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Wot I Think: Act Of Aggression

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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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Rob Zacny

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