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.)