"Dominate the new world ... War, famine and pestilence have combined with ecological collapse, genetic manipulation and tectonic disaster to bring about the demise of the world we now know. The aftermath of this destruction has caused mankind to splinter into eight opposing clans and necessitated the construction of huge spaceships to search the galaxy for habitable planets. Once a planet has been deemed habitable, a mechanized commander, a brain in an android body, must be sent down to the planet to survey, colonize and defend the planet for the arrival of the clan.
"M.A.X. features twenty-four different worlds and eight different clans, each with its own advanced artificial intelligence and endless replayability with customizable units, battlefields, scenarios and campaigns. A tutorial and user-friendly interface with pop-up menus detailing individual unit functions and abilities."
This is the setting for M.A.X., the newest entry in the heavily scarred battlefield of action strategy games. You may be wondering: "Does this game have a chance facing off against big players like Red Alert?" To answer your question, Red Alert better run for cover, 'cause the flak's gonna come raining down from this one. M.A.X. is a very competitive title, filled with enough innovation, customization and destruction to make you one happy general. The game has so many improvements over standard fare in the genre, I was amazed that it was not a sequel. It has a few minor setbacks, but all in all, this is one incredible game.
The first thing you notice about the game (once you get past the beautifully rendered opening and cut scenes, that is) is the interface. Not only are all the necessary buttons within reach, but there is an incredible degree of customization. The game lets you toggle just about any display option imaginable, including how far units can shoot and see, the mineral potentials in the ground, unit status, color, ammo level, movement available, etc. In addition, the screen offers a FULL zoom feature. In other words, not only does this game give you multiple resolution levels, but you can literally zoom a fraction at a time from a total zoom in, showing just a couple of units (in very high definition) to a full zoom out, showing the entire map in one screen. This alone was incredible to me, and I found myself adjusting the zoom several times throughout each game to match my level of focus and paranoia. Also, familiar commands like help, previous unit, next unit, reports, etc. are all available as buttons on the border of the screen.
In addition, there is an in-depth report system that gives you several different reports in order to manage your resources better. There is a progress chart that monitors the status of your colonies, and not only tells your success relative to the computer up until now, but also predicts how the game will continue at the current rate. This allows you, in battles whose victors are determined by colony production, to determine what needs to be done to pull ahead (or bring your opponent crashing down) before the end of the game.
Furthermore, there is a unit report that lets you toggle display of armed units, air/sea/land units, buildings, etc. As a result, if I am looking at a report and want to see how my offensive and defensive buildings are doing, I just push the "structure" and "attack" buttons, and all others disappear from the screen. In addition, I can choose other such selections, such as which of my units need repairing or ammo, and monitor the status of upgrades across my fleets. In short, this game is overwhelming with the extent of customization it offers, and all is intuitive and can be chosen with the push of a button. The only drawback is that it does not save your view settings between levels, but since I change options many times within one game, that did not have much of an effect on me.
Another way in which M.A.X. manages to break the mold is that in it, brute force is only one of many tools. Alone, it is totally useless. In order to survive in M.A.X., scouting, surveying, combining varied forces, positioning, and research are each just as important, if not more so, than the "ogre/tank rush" tactic that has made other games somewhat one-dimensional. You are able to create refineries and research centers, which allow you to upgrade and enhance units, thus creating a customized army. The game has eight different clans to choose from, each with its own specific advantages and specialties. For instance, one clan specializes in espionage, with a wider view range of improved scouts and radar units, while another has stronger air units. This makes for an incredibly wide range of playing styles, and quite frankly, I have yet to see any "universal strategy."
M.A.X. introduces an element of gaming that is usually only found in grognard-laden strategy brainfests -- supply chains. Each unit has a limited amount of ammunition and strength, and so it is essential to send out supply trucks, barges and repair units to keep an army going. If a fleet of ships comes in on the attack and the defender brings in subs to sink the resupply vessels following, a hasty retreat is in order. This makes it so that a simple supply truck or repair bot can be a much more valuable kill than a tank, fighter or escort.
Also, various units must be combined to prevent a dangerous Achilles' heel. When I sent in a flotilla of missile cruisers or gunships, I always had to mix in submarines (for both attack and defense), escorts (to shoot down those nasty bombers), corvettes (not the fiberglass ones, but specialized submarine spotting/killing ships), fighters (to help keep other aircraft from mingling), an AWAC (to keep an eye in the sky), bombers (to take out shoreline missile defenses that can cripple gunboats and have longer ranges), and bushels of garlic to keep those pesky vampires out (sorry, wrong game on that last one). No more bike rushes. There is no superior unit, and combining forces is the way to go. M.A.X. manages to transcend simple tactics and is the first game of its kind that actually deserves to have the word "strategy" in its title.
One of the other factors that sets M.A.X. apart from many other similar games is the fact that it is turn-based. Now, to be honest with you, if you look up the words "turn-based strategy" in my dictionary, it gives a cross-reference to "boring." However, M.A.X. is nothing of the sort. It offers a simultaneous turn-based mode, which is very similar to real-time games, where both players are frantically moving units at the same time. It is still turn-based since each unit has a certain amount of movement or number of shots each turn. That way, you can't simply dance a missile carrier in range, launch, and dance right out. Many units require a certain amount of time to fire, thus putting more realistic constraints on them. Also, this helps assure that in large (and I mean very large in some cases) games, the computer, as well as your quick thinking strategy devil of a friend, cannot take advantage of a player that may be more skilled, but takes more time to move. The simultaneous turn-based mode of M.A.X. strikes a delicate balance between the hectic tactical action of Z and the calculated scheming usually found in serious strategy games like Panzer General.
Although the AI has a few weaknesses (which are being addressed in the next patch), it is a departure from most games of the genre. The AI is both clever and unpredictable. I had a hard time preparing for an enemy assault, since if I did the exact thing five times, the computer would respond differently each time. No more predictability in enemy AI. If you bring a flotilla of gunships with air cover to keep bombers away, the computer will fly in a transport plane and drop anti-aircraft guns within range, even if it means losing his transport in the process.
Also, instead of trickling in to attack one unit at a time, the computer will scout around your base looking for a weak spot, and then throw a sacrifice attack on the base, losing a few units but opening up a hole in your defenses. I anticipate the newer patch, which strengthens the AI further in custom games where the computer must start from scratch. This is an area where many other games such as Red Alert have suffered, and I am impressed at the dedication the M.A.X. team is showing to improve non-essential features. Members of the development team can be seen on Usenet, taking user feedback and responding to questions and concerns.
The multiplayer aspect of M.A.X. is even better than the single play. If you get the game, be sure to download the 1.03 patch, which solves some multiplay issues, along with a conflict with one of the Matrox video cards. Although it does not officially support it, M.A.X. can be played over the Internet through Kali. M.A.X. games support up to four players, and the turn-based time limit will provide a compromise between hectic commandos and slow deliberators.
The graphics for M.A.X. are nothing short of superb. First of all, the introduction and cut scene movies are wonderfully detailed and arguably one-up even those of Red Alert. In addition, all units, buildings, and scenery are pre-rendered in high detail, so they are displayed very crisply at any zoom level. In fact, I often found myself zooming in on a particular unit in the middle of a strategic maneuver just to see how menacing it looked, and usually it looked sufficiently so, thanks to the M.A.X. team's attention to detail. All units cast shadows, including planes, and the unit information window (which I enjoyed in Warcraft II and sorely missed in Red Alert) even lets you choose to view a still or animated shot of the unit. A minor detail, but another example of how refined this game is, even down to the smallest details.
The audio in this game is as good as would be expected. All units have their own respective sounds, and as with the rest of the interface, the female voice that gives messages and reports status is well used, keeping you informed without getting in the way. In addition, the soundtrack is excellent, a nice break from the overabundance of techno music in recent games. The songs all have somewhat of a music-noir quality to them, as if they belong in Blade Runner or Akira. Even if you don't like the music, it, like everything else in this game, is customizable and can be turned down or toggled off if desired.
PC with 486/66+ CPU, 8 MB RAM, 2X CD-ROM drive, 16-bit SoundBlaster or compatible sound card, SVGA video card required, mouse required.
Note that in order to achieve playable speed on a 486, you will probably want to do a medium or full install, which takes about 300 MB of hard drive space. On the other hand, the movies are as smooth as silk that way!
The manual for M.A.X. is excellent. Even though I had a hard time tearing myself away from the game to read it, the documentation provides an excellent range of information on rules, features and units. In fact, this is one of the few strategy action games that actually sits you down at the very beginning and gives you all the numbers ahead of time. As a result, you know how much you need to reinforce a scout bike in order to have it survive an attack by an assault gun, and you know how many gunboats you need to bring along in order to take out his shipyard (that is, if his subs don't find you first!). Not only is the manual excellently detailed, but the game itself presents all stats about a unit, and if you want more information, right-clicking on a selected unit brings up a help page with both statistics and a description of the unit, its purpose, strengths, and weaknesses.
Also well done are the tutorial missions, which take you through one concept or unit type at a time, without being condescending. I would highly recommend playing them through first before getting into the real game, since they will teach you a lot about the interface, units, features, and other concepts necessary to play the game. In addition, they will also save you a bucketload of butt-kicking (with you on the receiving end, of course). Once you have graduated from the tutorial missions, you will spend a lot less time in the on-line help and a lot more time handing out the beat-down.
M.A.X. is a phenomenal game. I don't want to slight other great games (which I compared this game to liberally), but M.A.X. is more refined, more strategy-oriented, and simply more fun than any of its big brothers. Not only are the individual missions big (and often long), but between the tutorial missions, single play campaign, custom campaigns, individual missions and multiplay, this is by far the biggest game of its kind. Trust me -- you will not just whiz through this game. I would almost have expected many of the included levels (either the individual levels or the custom scenarios) to be provided as an add-on for the game, because they are so extensive.
I had a few minor complaints, but Interplay has already addressed most of them in the 1.03 patch, and is in the process of fixing the others. All in all, this is the game I would have wanted to make if I could actually make a decent game. It will provide many hours of entertainment for anyone that enjoys either turn-based or real-time strategy, and raises the ante for all the Warcraft 2 and C&C wannabes out there. In fact, I wonder how long it will be before we see M.A.X. wannabes? Hmm … While I'm pondering that one, go out and get this game. It is one of the rare beauties of a game where someone got rid of the marketing team and actually made a straightforward, flexible, exciting, extensive and refreshing game. This is one of the few games that breaks the 90 barrier, and if I had started playing the game after the patch came out, I would have given it even higher. This game gets a 94/100 -- it is honestly that good.