No Blood For Soil!
Four years ago, the original Ground Control rumbled onto the RTS scene with an incredible 3D engine and some awesome tactical gameplay. But as smart as the game looked, some annoying AI problems kept it from steamrolling the competition.
Today, a new age of war has dawned with Vivendi's release of Ground Control II: Operation Exodus. The game continues the epic battle between the worlds of the outer rim and their Terran oppressors, ups the graphical ante and effectively introduces drop-ships and Victory Points into the tactical fracas. Unfortunately, it also follows in the footsteps of its forebear with similarly irritating AI and pathfinding issues.
Ground Control II's two single-player campaigns are divided up between the insurgent NSA (Northern Star Alliance) and the enigmatic Virons. Each campaign features a dozen exciting missions, all of which take place in dynamic, futuristic wastelands. The plot is one of desperate warfare as the worlds of the outer rim struggle to subvert the Terran occupation and preserve their way of life.
In the NSA campaign, you assume the role of the righteous Captain Jacob Angelus and lead your forces of unquestionable good against the oppressively evil minions of Imperator Vlaana. Your side is never presented with any questionable moral boundaries to cross, nor are you ever forced to cross any. You are good, your enemies are bad. In the light of recent current events, it's hard to imagine a truly desperate insurgency fighting as cleanly as this one does. Oh well, I guess in space it's always 1942.
Ground Control II, like the original, is a purely tactical RTS. There are no buildings to construct or resources to mine. All of your units are flown into a landing zone via a customizable drop-ship. You accumulate Acquisition Points (i.e. money) based on the size of your army, the enemies you kill, and the number of Victory Points you control. AP can then be spent on units, drop-ship upgrades (weapons, armor, cargo space, fuel) and air strikes.
As a result, the game bursts with fast-paced, rolling battles. In most single player missions, you and your allied forces battle Terrans and Virons on multiple fronts as you scramble to secure objectives. Anticipate what your enemy will throw at you, then counter with a custom made squad and take 'em out. The tactics abound here. Infantry can garrison buildings or hide in forests for a defensive advantage, while players who employ flanking maneuvers will benefit from the fact that most vehicles are less armored on the sides and rear, so you better watch your six.
And thanks to Ground Control II's excellent camera system, you'll always be guaranteed the best vantage point possible. Although it may take a little getting used to, the free camera's ability to view the carnage from any angle and various distances ultimately makes it much easier to command your troops.
Unless, that is, you command a vehicle to drive through an area inhabited by a few soldiers. Since every unit in the game has its own physics, you won't see any tanks magically phasing through a group of soldiers. Instead, the soldiers will have to either be moved out of the way (which they won't do automatically), or the tank will just have to push its way through very slowly. It gets even worse if a tank you've commanded runs into a group of troops heading in the opposite direction, as they will literally carry it with them like ants.
The pathfinding just sucks this way and demonstrates some pretty dumb friendly A.I. For example, if you're commanding a squad of troops to move somewhere, you'll see each individual troop represented by a little green circle as part of whatever formation you have set. If you move your troops to an area and a couple of the little circles are touching an area the troops can't inhabit, instead of moving to an approximate location the corresponding troops will just stay where they are, refusing to move at all. Where's your initiative, solider!
If you choose to battle as the NSA, you will have some pretty recognizable weapons at your disposal, such as tanks, artillery, machine gunners, APCs and air-born fighters. What makes this menagerie a bit less typical are the alternate combat modes available to every unit. Normal troops can either run and gun or break out the rocket launchers, while one of the larger tanks can send all of its shields to the front for awesome defensive capabilities.
The Virons have similar toys as well as alternate combat modes. Additionally, two Viron units of the same type can meld together and become a new unit type altogether. For example, two Viron engineer centruroids (vehicles that can repair other units) can meld together to become a mortar centruroid (powerful long-range artillery). You can also split the melded units back apart into the original units at any time, so you could blast an enemy victory point from afar with your mortars, then unmeld them back into engineers to heal your tanks and troops when the fighting gets up close and personal. Very cool.
As challenging and dynamic as the single-player campaigns are, Ground Control II is at its best as an online multiplayer affair. The game's multiplayer is unusual in that there are only two playable factions: the NSA and the Virons. Even though you battle the Terrans throughout the entire single-player campaign, you don't have access to them. At least the two playable factions are balanced.
Massgate,Ground Control II's online matching agent, is decent if not astounding. Starting and joining games is easy (although the traffic is pretty low), and a friends list, chatroom and rankings ladder are all accounted for. The one unusual feature (which was a part of the original Ground Control as well) is the ability to drop into a game in progress. Not only does this give the game a sort of Deathmatch feel, it also reduces the damage done to a team if one of their players has to bail, since another might drop in at any time.
Ground Control II looks amazing. On the high-end GR gaming rig, it's simply gorgeous. I'm not sure there are even names yet for the awesome visual effects employed by the folks at Massive. The environments are stunning with photo-realistic water, oodles of textures and ambience and some of the most amazing sky I've ever seen. Even on lower end computers, the game runs smoothly, albeit with toned down effects.
The musical tracks are fine pieces of space cowboy fantasy, and the sound effects change in volume and clarity as your camera draws near and away from the action. However, the voice-work is as typical and uninspired as the plot. Everyone in the game has a different accent. General Grant speaks with a southern twang and Angelus has a soft British accent, while different units in your army speak with Latino, Scottish, and Russian accents. But none of these people can possibly come from Scotland or Texas, because those places are billions of miles away.
Ground Control II: Operation Exodus is a snazzy tactical RTS that breathes some life into the genre without necessarily redefining it. Although much of what's here has been seen in other games (particularly the first Ground Control), Ground Control II profits from great graphics and a play system that works very well online. Just don't expect it to take you where no man has gone before.