Strategy titles have been guilty of following the same formulaic facets of the genre for years: static groups of under and overpowered units assaulting each other on a battlefield, mindless resource gathering and base building and the eventual bullrush of a group of units to overwhelm an opponent before moving onto the next mission and starting over from scratch. Why can't you retain some sense of progress from battlefield to battlefield? What about customizing your units to constantly keep your opponents guessing about what tactics are effective, thereby minimizing blind charges? The Earth 2140 and 2150 titles have always tried to present a different spin on the strategy concept, and their latest game looks to be their deepest one yet. Get ready for interstellar conflict, because we're blasting off with Earth 2160.
Earth 2160 builds off the initial premise that started the franchise – a rather apocalyptic setting between a number of earthbound factions. Thanks to a massive battle unleashed between the Eurasian Dynasty (ED), the Lunar Corporation (LC) and the United Civilized States (UCS), Earth was knocked out of its planetary orbit and sent careening into the sun. The few survivors of the cataclysm didn't settle their differences after being scattered to the stars either; instead, open warfare raged across the few viable landscapes in the galaxy that could support life. The start of Earth 2160 begins with the ED and the LC fighting over control of the entire planet of Mars, while the UCS has mysteriously disappeared while exploring other sections of the galaxy. While I won't reveal any of the plot details, I will mention that the plotlines of both the ED and LC campaigns, as well as that of the UCS and a mysterious alien faction tie together to make a massive battle for the fate of humanity.
Each faction has their own quirks when it comes to how they build their units and their bases that affects how you’ll wind up planning your approach to each mission. The ED bases are large, sprawling complexes that take up a lot of ground. Focused primarily with slow moving, high-powered machinery, the ED prefers to pound their opponents. The LC, by contrast, builds their bases vertically along stacked segmented towers, each of which can be fortified by numerous turrets. Relying upon anti-gravity technology, the LC has the largest number of airborne troops that levitate across the field. Unlike its counterparts, the UCS prefers to rely on more automated units to do its fighting for it. Robots and drones collect resources and form the backbone of its army, with mechs and cyborgs defending its bases. Finally, the aliens have one of the more unique twists for their deployment. They don’t have a base structure or generate units in the usual way; their units clone themselves to create additional troops and also evolve into newer forms.
One of the things that balances the wildly different campaign styles, particularly for the ex-terrestrial sides, is the ability to research and create new units to respond to new threats on the fly. For instance, say you send a scouting party ahead that gets annihilated by opponents packing ballistic missiles. You can go into a research screen, develop armor that is more resistant to these weapons as well as stronger firearms that can swing the balance of the battle in your favor. Not only can you then retrofit your unit designs so that all new units will come out with your new technology, but you’ll keep your discoveries from mission to mission so you won’t have to constantly backtrack your steps. In fact, you can set up as many newly designed units as you feel you’ll need to get your goals done. This can work well in concert with the newer focus of Heroes and virtual agents, an RPG-like element that gives certain members of your armies that are central to the plot an identity as well as abilities to do things your regular troops can’t. Some of these range from packing specialized guns to picking up medkits, cloaking devices and other items.
The depth of the game is one that definitely can’t be denied, particularly for strategy fans that are looking for a larger role in controlling their attack and defense plans. However, Earth 2160 falls a bit flat in a number of ways. For one, the game requires a surprisingly heavy amount of micromanagement to be successful in any way. Not only will you not receive blips alerting you to battles on your game’s minimap, but you also won’t necessarily know what units have which weapons or armor types at a glance. It can be extremely disconcerting to assemble a large force of soldiers and truck them halfway across a map, only to have the entire squad wiped out in a manner of minutes. Even worse, your troops will not always exercise intelligence in firing at incoming threats no matter what command you give them, so you sometimes have to continually tell them who they need to target and when they should try to fire upon enemies without drawing undue attention.
You’ll also notice that in some ways, playing multiplayer games or skirmish battles against friends may wind up being much better than the single player plotline. This isn’t because the plot itself is flawed, but in some ways because the missions can be so extremely long. Unlike other strategy titles where you might be able to fly through some missions in a short period of time, many of Earth 2160’s operations turn into grinding guerilla warfare or attrition battles where you slowly wear down your opponent or are in turn eliminated by incoming forces, which can sometimes take 2 or more hours to complete. While the inclusion of Heroes can be a diverting twist, they often aren’t as powerful or important to battles with the lone exception that you can’t let them die, which makes playing missions a bit slow as well.
Visually, Earth 2160 is extremely impressive, with a graphics engine that shows off a lot of nice touches. For instance, the inclusion of headlights that sweep across the landscape during nighttime cycles is a pleasant twist on lighting effects. Explosions, particularly ones generated by laser beam or plasma attacks show off impressive particle effects, and you’ll be able to zoom in tight upon units and structures to see highly detailed character and structural models. The environmental models are decent – nothing spectacular, but not overly bland to where you won’t notice the different locations you’re fighting through. This is supported by a swelling musical score that provides an adequate background for the game, although it is somewhat overshadowed by some hit or miss vocal performances. Sometimes delivered in an overdramatic, bored or weak way, some lines just don’t seem like either they fit in the game or should’ve used that recording for the final title.
With an interesting premise, four campaigns and a large amount of depth with the researchable technology tree, Earth 2160 allows hardcore strategy fans the option to tailor make their own units and plans for galactic conquest. If these gamers can overlook the significant requirements of micromanagement and investments of time, they may find a solid strategy game awaits them.