Reviews

Act of Aggression Review – It’s The 1990s All Over Again

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Platforms: PC
Developer: Eugen
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: Yes

Despite the fact that I’ve never been very good at them, often outclassed in the competitive multiplayer side of things, my love affair with real-time strategy games has been a long one that began with what remains one of my favorite titles of all time, Total Annihilation. From there it was the Command & Conquer games, Dune, Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War, Company of Heroes, Supreme Commander, the Homeworld games and many, many more. And then just a few years ago Eugen released the wonderful R.U.S.E., a horribly overlooked gem that proved you could bring a strategy game to console without having to simplify it to an insulting degree. Now Eugen are back with Act of Aggression, a follow-up of sorts to their previous Act of War and a self-confessed attempt to recapture the golden days of RTS with a very Command & Conquer: Generals feel.

The campaigns in RTS titles are often regarded as being throwaway distractions, a simple method of learning the game before quickly forgetting about them to move on to skirmish matches and battles against other players, which is why it’s almost amusing that Planetary Annihilation’s attempt to completely forgo a traditional campaign was met with considerable hostility. There are only a handful of exceptions to this rule, and Act of Aggression really isn’t one of them.

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Following the Shanghai Crash of 2019 a group known as the Cartel manage to infiltrate numerous weakened countries, turning them into puppet regimes and allowing the Cartel to become a global superpower. Investigations were conducted, but eventually the idea that the Cartel had managed to take over several countries was regarded as little more than a mad conspiracy theory. However, the United Nations remains unconvinced, founding Chimera, a multinational operation with the objective of getting to the bottom of it all. Meanwhile America has had its army beaten down considerable thanks to near constant fighting as it attempts to keep its place as a superpower. A newly formed Mexican country near the borders of the United States begins causing problems, and America heads off for war yet again, dragging both the Chimera and the Cartel into the fray. It’s a decent setup, but the problems begin with the quality of the dialogue, which is frankly atrocious, and the voice acting is poor across the entire board, too. With these two factors in play it’s hard to become even remotely invested in the clumsily told story which heavily uses the same storytelling methods of the Call of Duty series; loading screens filled with fast cuts between news stories and images with a voiceover. It’s like a Tom Clancy novel given horrid form.

I suppose it is possible that Act of Aggression is aiming to replicate the Command & Conquer with its goofball stories and characters, especially when you hear the generic techno soundtrack with the occasional hard rock riff tossed in for good measure. The only thing missing is the incredibly cheesy yet somehow brilliant FMV sequences. However, if this is Act of Aggression’s goal then it has failed. Command & Conquer was terrible, but somehow always retained a sense of charm and cheese that kept them feeling fun, and Act of Aggression doesn’t have that. At all.

The campaign doesn’t even serve as a decent tutorial for players, either, skipping over numerous important things and outright failing to explain some basic things, too. Strangely both the Chimera and the Cartel get campaigns while America is forgotten about, but regardless by time you’ve worked through both of them, assuming you can make yourself complete them, you’ll feel like you’ve learned very little about each force. Units and buildings are locked away until certain missions, and when you finally get access to them the game doesn’t do much to explain their use or set up good scenarios for you to learn from. Simply firing up a skirmish match with the AI set on Very Easy is the best way to get to grips with the factions, especially since most of what you do learn in the campaign is utterly useless online.

A major problem for me was the restrictive default view which constantly felt like it was trying to stop me from getting a proper handle on the battlefield situation. With a flick of the mouse wheel you can switch over to a hovering drone for a much higher vantage point, which is thematically smart, but the transition is clumsy and for some reason the color scheme changes, turning the land grey and buildings blue or yellow. This mode makes it even trickier to differentiate between certain units and buildings at a glance due to the game’s art style which opts for a realistic look that ultimately results in most structures looking very similar, and yet this drone camera remains the favorable viewpoint because it lets you actually see the battlefield properly. It’s almost like the Batman: Arkham series’ Detective Mode; so useful that you’re willing to forgo looking at the pretty graphics for the extra information it provides. Considering Eugen utilised a brilliant system in R.U.S.E. where you could smoothly go from a close-up zoom of your base all the way to bird’s eye of the entire map where units were shown as poker chips Act of Aggression feels like a step backwards. If we can have a drone view, why no satellite view or something so we can get a much better view of the theatre of war? And what’s with the strange color shift? All it does it make it harder to differentiate between units.

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It’s truly a shame because Act of Aggression is a rather pretty game, with the spectacle ramping up as artillery units come into play or large amounts of tanks and helicopters collide in wonderful dances of death. The music is a boring blend of techno and rock riffs that ape C&C but without the same level of catchiness and the voice acting for units is beyond awful, but the rest of the audio work is great. The game can be quite the visual feast when the combat really starts to heat up, so I deliberately forced myself to swap back to the regular view frequently in order to soak up the lovely chaos, and suggest that if you play Act of Aggression you do the same.

One thing that Act f Aggression really nails is its three factions. If you’re looking for some truly bombastic or even unique units to bring to the table here then this isn’t the game for you, keeping it relatively realistic in terms of tanks, infantry and choppers with only a few tame super weapons in the later game, but each of three factions feel quite different from one another. The U.S. are probably the friendliest of the group in that their units have clearly defined roles on the field, although the ability to individually upgrade certain units could be confusing for new players. U.S. units tend to be the most powerful in their respective categories, but are also only good for that one role, lacking flexibility. The U.S. forces boast the best opening infantry units, have the cheapest Refineries for harvest resources and tend to rely heavily on oil. Electricity is also heavily utilised as the U.S. militaries defensive structures need a constant supply to operate, thus opponents will likely look to knock out power quickly in order to bring in helicopters and more.  The Chimera on the other hand are the most flexible faction in the trilogy, boasting a range of units and upgrades that let them quickly adapt to different situations. In the mid-game opting between Shield or Sword research lets you tailor your force more aggressively or defensively before eventually expanding into both. Many units, upgrades and buildings can all be bought with straight cash without the use of metal. The Chimera’s weakness is ultimately their versatility as they don’t excel in any one area. Finally the Cartel are probably the hardest to get to grips. Act of Aggression employs a system where the majority of buildings have to be built within a certain range of each other. The Cartel have the widest building area for its primary structures, but secondary buildings have to be constructed immediately adjacent. The Cartel have two tiers of technology; PMC and Black Ops. The PMC structures require plenty of metal, but the mercenary units need regular old cash. Meanwhile Black Ops buildings are power-hungry so electricity is key. In short, while both the U.S. and Chimera tend to be able to overlook one of the primary resources for a while the Cartel need all three almost all the time. However, the Cartel do boast plenty of stealth units and powerful late-game tech that can be a little fragile. These differences subtly alter a match’s dynamic and ensures you’ll probably have a favorite faction, but it would be nice to see they have a little more personality, as vague a criticism as that really is. The art-style the game employs is quite generic, and I found each army to be lacking any real visual flair or particularly interesting looking buildings or units.

Out in the field Act of Aggression is a very typical RTS game. Resources come in three forms with the primary two being money and metal. You always start near a bank which if occupied with some infantry will generate a constant stream of cash for the entirety of the time you hold on to it.  Money can also be gained from whacking down a refinery on some oil deposits, likewise metal can be earned by sticking a refinery on a patch of the shiny blue stuff. There’s a third resource, too, colored red that is used to produce the late-game super weapons and is therefore much harder to get hold of. These resources are randomly placed on the map in an interesting design move, obviously always balanced between the players but with the position shifting, making it all the more important to scout in the early game. All three resources are finite, meaning the player who controls the most resources will often win as a battle drags on. You have to be aggressive and expand, a problem for a player like myself whose always preferred more defensive options of which Act of Aggression is pretty slim on at times. It seems to be a problem for the enemy A.I. as well, who in several instances I discovered had ground to nearly a complete halt once the initial resources had run out rather than attempting to expand into new territory. Indeed the A.I. on the whole can be rather inconsistent, sometimes launching good attacks and at others failing to capitalise on a situation where they’ve probed defenses and found them lacking. One match might find the AI pleasingly astute, and the next finds it mostly bumbling around and in no rush to do much of anything, let alone actually put up a fight. During one match I was mildly shocked to find the very easy AI level launching a quick rush in the opening minutes, nearly taking me out entirely, and in a later match the hard AI built a few tanks and that was about it. On several occasion I also launched a heavy assault only to discover a ball of enemy tanks and infantry sitting there and doing nothing. However, when the A.I. is working right it works pretty well, and should give you a good run for your money.

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The finite resources and push to be aggressive is largely because Act of Aggression favors sheer numbers of units produced quickly by whomever has the most resources to throw at the problem and a high click-per-minute ratio over clever tactics and carefully planned strategies, dropping it more into the Starcraft II territory than something like Company of Heroes or even the Supreme Commander series. If you really want to delve back into the history books, though, the game feels a lot like C&C Generals, with strong ties to Act of War in its PoW system where you can capture fallen enemy soldiers and hold them as prisoners which will generate you extra income. But that isn’t to say it’s a completely thoughtless game; hard counters are king here, which means that almost everything has one perfect counter that can decimate it, therefore the game follows the traditional rock, paper, scissors mechanic, albeit far more strictly than many modern RTS titles which tend to be more forgiving. The opponent attacks with one kind of unit, and you respond with another. If your attack is foiled you automatically construct the necessary counter to their counter, and so on and so on until everyone is a little bit dizzy. With a fairly small selecting of units and buildings it doesn’t take long to figure out what combats what the best. Once battle is joined it really is good fun and has a pleasing back and forth rhythm.

Finding that fun can be challenging, sometimes. The realistic look means that a lot of buildings look a lot like all the other buildings, so new players are going to spend a lot of time accidentally picking the wrong factory when desperately trying to pump out the right unit to counter an enemy offensive. Infantry aren’t quite to scale but they are pretty tiny on the screen, and attempting to quickly tell exactly what a unit is amidst a battle is a pain in the backside, especially if you’re zoomed out, which as we’ve already covered you probably will be. The U.S. is pretty bad for this since much of their army is made up of one unit that can have a couple of different upgrades attached to it, meaning to tell them apart you’ve got to glance at the chassis, an impossible feat from the zoomed out view. The user interface is always a bit of a pain to deal with, and the mini-map sucks at giving the player a way to quickly assess the situation at a glance. Alerts for enemy units and combat will pop up on the top left-hand side of the screen, but there’s no way to jump straight to the area like in most other titles.

Once you’ve got some light scouting done and tossed some refineries onto the map Act of Aggression settles into standard RTS fare with a decent pace, matches tending to run to around  30-minutes on average, I’d say. Infantry are able to capture and occupy buildings, including enemy ones, helicopters are great for sneak attacks but will get ripped apart quickly and tanks are the backbone of your forces, usually in the form of simple rush attacks which are pretty effective. An interesting twist to the formula is that infantry are capable of capturing enemy soldiers which gains you a small boost of cash. Construct a PoW camp and you can fill them up with captured soldiers who’ll generate a constant revenue stream. It’s a clear attempt at trying to keep infantry feeling relevant once tanks and helicopters are in play, although I found that online and even in skirmish troops can be forgotten about quickly.

The pacing is interesting as units move rapidly but often can’t take large amounts of damage, so battles are fast and furious affairs that favor hit and run tactics. Coupled with the slowly depleting resources and ease with which hard-counters can usually be brought into the battle it creates a fast pace to the matches that climaxes in the mid-game. Battles are mostly about probing the enemy to find out how they’ve opted to build their army, looking for a weakness to exploit quickly before they can adjust. If matches aren’t finished up while resources are still fairly plentiful or stockpiles are still holding up and extend into the 40+ minute territory then the closing stages can be rather quiet as resources become thin on the ground. It’s here that taking and holding banks becomes even more valuable. Even super-weapons have hard-counters, so the winning fight tends to be less about smart thinking and more about committing to using last of your dwindling resources to build a force that you hope the other player hasn’t anticipated. Sometimes it leads to incredibly fun finishes, and other times it leads to rather sad, anti-climatic ones where you steamroll an opponent because of pure dumb luck.

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There’s quite a lot of mission options and little details, such as how you can’t share resources with allies during a match or tell a unit to automatically deploy its stored troops when arriving at a certain point. When setting up a skirmish or multiplayer match there’s also a pretty limited selection of options in comparison to other games on the market. Speaking of the multiplayer it’s naturally where most players will spend their time, so it’s nice to see that the matchmaking seems to be solid. The community, on the other hand, is dwindling a little too quickly which makes me worry that it may not be around for very long. Hopefully it’ll see a core group of fans develop, though.

At the end of the day judging Act of Aggression is tough. As somebody who has played countless RTS games over the years I couldn’t help but feel a powerful sense of deja vu as I ordered small armies to assault bases. I’ve done all this before, and I’ve done it a lot. It is ultimately a very competent, classical RTS, which is both its strength and its greatness weakness depending on the player. There’s nothing here that could be described as being special or even particularly great, but it is pretty good fun. If you feel like you want the classic RTS formula simply updated with modern graphics than Act of Aggression is going to be absolutely perfect for you, but if you’ve played far too many of such games already then and require something with a little more flair then best steer clear.

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