Friday, November 6, 2015

Act of Aggression - The Video Game



Act of Aggression waves the flag for the early-noughties RTS.

Set during a near-future war, Act of Aggression is, nonetheless, a throwback – to Act of War, the mid-noughties RTS series it succeeds, and to old-school base-building strategy games in general. Three factions – the UN-sponsored Chimera, the US Army, and a coalition of PMCs called the Cartel – battle over large maps to secure resources and assert military dominance. If you’ve missed heavy tanks and noodly electric guitar soundtracks, welcome home.

Command & Conquer: Generals is the obvious reference point, but Act of Aggression is very much its own game. Resources are distributed randomly across expansive maps, adding a speculative scouting phase to the start of every match that shapes your overall strategy.

During this phase you construct refineries and supply lines, each faction offering a slightly different set of parameters for handling conveyance, base expansion, power generation, etc. It’s a lot to take in, but if you’ve lamented the absence of this kind of RTS over the past few years then it’s a difficulty curve you’ll enjoy surmounting.



What follows is the drama of the match proper. An infantry battle might break out between garrisoned buildings for control of a bank that generates resources over time for the side that holds it. You might send a platoon of soldiers to capture downed enemy combatants for a bounty, or engage in a daring medivac mission to prevent the same from happening to your own troops. Tank columns roll through the countryside, helicopters clash in the air, jets soar in from off-map as each player approaches the point where they can deploy match-ending super-weapons like nukes and long-range artillery. AoA doesn’t offer anything particularly new, but there’s pleasure in familiarity.


Video trailer (US Faction)

The campaign is a limp introduction to all this. Two sequences of missions – one for Chimera, another for Cartel – are set in a homebrew Clancyverse that offers nothing you haven’t seen in dozens of other modern warfare games. The missions themselves follow a well-worn pattern. You start out ordering a gaggle of troops along a linear set of waypoints to learn the basics. The amount of freedom you’re given increases until you start to approach full control. The problem is that, as in many older RTSes, your most dangerous foes are the scripted moments planned to occur as you hit checkpoints along the way. If you don’t have the right force composition at these moments, you’ll probably fail. This creates a frustrating trial-and-error dynamic where your first attempt is disproportionately hard (because you don’t know what’s coming) and your second is disproportionately easy (because you do.)


Ai bug

For this reason I found skirmish matches a more entertaining way to learn AoA than the campaign. There are plenty of maps, varied options for AI difficulty and team composition, and lots of potential value in discovering all of these over time. I did, however, encounter a single gamebreaking AI bug that, while I couldn’t repeat it, means my recommendation comes with caveats.

Playing online, it’s tough to get a sense of how the scene will shake out – I had matches that came down to cheesy minute-zero building rushes (disappointing) and matches that played out over a full 40 minutes with plenty of dramatic moments. As with any competitive game, these initial impressions represent the bottom of a long and often-unforgiving climb.

To get the most out of this you need to be able to put up with the campaign and the sometimes-severe rough edges. This isn’t the complete package in the way the old Westwood RTSes were. But moment to moment, in the little things that matter, Act of Aggression is a worthy successor to the games that inspired it.


Verdict

AI flaws and a limp campaign let down an otherwise-accomplished near-future-military RTS revival.

overall score
80%


By Chris Thursten

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