Massive Assault is a classic turn-based strategy title that sheds its age by taking its design from a sci-fi futuristic motif and presenting it in a competent 3D engine. In its fundamentals, it's really no different than any other tabletop game except in those titles you would be seeing hexagons, color codes and terrain markers. Massive Assault is a more dressed up version of that.
While there is a story behind Massive Assault, it really does nothing but provide the impetus to wage war over land, sea and air on a handful of environments. The Free Nations Union is taken surprise by a secret faction called the Phantom League, a group of rebels who are bent on taking over Earth. Their tactic is to wage proxy wars on the Union's outer space colonies before bringing the rebellion to the home planet. You'll get the chance to become a general on either side of the conflict.
The title itself is divided into a series of training missions, scenarios, World War and linear campaigns. Most of the campaign material is geared towards playing the good guys as the Free Nations Union, although in the skirmish/custom games you can choose whichever side you want. Scenarios are best for short sessions since they restrict you from the purchasing/selling of units (resulting in less hassle) and they are usually set piece battles where the concentration is on micromanaging your individual units to victory.
The turn-based strategy is easy to learn. Mastery of it is another story altogether. It will take a few games to learn the nuances of the title but some tenets remain the same. The whole game is about maneuvers so selecting the biggest most expensive unit is only going to create a bullet and missile magnet. If you want to delay someone, you'll want to cover the entire area with highly durable, cheap but mostly ineffective scout units. If you want to bring down heavier weapons, you'll have to maneuver your rocket/mortar artillery into range without it being vulnerable to enemy fire.
Most of the units, including the air and naval forces, are pretty standard fare. The Phantom League appears to favor more energy weapons but those are mostly cosmetic. Both sides wield similar armaments. There is no infantry in the game but there are mechanized robots (think Battletech or Mechwarrior) that act more as highly maneuverable shock troops rather than the bread and butter of an army.
A key factor to success is maneuvering so that each and every one of your units has the ability to fire once each turn at the enemy without exposing themselves too much to the enemy's weapons ranges. That is easier said than done and Massive Assault provides all sorts of amenities for you to experiment. When you issue an order to move, for example, Massive Assault lets you continue issuing orders while the other one is being executed. This speeds up gameplay considerably.
The developers have also paid attention to human error. You can rewind and undo commands even if they weren't carried out in the same order. Say you have one big unit that almost destroyed an enemy ship. You asked this smaller unit to finish the job but you forgot about another reserve unit behind them. You can actually undo the smaller unit, move it away, move the reserve unit in and destroy the enemy. This type of attention is usually given by developers who are veterans of the genre.
Besides tactical concerns, Massive Assault also has a Risk-like dimension. Each region you control has a capital city. A region can provide a steady stream of revenue that allows you to buy military units. Borders are important because once a border is breached by a single enemy unit you, lose the revenue that is generated at the end of each turn. The first breach allows you to tap into this reserve guerilla warfare fund. It basically gives you a few dollars to position your troops anywhere within the area of control. But afterwards, you lose the ability to raise armies in that
region until you have expelled the enemy.
Massive Assault also features a concept called Secret Allies. In the World War mode, you basically can't set which territories belong to you. You reveal them turn by turn, which prevents the natural tendency to be defensive and amass everything across one elongated border (a la World War I for example). This often means you'll be fighting on multiple fronts. Should an enemy have two Secret Allies that sandwich your one, you'll have to think quickly whether to milk the resources of that territory and leave or fight a delaying battle until you can get reinforcements into the region.
The strategy sounds complex but the rules are easy to pick up after a few losing battles. That won't guarantee you'll win afterwards either. The artificial intelligence is extremely cunning. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a way to toggle the difficulty settings either. You can load and save games at will but novices will most likely be detracted by some of the difficulty ratings. Some scenarios clock in as Easy but can actually be a steep challenge especially if one is prone to make amateur mistakes. The artificial intelligence tends not to.
The World War mode certainly keeps things fresh because each map can be played without having set battle lines. This will keep people from coming up with the one winning strategy. You can play these competitive maps on the Internet and in hot-seat play.
The more you spend time with Massive Assault, though, the more you'll find that the challenge comes not from sheer difficulty but the fact that the computer never appears to make any slip ups because it's always on top of the game. Humans tend not to be so calculating. Furthermore, there isn’t a good variety of units that will let you experiment greatly. There are only two sides that are mirror images of each other. That makes it a bipolar game turns it into a chess match.
It would also have been nice if we could specify which units are in play, the number of units required to blockade a region from producing units, so on and so forth. There is one variable that controls how many turns it takes before your territories stop producing revenue altogether. This is a gentle prod to the player to quickly finish off the game. But what if you don't want to finish? The ability to manipulate such variables is almost a de facto standard in other strategy titles. It's disappointing not to find them here.
Many ex-developers of the genre who have turned to real-time strategy lament that a poorly constructed real-time product can easily outsell the critically and popularly best turn-based one. Massive Assault is certainly a refreshing take in the turn-based strategy arena. It is engaging at times but it is not always forgiving both in difficulty level and features to make it a truly well-rounded product.