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The (continuing) real-time strategy revolution

By Marc Saltzman

April 24, 1998
Web posted at: 3:25 PM EDT (1525 GMT)

The momentum behind the real-time strategy (RTS) craze is somewhat extraordinary. Following the enormous successes of Blizzard's "Warcraft II" and Westwood's "Command & Conquer" series, almost all computer game publishers scrambled to cash in on the growing RTS trend. Who would have ever thought adding the element of time to traditional turn-based strategy wargaming would result in the most over-saturated genre of 1997? But, as the old adage goes, when there's demand, there sure is supply.

Don't get me wrong - this isn't necessarily a bad thing - or else worthy products wouldn't be currently dominating my hard drive: Microsoft's "Age of Empires," Bungie's "Myth: The Fallen Lords" and Cavedog's "Total Annihilation." It's just that after clicking through close to 50 RTS disks last year, many of us game critics predicted the fad would wear off by this time, but the number of current releases seem to indicate otherwise.

The latest batch of games shipped last month offers interesting candidates for review since one of these products is an add-on expansion pack for a title released six months ago, while the other two are highly-anticipated all-new games from high profile companies. Let's take a brief look at each of these three CD-ROMs to see if any are worthy of purchasing "yet another RTS" to add to your beloved gaming library.

"StarCraft"

It's only been out for a couple of weeks, yet Blizzard's latest crown jewel, "StarCraft," has already shipped 1 million units worldwide. Don't be shocked - even though these numbers are not sell-through figures, retailers are only anticipating a repeat performance from Blizzard's last game, the RPG/action hybrid "Diablo."

"StarCraft" was held back five months to rid the game of small bugs and play-balancing issues, so many anxious gamers were skeptical of the final product. Was it worth the agonizing wait? The answer is undeniably yes - "StarCraft" is an excellent single and multiplayer RTS game for both newcomers to the genre and seasoned players alike. And despite premature analysis of the game during development last year, "StarCraft" is far more than just "Warcraft in space."

Unlike "Warcraft," gamers assume the role of a commander of one of three very distinct species - the Terrans (Humans), Protoss or Zerg - and must compete for total galactic domination through the ten single-player levels per species. Keep in mind each breed possesses its own unique units, technologies and storyline. Each side requires unique player strategies in order to win. Blizzard spent considerable time making each species very different (a common bone of contention with "Warcraft"), yet the play balancing between the three is near faultless.

Graphically, "StarCraft" will awe gamers with its rich, vibrant colors, fluid animation, appealing translucency effects, and story-driven animated cut-scenes that reward the gamer as he or she progresses throughout the game. Unfortunately, one small downfall is the relatively flat 2D terrain, opposed to popular RTS games like Activision's "Dark Reign" or Cavedog Entertainment's "Total Annihilation."

If you choose to play a solo mission, be prepared to go up against some pretty solid artificial intelligence. But if you plan to go head-to-head over the Internet, Blizzard is supporting free multiplayer games for up to eight-players over its own network. Battle.Net supports worldwide rankings and ladders, plus special types of games and tournaments. In addition, the game features a full campaign editor that allow players to create their own scenarios and maps complete with trigger points, custom speech, sound, text and lead characters.

In light of its addictive gameplay and that rare "something for everyone" tag, PC gamers should consider "StarCraft" an excellent value. A Macintosh version is scheduled for a June, 1998, release.

"Star Wars: Rebellion"

The majority of movie-to-computer game franchises have been sub-par to say the least, but I think it's fair to say Lucas Arts has handled the coveted "Star Wars" license extremely well. Most of the games of late fall in the first-person shooter or combat space simulation category, but the time has come to release a much-needed RTS game based on the age-old battle between good and evil (a.k.a. the Rebels vs. the Empire). The result? "Star Wars: Rebellion," or as found in the U.K.: "Star Wars: Supremacy."

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but unless you are a diehard Star Wars enthusiast or if you're overly lenient towards a poorly-designed user interface, steep learning curves and cumbersome gameplay, chances are you may want to ship this title to a "galaxy far, far away."

The gamer is in charge of either the Rebel Alliance or the Empire, and the goal is to expand your reign through the familiar "Star Wars" universe and take over as many enemy planets as possible. The playing field is divided up into various sectors, ranging from 100 to 200 planets based on the level of difficulty chosen at the start of the game.

Gameplay should be somewhat familiar with RTS fans, plus there's elements of turn-based tactics and visuals found in other "spaceploitation" games such as "Masters of Orion," "Spaceward Ho!" and "Stars." The gamer must gather resources (ore and energy), build ships, mines and refineries, train troops, and of course, the overall goal is to capture the enemy and their base and/or home planet. Since there are so many types produced from these construction/ship yards and facilities, the game can get quite complex, and in my case, unmanageable. Very rarely is there a game that crosses my desk that I need more than a few minutes to pick up what's going on, but admittedly, "Star Wars: Rebellion" had me confused and perplexed for hours at the first sit-down session.

There are a few nice touches, though, such as the inclusion of 50+ well-known Star Wars characters in the game. Vader, Luke, Han, Princess Leia and the Emperor can be employed, each with his/her own strengths and weaknesses. But, where's Obi Wan, I wondered?

As touched on earlier, arguably the biggest downfall in "Star Wars: Rebellion" is the Windows interface. I spent considerable time opening and closing windows, and it distracted me from the gameplay immensely. In addition, combat isn't like most RTS on the market, which in premise is fine by me, but when two opposing fleets meet, I wasn't sure whether to hit the tactical combat screen and do it myself or simply let the computer take over for me. Sure, it was more fun to assign the type of attack, flight paths, and camera angle, but I was too distracted with the aforementioned flaws and mediocre graphics (don't zoom in!), weak AI and awkward overall feel to soak up much of it.

After incredible games such as "Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II," "Mysteries of the Sith," "X-Wing and TIE Fighter," I guess this was bound to happen sometime (and I'm not including the mini desktop game "Yoda Stories," either).

Gamers may prefer to save their cash for another Star Wars RTS title announced by Lucas Arts, called "Force Commander," scheduled to ship sometime late this year.

"Total Annihilation: The Core Contingency"

I have to admit it's pretty gutsy for a RTS game to spawn an add-on expansion pack considering the overflow of related products on the market. Some franchises have decided to take this leap of faith including Activision's "Dark Reign" with the "Rise of the Shadowhand" addendum released earlier this month, and next week, the first official add-on to Cavedog Entertainment's mega-popular "Total Annihilation" (TA) will find its way to retail shelves.

Although I've only had a reviewable gold master disk for a couple of days, I can assure TA fans that they will find more of that "just one more mission" phenomenon they found in the first game.

"The Core Contingency" add-on/sequel requires the first game in order to play, but adds 75 new 3D battle units (225 in total), 25 ARM and CORE missions (totaling 75), 50 multiplayer maps, more expansive types of battlegrounds to fight over (urban streets, a crystal world, etc.), and a bonus map and mission editor.

The editor allows players to create custom skirmish and multiplayer maps, as well as complete missions and campaigns. In fact, it is the same tool used by Cavedog software developers. If players want a free copy of the editor before this expansion disk is released, log in here to download it for free: http://www.totalannihilation.com/mapeditor.html

If "TA"was one of your favorite releases last year and you're itching for more of that heart-pounding action, then "The Core Contingency" will certainly tie you over until "TA 2" is released sometime soon.

 
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