Wot I Think: Act Of Aggression

Act of Aggression [official site] is a formidable, traditional RTS, a callback to Eugen’s pre-Wargame work. In some quarters it has been heralded as the game to fill the Command & Conquer gap in the strategy world. Its three distinct factions, resource gathering and near-future military tech seem to fit the bill. We asked Rob Zacny to join the battle and report back with a full analysis. Here’s wot he thinks.

They don’t get nearly enough credit, but Eugen Systems have made some revolutionary real-time strategy and tactics games. 2010’s RUSE attempted to eliminate every barrier to control and awareness in a real-time strategy game, allowing you to survey an entire battlefield from a god’s-eye view where units merged into gamepieces on a board, or zoom to ground-level to place each individual tank and gun. The Wargame series built on that foundation to become one of my favorite series of the last five years. Again, there is a the seamless, lightweight interface that gave you effortless control over the battlefield, coupled this time with a sharp focus on late Cold War units and tactics.

What I loved about Eugen’s work is that they did away with all the things that I hate about real-time strategy games. They didn’t try to limit your awareness with artificial restrictions, or give you a bunch of units that wouldn’t work unless you were pressing special buttons at special times. Even when I was losing, I always felt like I knew why. It was my thinking, analysis, and decision-making that failed me. Not my fingers.

Act of Aggression does not build on that legacy. Instead, it seems almost to pretend that none of Eugen’s recent work ever happened. It is view-restricted. There is a lot of base-building and macro-management of resource harvesters and production queues, and you have to be scouting constantly because every unit will die in a heartbeat if you get the wrong matchup. There are interface panels filled with inscrutable little icons, as practically every unit has multiple upgrades that you have to consider. In short, Act of Aggression is a game that sets you up for confusion and failure: a classic, old-school RTS.

Once I got over my initial shock and the formidable learning curve, I started to warm to it. Act of Aggression is a recognizable relative of the Wargame series. Its pacing is a little more relaxed than, say, StarCraft. Huge battles can go on for ages and look incredible. Towns are ripped to shreds by autocannon and artillery fire; point-defense cannons stretch with tracer fire out toward incoming missile streaks; aircraft duel overhead while down below the infantry pour out of transports and start going house-to-house. The battle twists and turns as both sides begin reacting to the enemy composition and deploy units to counter it in the nick of time. It’s a frantic, tactically engaging spectacle.

Getting to the point where you can enjoy it, however, is a long, hard, and confusing journey. Act of Aggression doesn’t really have a clear design template that it follows, and each faction is maddeningly different from the others in many trivial ways that force lots of re-learning.

The game’s biggest problem is there is at once too much information to take in and that almost all of it is presented badly. I’ve had a lot of time to develop an eye for its battlefields, and I still have a hard time parsing it.

A lot of that is down to the fact that it is a “realistic” looking game. Infantry are not quite to scale, but they’re still incredibly small next to the tanks and aircraft.The US military uses the Stryker for practically everything, so their armies will be full of almost-identical vehicles distinguished by what’s mounted atop their chassis. Those details are almost invisible when zoomed-out.

It wasn’t so hard to deal with this in the Wargame series because each unit was accompanied by a symbol (NATO or Eugen’s custom designs). The moment you identified an enemy unit, you were also told exactly the make and model, so you didn’t have to go blind trying to identify the chassis and armament like some kind of Home Guard spotter during the Blitz. But Act of Aggression always asks you to make those calls constantly, often through a haze of fire and smoke.

That’s extremely punishing in a game like Act of Aggression, which is full of “hard-counter” type units that will eviscerate their enemy counterpart. A lot of RTS games employ these kinds of “rock, paper, scissors” relationships. But it only works if those relationships are readable. In Act of Aggression, they are not.

It gets even more complicated when you factor in the tech tree and upgrades. Act of Aggression LOVES upgrades. The more the better. Just about every unit has an upgrade available. The Puma, a light tank with the Chimera faction (think the EU / UN with fangs), can get an upgrade that allows it to carry four infantry. Then it can get another upgrade that gives it anti-tank missiles in addition to its autocannon. This has an important side-effect: suddenly the Puma does something completely different than it did before.

The US, not to be outdone, has upgrades within upgrades. First you pay to unlock the “Tusk” upgrade for your armored units. Then you have to upgrade EACH INDIVIDUAL UNIT with the Tusk kit. So once you unlock “Tusk II”, you had sure better go around to every tank you ever built and buy the upgrades, or they won’t get the extra armor.

Lord, just writing that made me angry again.

All of this introduces a lot of complexity and confusion into a game that was already hard to follow. Even a relatively simple army composition raises a bunch of marginal questions: when do you buy the artillery range upgrade? Before or after upgrading the attack helicopter’s anti-tank missiles? Are those useful without the sight upgrade for you recon units?

These are important questions. They’re not complexity for complexity’s sake. But they’re also incredibly hard questions to evaluate in this game, and all these little decisions make it a lot harder to understand the effect of each one in a battle. I always felt like I was groping for feedback, not seeing it play out before my eyes.

This is, however, the game you have to learn how to play and most of the pleasure will come from skirmishes against either AI or human opponents, because the campaign has precious little to offer. It is an incomprehensible thing, full of news footage, bad voiceover backed by static headshots of characters (some of whom appear to be stock photos with uniforms and berets Photoshopped onto them), and dire tidings. It makes a Call of Duty campaign seem as tightly-plotted as a Le Carré novel. Each new military spec-fic madlib sets up another scripted mission to be learned via trial-and-error.

On the other hand, the fiction does lay the groundwork for three interesting factions. The US, the Chimera, and the Cartel all have superficial similarities (they all use variations on modern and near-future military hardware) but get more distinctive the more you play with them, and increasingly demand different tactics and different phases of the game. The US Military is probably my least favorite, because it is the most specialized. Every US unit is a glass cannon, perfect for a single situation but worthless for everything else. The Cartel, a faction of sinister private military contractors and evil defense contractors, is built around money and aggression, but has a weaker mid-game due to a lack of heavy military equipment. The Chimera are the turtlers: they have lots of ways to expand across the map and can set up strong defenses around each outpost, and their arsenal is full of stand-off weapons. But they’re incredibly vulnerable once someone breaches those walls of firepower and gets to close range.

I enjoy a lot of things about Act of Aggression: the bloody, orgiastic spectacle of it. The tactical combat that puts a premium on winning the battle for map vision and positioning. The nuanced faction differences.

But Act of Aggression is also a game that obscures information rather than reveals it, and attempts to bewilder you with a million minor choices rather than a few clear-cut strategic decisions. In sharp contrast to Eugen’s previous work, my first enemy is always the game itself.

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38 Comments

  1. surethingbud says:

    So… It sucks?

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      aleander says:

      The score is mole out of B-2.

    • Camasi says:

      I don’t think it sucks at all. This is actually a solid game with just a few rough edges. I have been playing since early beta and I will admit it is a bit tough to understand at first but once you understand it you begin to appreciate the complexity of the game and all the unique strategies that people have come up with. It’s a classic RTS for sure, but it’s one that delivers. With a little bit more work it will definitely be a solid 9/10 for me.

    • Chubzdoomer says:

      It definitely doesn’t suck. I’d say it’s one of the best traditional RTS games in years.

      • Elethio says:

        Does not suck I gave it a 9/10 too.

        The games worst problem is the lack of any tutorial, even after 60hrs I’m finding new mechanics, but that’s been 60hrs of fun. also it’s a game where the MP strategies could be evolving for years.

        Best C&C like for ten years.

  2. inf says:

    But can Maxwell run it in DX12 async compute?

    Oh wait, wrong RTS game.

    • SuicideKing says:

      Oh dear don’t start an irrelevant discussion here. When RPS puts out a WIT on AoS (or when it actually launches), go on about this as much as you like.

      And anyway, AoA is DX11 so Maxwell should be “safe”.

      Also, this:
      link to guru3d.com

  3. LionsPhil says:

    Shame. Sounds like this falls far, far short of being another Generals.

    Can you at least select one tank, hit the select-all-of-type key, and then mass-buy the upgrade? Cause that was the only thing that made Generals’ drone-purchasing managable.

    • DarkFenix says:

      You can, and the game doesn’t look like it has far to go to reach Generals, it just needs some modder attention.

      The interface is the real criminal, units are indeed small and lacking in distinctiveness, compounded by the fact that the minimap is criminally bad. I’ve literally had to abandon scout units simply because I can’t remember where I left them and the minimap is so unclear I can’t find them on it.

      Eugen seem to have had a bit of a disconnect between an interface that is pretty and one that is functional. Aside from that I’m a fan of the complexity of all the upgrades, that much at least is very much in line with Generals.

      • SuicideKing says:

        Scouts in RTS games should just include an “auto-explore” mode, like in Rise of Nations. I find it one of the most boring jobs in an RTS, usually.

        A bit annoying in Wargame as well but at least there it’s consistent.

        • LionsPhil says:

          Obligatory mention of Dark Reign and its unit automation, such as auto-explore, and also auto-hunt-and-destroy for mopping up at the end of a game.

        • Elethio says:

          There are many areas in the game that lack automation, but thats not necessarily a bad thing, this isn’t SC

    • CookPassBabtridge says:

      I’m also sad. I had rather been hankering for a “wargame:airland battle-lite”

      • BalkanOkami says:

        I think AoA still stands a really good chance of scratching that itch for you! I’ve been playing it in beta for the last month or two, and Eugen has toned down a lot of the more inscrutable resource management aspects prior to release.

        If you liked the graphics and unit movement of Wargame (esp. aircraft and choppers) but wanted them in a more “arcade”-style RTS package (a la C&C Generals), I think you will really like AoA.

        • CookPassBabtridge says:

          Thank you, I will check out some lets plays I think :)

  4. CookPassBabtridge says:

    I wish this had been reviewed in russia with trees with white painted trunks and chinese jounralists wearing two ushankas at once link to rockpapershotgun.com

  5. EhexT says:

    The Cartel used to be the faction that was all about stealth and ambushes, but because people couldn’t be bothered to build detectors Eugen removed (effective) stealth and ambushes. So now Cartel is just the faction that gets screwed because it has a bunch of glass cannons that are missing the cannon part.

    • Chubzdoomer says:

      Not necessarily true. The only thing they changed in that regard is that the Cartel’s main tank (Spectre) can no longer remain invisible while firing. To make up for it, however, they implemented a system in which stealth tanks do 2x damage with their first shot if they’re undetected. Spectres are still incredibly powerful because of that–they just aren’t stupidly overpowered like they were before.

      • LionsPhil says:

        That honestly sounds like a way better stealth mechanic, more along the lines of the C&C1 Stealth Tank, rather than the idiotic Starcraft model of “WHERE ARE ALL THESE BULLETS HITTING ME COMING FROM I CANNOT TELL”.

      • EhexT says:

        The patch that removed firing from stealth (every single instance of it) also removed the 2x first-hit-from-stealth ambush mechanic.

        • darks says:

          You are wrong, they re-added Ambush to the game when the game went live. Ambush is still very powerful if used correctly. As stated, the removal of perma-Stealth was a blessing. the Cartel was to OP with it.

          • Chubzdoomer says:

            Exactly. Stealth is exactly where it needs to be right now. Balance-wise, the game is better than it’s ever been.

  6. Duke of Chutney says:

    This weeks 3ma topic?

    I hope so. I’ve been a big fan of wargame, but unsure on this. I very much dislike information filtering and ID skill focused games.

  7. Vandelay says:

    This sounds like a bit of a pity. I was looking forward to Eugen returning to a bit of their base building RTS roots. I never played Act of War, but I did really enjoy RUSE. I came to it quite late though, so never got into the multiplayer side of things. I’ve enjoyed what little I have played of the Wargame series, but its military fetish and lack of the traditional aspects of the RTS genre have always been off putting for me.

    The poor single player campaign and some bizarre design decisions (having to upgrade units individually – really?) mean that this will probably be sale buy. Also, reports that they cut some interesting content (stealth aspects,) due to some Internet whining suggests a lack of commitment to their design and just goes to prove the issues with letting communities get too involved in the development process.

    • Chubzdoomer says:

      You only have to upgrade units individually if you play as the US. That’s one of their faction traits. If you play as Chimera and Cartel, upgrades affect all existing and future units.

  8. tangoliber says:

    RUSE is my favorite strategy game out of all that I have played. I thought that 1v1 on ranked maps was perfect. For me, the special sauce that made it work was the visibility…what you could see, what you couldn’t see, and what you could intuit.
    Also, it was nice how you could play zoomed out enough that the entire map was visible on your screen, and how the matches were a neat 30 minutes long.
    I found the competitive strategies and playstyles to get a lot more interesting after the community had been playing 6 months or so.

  9. Marclev says:

    Isn’t this meant to be a successor to Direct Action: Act of War? Anybody know how it compares to that? I didn’t get far with the sequel because for some reason it escalated the difficulty to rock solid after a few missions, but the original is by far my favorite military RTS ever, and some of the unit names you mentioned sound the same as the ones from that.

    Would really appreciate a comparison to that, even if it’s just “It’s basically the same game-play and feel, with modern graphics”.

    • EhexT says:

      It’s like Act of War with most of the good bits removed. Goodbye ambush mechanic, infantry prone, infantry hiding spots, smart airstrike AI and interface, FMVs, etc.

      Pretty much the only things they’ve kept is the PoW mechanic, Banks and the 3 factions.

      • darks says:

        Dude, get your facts straight. Ambush is till in the game, please stop spreading false information. How about you try playing the game before commenting about this you have no clue about.

    • Phantus says:

      Yes, it is exactly that. It’s a very poor and somewhat embarrassing review. He mentions every other game by Eugen except for Act of Aggression’s direct predecessor, Act of War. It is the same game but modernized.

      It has all the things that make a great RTS: base building, upgrading units, resource gathering etc…Quite frankly the only drawback, which was also found in Act of War, is the fact that you can’t zoom out as much as you’d like. AoA goes into “satellite” mode which in essence is night vision which gets old quickly, more of a gimmick than anything helpful. You end up missing out on the great new graphics in order to properly navigate the theater of war. They need to double the zoom and make satellite view the top tier for viewing the entire battle ground. This needs tweaking but other than that it’s tight.

  10. Magistar says:

    Interesting opinion. Yes there are four different versions of the Stryker (the AA blazer and Humvee look completely different…) but since they all share the same chassis it really does not matter if you want to counter the ATGM, MGS, MC or ICV version. They have identical health, armor and weaknesses. Obviously the ATGM will fire (recognizable) anti-tank missiles and the MC will lob mortars so defining which is which is not that hard.

    When I read the rest of the review I get the feeling we have played a completely different game. Not Chimera but the US has the best options to expand due to their ability to deploy cheap MG nests (750) and FOB (500 + 500 alu) whereas the Chimera have much more expensive outposts (1500 alu)and turrets (750 alu). Actually the US is all about defenses because they have the best turrets (phalanx) and their weakness are their vulnerable power plants. The Chimera are all about multi-purpose units receiving up to 4 different weapon systems making them a jack of all trades. The cartel is all about stealth technology.

    ps A glass canon is a unit that has very high damage but very little health. Has nothing to do with single purpose units.

    • Camasi says:

      As a Chimera player I have to say that I love their early game economy boosts and the outposts have a few handy upgrades that justify their costs. You definitely have the factions figured out. The great thing is at different points of the game (match or whatever) is that they have unique strengths with different units that they can exploit. Timing is definitely critical though.

  11. Hensler says:

    Act of War (+ High Treason) is one of my favorite games of all time, and one of the most underrated games on PC that I can think of. I still play it, especially after it was released on GOG earlier this year in a more stable form for modern PCs.

    If Act of Aggression looks good, do yourself a favor and go buy Act of War Gold from GOG instead. It pains me to say that after waiting a decade for a follow-up, but it’s a better a decision and you’ll save $30 to boot.

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    cairbre says:

    Great to see rob writing for RPS a good combination.

  13. AlliedG says:

    Act of War + High Treason was re released on Steam with the above mentioned stability patch as well.

    In regards to upgrading units for usa, you can select multiple units and upgrade at the same time.

    The most confusing thing initially is resource management and remembering that builder units are not controlled, your field hq or “construction yard” basically spawns the builder unit.

  14. Easelm says:

    “it has been heralded as the game to fill the Command & Conquer gap”

    I sure as hell wouldn’t call it an alternative to C&C, as I’d rather play C&C games to fill this C&C “gap”.

  15. Elethio says:

    Ok, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion you what one person likes and another dislikes are all subjective things that cannot be argued and simply are.
    However, a number of your criticisms Rob, seem to contradict themselves, and although you claim that AoA fails the C&C legacy, the points you raise don’t exactly support that.

    There is a lot of base-building and macro-management of resource harvesters and production queues, and you have to be scouting constantly because every unit will die in a heartbeat if you get the wrong matchup.
    Its seems that instead of criticising AoA for being unlike C&C, you are criticising for being unlike Eugen’s other RTS’s, such as Wargame and RUSE.
    Other comments about lack of info and feedback and units being unrealistic also fall into the same category.

    AoA has does have some problems, complexity and difference between factions is not something I’d call a problem, but its lack of a tutorial is. And yes its true that some of the units would have benefited from being a bit more distinct, but the comment about the Rock Paper Scissors nature of units I find unfathomable!

    Of course it has some RPS units, it would be crap otherwise, but none of them are pure hard counters. All of the factions have some high tier units that are “good at everything”, indeed the Chimera faction itself specialises in having “Jack of all trades” units.
    Frankly I can’t think of a decent RTS that doesn’t use this, and most RTS’s I know have a far stronger RPS system.

  16. Elethio says:

    Ok, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, and what one person likes and another dislikes are all subjective things that cannot be argued and simply are.
    However, a number of your criticisms Rob, seem to contradict themselves, and although you claim that AoA fails the C&C legacy, the points you raise don’t exactly support that.
    “There is a lot of base-building and macro-management of resource harvesters and production queues, and you have to be scouting constantly because every unit will die in a heartbeat if you get the wrong matchup.”
    Its seems that instead of criticising AoA for being unlike C&C, you are criticising it for being unlike Eugen’s other RTS’s, such as Wargame and RUSE.
    Other comments about lack of info and feedback and units being unrealistic also fall into the same category.

    AoA has does have some problems, complexity and difference between factions is not something I’d call a problem, but its lack of a tutorial is. And yes its true that some of the units would have benefited from being a bit more distinct, but the comment about the Rock Paper Scissors nature of units I find unfathomable!

    Of course it has some RPS units, it would be crap otherwise, but none of them are pure hard counters, all of the factions have some high tier units that are “good at everything”, indeed the Chimera faction itself specialises in having mainly “Jack of all trades” units.
    Frankly I can’t think of a decent RTS that doesn’t use this system, and most RTS’s I know have a far more brittle RPS system.