Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
A few months ago, I wrote the first of a three-part series mourning the death of the RTS genre. Since its publication, a few non-AAA developers have stepped up to the plate to resuscitate the genre have stepped up to the plate to resuscitate the genre after suffocating under in the shadow highly profitable MOBAS and less intensive, alienating tactical games. Likewise, Eugen Systems revives its own RTS series, Act of War, with Act of Aggression.
The narrative is readfully incomprehensible. Act of Aggression (AoA) lacks a conventional “intro” video which establishes a reason for the conflict. This dramatic deviation from convention is not all that inhibits comprehension of the “plot.” The majority of the unifying themes in the game are consistently arbitrary and piecemeal. AoA could have simply provided a picture which reads, “Chimera/US Army = Good, Cartel = Bad,” and it would have been better than what I have experienced.
Violence: This is a wartime RTS, so expect to see bullets fly and shells explode. Surprisingly, I noticed no blood among the chaos. On occasion, incapacitated soldiers that can be captured as POWs will writhe in pain until they are detained or executed.
Language: I did not notice anything that I would not let my kids hear.
Drugs/Alcohol: AoA is squeaky clean here.
Spiritual: The head honcho of the Cartel answers to the codename Poseidon. Maybe he has a god-complex?
Focus Home Interactive has promoted Act of Aggression as a throwback to the “golden age” of RTS, meaning that it adheres to the three-phase convention of base building, resource extraction, and army management. In this way, explaining a typical game of AoA would be like explaining how a game of Chessmaster works. The objectives are simple: build, upgrade, expand, conquer.
I traditionally enjoy playing through the campaigns of an RTS before diving into its multiplayer modes. As I have noted, it is disappointing that the story in AoA is indecipherable. In regards to the campaigns, Eugen Systems is consistent with being flawed: RTS convention maintains that the campaign mode is a prolonged tutorial for multiplayer matches, and that with each mission, more of the game will unlock. This is especially the case for higher tier units that are introduced to players in a way to help them understand their intended use. AoA does not do this. New technologies become available during the campaign, but there is no overt explanation of their purpose. Modern gamers complain about hand-holding, but that is a critique applicable to FPS or platform games where abilities are explicit (Who needs a tutorial to play an FPS anyway?). Alternatively, AoA features about 100 different macro-things to know about per faction, from structures to units to upgrades, before one can even begin to consider the micro element of tactics like harassing or rushing. In other words, I would have liked for AoA to offer unit demonstration missions instead of two campaigns that are glorified skirmish maps with a few scripts and lines of dialogue.
Brownie points for the Quake 2 “railgun effect”
The three factions in Act of Aggression include the US Army, Cartel, and Chimera—the differences are more superficial than discrete. For example, all three factions must build refineries to extract resources, but only the Chimera uses helicopters to do so, allowing them to ignore elevation when passing through terrain. Furthermore, in the beginning stages of a game, the US Army builds for brute force, Chimera opts for weaker but potent tactical units, and Chimera builds for all-purpose units. As players continue to play in a match and unlock higher tech trees, these differences begin to fade. Most units gain a secondary purpose such as gaining an anti-armor ability or missile suppression. Every faction gains artillery, “heavy” armor or infantry units, and aircraft.
All of that said, AoA features a plethora of units and upgrades that will keep players from becoming bored…in skirmish mode. Every building can be occupied and therefore used as stationary scouts or strategic chokepoints. At no point in the game do infantry become obsolete because higher tier armor allow space for infantry, and why would a commander show up to the fight with empty seats in vehicles? There are more upgrades in the game than a player can purchase in any given session, meaning that theoretically, “pocket strats” will remain difficult to develop; the most sparse resource, rare earth, is as it says—rare—and is almost always located on the map in a place that will be hotly contested by all. This forces aggressive play if contestants want access to tier 3 units, structures, and upgrades.
My favorite feature in AoA is perhaps the tier 2 usage of strikecraft that can be summoned off the map for bombing runs or to intercept enemy aircraft some air superiority fighters. I am also pleased that AoA reminds me of World in Conflict with its heavy usage of attack helicopters as a core unit, giving my air superiority fighters targets to actively aim for as well as presenting a way to take out tanks without being reliant on infantry.
Like ants from a trampled ant bed
Unfortunately, the UI is not just a presentation issue (see below), but also a gameplay problem. During my sessions there was a 50% probability that I would have to restart AoA with a complete exit to my desktop and a relaunch because the camera would develop a mind of its own. Sometimes, it would slowly auto-pan in one direction and I would have to “fight” it like a magnet with identical polarities. In other instances, the camera would “lock” into a zoom distance, preventing me from zooming in or out.
I must attest that the textures and model quality in AoA are the likes of which I have never seen in an RTS. I would not be surprised to discover that Eugen Systems had studied various setpieces in the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series and manufactured transcendent dioramas of them for the campaign and multiplayer maps. Parked cars, trash dumpsters, empty pallets, trees, and shrubbery litter the urban landscapes including banks, corporate offices, or warehouses. Suburbs are not spared, either, as artillery may lay siege from a cul-de-sac while infantry avoid their fire while running through house to house in order to get into position to return fire. Explosions from shells, trampled sedans, and blown houses sprinkle across any given map. I am pleased to see that AoA did not take the easy route by supplying maps of deserted islands and deserts where collateral damage is minimized by virtue of an absence of objects to destroy.
Is that a B&W photo juxtaposed with a painted image? C’mon, son!
The scale of units in games like Company of Heroes impresses me, but AoA takes scaling to another level. The size of infantry and armored units are about the close to real-life approximations that I have ever seen. Details such as this make for splendid eyecandy, but the size of the units when playing from a prototypical camera distance are too small. The difference between say, javelin soldiers and stinger missile soldiers for the US Army faction are practically indistinguishable to the naked eye.
Because Steam already isn’t enough, and we love* Uplay and Origin, I need to create YET ANOTHER account to play a game that hardly anyone will remember. Publishers and developers, this is how NOT got get your game played.
In fact, the general UI in AoA seems an afterthought. If I click a single unit of infantry, the name of it will appear, but no picture. For that, I would have to select two units for a picture of both units to appear—a critical feature in any RTS to decipher what’s what on the fly for some bodacious APMs with Ctrl and Shift clicking to group units and give them orders. Especially annoying is that units and structures do not make a “unit ready/construction complete” sound when they are finished. I have my mind on 100 things; it should neither be necessary for me to remember unit/structure/upgrade build times, nor should I have to go looking for my waypoints to see if that helicopter that is 6th on the queue has arrived. Because there is a “unit lost” notification, the omission of a “unit ready” indication makes no sense.
Discount Michelle Beadle
The lack of “unit ready” VA can possibly be attributed to the (lack of) quality in the general voice acting. Who would have dared to record a few more lines for this game? It is one thing to be amateur, but it is another to be uninspired and disinterested. The charm in the tawdry found in the Command & Conquer series was natural because of Westwood’s sincerity in its attempt to mimic a Hollywood production; EA relied upon the virtuosity of Joe Kucan in Command & Conquer 3; for Red Alert 3, EA intentionally embellished the cheese factor in RA3 with famous people ranging from Billy Dee Williams to George Takei. AoA is corny in that PS1-era Resident Evil, “Barry?! Where’s…Barry” kind of way that made me want to pretend that the story did not exist as much as I also wanted to understand it so that I could critique it properly. There is no other way to describe the VA in this game other than “bad.”
On a positive note, hats off to the music producer. While I would have liked faction-specific tracks as is industry standard, they were successful in reproducing tracks with a similar feel to Frank Klepacki work. In fact, the track that I like the most in AoA had me feining to give “Just Do It Up” another listen.
Act of Aggression is neither an indie game nor is it AAA, yet it attempts to mimic the AAA RTS games of the past but with middling indie results. For every good thing about AoA, one need not look very hard to find something that is more than inconvenient or suspiciously omitted. Additionally, with Legacy of the Void around the corner. there is no way that I could genuinely recommend AoA for $5 more than Blizzard’s conclusion to the SC2 trilogy. If AoA were closer to $15 than $40, I would recommend that hardcore RTS fans to check out Eugen Systems’ latest contribution to the genre. Unfortunately, AoA lacks the production value and pedigree of that would allow me to make the purchase suggestion without concession. Try at your own risk: YMMV.
The Bottom Line
For fans of RTS, Act of Aggression may serve as a quaint diversion with its great textures, particle effects, and unit diversity. On the other hand, this is a game that lacks polish, and may be unable to maintain the attention of the most hardcore strategists for long.