War is hell â€“ I think we pretty much all know that by now â€“ but something that I bet you don't think of all that much is just how horrendously complicated it can be. I mean, if I send out a bunch of guys planning on them meeting other guys and what they meet instead is a tank, things are going to go poorly for them. Sending out a tank that runs into a tank killer is no day at the beach. And having a plane fly around trying to kill one tiny guy on the ground who has a SAM in his possession is a losing proposition. Rock, paper, scissors. Having the right information to get the right equipment into the right place at the right time is key, or things can go to the aforementioned hell quite quickly. But let's face it, collecting that information is tedious, time-consuming work which in the modern world takes place deep in the bowels of some building by guys hunched over computer terminals examining satellite imagery or by commandos in camouflage gear belly-crawling through swamps. It's not much fun, and a game like Joint Task Force which is sort of bracketed by very expensive individual units on the one hand and an astonishing speed with which those units can be killed on the other, has by necessity a lot of slow intel gathering followed by brief bursts of combat, isn't all that much fun either. It doesn't help that the enemy AI has some really awful shortcomings that hark back to the days of the ole' Warcraft archer traps, and just keeping mixed forces together is a continual battle by itself.
The overall plotline, that you as the leader of a UN task force is sent into all the â€śmessyâ€ť places on the earth â€“ Mogadishu, Serbia, Afghanistan, etc â€“ to unseat petty dictators and deal with a very Al Qaeda-like terrorist organization called The Matar, works pretty well, though it does tend to lead to missions that often look like â€śgo to that region and eliminate the hostile threat â€“ try not to kill civilians,â€ť then â€śgo to THAT region and eliminate the hostile threat â€“ try not to kill civilians.â€ť Right off the bat I can tell that I'm in trouble. My attempts to construct a mix of forces that work well together are only sort of successful. Fast vehicles drive ahead, slower ones lumber behind (tanks and other large vehicles tend to get all bottlenecked up on narrow areas, but that's really a pathfinding issue), and soldiers get strung out all over the place. Still, in my mixed force I've got snipers to deal with guys with RPGs, soldiers to deal with their soldiers, anti-aircraft vehicles to handle their helicopters, and tanks to hit their tanks and armored vehicles. I'm clicking around like crazy keeping it all packed together, but I'm doing OK. Perfect plan, no? Only as they say, every battle plan is perfect until it runs into the enemy. A mortar kills my snipers, his soldiers pin down my soldiers, RPGs blow my tanks, his armored vehicles wipe out my anti-aircraft vehicles, and his helicopters come in to clean it all up, and in 30 seconds I find myself retreating with three wounded soldiers in a half-dead jeep. Can you say â€śRestart?â€ť
So plan B is to build a defensive rampart in some convenient area â€“ tanks in front, anti-air cover behind, snipers scatters around, mortars and artillery behind, repair and support in the back. I send out a single soldier and see what he finds. Whatever enemy he runs into, I have him run back to my lines, the enemy units typically following him back to their doom. When was the last time an AI fell for that trap? As an alternative I would sometimes have my soldier sit tight instead of running and act as spotter for the artillery â€“ enemy units being shelled don't seem to do much about it until they are good and dead. In fact for the most part, with the exception of scripted events, the enemy AI doesn't seem to do much of anything. His guys just stand around in suspended animation waiting for me to kill them. I advance the front line occasionally to make the run back shorter, but for the most part that's the game I play, and it's just as boring as it sounds. Safe, but oh so boring. JTF is so unforgiving (unless you count reloading and being able to save anywhere as forgiving), slaughtering troops almost instantly often without any resources to replenish them, that I feel like that's the game I'm being forced to play if I want to be successful. To encourage that play style even more, objectives that are supposedly time critical - â€śRescue that downed pilot quicklyâ€ť - that would force you to rush into situations without hours and hours of recon, don't seem to be time critical at all. Apparently that downed pilot is perfectly safe hunkered down behind enemy lines for as long as he needs to. So those are your choices â€“ boring and easy or exciting and nearly impossible.
To give credit, JTF has put a lot of interesting things into the RTS mix. Soldiers can be specifically armed with any of ten or so items â€“ machinegun, RPG, C4 pack, mine detector, SAM launcher, granades, night vision goggles and others. It really brings a new height to the mixing of forces. Likewise, some light vehicles can be modified to have different mounted weapons like machineguns or TOW missiles. There are a good selection of light and heavy vehicles and variously trained soldiers (rangers, commandos, snipers, medics, engineers). You have a mission-critical hero unit in the game that gains experience and skills â€“ that's nothing new â€“ but this commander unit is the only one that can call in reinforcements. Light reinforcements can be dropped almost anywhere your commander happens to be, but heavier deliveries require that you hold an airstrip. There are no resources to gather or bases to build. You instead purchase items using money earned by completing objectives. In an homage to the modern world of warfare, the media is always watching your actions, and if public opinion sways against you (mostly because you kill too many civilians, though the media seems angry almost no matter how careful you are or how little damage you do), it will impact your income. Just as an aside here, by the way, I never actually managed to kill a civilian â€“ your units won't target them. I suppose you could use artillery to shell an area heavy in civilians and kill one, or you could have a soldier plant a C4 charge and blow up some who happen to wander nearby, but by and large the accidental killing of civilians is not a big problem, even in missions where they warn you specifically that it will be.
Multiplayer is considerably slicker with several run-of-the-mill flavors, and one very interesting variant in which players try and capture flags to win cash for reinforcements. The players who play it too cautiously, who do the belly crawl with commandos to gain intel, are going to find themselves at a serious disadvantage facing an enemy who has rushed to flags and now has an enormous reinforced army. There are also many game options that can be selected (all vehicles blow up at some set time, pieces of the map disappear as time goes by, supply crates dropped at random to name just a few) to even further mix it up. Also in multiplayer you can play as the JTF, but also using the dictator or terrorist forces. In truth they're not terribly different â€“ everyone has a tank, everyone has an attack helicopter, yadda, yadda â€“ but the stats are perhaps subtly different. Beyond the pathfinding and unit grouping issues, on which both players are really at the same disadvantage, I think the multiplayer is quite good. I do feel that I have to add, however, that every time I logged on, there were damned few people (less than a dozen) playing online, so I don't know what's going on there.
I've also got to add that JTF looks great. Snow, rain, fog, smoke are all evident. The game uses the PhysX processor, which I don't have, but even without it houses blow to smithereens and vehicles blast apart into flying tires and parts. Terrain has a significant effect on unit speed. Tanks will drive over trees and telephone poles, but take longer doing it. Artillery seems to chew up the ground pretty good, but it also heals over time â€“ I would have liked to see a bombed out road be difficult to cross, but that's not the case. Destroyed vehicles hulls do tend to clog up the battlefield. I was pleased with the great variety of weapon sounds, though found planes and helicopters hard to hear in the general din of battle. The voice work is average and redundant in the extreme. Must every soldier who shoots someone say â€śHe's greased!â€ť?
So I'm kind of torn on this one. They've built a good RTS engine with several noteworthy features, and then ruined the single-player game with a lackluster control scheme, pathfinding issues, and a positively moronic enemy AI. But if you go multiplayer, get away from most of that, and find yourself a competent adversary, then I'm pretty happy with JTF. I'm going to go a little low on this one, but if you plan to play mostly multiplayer you can tack on another 10-15%.