Activision throws its helmet into the real-time strategy genre with Dark Reign: The Future of War. In Reign, you play as one of two warring factions--the Imperium Forces or the Freedom Guard. The battles cover 30 levels in atmospheres that vary from freezing snow to hot jungles. Each side has 35 combat units to choose from, including spy, morph, and infiltration units. There's even a unit that lets you take hostages, strap them with explosives, and send them back to your enemy! Activision tells us that some unique aspects of Reign include playing fields bigger than those in Command & Conquer or Warcraft, and "a tougher A.I. than any game in the genre." For multiplayer action, up to eight players can battle it out via link play.
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All summer we have been looking forward to the release of this fall's crop of real-time strategy games -- it's been a year since Red Alert hit the shelves, so we naturally have been anticipating a solid round of improvements in the RTS genre, especially with the influx of big names and big money. And high on our list of expected titles was Activision's Dark Reign, the alpha of which was extremely promising.
Well, it's been four months since we first got a look at Dark Reign, and now we've had a chance to thoroughly put it through its paces. For the most part, it's one of the best new RTS titles on the market, but it's also one of the most frustrating at times. We've been having the whole Total Annihilation vs. Dark Reign vs. Dark Colony vs. Age of Empires debate around the offices of late, and after all the considerations about AI, unit types, new features, new terrain, etc., we've come to the inescapable conclusion (once again) that with any game of any genre, the absolute bottom line we must adhere to as reviewers is whether or not a game is enjoyable by a wide audience.
With that in mind, Dark Reign received an 82, largely because of a couple of design considerations that make the opposing sides unbalanced and the gameplay hard to control. It's a great game overall, but we've found that in the fun department, some of the frustrations keep us from rabidly playing Dark Reign as much as we might.
By now you should be familiar with the real-time strategy concept; build bases, tanks, infantry, guard posts, then go out and try to pound your opponents into the ground. That's all that some of the lesser RTS titles offer, but Dark Reign should be commended for several excellent touches:
An extremely solid back story that actually makes the fighting between the two sides more believable and gives you as a commander a good idea why you're fighting. You will notice, however, if you have played Mechwarrior 2, that there are some obvious -- ah -- similarities in how the storyline progresses in single player.
Multiple commands for each unit, including sabotage, guard, patrol, etc., plus you get special units like suicide bombers, hostage takers, and the devastating dessicator which can quickly turn the tide of the game.
Adjustable game speed -- if you've played Dark Reign straight out of the box, you'll know why this is necessary -- at the default speed the game is nearly impossible to control, with battles often lasting only two or three seconds before one side is obliterated.
Overall, the gameplay follows a pretty straightforward RTS model of building a basic base with a headquarters, power generator, and a resource collection station -- in this case, a water mining station. What Dark Reign adds to this mix is a wild variety of units and structures, including the aforementioned hostage takers and suicide bombers, as well as a dimensional portal, tanks that look (and act) like giant circular saw blades, television towers that give your artillery a sweeping view of the map, and the dessicator -- a weapon which sucks the water out of everything in its path.
Additionally, Dark Reign allows you to set a series of waypoints for your troops, tweak how a given unit or platoon responds to a threat, change the aggressiveness of various units, order a trapped vehicle to self-destruct, and pack up your base onto giant treads and move to a nicer neighborhood.
That's all very cool, and some of it is truly innovative. The difficulty we had with the game though was threefold:
Even when the game is slowed down, the behavior of the "fog of war" effect in the game makes it very hard to defend against an attack until it's right in your base.
The sides are distinctly unbalanced. The Imperium side lacks the same sort of firepower that the Freedom Guard has, and thus it is very difficult to win a battle with Imperium forces in a head-to-head fight (the Imperium favors sneakier tactics which are not all that much fun in a slugfest type of game).
The buildings that comprise your base are entirely too fragile. Couple that with the fact that if you lose access to water, your game is over, and it makes it a very tough game -- definitely the most difficult of the RTS titles we've reviewed. Single-player missions amount to waiting out the computer and building a base with tons of defenses, and multiplayer games amount to a rush for the few water wells scattered around the map. Because this all-important resource is static (you do not have fields of it to harvest and cannot prospect for it), it makes your water wells the real focus of the game and since they, like the rest of your structures, are so easily and quickly destroyed, it means that you can spend an hour building your base and yet get killed in a matter of seconds by a couple of long-range artillery shells.
Dark Reign employs the standard mouse-driven commands for building, setting paths for your troops, etc., but it also adds in a series of sometimes cumbersome menus in the right-hand panel that allow the more advanced orders and actions described above. Truth be told, though, despite all the fancy possibilities, there is really very little opportunity to use most of these functions due to the speed of the game and the simple nature of RTS games in general. What seems to have happened here is that Auran actually listened to all the ideas that gamers had for improving the genre and tried to incorporate all of them. And while games like Civilization and benefited a great deal from the likes of saboteurs, spies, etc., there is rarely an opportunity to explore this richness in this genre -- a shame given the groundbreaking work that the likes of Dark Reign and Total Annihilation have provided.
Dark Reign uses a very nice SVGA graphics engine that is particularly effective in rendering landscape, vegetation, and explosions, all of which adds a much more realistic feeling to the environment -- there is no sense here that the graphics are tacked on or that the landscape and terrain was an afterthought. In fact, the hills, valleys, rivers and ridges all affect the speed and effectiveness of your units -- a gentle rise will slow but not impede your armored units, while a higher ridge will force your tanks to go around while your infantry can still climb over (often resulting in an unintended splitting of your forces and necessitating a bit of forethought before assaulting an enemy on high ground).
Required: U.S. version of Windows 95, Pentium 90 or better processor, 2X CD-ROM drive, 16 MB of physical RAM, 1 MB SVGA local bus video card, 100% Microsoft-compatible mouse, 130 MB of uncompressed hard disk space, 14.4 modem for modem play (28.8 required for Internet play)
Recommended: 32 MB RAM, P-133 or better, 2 MB SVGA 64-bit graphics card, SoundBlaster or 100% compatible sound card
Dark Reign is a definite contender in this fall's RTS sweepstakes, but in the end it is outclassed by the likes of Total Annihilation and Age of Empires -- a year ago it would have shattered sales records, but the competition is that much better this year, and while Dark Reign is a solid game (and will undoubtedly end up being a favorite of many), in my opinion it has enough liabilities to preclude it from rising to the top of the genre. It is, however, certainly worth a look, and worth buying if you're a fan of real-time strategy, especially of the sci-fi flavor. Overall, Dark Reign rates an 82.