Command and Conquer celebrated its 20th birthday last week. It defined the RTS as we know it, and remained the go-to model for the genre for the next two decades. In the same two decades, the political situation that inspired the game has changed but also stayed the same, video games in general have become more advanced than we ever thought possible, and the dominant genre in gaming has changed hands at least twice. So, it stands to reason, the RTS would have changed as well. However, the fact that there are only two ‘heavy-hitters’ in the genre right now (Starcraft II and to a lesser extent Company of Heroes 2) is perhaps reason for the RTS to go home and rethink its life.
Yes, the RTS certainly grew stale with the passing years. Attempts to innovate in the genre either met with critical failure (Command and Conquer 4) or commercial sinking (World in Conflict). The answer to why this is so is another can of worms entirely and is still being debated somewhere, but sometimes a game comes along that just wants us to remember the past, to harken back to simpler times, and just wants to be a new Westwood game. Act of Aggression, the new RTS from Wargame and R.U.S.E developer Eugen Systems, is one of these games. However, unlike other games like it, Act of Aggression knows exactly what it is and doesn’t try to be anything more.
The game takes place in the not-so-far future of five or so years from now, in the aftermath of a Chinese economic collapse. In response, the United Nations creates a multinational force known as the Global Defe—the Chimera. However, an organisation known only as the Brotherho—the Cartel has begun taking advantage of the Tiberium infes—economic crisis to grow in power worldwide. Forgive me if I’m a little confused. The game’s single-player story component consists of two campaigns, one for the Cartel and another for the Chimera. Both campaigns don’t do a very good job at telling the story of the game, and the missions themselves are fairly lacklustre. The cutscene style, however, is hugely reminiscent of Tiberian Dawn with its use of a television format and probably intentional bad voice acting. Not that it doesn’t grow dull, but it’s a nice touch. The soundtrack is also a welcome return to Frank Klepacki-styled electric guitar antics, which is something I did miss.
Games like this usually shine is in their multiplayer, and Act of Aggression is no exception. The game allows players to choose between the three factions, each with a unique playstyle and slightly different tech ramp. It sounds good, but does the game do anything new? Not really. The gameplay is solid, but it’s the same thing we’ve all played before: Build a Refinery, gather some stuff, train an army, launch a nuke, repeat. The game also suffers from some real cheese in its strategy choices: last-minute building rushes after gathering a small fortune, the good ol’ tank rush, and simply camping your starting recon unit in front of an enemy refinery to attack their harvesters and cripple their economy. However, if these are ironed out by release I will gladly eat my words with a pinch of salt.
Not that the game lacked dramatic moments in its multiplayer, oh no. Plenty of times I was so gripped in the battle that my childhood training from Dune 2000 and Red Alert 2 kicked in. There’s a comfort in the familiar, and Act of Aggression almost leans you back and pours you a glass of coke. Another pleasant familiarity is the atmosphere of the game. As mentioned before, it presents the same kind of politically-charged setting with a touch of sci-fi that Command and Conquer was famous for. The screen will flicker when a particularly large explosion goes off, the zoom controls allow you to view the battlefield from high up in a thermal scope or right down to where the action is a la Company of Heroes, and the characters are all bare-bones representations of entire political ideals. The story was never the most important part of this kind of game, though, so take that however you want to.
This is all well and good, but what cements the experience is Act of Aggression’s embracing of what it is. Unlike other new-but-old RTS games like Grey Goo, Act of Aggression at least knows exactly what it is and doesn’t try to be anything different. But the RTS doesn’t get made like this (or at all) for a reason, and the real audience of this game has probably moved on by now. Act of Aggression is a love letter to what the RTS used to be, but it may have taken a little too long to write.