Ah, budget titles. If you’re like me and you see a game has been released as a budget title, you avoid it like the plague. Sometimes a good game (like Planescape Torment) gets priced down into budget land, but when a title starts that way, words like “shoddy,” “simple,” and “embarrassing” tend to describe it. However, when Virgin Interactive got itself back into the publishing business, they put a new spin on things. Instead of cutting down on the developmental time for a game, they cut down on things like the box size (and all that wasted cardboard), and they put the manual on the CD instead of providing a hardcopy. One of Virgin’s first trial balloons under this new system is Original War from Czech developer Altar Interactive.
In the world of Original War American scientists discover a time machine in Siberia. Moreover, they discover that the time machine’s power source, dubbed Siberite, is also a source of cold fusion. Well, the Americans decide that Siberite is way too powerful to be left in the hands of the Russians, and so they come up with the harebrained scheme to go back in time two million years and move all of the Siberite into Alaska. That way, when the future rolls around again, the all-important power source will be in the hands of the Americans. But then the Russians figure out what’s going on, and even the Arabs crash the party, and pretty soon all three factions are duking things out in ancient times.
That sounds like one of those goofy premises that’s just there to explain why three factions are fighting each other -- and, ok, it is -- but Altar Interactive does a nice job with it. Because the factions are all alone in the past, they can’t just recruit soldiers and build tanks out of thin air. People and supplies are limited, and that gives the game some extra strategic implications. You have to decide things like whether you want to put a human in a tank to drive it -- and possibly risk the human -- or whether you want to create a computer-controlled tank, which isn’t as deadly as its human-driven counterpart, and so isn’t as good a use of your available machine parts.
Plus, the human units are interesting. Each human gets a skill level in four areas -- science, mechanical, soldiering, and engineering -- and each skill has an associated class. But the humans can switch classes easily, and so if your base comes under attack you can send them into the armory to grab machine guns and armor (and become soldiers), and if things are quiet you can send them into the lab to grab their white coats (and become scientists). So not only is there some good strategy in trying to maximize your strength given the units you start with, there’s also a little X-COM feel to the game, as you get to take some raw recruits and eventually build them into a powerful fighting force.
Even the resources are interesting. Two of them, oil and Siberite, are pretty standard fare -- just find a deposit and then start mining away -- but the third involves crates of machine parts from the future. The crates arrive at random times and in random places on the map, so you can’t just settle into your base. You have to stay aware of the playing area and constantly send your units into danger to pick them up. Or maybe you can train some ancient apes to collect crates for you, or maybe you can build a cargo vehicle to do the job. Picking up crates, just like most aspects of the game, gives you lots of options.
Original War comes with two campaigns, one each for the Russians and Americans, and they’re about as dynamic as campaigns get. If you rescue a soldier in one mission, maybe that soldier will show up with reinforcements in another mission. If you capture an enemy scientist but then treat him kindly, maybe that good deed will pay off in the future (or maybe you’ll get a Saving Private Ryan situation). Plus, you’re allowed to make deals with your enemies, and eventually you’ll have to make a choice about staying with your country or joining an organization called the Alliance. And so not only do the missions change slightly based on the decisions you make, they also take a major branch near the end.
The dynamic campaigns give Original War some replayability, but unfortunately Altar Interactive also forces you to do some replaying. The missions are sometimes puzzle affairs, with definite right ways and wrong ways to go about them, and you might not realize the right way until after you’ve completed them once. Plus, there are lots of scripted events and changing objectives in the missions, and sometimes they’re impossible to prepare for when you don’t know they’re coming. And sometimes enemy units just appear on the edge of the map, making it difficult to plan base defenses the first time you play. But most importantly, for each mission you can win up to four medals (each medal is worth experience to your troops), and while one medal is always for playing the mission without loading, the other three are sometimes fairly random -- and you won’t find out what they’re being awarded for until after you play the mission. Luckily, the missions are relatively short (most are in the half hour to hour range) and the game is fun to play, but the constant replaying can be aggravating.
What helps with the aggravation is that Original War has an outstanding interface. Altar Interactive did an excellent job at summing up everything you need to know in as little space as possible. And so it’s easy to check on how research is coming, or how close you are to building that new power plant, or how healthy your soldiers are. Plus, everything gets an icon on the interface, and clicking on the icon is the same as clicking on the unit. That means you don’t have to constantly change the view back to your base to do things, and in the heat of battle you don’t have to hunt around to find the seriously wounded soldier so you can heal him. Everything can be done with a single click from the interface.
Less good than the interface, but not bad by any means is Original War’s graphics. Altar Interactive made everything crisp and colorful, and they did a nice job in making the three factions look different, and in changing the hair and skin color of the humans to match their portraits, but overall there isn’t a lot of variety to the game. You’re not going to find day and night cycles, or weather effects, or impressive explosions, and you might notice that the terrain from two million years ago looks suspiciously like the terrain from modern times. And so Original War can’t compete with some of the 3D engines that have come out lately, but its graphics do the job.
Where Original War really has a sore spot is in the sound. The voice actors for the American campaign are pretty good, but for the Russian campaign they’re downright awful. Perhaps Altar Interactive had trouble finding people who could speak English with a Russian accent, but the result is so bad they would have been better off just letting everybody speak in plain English. Another problem with the sound is that, because the campaigns are dynamic and it isn’t possible to know which humans will be used in which missions, sometimes the game assigns random voices to units. And it’s disconcerting when a human you know speaks one way suddenly starts speaking differently, or when a female character suddenly has a man’s voice. But I’m not sure if there’s a good way around the problem or not.
Overall, Original War reminds me a little of another game import, Rage of Mages. Now, Rage of Mages came out a couple years ago and took place in a fantasy realm, but otherwise both games are story-driven hybrids that have somewhat shoddy production values but that are fun to play. When I played Rage of Mages I sort of wished the game was bigger and had better graphics and so forth, but then the game’s developer, Nival Interactive, came out with the much more impressive but much less fun to play game in Evil Islands. And so I’ve learned my lesson: I’ll just hope Altar Interactive continues to make interesting, fun games.