Is the 2D real-time strategy (RTS) genre finally tapped out? I think it is. The big three developers in the genre -- Blizzard, Westwood, and Ensemble -- are all moving to 3D, and, aside from Age of Empires 2, the only innovative and creative RTS games that have come out since 1998 have been in 3D. Of recent releases, even the good ones like Red Alert 2 and Warlords Battlecry have been highly derivative, and the bad ones… well, the bad ones usually try to employ a new setting to make themselves look new and interesting, but it doesn't work. Just look at clunkers such as America and Submarine Titans.
So now we come to Outlive, a 2D RTS title from Brazilian developer Continuum Entertainment. It tells the story of a futuristic Earth where the population has tripled but the resources haven't. The newly formed World Council decides that the best solution is to mine resources from Titan, one of Saturn's moons. The problem is that Titan isn't a very hospitable place, with no oxygen in its atmosphere and a base temperature somewhere around -178 degrees Celsius. But never fear, the World Council further decides that either robots or genetically altered humans should be able to do the job, and then it gives both sides a year to prove their capabilities.
You might think that Outlive is going to be about saving humanity or about robots versus humans, but it's not. In fact, it's not really about anything. The whole situation with Titan is only there to introduce the two sides, and then it's dropped as a plot point. And the two sides aren't even really opponents. Each side has two factions, one good and one evil, and it's the factions that attack each other. Continuum tries to add in a story, and in fact it tries here and elsewhere to emulate Starcraft, but it falls woefully short. The characters are paper thin, their motivations are weak, and the story is simply there to allow factions to band together and betray each other so that you can face a variety of opponents in the missions.
Outlive is about as derivative as a game can get. I don't think it offers anything that wasn't done or couldn't have been done when Starcraft came out in 1998. It has heavy tanks that can become invulnerable for a short period of time (Command and Conquer). Destroyed units form wreckage that can be salvaged for resources (Total Annihilation). Units can automatically retreat when they've taken enough damage (Dark Reign). Resource patches are permanent but will slowly degenerate as they're used (Dark Reign again). One side just needs power while the other needs power to be explicitly supplied to its buildings (Earth 2150). Plus, the outdoors terrain looks like it came straight from Starcraft while the urban terrain looks like it came straight from the Command and Conquer series. And so on.
Meanwhile, Outlive only has a couple of things that make it different from other RTS games out there. One is that units require a constant stream of credits for maintenance, and if you can't afford to maintain your units then they'll start moving more slowly and do less damage. This puts a soft limit on the number of units you can have at any one time, and it makes it even more important than usual to go out and control the available resource areas. The second difference is the espionage system. Rather than having actual sp units that must go out and infiltrate enemy buildings, you'll simply have an information center. Each center allows six operations, from exposing a part of the map to stealing research to disabling buildings. However, the more complex the job, the more it costs and the less likely it is to succeed.
Does a game need to be new and different in order to be any good? Fortunately for Outlive, the answer is no. I think that as long as the sides are balanced and interesting, as long as the engine runs smoothly, as long as the campaign is interesting, and as long as the gameplay decisions are sound, any RTS can be a lot of fun to play. Unfortunately for Outlive, it misses out on most of those criteria, too.
Let's first consider the two sides. It's not really humans and robots. In fact, the human side doesn't even have any infantry units. Instead, it's basically tanks (humans) and mechs (robots), and those are sides I've seen more than enough in the past. Plus, the sides are a little bit boring in that once you research an advanced unit, earlier units become obsolete, and so you'll find yourself playing with only a couple of units for each side. Lastly, the sides aren't balanced. The robot side seems much more powerful than the human side. The robots are strong in the air while the humans are strong on the ground, but that only means the best robot units can attack all of the human units and structures, but only a few of the human units and structures (and not their good ones) can fight back. It doesn't matter if the human heavy tank can make itself invulnerable if it's just a sitting duck for air attacks.
Now let's consider Outlive's gameplay, and one gamplay decision in particular. As I mentioned before, units need maintenance in order to function properly. The problem here is that they need a lot of maintenance, and so you'll be overly restricted on how many military units you can have. In fact, you'll quickly find that there's no way to defend your base, defend your resource areas, and have an attack force. You won't even be able to do two out of three. If the game's defensive structures were more powerful, or at least had better range, then this would be less of a problem, but the defensive structures are weak and only stop the lightest of enemy units. Thus, it's easy for games to stall into endless cycles of taking and losing resource areas, which is about as fun as it sounds.
The graphics are fairly mediocre. Outlive can handle resolutions up to 1024x768 -- and change resolutions on the fly, which is nice -- but otherwise the graphics engine looks like it came from 1998. The terrain looks fine and the units are easy to differentiate, but explosions aren't impressive, some of the unit attacks look downright hokey, and there aren't any visual or particle effects to make you sit up and take notice. Part of making a successful RTS involves supplying eye-candy, and Outlive just doesn't do it. Better are Outlive's three cinematic sequences, which you'll see at the beginning, middle, and end of the single-player campaign. They are both longer and better than the usual RTS fare.
The sound also has its problems. On one side, unit acknowledgements are pretty good, with each unit getting three or four things to say. The robot units are suitably robotic, and the human units have some amusing touches like the dominator tank getting a dominatrix-style female voice. Also of note is that hero characters get different acknowledgements depending on the mission, so if a character gets betrayed in one mission, he might vow revenge against his betrayer when you select him in the next. I thought that was a nice touch. The bad part of the sound is that there is virtually no voice acting. Mission briefings have a single narrator who speaks the lines, there is a slight amount of dialogue in the cinematics, and there are the unit acknowledgements, but that's it. When characters ``talk'' during missions, it's only through text boxes that pop up. This is a serious omission for a game not purporting to be a budget release.
On a brighter side, the game engine runs smoothly -- perhaps because it is not asked to do much. The frame rate never dropped during battles (even when I was running other programs in the background), the load and save times were so short as to be instantaneous, and the game crashed only once during the 60-odd hours I spent playing it. Also of technical note, the computer AI is really good. In fact, at the highest difficulty settings it's probably better than human players. It can probe defenses and attack at weak points, and it is smart enough to send advance scouts and escorts when it tries to take a resource area. The pathfinding also appears to be good. Units have some problems with ledges during combat, but they never get lost or stuck.
The interface is also pretty good, but the caveat here is the Outlive's interface is very similar to Starcraft's interface, all the way from the look and feel right down to using some of the same button icons for unit orders. However, Continuum adds some functionality that Starcraft didn't have, like the ability to remove most of the interface from view, and it has a really nice and unobtrusive waypoints system. Less nice are things like the cursor not ever changing appearance (on move versus attack orders, for instance) and not being able to cancel building demolish orders, especially when the demolish button is right next to the repair button.
Outlive's campaign has 30 total missions -- and not 70, as you might think if you look at the box -- but two missions are secret and the campaign branches for two missions, so you might only see 26 missions when you play. Outlive uses Starcraft's approach to the campaign, so while there is a human campaign, a robot campaign, and a "cooperative" campaign (where you get units from both sides), the campaigns come one after the other and form a single story. Unfortunately, the campaign missions aren't very interesting. Most require you to destroy all enemy units and buildings, and they don't play much differently than skirmish mode. Worse, you have to select a difficulty level when you create your ``account'' in the game, and there isn't any way to change it on a mission by mission basis. That's a problem because Outlive gets really difficult on the medium (default) setting, but the difficulty doesn't become apparent until the last two or three missions of the first campaign. If you get stuck, the only way to change your mind and play those missions on an easier setting is to create a new account and replay all the campaign missions you've already finished. (Well, you can use cheat codes, too, but it's still a bad decision.)
If you look at the credits for Outlive, you'll see the same people listed over and over. Five or six people did just about everything in the game, from the programming to the manual to the mission design to the story to the voice acting. In one sense I find it impressive that so few people could do so much, but in another I think it's the reason for the game's flaws. I just don't think you can make a quality game any more with such a small staff. You really need to have people dedicated to each facet of the game. Otherwise, I expect you'll get a result much like Outlive: technically correct but uninspired, unbalanced, and lacking in some production values.