Dark Reign 2 is an unlucky game. Reviewed all on its own, in a
vacuum so to speak, it would have done pretty well. It is, at its
heart, a well thought out and well executed example of the new
breed of RTS - the 3D RTS. However, coming as it does close on
the heels of my review of Earth 2150, comparisons to that game
are inevitable, and on most fronts it simply isn't as good. Perhaps
its "failing" is that it adheres to the RTS recipe too closely, really
offering nothing over the standard RTS except the hills and valleys
of a 3D landscape. I think it also suffers from the hype factor in
that I got all jazzed up waiting for the game to come out (I would
have to say that RTS games make up the majority of my personal
gameplay), and after some playtime am overwhelmed by feelings
of ambivalence about the game as a whole. I suspect that as time
goes by and still other 3D RTS games come out, Dark Reign 2 will
fall farther to the back of the pack in comparison.
The story of Dark Reign 2 is one of a future earth ravaged by
wasteful consumerism (the manual especially so leading me to
believe it was underwritten by the Sierra Club) to the degree that it
will soon become entirely uninhabitable, and yet on this ruined
landscape a battle rages between the JDA (the powers that be)
and groups of the disenfranchised called the Sprawlers. The
cutscenes that advance the story are an interesting combination of
radio transmissions, news reports, military reports, and action
sequences using the game engine. The missions in the game are
strictly linear which leads to a more cohesive storyline than Earth
2150, but makes you feel less like the captain of your own destiny.
Finish the mission and advance or keep trying over and over
again until you do - there is no alternative. The missions
themselves are sometimes fairly complex with a number of goals
to achieve, which are linked quite well with scripted in-mission
events to give the story a still greater flow.
The action is played out on a fully 3D landscape with a flying
camera similar to Ground Control or Earth 2150. The difficulty in
controlling the flying camera to let you get a good look at the
action is no better or worse than in those other games. The day
advances through day to night over time, but the darkness in this
game doesn't alter the field of view of your units much. The main
effect of darkness seems to be to reduce the output of your solar
power plants, but that's about it, and with just a little planning, it is
never a problem. Weather likewise appears to be just eye candy
with no noticeable effect upon the play of the game.
The lucre of choice in this game is called Taelon, and it is
collected from crystalline deposits on the landscape. Cash is used
to buy buildings that in turn construct units. Buildings can be
upgraded for still more cash to allow them to produce more
advanced units. Both units and buildings are fairly expensive
given the available quantity of Taelon so bases and forces are
perhaps not as massive as in other RTS games. There is no
research tree at all.
In theory, the JDA are the high tech people and the Sprawlers are
low tech bruisers - or that is what you would be lead to believe
looking at the campaign selection screen and the overall story -
but in actuality the two sides feel more alike to play than unalike
which is somewhat of a disappointment. Each side has only a few
units that do not have almost exact analogs on the opposing side.
The positive side in this is that the balance between the JDA and
Sprawlers is nearly perfect - neither side having the clear
ass-kicking advantage. Both sides have ground, air, and water
units. Some unit types are unable to attack other unit types (i.e.
some air units can only attack ground targets while others provide
air-to-air coverage), or are far more/less effective attacking certain
unit types, forcing you to used mixed unit forces. This isn't really
anything dramatically new in the RTS domain, but I felt it perhaps
more acutely in this game than in others, as the wrong collection
of units in the wrong battle could lead to utter obliteration.
Graphics are above average, though instead of going for the
realistic look of Ground Control, this game uses bright colors and
vibrant explosions that are almost cartoonish. At resolutions up to
1280 x 1024 with 32 bit color, I experienced high frame rates
throughout. The game screen is well laid out, showing enough
information without being overly cluttered. In game sound is
adequate, but as I write this review I can't actually hear any of the
in game sounds in my head, so I would have to furthermore add
that they are entirely forgettable.
By far the game's greatest fault is the unit pathfinding. Units spend
a lot of time jostling one another when trying to move even across
open ground or water. When set to guard a unit, they will
sometimes kind of mill around it impeding its motion as well. You
can set unit aggressiveness from stand in one spot and shoot to the
death to run at the first sign of the enemy and everything in
between, but due to the poor pathfinding almost any collection of
units is unable to retreat because they spend all their time
bumping into each other. Oddly, while the computer is quick to
take advantage of an unguarded power generator or some other
base defense flaw, it also gladly turns dozens of units into fodder
sending them into a well defended valley of death. Since the
supply of Taelon on any given game board is limited, holding
some kind of defensive line until the computer simply runs out is
unfortunately a workable strategy on many levels.
Above average graphics + average sound + somewhat below
average AI + average gameplay = average game.