In order to review World War III: Black Gold, I have to describe some history relating to the game, so bear with me. In June of 2000, TopWare Interactive released Earth 2150, a 3D real-time strategy game (RTS). It was based on the future (surprise), but that gave TopWare the opportunity to be play around with the weapons, units and factions included in the game, and the result was something that looked good and could even be called innovative. Then, nine months after the release of Earth 2150, TopWare released The Moon Project. It was a sequel / expansion pack to Earth 2150, but it featured an awful campaign and few improvements over the original game, and it was disappointing to say the least.
Soon after the release of The Moon Project, TopWare went bankrupt, and that looked like the end of the line. But, lo and behold, the people of TopWare got back together as Reality Pump Studios, and in October of this year they released World War III: Black Gold. Now, if you’ve been paying attention to the dates, you might be worried because in an age when games take years to develop, Reality Pump managed to re-form itself and create a game, all in seven months. And your worries would be justified because Black Gold is basically Earth 2150 Lite (or Earth 2150 For Dummies). Black Gold uses the same engine as Earth 2150, but either because Reality Pump decided the game was too complicated, or because they needed to change the setting to modern times, just about everything that made Earth 2150 unique and interesting has been removed or streamlined in Black Gold, and as a result Black Gold is a fairly ho-hum playing experience.
World War III: Black Gold takes place in the near future, when the world realizes it’s about to run out of oil. The UN decides to confiscate all oil fields, and pretty soon the three factions included in the game -- the United States, Russia, and Iraq -- are scuffling for position. That’s an interesting premise, and it sounds like something Tom Clancy might write about. I mean, what would happen if the United States or Russia invaded the Middle East? But Reality Pump doesn’t do a lot with the possibilities, and in fact most of the missions in the game deal with Iraq’s terrorist intentions rather than oil, and Russia never gets involved in the Middle East at all. So the story is a little disappointing. (And a warning here: each faction gets two campaigns, and in both Iraqi campaigns, Iraq detonates a nuclear warhead against the US. You’d think Reality Pump would have done something about that for the US release, but they didn’t.)
The three factions are also a little disappointing. For some reason Reality Pump only included jeeps, trucks, tanks, and helicopters in the game -- possibly because those units most resemble the units from Earth 2150 -- and so not only are the factions more limited than they should be, there isn’t a whole lot of variety. The United States can call in airstrikes against targets (so planes sort of make an appearance), and their units are more powerful in head-to-head battles. The Russians can use chemical weapons to kill the crews of units and buildings, so they can more easily take them over (although all three factions can use assault vehicles to “convert” buildings). And the Iraqis have access to suicide bombers (including a Ford pickup) that can destroy units and structures in a single hit. But otherwise the factions play about the same, and there doesn’t seem to be much difference between, for example, the US Abrams tank, the Russian T-80 tank, and the Iraqi T-72 tank. They just feel like tanks.
The gameplay also has some problems. Vehicles can’t drive in reverse, so if your units get too close to the enemy, their only method of retreat is to continue driving forward so they can turn, probably getting a few of them killed in the process. Line of sight also seems messed up, as if the game engine is checking from the bottom of a unit to the bottom of its potential targets, and so slight ridges in the landscape can prevent units from seeing each other, even when they should. And the pacing is pretty slow. Even at the fastest speed setting, it takes each oil shaft 15 seconds to generate $250, but units, buildings, and upgrades all cost thousands of dollars, so just creating a base and an attack force takes a while. And then once you do have units, Reality Pump modeled the terrain so units move more slowly on, say, rocky ground than on roads, and while that makes sense for jeeps and trucks, it doesn’t make as much sense for tanks. Plus, helicopters are treated as hovercraft, staying a fixed distance above the ground, and so the terrain affects them as well since they have to slow down greatly when going over hills. And so unit movement tends to be slow, since maps feature lots of hills and not a lot of roads.
But the gameplay isn’t awful. Black Gold uses a slimmed down version of the Earth 2150 engine, and some of the good things from Earth 2150 are back in Black Gold (then again, some aren’t). Your units require ammunition, so you can’t just attack the enemy; you have to make sure you have supply lines open as well. There are lots of units and upgrades to research, so you have to decide whether to spend money on oil shafts (to earn money faster) or units (to become more powerful) or upgrades (to become more powerful in a different way). Plus you have to decide on the types of units to build (air versus land, light versus heavy), and, because of the slow movements of units, you have to be extra careful where you keep your units so they can respond to attacks. So there is a lot of strategy involved in the game, and, as long as you don’t mind the problems listed in the previous paragraph, Black Gold can even be fun to play.
Meanwhile, the graphics for Black Gold are great. Black Gold uses a 3D engine, and the units, buildings, and terrain all look pretty good, even when you zoom in the camera. Plus, there is real-time lighting with day and night cycles and vehicle headlights, which adds to the game’s realism, and things like fires and explosions -- even nuclear explosions -- look excellent. About the only downside to the graphics is that, because there are so few unit types, they tend to look like each other, and it’s tough to tell whether a jeep, for example, is carrying a machine gun or a stinger rocket. In the single player game you can pause all you want to figure these things out, but in multiplayer it’s more troublesome.
The sound is less good than the graphics, but it still does the job. Basically it’s about what you’d expect from an RTS: the voice acting ranges from good to atrocious, the sound effects are strong, and, while the background music is better than normal, there isn’t enough of it. The only real unusual thing about the sound is that for some reason Reality Pump included explosions and gunfire either as part of the background music or as random background noise (I couldn’t tell which). Well, that’s just a bad idea since those types of noises should be used exclusively as cues about what’s going on in the game, and it’s annoying how they’re used now.
Lastly, Black Gold’s manual is simply terrible. Some units and structures (like the Communications Center) aren’t described. Some interface options (like the command queue) aren’t described. And the things that are described aren’t described well. Consider this sentence: “In WWIII result conditional increases in resource production.” Huh? And I don’t even want to get into the acronyms on the units, like “FCR” and “TOW” and “FIM,” that aren’t mentioned anywhere, or the joy in trying to remember the difference between the MI-6, the MI-26, and the MI-28 helicopters. Reality Pump could have made the game friendlier to play, in the manual and elsewhere, but they didn’t do it, and you might have a hard time learning what’s going on if you haven’t played Earth 2150 or The Moon Project.
So, there you go. World War III: Black Gold has some good points and some bad points, and I think it qualifies for the term “mediocre.” Maybe I’m biased by having played Earth 2150 and comparing Black Gold negatively to it, but then if anybody hasn’t played Earth 2150, I’d heartily recommend they try that before Black Gold. Otherwise, Black Gold tries to be a realistic war game in the RTS genre, and it’s better than Rival Interactive’s Real War, so people might enjoy it for that reason alone.