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Place: A Stiflingly hot mini-cinema in the depths of London. Time: losing track of. Event: the premier showing of the new Earth 2160 RTS.
As I struggle to hear the incoherent mutterings of two pasty developers over the deafening orchestral soundtrack, stunning sci-fi images of beautifully desolate landscapes, intricate pulsating techno-cities and dozens of cybertroopers storming into laser-battles flash across the large projection screen. Feeling a little disorientated, I am suddenly compelled - after being bombarded by this Clockwork Orange-esque display for 20 minutes - to turn around and politely ask the PR bod in the seat behind me, What the fk is going on?
Sanity. The volume is lowered, and finally I have an opportunity to find out more about the latest instalment in the incredibly popular (mostly in Germany) strategy franchise, that began with Earth 2140 in the mid-1990s and continued with an Earth 2150 trilogy that shifted over two million copies. Earth 2160 is actually an odd title, as the action takes place on Mars and other planets and moons in the solar system after our own planet is destroyed. Three earth factions - the female-only (no snickering at the back) Lunar Corporation, the android United Civilised States and the warlike Eurasian Dynasty - storm the red planet in a battle for supre nacy, only in the process, they awaken another deadly force - aliens. Yes, we've all heard this kind of gumph before, but after the initial shock of how god awful the presentation was, the fog of war started to lift and to my utter surprise, an incredibly impressive, futuristic strategy epic was revealed. Enough of being talked at - time to skedaddle back to the office with the only copy of the game for an exclusive hands-on.
Cripes. Earth 2160 is immensely complex - the keyboard shortcuts alone would fill a tome heavier than the last Harry Potter. However this is apparently what the developer wants to unleash - a game packed with resource management, massive tech trees with unlimited research, a modular construction system, single-player campaigns and multiplayer, graphics comparable with first-person shooters, and a comprehensive editor that allows you to make maps and your own machinima movies. This is an RTS with nowt taken out.
The main innovations are threefold: virtual agents, modular construction and free research. Virtual agents are similar to the heroes in LOTR: Battle For Middleearth, but with more advanced features than just trainable skills, interpersonal relationships and an inventory. In simple terms, you can hire and fire 12 key agents, who take care of the stuff in the game that you can't be arsed with or have no knowledge of, such as increasing mining efficiency, conducting espionage and researching military tactics. The payoff is that they have a long memory - treat them like a freelancer (bully tactics, denial of food and water, ignoring personal requests, etc) and they won't work for you again, even going out of their way to stab you in the back by whoring themselves out cheaper to your enemies.
On to modular construction, which is basically the ability to create units from a vast collection of parts, enabling you to create custom buildings with different facilities, as well as mechs, vehicles and spaceships with unique purposes. Some buildings can reach six storeys in height -I cobbled together a medical research centre with a pharmacy, hospital, solar panels and research facility in a matter of minutes - and they can also take off and land somewhere else if your base is being threatened by hostiles. Army units can be built with different chassis, engines, armour, weapons and special items, so you can have a spider-bot armed with multiple lasers for frontline assaults, or an anti-grav tank with flame thrower and reflective armour for base defences - it's entirely up to you.
Free research, meanwhile, is exactly that - the ability to work on as many different technologies as you like, as long as you have the resources of research centres, power and money. Tech trees I experimented with included upgrading an infantry unit to a hacker and then master with jetpack for breaking into enemy security systems. I also did a little weapons research for my Ares fighter craft, giving me access to three kinds of sniper rifle and a sonic beam for cutting through enemy forces like French soft cheese.
The non-linear campaign lets you play as all four of the factions across Mars and 13 other worlds with wildly different environments, offering in excess of 150 hours gameplay. You certainly won't finish Earth 2160 over a lazy weekend. Some of the missions revolve around gathering the game's three resources (water, metal, silicon-all available in various physical states including gas and liquid), but there are more gung-ho escapades such as escorting a dangerous prisoner on Titan and defending a research facility from a two-day onslaught on Io.
Drop-down menus help you negotiate the myriad of in-game options and you're always kept up to date with your goals on the mini-map, so you're never left confused about what to do next.
Interestingly, alongside the usual drag-and-drop control mechanisms, the game also offers a real-time mouse-aim feature similar to the recent Soldiers: Heroes of WVVII. While not a vital part of the gameplay, this device is intended to provide a more dynamic, hands-on feel to the battles. Elsewhere, units can be set to automatically engage nearby hostiles so you don't have to baby-sit every element of your forces, but you can also pause the game and give specific orders to individuals or groups of units if you prefer.
Oh look, I'm getting too technical. Earth 2160's overriding wow-factor is the graphics - they're fantastic. The planets themselves have believable rock surfaces, shimmering pools of liquid, erupting geysers, moving skies and enough trees and fauna to give any botanist a chubby. As for the buildings and structures, they're incredibly detailed, organic affairs packed with steaming valves, moving panels, blinking lights, pumping pistons and fast-firing gun turrets. Not forgetting the army units, with shiny spaceships, mechs and vehicles constructed from dozens of colourful and strange metal alloys, and infantry dressed in different uniforms and loaded up with individually-modelled weaponry. Dynamic lighting means that shadows move as the day/night cycle changes (see panel, Let There Be Light), and there's particle effects aplenty with realistic fog, dust that kicks up and weather effects such as acid rain and thunderstorms. Earth 2160 even has a fully-integrated physics system, demonstrated by a mission where you can fire lasers at large rocks to set off an avalanche of debris that rolls down the hill to crush an advancing army.
The camera can be rotated in full 3D, with a cracking zoom function that can view the action from way up high, then move down to within inches of the surface. More impressive still is the ability to take over any unit at any time, directly control it and see the world from a first-person perspective - each type of unit even has a unique HUD! In one memorable sequence, I jumped into a tank at ground level, just in time to watch a marauding squad of Term/nator-style robots and hulking mechs stomp past like a scene straight out of Jurassic Park. Developers Zuxxez and Reality Pump have promised that even though 100 units on-screen is not a problem, the actual total number of units possible is limited only by your PC's hardware.
Drop In, Drop Out
Multiplayer is another area that's being stuffed with extra features, with up to eight players able to engage in battles using the four competing races. Better yet, Earth 2160 will include the ability to save and restore matches, join battles that are already in progress and report on the action with video reporting via web streaming.
With a few months until completion, there are still a few issues to resolve, including the appalling voice acting, which sounds like an eastern European l-Speak-Your-Weight machine (proper Hollywood talent is apparently on the way). See also facial animation, spaceship battles and the occasional crash bug. Yet despite my deep scepticism caused by the earlier nightmare in Soho, Earth 2160 may actually turn out to be one of the strategy highlights of the year. Videogame lesson number 87: never judge a game by its launch event.
Let There Be Light
Earth 2160's Dynamic Lighting Can Be Used In Battle Tactics
Earth 2160 has gorgeous lighting effects - from explosions reflecting off buildings to alarm systems casting swathes of red light onto objects. Day/night cycles mean that you can watch the shadows stretch across the ground as the sun sets (or suns - you can have a Tattooine-style sky if you like) and dusk turns to night.
However, you can also use the lighting to give you a tactical advantage. Each vehicle has lights that you can manually turn on and off, so if you want to attempt a sneaky night raid, simply wait until it goes dark and assault an enemy's base with your lights off to approach completely hidden from sight.
Download Earth 2160
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP