The Thin Line Between Entertainment And War.
First: Applause, handshakes and drinks all around for Simon and Schuster Interactive and Rival for resolutely refusing to delay, alter, re-box or otherwise pussify the release of Real War. Now that, as a nation, we're not quite so shocked and numb following the September 11 attacks on America and the free world, this is just the kind of subject matter that's on many of our minds. And I don't just mean the minds of the legitimate servicemen and women, or of the politicians, or of the gun-nuts, but everyone. I call your attention to a bottle of hot-sauce I saw recently in a Pasadena mall, whose label showed Lady Liberty - holding up not a torch but that famed middle digit - under the words "We're coming, motherf*ckers."
Real War is essentially the civilian market byproduct of a real-time war sim commissioned from Rival by the United States military, and concerns a U.S.-led worldwide counter-terrorism war. In twelve single player missions (for both the good guys and the bad guys), Real War makes one (alas rather large) conceptual stretch: The terrorists have clotted together in actual conventional military forces to do actual, straight-up battle in various international locales. It's not terribly 'realistic' in this regard, but would you rather play a sim wherein you sit watching grainy satellite surveillance for three months until some guy eating a rock finally climbs out from under his llama or whatever and scrambles for the nearest cave? All righty, then.
While any RTS player will instantly have a basic idea of what's going on, Real War makes a valiant attempt to streamline the classic RTS interface. Case in point: a small deployment menu upon which appear icons of available friendly forces as well as active enemy targets. Watch this handy menu, because you'll be seeing it in future games. It allows the player to assign attacks without having to scroll away from whatever crisis is being dealt with at the moment. If you'd really like to splash the rattletrap Russian war-surplus planes infesting your airspace, but can't take your eyes off your Air Command Center for fear some nerd sporting a Technicolor C4 Dream-coat will come along and give his regards, simply select friendly air units from the menu, designate their targets and watch as they veer off and do their thing. It makes even hotkeying forces and/or locations seem slow and inefficient. For a while, at least.
Real War has lots of nice visual touches, like the relatively realistic campus of a school to be defended, for example, or huts and wooden bridges along rippling rivers. It's even got the burning bits of blown-up armor units scattering hither and yon with trails of black smoke. Satisfying. And even though they don't amount to much, note the jaw-droppingly realistic intro movies. That's not canned video footage from the Gulf War, but astounding computer modeling!
Real War also nicely circumvents the whole resource-gathering thing. You still need supplies, of course, but if they come at all, they come via supply depots; it's a little like the Nod airfields of Command & Conquer, and it prevents the entire game from devolving into a session of Kill That Harvester.
No sir - Real War devolves on a need-to-know basis.
When you need to know why the game inexplicably does away with some form of traditional audio unit responses, you are for the most part greeted with disconcerting silence. It's not a big deal, but it's noticeable. When you need to know exactly what the hell you're supposed to be doing in the game's walkthroughs intended as tutorials, you're often left high and dry, as even the 'advanced' tutorials are a little skimpy. When you need to know why they bothered to get the guy from Full Metal Jacket when his audio presence is kind of weak, cheesy and embarrassing, you discover there was really no reason at all, except to say they slapped his homey visage on the box art. Ha ha! You fell for it, Gomer!
But most of all, when you need to know precisely which friendly land or air unit you're using that handy menu to send off, you're often completely at a loss. All those tiny icons could represent a fringe tank you probably should do something with, or a crucial unit that's busy trying to keep your HQ from becoming a smoking hole in the ground right this second. I.D.s? I.D.s?! We don' need no steeenking I.D.s! If I were Rival, I'd be waving my hands like crazy and trying to claim this as a realistic feature simulating command-and-control issues. Mistakes were made, is what I'm saying. Depending upon your definition of what 'is' is.
Nevertheless, Real War takes some risks and works well as a multiplayer game, allowing players to customize everything in sight (and hey, at least you're both confused and on equal, human footing. Plus, there's nukes when all else fails). Newbies, well, you probably shouldn't go here, girls, but you slightly more hard-core types and military enthusiasts may still want to take a look at the innovations that will be doubtless cannibalized in other, future RTS games. And hey, maybe it's a good chance to get in some military-endorsed tactical training now the Real stuff is starting...the bad guys shouldn't be the only ones logging some virtual hours onscreen, if you get my drift.