No Man's Land
If Someone told you German developer Related Designs was about to release a strategy game that looked as gorgeous as Age of Mythology and played like a cross between Warcraft III and Commando, your initial reaction would probably be: "who?" and "yeah, right."
It's hard not to be sceptical when such lofty claims are wafted about on a heady summer breeze - we certainly had our doubts - but that was before we got the preview code. Now, after a weekend befriending Native Americans, ambushing the Spanish navy and building railroads with American settlers, we can confidently state that No Man's Land: Fight For Your Rights stands every chance of ranking among the best the genre has to offer.
Granted, it may not possess the most catchiest of titles (Fight For Your Rights indeed - is this some kind of ploy to attract RTS-loving hip-hoppers?), but what it may lack in snappy subtitles, it makes up for in enterprising game design.
No Man's Land covers 300 years of American history from the discovery of the New World through to the construction of the transcontinental railroad. There are three campaigns to get stuck into featuring six cultures, each boasting well over a dozen unique unit types and at least one playable 'star' personality that the story is based around.
Choose the first campaign for example, and you partake in grim territorial battles between the ruthless, all-conquering Spanish led by the brutal Carvinez and the peaceful, spiritual Indians guided by tribal leader Umak. It's fairly straightforward RTS stuff -gather some wood, gold and food, before amassing a terrible army to wipe out those pilfering Spaniards.
Select the second and third scenarios and the game leaves the wilds of the South American jungle to focus on the cutthroat business of creating profitable railroad companies in the fledgling US of A. To do that successfully you need to encroach on Native American soil and that doesn't always go down too well. It's Railroad Tycoon meets Age Of Mythology. Very weird, but compelling stuff.
A Bolt From The Blue
While it's true that the game is based on historical fact, Related Designs has gone to great lengths to focus on entertainment rather than education. As MD Burkhard Ratheiser points out: "No Man's Land is historically accurate, but only aesthetically. It's not like a history book, and we certainly don't want to give gamers a lesson in American history. It's just a fictitious story set amid a historical background."
NML boasts all the natural geographical beauty of the era in full 3D, but doesn't bother with real names, dates, places and so on. Good job too, as the last thing we need is another deadpan period drama based on the conquest of the Americas.
This loose guide-rope also gives the developer plenty of artistic freedom; the two Native American cultures, for example, have magical abilities. Tribal shamans can call upon earthly spirits to protect them, summoning bears, wolves and other bestial guardians. They can also harness more destructive powers like fireballs. Surround a colonial fortress with a few angry shamans and those dirty land-grabbing white devils soon know what they've let themselves in for.
The Spanish and the British have their own trump card - ships. Bloody big ones, and lots of them. These cannon ball-spewing behemoths can annihilate Indian kayaks in no time and so, as a naval force, the invading Spaniards and Brits are simply untouchable.
Great White Hope
NML is an equal opportunities destroyer though - every culture has its advantages and disadvantages. It bodes well for the LAN/lnternet multiplayer mode, and from playing it with the developers we found the balance to be pretty good. Indeed, one of the most enjoyable gameplay elements we came across was the Native Americans' unique capacity to dive into the ocean .swim down unnoticed to the underside of and then cut a hole in the hull to sabotage it. Sharks can cause a slight problem, never, and the amount of times our eager beavers became Great White lunches defies belief.
Little touches like this crop up liberally, and what's even more impressive is the way certain single player levels take on a distinctly stealthy tone. Again, the influence is there for all to see - in this mood the game is Commandos, pure and simple, something Burkhard freely admits: "In No Man's land there's a little bit pf everything!"
Well, we won't argue with you there. NML is virtually complete bar a few tweaks and hopefully we'll have the review next month. So, until then dig out all the games we've mentioned above, play them again and imagine all the best bits in one tidy little package. Now, wouldn't that f would be something? See, we told you...
Download No Man's Land
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
Giving your game a name that conjures up images of WWI trench warfare is a slightly odd choice - especially when it's about the colonisation of the Americas. But once you've played No Man's Land it all makes sense, as it gives you the feeling that the RTS genre, like the British Army on the Somme, hasn't progressed in two years.
Despite its smattering of interesting features, No Man's Land is a game stuck in a time warp. In terms of visuals and playability, it's about as innovative as the last series of Big Brother.
The action begins with England and Spain arriving to colonise the New World, and stretches a few hundred years until the Wild West. The three campaigns enable you to play as a range of sides, including the American Indians, the Spanish or the English in loosely historically-based missions.
And when we say loosely', we mean very loosely. Though it has a historical setting, it might as well be set in Middle Earth for all its adherence to realism. This is a world where shaman can summon ghostly warriors, Catholic priests are little more than magicians, and heroes can take hundreds of enemy arrows before perishing.
None of which would be a problem if the game was any good. But originality? Forget about it. In fact, almost every aspect of the game, from the resource collection to the upgrades system and the use of character special abilities, is the mirror image of those from other superior titles. You can only chop trees, build defence towers and upgrade armour in the barracks a number of times before deja vu kicks in.
Features such as unit formations, flexible technology trees, battle tactics and unit Al that displays initiative are totally absent. This gives No Man's Land the aura of a game that's just woken up out of suspended animation, looking around bleary-eyed and wondering at how much things have changed.
Turn Away Now
Visually it's pretty diabolical too, with clunky, indistinct animations, bland, isometric environments and only a modest zoom function available - no panning or rotation of the camera here.
Even when battles erupt, things don't look much more exciting. The lack of unit formations and the tendency to reward you for wrapping up all your troops in a selection box and hurling them en-masse at the enemy means you're left looking at condensed clumps of men, horses and cannons battering each other in a way that's cringesome to watch.
What's more, the missions themselves don't engage you a great deal. From having to lead a small party of men across the map fighting off wild animals and patrols, to the build-then-conquer' traditional RTS style levels, it's a non-stop trawl through the book of elementary RTS level design. Our advice? Give this a miss.
Snapshots and Media
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