Act of Aggression? Is that the one with the tanks?

, | Game reviews

I hate to put it this way, because it’s hardly fair, but Act of Aggression is a competent game that does everything mostly right that I have zero desire to play. It has very little personality and almost no identity of its own. Which, really, isn’t such a bad thing. There are plenty of terrible games about which this is also true. Why should I also be dismissive of a perfectly competent game that also happens to be bland and forgettable?

After the jump, living in the shadow of Westwood.

I partly blame Act of Aggression itself for so directly homaging Command & Conquer: Generals. In that game, you had the US, the Chinese, and the bad guys. In this game, you have the US, the Russians, and the bad guys. As near as I can figure. Both games have tanks, planes, and teensy soldiers. Both games have state-of-the-art explosion effects, for their times. But Command & Conquer: Generals was the last heir of Westwood’s school of splashy personality-driven RTSs. It was okay being messy because it was lively and memorable, brimming with distinct units doing distinct things to other distinct units. It was all about figuring out your favorite units and finding their place in the great circle of things blowing each other up.

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Act of Aggression, which has almost no distinct units, does itself a disservice by recalling that kind of game. But you can hardly blame developer Eugen Systems, one of the finest RTS developers in business today. Eugen introduced themselves to the RTS scene with Act of War, a game that took splashy Westwood RTS action and gave it some much needed gameplay, interface, and balancing corrections. They made the genre behave, sit up straight, and not be such a pain in the ass. They didn’t need to give it personality. They gave it manners. They made it manageable. They moved the planes offmap, took the overbearing super out of the superweapons, and recognized that just blowing stuff up all the time doesn’t have to be so messy. Act of War had regular attack moves right out of the gate. I’m not sure any of those splashy Westwood action RTSs were ever even convinced that you even needed an attack move. To them, the idea of something stopping to fire at range made it much less exciting when it blew up. Any attack move in a splashy Westwood action RTS was there begrudgingly. Managing units just meant it took longer for them to get exploded.

So it doesn’t matter than I couldn’t name a single unit in Act of War to save my life, much less name the factions. I think one of them was the US. Personality was overrated at that point. After Act of War, Eugen eschewed splashy action in favor of familiar/historical stuff, which comes pre-packaged with personality. Ruse was a great RTS with some unique strategic trickery (why can’t Act of Aggression have that?). For personality, it had World War II. You had to look close, but it was down there. Seriously, just zoom in a little more. It’s there. Do you see it yet? Zoom in closer. Their Wargame RTSs lean heavily on Cold War hardware, divvied up neatly among realworld Cold War players. It might be the same ol’ tanks and infantry and planes, but if one of them is Poland and another is France, then baby, you got a stew going!

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But it’s been a while since Eugen schooled the Westwood school. When it comes to reliving the glory days of splashy Westwood action RTSs, Eugen is as out of shape and unflattering as a 40-year-old insurance salesman trying to relive his glory days as a high school quarterback. Act of Aggression is aggressively bland, dry, and forgettable, which are the exact things you don’t want in an action RTS. I should be thrilling to the spectacle of distinct units doing distinct things to distinct enemy units. I should care about certain units being upgraded. The tech tree and unlocks should matter to me, and not just because I’m getting to the same places with different paths. That’s how the factions seem to differ in Act of Aggression. One faction needs to build a heavy vehicle bay. Another faction just unlocks the heavy vehicles and builds them in their regular vehicle bay. There. Factions. One faction has tanks that shoot blue railgun beams. Another has tanks that shoot shells. Voila! Factions. One faction has an anti-tank soldier and a mortar vehicle. Another faction has a mortar soldier and an anti-tank vehicle. Factions.

There are little touches here and there but they’re far too little. For instance, the Chimera — who I think are supposed to be the Russians — get something called a Metalstorm. It’s a little stealth drone with a very short attack range and very few hit points. But if it gets close enough to attack, it attacks hard, with a brief intensive brrrrrrrr of cannon fire, often accompanied by a “damage x2” text message for ambushing from out of stealth. Every single Chimera unit should have this much personality, and this distinct a place in the overall balance. But I would be hard pressed to describe the unique place or even the particular role of any other Chimera unit. And really, if you’re going to call a faction the Chimera, they should have lots of freaky memorable stuff. But Act of Aggression has a personality problem. Namely, it doesn’t have one.

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The overall package is lacking as well. The single-player campaign is a forgettable slog, one canned mission after another, clogged up with an awkward story. What a long way Eugen has fallen since the superlative single-player campaigns in Wargame: Airland Battles. This modest multiplayer community probably won’t sustain itself for very long. I don’t imagine Eugen’s Wargame players will be flocking to relive the glory days of Command & Conquer: Generals. I’ve enjoyed my time playing Act of Aggression with friends, but we never quite got past the stage of fatally tank rushing each other, because my friends would rather play Command & Conquer: Generals if we’re going to try to relive those glory days. I’ve spent most of my time with Act of Aggression skirmishing against the AI, which is fine, but it’s the usual nightmare of an AI microing stuff all over the damn map while I try to play with the attention span of a human being.

It’s curious to me that Eugen did such a great job addressing the issue of micromanaging aircraft way back in Act of War, but they’ve never attempted any such thing with infantry. Infantry are important, especially given how infantry-controlled banks are a major part of your income, but the little dudes are as fiddly as they ever were. Okay, everyone into the APC. Okay, everyone out of the APC. Okay, everyone back into the APC. Hmm, you guys are almost dead. Should I wait to heal you? Naw, you’re just infantry. You’ll be dead soon anyway unless I just leave you in a building. You know what? I’m just going to park you guys in this building, ditch the APCs, and focus on building tanks. Better yet, helicopters, which don’t have to fuss with the road infrastructure.

I appreciate that Act of Aggression wants to play with Wargame’s road system, inherited from Ruse, where vehicles travel more quickly along roads and therefore the roads are predictable avenues of travel. This makes for great strategic chokepoints. I don’t appreciate how much this favors things that fly. I can tell you that one of the factions get flying resource peons. The other factions are woefully (wonderfully?) vulnerable to cutting off their resource peons as they trundle down the road. One of my favorite tricks against a human player, going back to the days of Ruse, is to park a lone anti-vehicle unit between a supply source and its base. If the other player is busy somewhere else — he almost always is — his coffers will run dry before he even knows what happened.

And, yes, resource peons. Act of Aggression is very old school when it comes to resources. It is unashamed about sending units scuttling back and forth, way the hell across the map if necessary, to carry resources back to base. Three flavors of resources, by the way. It’s been a while since a game was bold enough to dare three flavors of resources. Act of Aggression dares. If you want advanced units and that superweapon — meaning if you’re sticking around past the early tank rush — you’re going to have to gather the red resource. The yellow stuff, yeah, for sure. Everyone needs the yellow stuff. The blue stuff, too, for mid-level units. Be sure not to run out of the blue stuff. Otherwise, you’re just going to have to resort to building only basic units again. That’s embarrassing. But that red stuff is crucial if you want to build– Oops, I have way too much red stuff and I forgot to replace my depleted supply of blue stuff and now it looks like there isn’t any more on the map, so I guess I’ll be spamming this basic anti-air gun and that basic APC for the rest of the game.

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Act of Aggression’s resource model forces players out into the map to tangle with each other. All the best RTSs do this. The more you play Act of Aggression, the more you realize the name of the game is economy and economy is map control. Just as it should be. And I also appreciate some of the little economic idiosyncrasies like the aforementioned banks, the buildings that provide resource trickle, and the prisoners of war, all carried over from the olden days of Act of War. The prisoners of war are an especially ballsy design choice. First build a prison, or whatever it’s called for your faction. Then do the necessary micro to bring home little enemy dudes that appear after a battle like loot drops in Diablo. Then you can cash them in for valuable prizes (i.e. the blue resource you ran out of because you were too busy microing). For a splashy action RTS, Act of Aggression has a decidedly unsplashy resource model. It’s like Westwood and Ensemble had a rather clumsy baby.

Finally, I also appreciate the thorough unit management options available. There are a couple of interface options I miss. I wish I had better ways to select barracks, I wish I could rally to unit groups, and I wish I could see all my selected units on the panel instead of just some of them. But Eugen has always done top-notch interface work when it comes to keeping units together. Assuming you’re not in a hurry, CTRL+right click is your best friend if you’re just flinging piles of units around the map.

But the fact remains that for all the RTS experience Eugen brings this game, for all the carefully calculated resource management, for all the probably meticulous unit balance, for all the competent interface features, for all the map design and fiery explosions and destructible buildings and dynamic cratering, Act of Aggression feels like leftovers when it comes to action RTS thrills. An RTS without personality just isn’t an RTS worth playing.

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