Years ago, when the concept of three dimensions was introduced to the real-time strategy genre, it was a half-hearted affair at the beginning. Clunky cameras, difficult to use interfaces and meaningless perspectives of the battlefield littered the market. From my personal experience, the whole fusion between strategy and bleeding edge technology didn't work until games like Ground Control were released.
Ground Control II: Operation Exodus takes a step forward and leaves behind the religious fanaticism and corporatist conflicts of a space-faring human civilization. Instead, it focuses on the aftermath in the far future of 2741. The colonies have been abandoned but not out of mind. When the Terran Empire attempts to consolidate all human occupied space, they meet stiff resistance in the Northern Star Alliance (NSA) whose Captain Jacob Angelus you will be playing for most of the game. The conflict is further complicated by the introduction of an alien race known as the Virons who will fight for and against the NSA protagonists.
Exodus takes the same precepts of its predecessor and continues to build on them here. Unlike most real time strategy titles, the game features no base building or construction phase. In Exodus, points are given continuously throughout the mission. These points serve as currency for requisitioning units and calling for fire support. More points are given when victory locations are captured. However, this is offset by the number of troops you control. The more troops you have on the ground, the fewer points you will be given no matter how many locations you hold.
Your reinforcements are deployed via a dropship that arrives from off the map. You only get one dropship to land at designated areas but it is formidable, both to take an area from the enemy and for a dropship to lay waste to enemies. With its weapons, it can usually clear a landing area by itself without the help of any sentries or guard units.
Furthermore, you can upgrade the dropship (speed, armor, weapons) in order to develop it into a useful on the field unit. This is an extension of the original game's credo.
What has changed significantly in Exodus is the type of warfare you'll engage in. Besides featuring expansive open terrain, you'll also get the opportunity to do combat in ruined cities. Urban areas provide more than just simple eye candy. The developers have made them functional too. Infantry can hide within buildings and traverse into dense forests that vehicles cannot. This helps the astute commander to use hit and run tactics. It also helps negate the strength of advanced/expensive units. A few cost-effective infantrymen holding a strong point in a building can out-duel multiple waves of mechanized units.
Many units feature primary and secondary fire. But in terms of capabilities, it can be said that the NSA and Terran forces match up much like a chessboard. Terran forces are beefier looking and the NSA has a variety of stealth and precision type attacks. The clever addition of the Virons transforms the battlefield as they use organic type weapons (the rationale being their homeworld was always plagued with electromagnetic interferences). Think differently like the Zerg in Starcraft.
Using tactics is important to the game. Typically, I found a squad could survive almost twice as long if I micromanaged their progress across the map. Combined with a combat engineer to heal troops and vehicles, the lifetime was longer and I gained the use of increasingly experienced troops. I thought this was a nice touch but it would have been better if you could transfer veteran units from one map to the next.
Still, Exodus suffers from some intermittent problems. Pathfinding, for example, is sometimes an excruciating affair, particularly if you have a traffic jam at a crucial juncture.
You will appreciate these faults and the many strengths that accompany them in this title since the single player campaign is a lengthy affair. Exodus features its own multiplayer community known as the Massgate. It handles all the matchmaking, tournaments, ladders and rankings. However, the game is also playable in a local environment.
One of the best things the developers did was include a co-operative multiplayer option. This was something I saw in Westwood's last Dune title but it was also something I saw precious few other developers take up on. With the co-operative feature, you can host games and let two other players join (three in total) to finish the entire single player campaign. Some things are modified. For example, where NPCs were tasked to aid you, now your human allies can be of more assistance. The lengthier missions were the ones that could most benefit from co-operative play.
Because Exodus isn't your typical 'build and conquer' game, it is also one of the few strategy titles that can boast the ability for players to join at any time. All in all, the multiplayer offering is compelling. It should keep the Ground Control franchise around a lot longer than its predecessor.
It's clear that in the Angelus character, the developers have invested a lot of time in creating the backdrop. I have to admit I was sceptical at first. Rebels versus imperial force stories have been done since Star Wars and then some before that. But Massive Entertainment has done a good job (even enlisting sci-fi author Joe Dever, unread by me) in creating a believable alternate world. I wanted to zoom through the single player missions faster to find out what's next, to find out what the NSA can do to live another day? That's part of the magic.
The other part is the strategy. Exodus proves that real time strategy can feel like the strategy of its turn-based and/or wargame cousins.
I'm reminded of Close Combat. Some of the battles, especially if you are defensive minded, can be drawn out affairs. However, a lot of times, it is always fun and challenging to use fewer numbers and superior tactics to overcome your opponents. Capturing victory locations, strong points and landing zones help make Exodus differentiate itself from the many sci-fi strategy titles out there.
In its second outing, Exodus is a more confident showing of Ground
Control. The workings of the game are more mature. Besides some minor annoyances, Exodus culminates into a solid real-time strategy title where the term 'real-time' is not a compromise for strategy.