Last week I played Beyond Good & Evil, which I’d classify as being in the unusual story-driven action game genre. This week I have Desert Rats vs. Afrika Korps, the new WWII-themed real-time strategy game from developer Digital Reality, and I thought it was going to be story-driven as well. Digital Reality introduced four “heroes” for the game and spent a certain amount of time describing how they got to know each other (for example, through the Olympics) and how two of them love the same woman, and they even included a “story mode” for the game, which is just like the regular campaign but with extra “story missions.” But all that was for naught, as Desert Rats’ campaign, story mode or not, is pretty familiar, with the requisite number of defense missions and escort missions and of course destroy-the-enemy missions.
Where Desert Rats differentiates itself, at least from most real-time strategy games that I’ve played, is that it doesn’t have bases at all. You don’t even get a peasant-style unit to gather resources for you. Before each mission you simply get a number of military points, and then you use the points to select the units you want to use. Since the game focuses on Africa during World War II, most of the units are tanks (I bet there are 20 different panzer tanks alone), but there are also a selection of infantry units and utility vehicles and special purpose planes. You don’t actual control planes in the game, but you can select a spot for a reconnaissance plane to patrol or a bomber plane to attack.
Like with most games that feature tanks and infantry, the infantry units are pretty useless. Bullets damage tanks not at all, and, unlike games such as those in the Command & Conquer series, tanks can kill infantry pretty easily. What infantry is used for mostly is to drive the tanks and other vehicles. Each vehicle requires a crew to function (tanks usually require four people, for example), and different infantry units in the vehicles can give them different bonuses. For example, if the vehicle has a machine gun and you put a machine gunner unit into it, then the machine gun will function better. And if you put a scout in a vehicle, then the vehicle will be able to see farther. Vehicle crews also allow you to “steal” vehicles. If you can kill the crew without destroying the vehicle, then you can put your own crew inside and use it for your own.
Unfortunately, beyond how vehicle crews work, there probably isn’t anything in Desert Rats that you haven’t seen before. Yes, the game looks nice and tanks blow up really well, and there’s a good selection of units to choose from, but because you can’t build bases, Desert Rats feels sort of like half a real-time strategy game, and there isn’t too much you can do during missions. On the good side, I bet, if nothing else, that multiplayer skirmishes are quick and entertaining (although, sadly, the game only comes with three multiplayer maps). But on the bad side, there isn’t a skirmish mode for solo players, and the campaign gets brutally unfun by the end.
Because each mission is fixed-force, and because units can carry over from mission to mission (and gain ranks depending on how many missions they’ve survived), and because you’re graded in each mission based on how well you perform, you pretty much have to play each mission perfectly in order to advance. Since numerous random bad things can happen at any time -- like stumbling upon enemy mines or having an enemy bomber attack out of nowhere or having the turret of one of your tanks disabled -- not to mention simply approaching a situation badly, you’re going to have to load over and over and over again to get through most of the campaign missions. I had to load way more in Desert Rats than I did in any of the Commandos games (which had previously held the bar for most loads required), and in a couple of missions I’m pretty sure I had to sit and watch the loading screen more than I played the missions.
And so Desert Rats is a game that looks good and plays reasonably well, but is likely to test your patience more than your military skills. Plus, since the 16-mission story-mode campaign can probably be played in about 15 hours, Desert Rats might not have the longest shelf life on your computer, either. So I wouldn’t really recommend you purchase the game, but there are worse choices out there, and Desert Rats might be entertaining enough once it hits the bargain bin.