Here comes the reign again.
Let's face it - the future is going to suck. Cataclysmic world wars, corrupt governments, chaos in the streets, horrible economic woes and dilapidated cities brimming with crime; what's there to look forward to?
At least that's the picture computer games like to paint. You never see a game that indicates that things may have actually gotten better in the future, that maybe over the course of a few hundred years we've managed to solve some of the problems we currently foresee. Nope. It's always overpopulation, warring factions and evil robots.
And so it goes with Activision's Dark Reign 2. The sequel to the underground hit Dark Reign, this is a pretty if unspectacular addition to the current crop of 3D real-time strategy games. And it doesn't make the future look any brighter.
The plot is the usual cookie-cutter sci-fi. As always, our weak ass Earth is again on the brink of catastrophe due to ecological poisoning and wars. The rich live in domed cities while the poor suffer the irradiation of the outside. The Jovian Detention Authority (JDA), a brutal police force, rules the planet. The only threat to the JDA is the Sprawlers, urban miscreants who live in the toxic, infected cities. As the Earth plummets to its doom, you take on either the JDA or the Sprawlers in a battle for survival. I swear, they must be coming up with these plots using Mad Libs.
Dark Reign 2's most promising feature is its graphics, which are indeed quite cool. Set in a full 3D world, the game engine allows for some very neat explosions and nicely defined units. Dynamic lighting and varying weather work together to create lush, vibrant environments. The camera can be moved just about anywhere, from the useful slightly above and behind view to the useless but gorgeous zooms. However, the camera control is not nearly as intuitive or easy to use as the one in Ground Control, and occasionally you'll get frustrated trying to get the right view for the situation. But eventually you'll get the hang of it.
The bulk of the gameplay is standard RTS stuff: build a base, mine resources (in this case, Taelon, a red crystalline substance), create units and wipe out the enemy. There are 20 missions in the single player campaign spanning both sides, and aside from the first few, they're pretty tough. Some are timed while others are simple wars of attrition; whoever dominates the resources dominates the map.
The two sides are fairly well balanced, though the JDA possess shield technology that makes it much easier to conserve men. Rather than ascribing to the Warcraft model of identical units on each side, the units are quite different for each side, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.
3D real-time strategy games can be a bitch to control, what with all the zooming and rotating, and therefore unit AI becomes a huge factor. Dark Reign 2 features some nasty pathfinding problems, as occasionally units will take the REALLY long way around things to get to certain points. Individuals will also make dumb decisions like forgetting to run away when severely outnumbered. Keeping track of the dumber units is like babysitting with a mouse and keyboard.
The AI is also a bit weak in terms of how the CPU plays. The missions seem entirely scripted, meaning it's simply a matter of time before your figure out where to focus your aggression to win. I prefer when the computer keeps me guessing by varying its tactics. Dark Reign 2 just doesn't feel as organic as it should.
The overall production quality is high, with good sound, adequate voice acting and plenty of in engine CGI to keep the story moving. This isn't a rushed game. The multiplayer is decent and can be much more fun than the single player, mainly because human players tend to be more imaginative than the CPU.
Frankly, there ain't a lot new here to report, folks. Dark Reign 2 comes at a strange point in PC strategy gaming when developers are slowly discovering that simply moving a 2D game to a 3D world doesn't make it revolutionary. It does, however, make it look really cool, and fans of 3D strategy could do much worse than Dark Reign 2.