentry posts, and other hazards that make this much more challenging that it may seem in the briefing.
During the mission you will get to employ all sorts of real military tactics including stealth, and weapons combat. Staying out of sight is your best defense so making use of the crouch or even prone position is always a good idea when enemy soldiers are nearby. Using objects and buildings as cover will allow you to get close to your target and take them out swiftly and silently.
The entire wartime atmosphere of this game is captured perfectly. As you approach the first enemy outpost an allied plane swoops in and bombs a nearby tank. Itís as scary as it is impressive once you realize they werenít after you. Enemy AI is very impressive. If you kill a guard and another one sees it they donít stand by like nothing happened as in so many other games. This means you need to recon each area and take out the enemy in a very specific order, otherwise you will bring the entire base down upon you, especially if the alarm is sounded.
In the example of the first encounter you have a guard out by the bridge who is in plain sight and an obvious target. What you donít see is the guard inside the nearby building facing that guard. If you kill him the second guard is about 6-feet from a radio and plenty of back up.
The solo missions are pretty easy since they are what most gamers are used to. Once you have additional troops under your direct control things become a bit more complex and a lot more strategic. You will need to plan each strike meticulously and position your men precisely before launching any type of offensive. Despite the above-average AI, there are still going to be times that your men will blow the mission for you if left unattended for too long. This can be annoying and forces you to save often and baby-sit each soldier before and during each battle. One particularly annoying loss resulted from one of my men tossing a grenade at the enemy before he had a clear line of sight. The grenade ended up bouncing off a concrete column and landed in the middle of my team. Earl Ė clean up on aisle four!
My main regret with the command interface is that you must order your men around rather than simply take control over them and move them yourself. This would have been so much easier and more intuitive than picking each man and then targeting them like a weapon. You can still get the job done and plan some pretty impressive and organized attacks, it just takes longer than it should and probably longer than many of you will have the patience for.
One of the best features (assuming you have at least one friend at your disposal) is the multiplayer cooperative mode. This actually lets you play the main campaign in a cooperative split-screen where each player commands up to two soldiers. This is a great feature even though your first big battle will be deciding on who gets to play which characters. It also helps to have a large TV.
The Xbox version even supports a four-player mode but this was problematic every time we tried it. The views are just to constrictive and for some reason the game takes a big hit in performance trying to update the view ports and handle the input from four controllers. Desert Storm predates the Xbox Live service, so there is no online play this time around.
One of the more subtle aspects of Desert Storm is the RPG-like attributes that are hidden beneath the surface of this action title. As you and your men use certain weapons more and more you will gain added proficiency with that weapon. This actually allows you to customize and create a well-trained killing team. The only problem results when you put all your training of a particular weapon into one man and he dies. This is a great system that rewards your patience and actually lets you develop a symbiotic relationship with your team. Youíll actually feel sad when your sniper bites the dust, at least until you reload your save game and bring him back.
Donít think that you can abuse the save game in Desert Storm. While you can use it to save your sorry butt, you are limited to only two saves per mission. Some missions are quite lengthy and you will inevitably be playing many of them over. By design, a majority of the missions are trial and error as you seek out the best approach to each objective and the best tactics and strategy for each encounter.
The graphics in Desert Storm are pretty good, but nowhere near the quality you would expect of an Xbox title. Since this game was cross-released on several platforms including PS2 and PC I am guessing the Xbox version falls victim to the limitations of being programmed for the lowest common denominator Ė in this case the PS2. While I havenít played the PS2 version, the graphics on the Xbox version look very typical of similar games I have played on Sonyís box.
The animation of the men is very good and the detailed textures are excellent. The camouflaged uniforms are amazing with wrinkles and subtle details like insignia, belts, holsters, and all sorts of military equipment strapped on. When you hit the dirt and start crawling it looks just like those old war movies.
The levels are large and it can take you many minutes to get from point A to B. There isnít a lot of scenery to catch your eye. Of course Iíve never been to Kuwait so this could be how it really is, but it just doesnít make for an interesting game. You might see the occasional rock, shrub, or cactus, but thatís about it. Youíll eventually come across buildings, but they are simple four-wall structures with no furnishings; not even a broken chair or table. The exception to this are the buildings that are part of the mission. These will have appropriate furnishings and items that you can often interact with.
The game features a decent draw distance considering there is hardly any use of fogging or other cheap masking tricks. All of the textures are crystal clear, yet suitable blurred on distant objects to give you that perceived illusion of depth. The skies are pretty simple with very subtle clouds. The occasionally bird or flock or birds will dot the sky and you can even view them with your binoculars and watch them fly. Just donít get shot while youíre bird watching.
There are gorgeous lighting effects including some of the best sunlight, shadows, and cyclic lighting for night and day lighting I have seen in an Xbox title. The low light of dusk or dawn creates long shadows on objects and can make things difficult to spot and identify. Of course, shadows can also help conceal you on stealth approaches.
The camera is pretty good for the most part. It keeps a good angle on you and the action and you are free to move it around as you see fit. There are a few times where you can get yourself into a position that the camera canít track accurate. These often involve buildings, canyon walls, or steep drops down hills or dunes. This is more likely to happen when you are crawling in the prone position.
The sounds of war are reproduced with great clarity and authenticity. Each weapon has a unique report. Air strikes are summoned with the appropriate radio chatter and static followed by the sonic swoosh of a plane and ending with a giant explosion. The rumble of the tank is ominous, especially when you are lying in a ditch peaking over the rise as it grows nearer to your position.
The speech is great and you get the charming British accent when you choose to play the SAS. Your trip through boot camp is almost humorous with the over-the-top drill sergeant lifted right from Full Metal Jacket barking out orders. I feel sorry for the actor who had to record these lines. He probably still has a sore throat.
The music is very simple and consists of the same few bars being repeated over and over changing in octaves occasional to break up the monotony. It does get a bit more exciting during an encounter indicating the enemy has spotted you. Of course by then you should already see bullet trails streaking toward your location.
Tackling the 15 missions will take the casual gamer around 20-30 hours. There is a lot of trial and error involved in many of the missions and even after you have won the scenario you are often tempted to try it again using a different tactic or approach. There are also three skill levels that let you fine tune the game to your own personal skill level.
The cooperative multiplayer is a great features and one that I wish more developers would start using. Not everyone wants to play Deathmatch or Capture-the-Flag. In games such as this where you are in command of multiple characters, it only seems natural to offer multiple gamers the opportunity to control multiple characters.
Conflict: Desert Storm is an acquired taste. The opening movies hooks you and the training missions make the game seem innocent enough. Once you start playing however, the true nature of just how difficult this game really is become quickly apparent. This is not a game to be approached by the casual action gamer. There is a lot of strategy, planning, and even some character building required to achieve maximum effectiveness and mission success. For those of you prepared for the challenge, Desert Storm delivers an excellent combat simulation experience set against an historic event that many gamers will be able to relate to either directly or indirectly.