Act of War: Direct Action

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a game by Eugen Systems
Platform: PC
User Rating: 9.0/10 - 2 votes
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See also: Strategy

Multimedia Used To mean a CD player and a free copy of Encarta. Apart from turning your PC into the least efficient CD player in the world, one benefit of CD-ROMs was the introduction of FMV cut-scenes into games. Despite having perfectly good televisions, it was unexpected and thrilling to see proper faces make words on our monitors.

Even today, with the Source engine giving us ever more realistic winks and smiles, Act Of War's news-report opening and military cut-scenes do something no engine can properly mimic; pure, ham-handed macho human bullshit It's brilliant, and whether you enjoy them sincerely or with irony, either way, they get you in the mood for this excellent RTS game.

The absurd, overblown plot is a perfect shroud for a game that still looks good and plays well - even if more than a little dwarfed by Company Of Heroes. It's classic RTS gaming that takes the C&C template and lovingly rips stuff out and replaces it with its own grand style. It feels like it works, and 18 months on, Act Of War: Direct Action is still capable of holding its own in a scrap.

Download Act of War: Direct Action

PC

System requirements:

  • PC compatible
  • Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP

Game Reviews

Marrying old-skool RTS action with an explosive cinematic storyline, Act Of War is perhaps best described as Command & Conquer goes to Hollywood'. The plot reads like one of those embossed military paperbacks your dad reads, full of power-crazed Russian tycoons plotting to overthrow governments and terrorists attacking oil rigs in the desert. (No surprise then, that the story was penned by blockbusting thriller hack Dale Brown.) If it really was a film it would be macho action fluff of the worst kind, but as a game it's a very different story. Here, the formulaic material is forgivable, not only because it's actually kind of fun, but because it provides the backbone for a genuinely outstanding RTS.

Good thing really, as the storyline in Act Of War frankly does not bear repeating. It's very silly and implausible, but suffice themes are global terrorism and tensions over oil reserves and the style is hard-nosed Hollywood techno-thriller. After a brief scuffle in the Middle East, the game kicks off in London -The Mall and Grosvenor Square recreated with at least partial accuracy - and takes in locations such as Capitol Hill, downtown San Francisco and the Egyptian desert. There's no shortage of substance here, with a 14-mission solo campaign (split into 32 chapters), a robust skirmish mode and the usual online qualifications.

And it all looks absolutely delightful. The graphics are rich and meticulously detailed; the maps are large and packed with furniture - often housing hundreds of destructible buildings and dense foliage. The zoom range too is superb, allowing you to close right in to see the grimaces on your enemies' faces, and the effects are suitably extravagant.

Nuts And Bolts

As big as it is on spectacle however, perhaps the finest thing about Act Of War is the way it simply gets all the basics right. Starting with the C&C/Red Alert template, the game tweaks, expands and eschews as it sees fit, keeping only those things that have proven their worth over time. So, you have classic base building, with a familiar assortment of barracks, vehicle platforms, defence turrets and so on. However, to remove the monotony of the building process, base building is semiautomated, with essential buildings often already in place or quickly built for you once a perimeter is established.

You have a single resource - US dollars - but it can be gathered in several ways. One is by drilling oil and trucking it to a refinery, but to take the pain away this always occurs within the perimeter of a base camp. Other ways include capturing financial institutions, rescuing captured soldiers and taking enemy POWs. The latter is particularly interesting, and forms part of what the developer calls 'human resource management'. The idea is to give you more options than just 'dead' or 'not dead', and encourages you to heal injured friendlies, repatriate downed pilots and capture as many enemies as possible. POWs earn you dollars, but they can also be interrogated for information about enemy placement, making them the equivalent of a spy satellite.

There are countless other game mechanisms I could cite, and while few of them are entirely new ideas, all are implemented with the same elegant simplicity. The healing radius of ambulances, the shortcut button to find snoozing constructor units, the way DEFCON levels are used to divide the research tree - all add to the game's general sense of functionality and intelligence. Even things like pathfinding and camera control are pleasingly difficult to fault.

Building Complete

There's also a nice sense of variety in the level design. Tactics are exposed naturally and gradually, as each new level offers up a challenging new set of objectives and constraints. One level takes you straight from a scene of relatively open desert combat to the narrow, ambush-strewn lanes of an oil refinery, forcing you to adapt quickly to the new surroundings. Another denies you access to constructor units just as you're starting to rely a lot on familiar infrastructure.

Admittedly, the tactics on offer are not the most complex. 'Assault with ovenwhelming force' is often your best option, and not necessarily discouraged by the game, especially In the early stages. However, there are plenty of subtleties to discover as well. Infantry units, for example, can be loaded into buildings to give them protection and elevation, something that's often essential to clearing tight urban areas. At the same time, snipers can be used to take out enemies who would otherwise be hidden inside structures - not to mention that all the buildings in the game are destructible. In open terrain maps, a similar effect can be gained by hiding units in trees.

Urban Assault

Beyond this, the game simply reinforces the most basic tactics of real urban warfare. The full gamut of combined arms units must be deployed to take an enemy position, as each has its own set of vulnerabilities. Tanks, for example, are useless against an enemy-held stronghold unless supported by infantry -one terrorist with an RPG can make mincemeat of your heavy armour in no time. Air bombardment is a wise precursor to any rolling attack, but anti-air defences are best dealt with by mortar teams and heavy snipers.

It definitely takes time for these factors to emerge, and one major criticism is that the game takes so damn long to get up to speed. For the first four or five levels I was convinced the game was all flash and no substance, and it was only with the emergence of the SHIELD units that things started to get interesting. After that, Act Of War grew on me the more I played it.

Saying that, there are a few issues that need mentioning. For a start - that familiar gripe - the enemy Al is a little predictable, and there is a certain lack (or at least unevenness) of challenge as a result. It's also surprisingly easy to lose units, especially in the more rubble-strewn areas of the maps, and you have to be extremely conscientious with your unit management. On a pettier note, the icons in the build menus are terrible - not at all illustrative of their purpose -and there's an occasional bit of slow-down evident in big battles on minimum spec PCs.

As for the skirmish (or engagement) mode, it's a resolutely traditional affair, with 18 run-of-the-mill maps all turning more or less on a compromise between security and proximity of resources. While it's perfectly playable and sound, it pales next to the spectacle and excitement of the main campaign, and is more of a side salad than a second helping of meat. Hopefully the online game will prove more interesting - see Online Zone in a couple of issues' time for a full report.

Needless to say, none of these complaints is a dealbreaker. Act Of War takes the old-school RTS formula and enriches it in countless cool ways, using the lessons of the past decade to create a singleplayer campaign that's as valid and exciting as anything else in the genre. Add production values to make EA sweat bullets and you've got yourself a very tasty proposition indeed.

Shield Ready

Spoiler Alert: Game Not Actually Realistic

If you've been following the progress of Act Of War at all, you'll be aware that the game sells itself on its 'highly realistic recreation of authentic combat situations', or something like that. Imagine my surprise then, when a third of the way into the game I came across the so-called SHIELD units - essentially mecha-units with armoured exoskeletons. Now, maybe I'm a little bit behind with military technology, but I haven't seen too many of these bad boys running the streets of Fallujah on CNN, and I'd have to say, it seems a little far-fetched. After that, the invisible tanks didn't surprise me at all...

Eugen Systems is going for the treble. After picking up an Essential' award for its last game The Gladiators and a Pants' for Times Of Conflict, the French outfit is hoping to bring home the big one for its next strategy effort Act Of War.

It could do it too - the game has a techno-thriller plot penned by best-selling author Dale Brown, a heady mix of contemporary and near-future military units (among them drones, personal weapons platforms and stealth tanks), along with a graphics engine that promises to blow Command & Conquer: Generals out of the water.

More importantly, Eugen plans to introduce a system of 'human resource management', which means extracting wounded troops, rescuing pilots and capturing enemy soldiers rather than butchering them in some field.

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