Retrospective: Ground Control

By Jim Rossignol on November 6th, 2007 at 9:31 am.


With Massive Entertainment’s spectacular World In Conflict causing some big ripples in the slow depths of the real time strategy I found myself once again contemplating its sci-fi ancestor, Ground Control. This exquisitely unassuming game first trundled onto my PC in June 2000 and ever since I’ve been waiting for a worthy successor. Playing it again in 2007 was an interesting experience. I got to see how it has aged well graphically, despite the relative lack of detail and the low-res 3D, while it hasn’t aged well in terms of pacing and production. It still has a sense of style, but it certainly lacks the high-end bombast and gameplay timing of the more recent game. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help thinking, when reviewing the World In Conflict single player campaign, that Massive had missed a trick or two from their original game.

Initially I think it was the way that Massive combined minimalistic presentation and 3D visuals that impressed me. While other RTS games had half the screen covered in their ornate interface packaging, Ground Control had a translucent map and a couple of floating buttons for your units. It was a game that made the most of the clarity of its simple, beautiful terrain.

Not only that, but it was a game that genuinely used terrain in making futuristic warfare interesting to navigate. It wasn’t just about about channeling you towards objectives (although it did do that) it was also about delivering tactical advantage (or disadvantage) as you played. The game’s second mission taught you that a frontal assault on an enemy base was going to be possible, but slow. Against a timed objective, with your limited resources, you’d enter deep water rather quickly. You soon learned to think laterally: driving up to over-looking hills and pounding fortified positions from above was always a better option to start the game. Hit them hard, then come back for the kill.

These lessons continued throughout the game. Such as with the titanic artillery pieces which had far greater range from on high, and with the spotter scouts who could see further the higher they were positioned ahead of your force. Ground Control really was all about the lay of the land, and it was the first of the 3D RTS games to really make that concept work for you, the player. Suddenly you were thinking about placing spotters ahead of the main force, of genuinely scouting in case your lightly armoured force was going to be intercepted, and covering important units from air attack. Other games escalated technology in this way too – Warzone 2100 most notably – but Ground Control was the only one that seemed to demand escalation from you, the living, breathing real-time tactician.

But there’s something else that both Ground Control II and World In Conflict failed to do: and that was to resist the allure of resources. Ground Control was entirely free of time-accrued resources. If there was an objective to achieve then you had to do it with the troops you were given at the start of the mission. The levels were often a kind of rolling, flexible battle-puzzle. How can you take out objective A and objective B while using troop-selection X and Y? Can you bodge your way through it with just Y if X gets shot up early on? Or do you need to think about sacrificing Y to have X for the final assault? These kinds of calculations made Ground Control utterly refreshing, because you couldn’t just build more dudes at your magical production base.

Ground Control II and World In Conflict diminished this kind of head-scratching and therefore broke the template Ground Control had so bravely pioneered. Both games introduced dropship resupplies, allowing you to throw in more units as you needed them (up to a resource cap) without any real problem. The tactical purity of Ground Control had disappeared just as if it had never been: suddenly you were happy to throw away soldiers and tanks because, hey, there were always more where they came from. Just like Command & Conquer, or any other base-building RTS that Ground Control had been the antidote too.

The original game, however, asked you to value your units. You put much greater stake in the tiny lives of your soldiers, even when you were running for your life. (The command APC was the one unit that could not be lost without failure). You’d take time to patch up damaged vehicles and keep the fighting formations close and defensive so that you could avoid destruction. Keeping on moving, keeping in your enemy on the wrong foot – it was far closer to the tactical nuance of an action game than any traditional RTS.

Limited resources also made overcoming whatever lay in front of you far more satisfying: you were given this set of tools, and it was up to you to use them to complete the mission. The way that the tools interlocked and then were rendered useless gave Ground Control one of those perfect difficulty curves: never too hard to beat, but usually insisting that you learned something each time. It was one of those perfected rock-paper-scissors-artillery-airstrike-forcefield circles of tactical usage. You rapidly became used to identifying enemy positions and pounding them to hell with the artillery piece, only to find that anti-artillery emplacements appear and render the tactic useless. You find yourself having to conduct hair-raising hit-and-run attacks to knock out defenses before the long arm of the shell-lobber can set to work.

Playing World In Conflict, you can see lots of ways in which Massive’s overall game has improved over the years. The pacing, story-telling, scripting and AI from Ground Control II and World In Conflict are far superior to the original – and they hugely outdo its implementation of secondary ‘special’ weapons too. Nevertheless I feel as if the seed that was planted with Ground Control grew into the wrong kind of strategic vegetable. The spirit of how Ground Control worked is more routinely found in squad combat games than any RTS games I think of.

So yeah. If there could be one major criticism of Ground Control, it would have to be that the main campaign ended too quickly, and, in doing so, was entirely anti-climactic. It’s fortunate, then, that the Dark Conspiracy expansion pack continued and improved upon the original story with clarity of design, and skilled forethought. The opening mission to this expansion has to be one of the finest pieces of RTS story-telling there has ever been – using a brilliant reversal of both fortunes and expectations to create real drama. I won’t risk saying any more just in case someone is inspired to go and play their way through to it, suffice to say it’s one of those gaming moments that makes you jump and shriek, before sitting back down and hoping no one was in earshot.

And you can start playing towards that moment right now, should you be so inclined, because Ground Control is free to play, and available just here. (It requires a Gamespy ID.)

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43 Comments »

  1. Janek says:

    Ground Control was indeed brilliant; and the dropping of the limited units in GC2/WOC did really disappoint me – that decision IMO took what was really quite special and stripped it of its primary unique feature, turning it into Just Another Generic RTS.

    I may well have another playthrough at some point, and I never got around to getting the expansion.

    • GC Marcos says:

      Personal gcvets.wordpress.com visit this page on ground control for us to play together!

  2. KindredPhantom says:

    This reminds me of Warzone 2100.

  3. Jarmo says:

    Was anything ever done about not being able to save mid-mission? This has prevented me from playing Ground Control. Jim, you do not mention this, I take it does not bother you?

  4. Theory says:

    I thought Dark Conspiracy was awful and only ever played it by cheating to unlock the whole campaign and loading a handful of the missions (it came bundled with GC so I didn’t feel under obligation). Did I really miss something there?

    Secondly Jim, you (like so many others) do a disservice to Ground Control’s writing and voice acting. It’s sophisticated, gloriously witty and perfectly cast, but nobody ever seems to mention it! Even after Portal, Sarah and Enrika are still two of the best female characters ever written for a game.

  5. Kieron Gillen says:

    Jarmo: Jim’s away for a week now, so he won’t be answering for a while. I’ll speculate that they never did, and he’s fine with the lack of mid-level save.

    KG

  6. Jarmo says:

    Thanks for the heads-up, Kieron! I’ll wait patiently for Jim. Mostly the lack of save is a problem for not being able to stop playing whenever, although I suspect it would also destroy most of the suspense and challenge of the missions. Still, not offering the possibility is a Twinkie Denial Condition.

  7. Jarmo says:

    “Mostly the lack of save is a problem for not being able to stop playing whenever” — together with some missions which can last many hours, or so I’ve been told. I could not deal with having to replay a multiple-hour mission after losing too many units in one misguided attack mid-level.

  8. Dan says:

    Loved Ground Control to bits.

    Played the demo for World in Conflict without knowing it was the same guys and instantly recognised it from one of the best (but never mentioned) features, the camera.

    I love actualy being able to move to where you want and see what you need. Company of Heros was a great game but I just spent the entire time cursing the fact that I could not see enough of the map, this is a STRATEGY game for crying out loud, why restrict what the player can see other than to what their units can see.

  9. muscrat says:

    Oh damn I loved ground control. I was one of the first RTSs I truly got into, moreso than all the C&Cs, Dunes, and Red Alerts. Its a pity that Ground Control 2 didnt really turn out to be as good as GC1. Its so true the tactical purity was gone.

    That is what made GC1 stand out to me. You had a selection of units on the battlefield dropped in, and you had to rely on just them to complete the mission. You had to use each to their best ability, and you cared if they died. GC2 really did take this all away, and give the mentality of expendable units – which WiC has suceeded with.

    Damn GC1 was awesome….. Sure WiC and GC2 are damn good, but GC1 truly was innovative, ahead of its time, and the most individual RTS of the bunch. Hell I still have my Box of the game in perfect form – I liked it so much :P

  10. Mark-P says:

    Ground Control was one of those games that should have been bettered but never was, leaving every other RTS played since feel like somewhat of a regression in its wake ( on the same note, how many more years will we have to wait for someone to make a better FPS/RPG than Deus Ex? ).

    The defining concept of assembling a set force for each mission and the lack of mid-game save made the game very special. I loved being able to name individual units and carry them from mission to mission. When one of your veteran squads went down in the line of duty, accomplishing a difficult objective, it was a personal blow. Quick-save is one of my personal pet dislikes, encouraging sloppy game design and non-immersive play and it was refreshing to see it absent.

    Also, the air units were wonderfully realised, and looked fantastic as they circled the skies above. Recon units that were worth their weight in gold for actual recon – what a novel and exciting concept! It’s a shame that they went back to generic floating gunships for GC2.

    Dang, now I have to find Dark Conspiracy.

  11. Mark-P says:

    Oh yeah, and as Theory mentioned, Major Parker remains one of the coolest, most sensible and most downright likable female characters I’ve seen in a computer game. What a shame that her characterisation remains largely unique in the medium.

  12. Jarmo says:

    As you’ve played Ground Control, could you please tell whether some of it’s missions take several hours to complete? Are there only a few long missions or are they all long/longish?

  13. Cian says:

    Ground Control is the best RTS I’ve ever played. It’s simply superb, everything about it is spectacular.
    It’s graphics still impress – it’s artillery has never been topped; watching those barrels slowly slamming back whilst the charges scream into the air, their casings gracefully curving back to the ground whilst streams arc through the sky before obliterating the enemy in echoing explosions…I think I need to lie down.
    Another love of mine (asides from the camera and story which have already been mentioned) were the units, and the music. The Crayven Marines were brilliantly versatile, and looked achingly cool, whilst the heaviest Crayven Tanks truly were behemoths. The Order was slightly more lacklustre, though their squads of acolytes with torpedo tubes strapped to their backs made up for it.
    I love this game slightly more than is healthy. When I first played the beta of GCII I cried, it had nothing in common with the first game at all.

  14. Mark-P says:

    I can’t remember the mission lengths too well myself, it’s been a while. There were some towards the end of the first campaign that took a while. I’m having visions of a big Dawnie base on the ice planet in a valley with lots of forcefield projectors, and another at night with many small bases on mesas.

    Oh Lord, my memory is shot. :/ They could well have taken hours. The game does encourage you to play slowly and cautiously and micro-manage your forces. I can’t remember what the difficulty settings were like – if they go low enough you could probably plow through those missions a lot faster. The game is something of an aquired taste.

  15. paul says:

    I loved Ground Control. Almost as much as Myth (my favorite RTS). Resource collection and unit creation doesn’t do it for me.

    I look forward to trying out World in Conflict.

  16. unclebulgaria says:

    Best. Artillery. EVAAAAAAAAR!

  17. Bet says:

    Agreed about the artillery being great. The Crayven Corp rocket-assisted stuff slightly edges out all the artillery in World in Conflict for fun factor, if not the eye candy or multiplayer satisfaction factors. Although in Ground Control it seemed most of the time I was using the rest of my forces to spot for and protect the artillery…

    Still, it can’t quite beat the satisfaction at wiping out someone with artillery in a multiplayer World in Conflict match. And getting enough Tactical Aid points from doing so to drop a triple-nuke strike on the rest of their team. That’s got a special feeling that Ground Control could never match with its creeping artillery tactics.

    There’s one mission in the Crayven storyline that has absolutely SCREWED me, both in 2000 and 2006 when I replayed it. Longest mission of the game, and you only get screwed at the very end. Happens so quick that you don’t realize that you’ve walked into a devastating ambush until it’s over with. That’s where I quit replaying last year… argh. It had been 6 years and I knew it was going to happen again. Remembered the mission, just not how exactly it slaps you down.

    My desire for aerodynes makes me want to replay the game again though. Even knowing that sadistic mission is waiting…waiting…

  18. aeturnum says:

    Ground control has always been one of my favorite games – I thought that it got most everything right (in terms of concept, if not execution). I was really excited about GCII right up until I played it, then I stopped being exited.

    If you want to see another great and innvative RTS that was ruined in its sequal, check out the Bitmap Brothers Z (or Zed to you europeans).

  19. Theory says:

    If anyone wants more games like Ground Control, there’s a lovely article on Wikipedia that’s all about them. :-)

    I particularly like MechWarrior 2, and Soldiers of Anarchy is also excellent if you have an old enough CD drive to pass the copy protection checks (or the US release, which is the only version to have a crack out). Full Spectrum Warrior is OK but a bit random at times, we all know about Total War, and Myth II is amazing if you can get your hands on it.

  20. drunkymonkey says:

    I was so disappointed when Mark of Chaos turned out to be a bit crap. Total War fantasy had me chomping at the bit.

  21. Garth says:

    Every since Ground Control/Close Combat (the Strategy ones, not the FPS), I’ve really had a problem with other strategy games.

    For example, I don’t think Starcraft/Red Alert/etc are RTS’s, as I remember them. I think of them, and refer to them as, Resource Strategy Games. It’s not about military tactics or unit combat usage, but number crunching. I’m getting ‘x’ ore every ‘y’ minutes, how many of ‘z’ can I make in 2 minutes to defend against the attack I know is coming?

    I rarely got people to, but playing multiplayer games that are similar to Close Combat or Ground Control, but I loved them far more than any Starcraft match I’ve ever played.

  22. wcaypahwat says:

    I’m not sure why, but I loved Starship Troopers – Terran Ascendancy.

  23. Pod says:

    I agree with the fellows above. Ever since playing things like Close Combat, I just can’t get back into the C&C series and games of a similiar nature where it’s all about resource harvesting and spammy out mammoth tanks. A few games aside, such as Homeworld, I’ve come to loath the term “RTS” and am one of these new ages hippies who uses the RTT term.

    I want SSI to make a new Close Combat title. Please?

  24. Pod says:

    I wish I’d posted this a minute earlier, because I completely agree with wcaypahway. Except for the fact that it took five hours to traverse some of the maps and some of the weapons were completely useless and therefore ‘unbalanced’, that game was one of the best film -> game ports I’ve played.

  25. mister slim says:

    I hope Bungie can get the rights to Myth back. Even if the game is only on the 360.

  26. Jocho says:

    I and a few friends were just discussing this game a few weeks ago, which lead me to thinking “I should try this out again. I’ve got it at home, after all”. Checking at home, it wasn’t there. “Ah, but I can download it – I wonder where it was” my next thought was.

    And then you make this text with a link to it! I’m downloading it right now, and really looking forward to play it again. Thanks a lot!

  27. David says:

    Loved Ground Control and have been meaning to replay it for some time.
    Onto the off-topic, MechCommander2 was *okay*, but really improved when you played some of the custom-made campaigns, espescially the ones with Magic’s enhanced AI, and if Wolfman-X would sort his site out so that FireFox didn’t despise it, he also did a lot of good work with the game.

    NtJI started with promise, but was unforgiving in the way you loaded out you ships and unfortunately lost me after about a dozen missions. Shame really, the tech demo for the sequel looked beautiful as well.

    MC2 Expansion thread on DSC
    Wolfman’s MC2 Site

  28. wiper says:

    I’d forgotten how satisfying GC is… and also how god-awful the AI (enemy and unit-level) is. Nothing worse than spending over an hour systematically making your way through a level, only for the closing rush to bring about the death of your artillery (say) as it decides the best way to move away from the enemy is to run back and forth in front of your tanks until it explodes from a combination of enemy firepower and friendly fire. Gnng.

  29. Taxman says:

    Count me as another big fan of Ground Control it was such an underrated game when it was released, I remember reading tiny reviews in the back pages of magazines when it first came out. In fact it is my favourite RTS of all time and nothing has topped it in the intervening years.

    The UI is and still remains the best one I have ever played in a game and I loved the back story with their factions and the non-stereotypical female characters (OMG women who don’t get their tits out). Sadly that last item was revoked for the sequel with the terran character can’t remember her name but out came the red latex.

    The Dark Conspiracy expansion was not done by Massive it was some unknown studio Sierra got to do it frankly it was I thought disappointing as it contradicted itself in terms of continuity, bad level design (the one thats textures are almost all black and your searching for parts that was very lame) & left the game in a state of what the hell was going on with the story.

    The sequel I was also extremely disappointed with it cannot emphasis enough I HATE STORYLINE TIME JUMPS INTO THE FUTURE abandoning the previous characters & world, it is such an annoying thing to do and on top of that they did not properly explain certain aspects of the new story and loosely tied it back into the first game.

    It was really a bit of a mess and felt to me like someone sticking the oar in (publisher maybe) and changing things around in the hope more people will buy it.

    Still hoping for one day to see a true sequel game with the Order of the New Dawn and the Crays slugging it out : (

  30. Artur says:

    GC 1 kicks ass my fav RTT game ( even now gameplay is impressive )
    Looking forward to GC3

  31. Fenchurch says:

    Can I just point out that the Dark Conspiracy add on for Ground Control 1 cost ONE POUND. £1! Back when there was no digital distribution and an add on was routinely £15-£25.

    I remember trying to come up with alliterative names for all my units. If you lost a unit you lost all their experience as well so you were desperate to avoid this.

  32. Ildamos says:

    I love this game so much I made a short story around it: http://imbacore.blogspot.com/2008/12/ground-control-rts-game-fan-made.html

    Sad to hear Massive doesn’t own the rights to the series anymore. I wonder if there will ever be a GC III.