In an effort to make my reviews more educational, allow me to introduce the phrase of the day: “stratégie temps réel.” That’s French for “real-time strategy.” So now when your friends ask you what you’re doing on-line, instead of saying “reading about computer games” or “downloading porn,” you can tell them that you’re learning a foreign language, and they’re sure to be impressed. Anyway, I discovered the phrase when I went to the web site for Eugen Systems, the developer behind Act of War: Direct Action. I don’t normally go to a developer’s web site when I review their game, but Act of War had such a Command & Conquer feel to it that I wondered if Eugen Systems, like, oh, Obsidian Software and Flagship Studios, was one of those development houses that you might not have heard of, but which is made up of people from famous but splintered or bankrupt houses. I don’t think Westwood Studios, the developer behind the Command & Conquer games, exists any more, so the idea even made sense. But as you might have figured out by now, Eugen Systems is a French developer, and if they have anybody from Westwood working for them, they’re hiding it well. So it appears that Eugen is simply a fan of the Command & Conquer franchise, and, at least so far, that’s not a bad thing.
In Act of War, you control one of three factions: the U.S. Army, the Talon Task Force, and the Consortium. The U.S. Army encompasses all of the U.S. military divisions, and it contains familiar units like the F-15 fighter, the Apache helicopter, and the Abrams tank. The Talon Task Force is also associated with the U.S., but it was designed to work outside of Congressional control. It includes high-tech units like the SHIELD (a human-robot hybrid), the Comanche helicopter, and the commando infantry unit. Meanwhile, the Consortium is a grab-bag terrorist group that employs camouflage technology for effective hit-and-run tactics. It has an assortment of ground and air units, including the requisite bomb truck.
In the campaign that comes with Act of War, you control the U.S. Army and the Talon Task Force as they attempt to foil the plots of the Consortium. This isn’t a case where the terrorist group wants to detonate a nuclear device in a major U.S. city, and, as a result, you feel a little dirty playing them. For one thing, the Consortium simply wants to keep oil prices high, and their objectives are more about destroying oil refineries and kidnapping oil executives than they are about causing general mayhem. Secondly (and oddly), you never actually control the Consortium in the campaign, so it doesn’t really matter what they want to do, as long as you’re there to shoot them down and blow them up.
Interestingly, the campaign that comes with the game is based on the book Act of War by Dale Brown, and Eugen Systems shot a lot of full-motion video to give the campaign more of a story feel. That’s great news for those of us who primarily play real-time strategy games for the single player campaign, because Eugen did a good job with the videos, and they managed to avoid the silliness often exhibited by the Command & Conquer games (although the U.S. President looks a whole lot like George Steinbrenner, and I kept wondering is I really had to save him). That being said, I haven’t read the book Act of War, so I have no idea how much Eugen Systems might have butchered it. But given that they had to convert a 400-page book into a series of 14 missions, I suspect that they had to butcher it pretty good.
Gameplay in Act of War is about what you’d expect from a real-time strategy game. You make money so you can build bases so you can create units so you can defeat your enemies. The pace is pretty fast, and this is a real-time strategy game where units are far superior to static defenses, so the person who builds the biggest army first usually wins. I found the campaign to be pretty easy to play, but I got creamed in the couple of skirmish matches I tried, so Act of War should give some lasting value if you want to take the time to hone your skill.
If you’ve been reading between the lines -- or perhaps if you’ve simply counted the number of times I’ve mentioned Command & Conquer in this review -- you might wonder if Act of War does anything new, or if it only contains things you’ve seen before. I’d say the answer is yes and no. For example, to make money in the game, you can build oil derricks and oil refineries, and then run tankers between the two. I’ve seen that set-up countless times. But you can also make money by capturing POWs and holding them in detention camps, and that’s new to me.
Or consider how buildings work. You can send infantry units inside a building to fire from it, which should sound familiar, but the building isn’t just a “shield” for the units. They have to move to windows to fire at their enemies, but when they do that they expose themselves to return fire. All three sides have sniper units, and they excel at killing units stationed in windows. And while you can send infantry units inside an occupied building to try and take it over for yourself, you can also land units on the roof of the building, and if they enter the building that way, they can take it over while incurring far less damage.
In other words, Eugen Systems took a lot of familiar concepts and gave them some new wrinkles. That’s good, and I’d even characterize Act of War as an entertaining game, but it’s just that those familiar concepts I mentioned are really familiar, and it just seemed like I had played Act of War before. Your mileage may vary. I’ve played a lot of real-time strategy games over the years, and they’re all starting to look alike to me, but if you’re newer to the genre, or if you like the genre better, then you might have a lot of fun with Act of War.