Following the success of the Wargame series, Act of Aggression [official site] sees Eugen returning to a more traditional form of RTS. Retaining ideas from the studio's previous Act of War titles, as well as the clever confusion of R.U.S.E., it's a game that aims to fill the gap left by the disappearance of Commander & Conquer Generals 2. Based on the forty five minutes I've spent in its company, I reckon it might be more than capable of filling that gap.
The first time I saw a screenshot from the original Command & Conquer in a magazine, I was convinced it would be my next favourite game. I remember a craggy beach, two landing craft and a small squad of infantry soldiers disembarking in the cold water just off shore. In its way, it was as mundane as a military scene could possible be - certainly a far cry from the series' later outlandish extremes. A frozen moment before engagement, with not even the flash of a muzzle to imply conflict.
There was another screenshot in the same preview article. It showed a tank, or perhaps tanks, crossing a bridge. I wondered if I'd be able to destroy the bridge and reckoned that if I could, Command & Conquer would absolutely definitely be my next favourite game. Like the landing craft shot, the bridge scene didn't show a battle, instead highlighting possible strategies while lingering on the anticipation of combat.
Landing craft and bridges sparked my imagination in a way that explosions and the chaos of combat never could.
I loved Command & Conquer but didn't keep up with the series as it moved from the camo-camp of the first game toward the sci-fi pomp of Red Alert 3. There has been an RTS-shaped hole in my life for a long time though. I want a game that demands attention to detail during basebuilding rather than rapidfire construction. More than that - if a macro can follow the formula of building and battle effectively, my interest is likely to wander as soon as I see the flowcharts just beneath the surface.
Act of Aggression looks like it has been specifically designed to satisfy my personal RTS desires. Eugen's creative director, Alexis Le Dressay, showed me the basebuilding, research and resource gathering side of the game last week, and I came away full of the same excitement that those early C&C screenshots lodged in my brain. I saw thirty minutes of the game before a single bullet or shell was fired simply because there's plenty to talk about before units go into action against one another.
There are choices to make at every stage, whether you're planning the collection of basic currency through control of petroleum supplies or the securing of strategic points on the map. On the surface, every action is recognisable: harvesters collect resources from specific points on the map and then trundle back to the base; infantry spawn outside a barracks when a recruitment bar is full; research unlocks new buildings that permit the construction of new units.
The process is familiar but the fine detail shows evidence of a great deal of tinkering. It's as if Eugen have looked at every expected element of the traditional C&C-style RTS and then asked "Is this interesting?" Where the answer is "no", they've tweaked and redesigned in an attempt to ensure the player is an active participant at all times rather than a nodding bird pushing buttons to activate new functions whenever resources reach the necessary threshold.
Supply lines are a good example of the thinking that underpins Act of Aggression. Vehicles collect resources and return them either to the base or a supply dump closer to the source. While travelling across the map, those vehicles are vulnerable so might require an escort if there are enemies close by. To complicate matters, resource placement is randomised at the beginning of each mission, so even if you know the basic layout of a map, the routes that form across it will vary from one skirmish to the next.
It's a slight adjustment to the usual flow that should prevent experienced players from relying on autopilot. The three factions also have their own method of ferrying resources around the place - a Cartel cargo helicopter can zip about the map and avoid roadside ambushes more effectively but it's relatively flimsy, and has a tiny capacity in comparison to a US Army truck.
It's also possible to gain money by capturing banks, which are actual physical structures on the map. Alexis sent reconaiisance vehicles to a cluster of buildings and upon finding them empty, moved in APCs packed with infantry. Foot soldiers are needed to capture buildings because tanks, for all their qualities, are incapable of performing a heist (Ocean's Eleven with tanks instead of people would be a fine thing, mind). With the bank's funds now transferring into Alexis' account, he set up infantry units in other nearby buildings. They'd be invisible to approaching forces but would create a killzone around the bank if the enemy came too close.
Research requires reactive thinking as well. In many RTS games, you're essentially filling a bucket. Drop points into research and eventually you'll unlock all of the best units and hopefully go on to win the day. Act of Aggression has several buckets. There's an emphasis on upgrading existing units rather than building new ones and the limited resources on a map - particularly the high-end minerals - means you'll have to make some tough decisions. You can't run around the shop and buy one of everything so rather than clicking to form build queues as soon as you complete a new piece of research, you'll have to consider the particulars of the map and mission, as well as whatever you've managed to learn about your enemy's movements and plans.
A great deal of the groundwork for Act of Aggression was already in place. Before they became widely known as the creators of the Wargame series, Eugen developed the Act of War games, and Aggression picks up where they left off, also borrowing ideas from the information warfare the developer explored in R.U.S.E.. Alexis tells me that he'd been looking forward to Command & Conquer Generals 2 until its free-to-play design was revealed (the game was later renamed and eventually cancelled) and reckons there are plenty of people, like him, who want a forward-thinking but old-fashioned RTS.
The demonstration wasn't scripted and there were many digressions as Alexis addressed my questions by demonstrating the answers in realtime as he played. Using dev tools to hurry the process along, he built a large base and assembled a huge army, then dropped a couple of missiles into a silo and filled the screen with fire. Buildings collapse, the ground is scorched, and vehicles buckle and burn. It's a spectacular game, although quietly so considering the subject matter. The buildings and armies look as if they're interpretations of tabletop models, packed with fine detail and admirably solid.
What I've seen so far brings back my fondest memories of the original Command & Conquer. My main concern is that the AI will behave too predictably, or that despite the attempts to complicate the traditional RTS flow, players will quickly find the best method of playing for each faction. Alexis responds to my doubts about the AI by acknowledging the difficulties involved but says he's confident it'll use the same tricks and fall into the same traps as a human player. If that's even remotely true, Act of Aggression could turn out to be the game that helps me to fall back in love with a genre.
Act of Aggression will be released this Spring.