It was inevitable. Command & Conquer Generals was such an inexplicably successful title for the PC that copycats were sure to follow, and as far as I can tell, Act of War is the first blatant Generals clone to show up on the market. It sickens me how the most average, run-of-the-mill, and pedestrian titles sell so well because of their slick marketing campaigns and mainstream subject matter, but because of those things, Act of War is almost guaranteed market success. Apparently based on a techno-thriller by Dale Brown, Act of War is a fictional story about terrorism, a worldwide energy crisis, and a ludicrously idiotic aggressor against the United States that decides to invade California with tanks. Still with me? Prepare yourself, because it gets sillier.
If this game is any indication, Act of War is a terrible book. The game is so poorly written and directed I was kept consistently laughing throughout the course of the game despite the “total war” content and mass slaughter of civilians. Not a single scene strikes of credibility, and some are just painful to watch. When I viewed the cutscene of the supposed “elite” troopers called into a potentially hostile firezone to protect some VIPs I literally laughed out loud as their commander ordered them to safe their weapons to prevent any “accidents” as multiple armed hostiles moved about “mysteriously” in the crowd less than 100 feet away. Did anyone on the writing or direction teams at Atari not stop and notice that this is just a little bit unrealistic? How about the scenes which follow, wherein terrorists start pulling out M1A4 rifles and sniper rifles from under coats (not even trenchcoats). Has anyone on the team at Atari ever actually picked up one of these rifles, much less tried to conceal one under a coat in a crowd of people? You've got to be fucking kidding me. How about immediately thereafter, when some terrorist fires an AK47 into the crowd about 100 feet away from the elite commandos, and one of them says, “Hey, was that gunfire?” -- Thanks for the heads-up bucko, with ears like that you should audition for Greek theater! Moments of idiocy like this show up in just about every cutscene in the game, and it is an insult to my intelligence that Atari expects immersion in a storyline that is so far from any sort of reality or believable Earth-based fantasy it might as well be set on Dog Doo VIII. (GH reader Phillip F notes: There is no actual planet called “Dog Doo VIII”, the universe ends at Dog Doo VII)
Now, the actual video production and effects are pretty good, except for the gunplay, which is awful. Explosions look realistic and the special effects are generally quite good, but whenever someone gets shot the camera does an MTV quick-cut to avoid the fact that the Atari team was too cheap for real special effects beyond digital adds. The actors are also a bunch of random nobodies, and it shows. While not actively bad, and certainly not as awful as the story and implausible scenes, most of the characters are wooden and simply poor actors. One exception is that Russian bad-guy leader that goes rogue... I can't remember his name offhand, but that guy had charisma.
The gameplay of Act of War takes absolutely no risks, meshing a beautiful graphics engine with gameplay roughly comparable to C&C Generals and C&C Red Alert 2. All the typical RTS fodder is abused here, from tech trees to unit veterancy (even in the same way as C&C with little military rank designators on the units) to base building and super weapons. It's all there, and it's all unchanged. If you loved Generals and similar games, you should be fine, but personally I grew tired of this formula long ago. Where the hell is the innovation guys? Oh, right, only Relic and Blizzard know how to innovate, everyone else just copies them. Your enjoyment of the single player campaign hinges a lot on how willing you are to put up with all the bullshit in the story and the cutscenes, and my bullshit tolerance level is quite, quite low.
The visuals are Act of War's strongest feature, with very detailed unit renderings, shadow effects, and detailed textures all around. The water looks sharp, too, but nothing compared to recent first person shooters like Halflife 2 or Far Cry. These visuals don't come at much of a performance hit, either – On my XP2100/1gb/6800NU rig I was able to play with everything maxed @ 1024x768 with great framerate all the way through. However, due to the nature of the engine and the way it loads things as you see/use them, expect to have stutter in the game whenever you build a structure the first time or move around the map, as it likes to 'undraw' areas you can't see, so when you go back often you will have a few second wait as the engine redraws the entire scene. Very bad news for people that like to monitor areas of the map every minute or two.
Multiplay isn't a whole lot better or worse than the single player campaign, but it is standard, typical, and takes no chances, exactly like the single player campaign, so while you know exactly what you are going to get, what you get is an experience you've had thousands of times before if you're remotely into RTS games. Build base, defend base, rush enemy, secure resources, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. The multiplayer aspect offers absolutely nothing new, unique, or original, but at least it doesn't lag, something that kept Generals from ever being enjoyed at LAN parties I attended. I found the super weapons and some specific units quite unbalanced, but I'm sure patches will rectify this with time.
Overall this isn't a big disappointment, because it delivers about what I expected. I was, however, hoping for at least a good single player campaign with a solid techno-thriller story to back it up, but Act of War could not even deliver that much. I've said it before, but I'm going to say it again and again until developers start listening: If you don't innovate, you'd better polish. Act of War is polished, but it's not polished enough to hide the bad acting, disjointed and unrealistic storytelling, and most of all, the complete lack of inspiration or innovation. America survives this onslaught, but only just.