Playing on hallowed ground.
Strategy gamers have been blessed over the past few years with some of the best PC games to date. From Command & Conquer to StarCraft, from Age of Empires to Homeworld, strategy buffs have seen some really cool stuff over the past few years. And it looks like they won again.
Following in the footsteps of Bungie's vaunted Myth series comes the 3D strategy game Ground Control. While it doesn't shatter expectations, this is a well-made game that just about every strategy fan should check out.
The premise is generic: there's a planet, there are good guys, there are bad guys, there's war, there's peace, there's war again, and there's peace again. Oh, and now there's war. Your job is to kill the other guy using your guys. Any questions? (Don't answer that.)
Ground Control is a pure tactical strategy game. You don't deal with any resource management - no mining for gold, scavenging for metal, or harvesting tiberium. You don't construct units or buildings. This is a style of gameplay rarely seen, but equally fun. It's pretty much just the forces you start with versus the world.
And what a beautiful world it is! Developed by Massive Entertainment, Ground Control features one of the best engines yet created for a strategy game. The world is rendered in full 3D with the usual share of nifty graphical treats - lensflares, bumpmapping, specular lighting - all the bells and whistles you'd expect.
The real treat is the camera, which allows full rotation and can zoom in and out to outrageous levels. Command your units from on high, peering down so that your infantrymen are mere specks. Or, if you'd prefer, zoom down to ground level and watch shell casings fly off each individual infantryman's gun. The spectacular detail level includes excellent textures and real moving parts - just watch your tank's cannon recoil after shooting off a round.
This has gameplay ramifications as well. Since the game is fully 3D, line of sight becomes a definite issue. Since high ground equals better performance, you'll have to navigate units up and down hills. If you're not sure whether or not you have the enemy in your LOS, just zoom down and put yourself in your unit's shoes. How cool.
The units themselves are sci-fi military; infantry, assault (tanks), and air units are represented in full polygonal glory. You don't actually control individuals - you control squads. With a terrific user interface, moving squads around and having them face the right way in the right formation is simple and intuitive.
As I mentioned, this isn't a resource management game. Before each level, you load up and configure squads of units into dropships, which are then deployed at the beginning of the level. Squads carry over from battle to battle in the single player game, gaining experience and honors along the way. This turns the game into something of a perfectionists dream - you'll end up doing your best to save certain units, unlike resource management games where sheer force of numbers usually decides the winner.
Spanning 30 missions, the single player game will keep you occupied for quite a while. Once past that, you can jump into multiplayer by either the standard game or the 'drop-in' game, a sort of deathmatch. This is a pretty cool idea that brings some quick fix, arcade flair to the game.
If there is one problem with Ground Control, it's the unit AI. Since you're controlling squads rather than individuals, you'll often find groups of units crisscrossing to reach certain locations. Friendly fire is a serious problem, and, while realistic, is a pain in the ass. Watching a group of infantrymen run directly through heavy tankfire to reach a point is silly, and setting up waypoints while you're getting pounded by gunfire is hardly conducive to surviving.
I also have a gripe with the air units. They certainly look cool, but they're hard to control and usually just end up getting shot down by enemy fire. Aside from that, the unit balancing is pretty good.
Despite these minor annoyances, Ground Control is a blast. From its amazing level of detail to its fantastic game engine, this is one that fans of strategy should not miss.