Shall I compare thee to Starcraft? Thou art more lovely and arguably as much fun. Vivendi and Massive Entertainment have snuck a hit RTS right into the midst of the summer game drought, and this reviewer for one, could not be more elated. Ground Control II is a beautifully rendered, stylish, sci-fi strategy romp of the first order.
For those of you who love strategy games but loathe repetitive base-building and peasant-herding, Ground Control II offers a high-octane experience that allows you to focus almost entirely on tactical strategy. Blending gorgeous environments, a surprisingly well-crafted story and a good number of different units, each of which has a primary and secondary stance, Ground Control II succeeds in hooking the player from the very first campaign mission, and it never lets go.
Skirmishes, co-op and online multiplayer via Gamespy Arcade are all included, but it’s the campaign, split into two different factions, that really shines in Ground Control II. There are a few nicely crafted CG movies, excusing poor lip-synching, that kick-off and wrap up the campaigns. In addition, the bulk of the story is told through cutscenes using the game engine. The script and voice-acting are very good, and it caught this reviewer off guard. After playing so many Warcraft and Age knock-offs with their half-hearted attempts at stories, I had ceased to expect any significant story development from an RTS.
Ground Control II tells the story of the earth colony of Morningstar. Long independent, the evil, corporate empire of the mother world has reappeared with a sexy vixen at its head, and she wants Morningstar back. Morningstar’s resistance army, the NSA, has a bright young Captain named Jacob Angelus leading the struggle for survival. Along the way, you’ll meet all sorts of intriguing and distinctive characters, from the energetic young Sergeant Rho to the tough-as-nails Major Grant. Caught up in the middle of the conflict is a race of enigmatic aliens known as the Virons. Enslaved by the Imperium for use against the colonists, some of them have revolted and will fight at your side. Eventually, Angelus will lead an expedition of Virons in the second chapter of the campaign in a desperate attempt to secure safe transport for the colonists.
The NSA offers standard, futuristic warfare: light infantry, heavy infantry, tanks, aerial units, et al. The primary and secondary modes for each unit provide a very deep and versatile strategic approach for your missions. With an alien race comes a different dynamic and the Virons do not disappoint. Though their number of units is smaller than that of the NSA, Viron units of the same type can be melded into one high power unit. Add in the fact that all Viron units, melded and unmelded, also possess two modes of combat, and it’s possible that they offer an even deeper chest of strategic options.
No base building. Period. There is one resource in this game: AP, what amounts to experience or skills points that are accrued through success in battle. For the most part, successes are measured by securing and holding strategic points and landing zones. The latter are most crucial for they offer the only avenue from which you can obtain reinforcements. Spend your AP to call in the additional troops you need, and a dropship will soon appear at the LZ you have designated.
There’s also no tech tree, for the most part. You can upgrade the hit points or carrying capacity, among other things, of your dropship, but this reviewer did not find that these upgrades were necessary or essential to ones success. Beyond that, choosing the right combination of units to counter what you are meeting on the battlefield is the biggest decision you’ll have to make, and Ground Control II does an excellent job of spoon feeding you the newest units so that you have a chance to really check them out as you progress through the campaign.
It sounds like I’m writing a press release for this game, and one should question whether or not the dearth of quality games during the desert summer months has made an otherwise solid game seem like a real winner, but in this case, I can assure you that, besides a few annoying flaws, Ground Control II is the real deal.
As with so many RTSes, the biggest complaint I have is with the camera. You will spend as much time directing the camera as you will spend directing your troops. There is an option to lock the camera into a classic, isometric RTS view, but Ground Control II’s rich, tactically important environments made it necessary for me to take control of the camera.
Mission objectives, while covering the gambit of standard RTS fare: capture, defend, escort, are sometimes a little vague in the specifics. Also, the game tends to try to convey the objectives while you’re already knee-deep in the shit and trying to find a building, bunker or copse of trees in which to house your infantry.
All in all, these are minor irritations that do not detract at all from the addictive game play. Stagger groups of infantry and leapfrog from building to building as you approach an enemy LZ in a ruined cityscape, while your armored group rolls slowly up the middle, and you’ll feel the rush. Hurl wave after wave of Virons at a heavily defended Imperial ion cannon, and you’ll appreciate the quality of the animations present, from the exploding tanks to the exploding bodies of infantry.
Ground Control II is one of the best Real-time strategy games that I have played this year. Though it does not resemble it in any way, it’s the best since Rise of Nations, and it’s the most entertaining, adrenal gland-blasting strategy game I’ve played since Starcraft. If you’re looking for a fix to ease your summer game Jones, this is it right here.
For once, in the great pool of video game pabulum and platitudes, I feel refreshed and invigorated, like I’ve had a tofu bath and an apple juice colonic amidst steaming rubble, dark skies, and the charred remains of RTS foot soldiers. Massive Entertainment has followed up on their original GC (released four years ago) with the suitably named sequel, Ground Control II, and the results go beyond mere progression. This iteration of the GC universe seems to have found a unique personal style in gameplay, and it shines in almost every corner.
Story-wise, we’re looking at approximately 300 years of chronological separation from GCI to GCII (excepting the Dark Conspiracies expansion for GCI), which is the difference in between a population in the process of enterprising, and worlds in the process of entropy. Ground Control II focuses more on chaotic breakdown and divisive conflicts, specifically related to one critical planet called Morningstar Prime. The dictatorial Terran Empire has focused its energies on conquering this pivotal fringe planet in order to gain a key foothold in bringing the rest of humanity under its regime. The planet’s struggling alliance, titled NSA, must battle against the Terrans, as well as a race of enslaved aliens, called the Viron. You are in charge of the troops under a young buck captain, named Jacob Angelus, an Aussie renegade with a knack for military leadership.
It’s the usual “Humanity’s In Trouble” premise, but it works extremely well here, as it does in almost all Sci-Fi RTSes. The cast of characters might even be archetypically derivative – a fresh, phenom officer and his plot-important love interest; the balding, remote General with the essential stogie cigar; the career commander complete with bushy eyebrows, mustache, and bitter, blindsided resentment – but they’re voiced so well, they move right along with the story. The only thing that would have brought more life to them would have been field presence as Hero units, but as it is, they’re relegated to sideline narratives.
On the battlefield, the player is treated to a nice break in the frantic upgrading/building/producing paradigm that clutches at the RTS genre with harpy’s claws. Instead of obsessing about unit production and enhancement, there are landing zones (LZ’s) that mimic the functions of a spawn point in your favorite FPS. As long as you own an LZ, acquired by standing land units on a glowing marker (air units don’t count), you can call on your drop ship to deliver units that you loaded up before deploying it. Amassing uncountable howitzer legions (my ever-present modus operandi) is restricted by the usage of “AP”, which acts as a sort of currency for the units you want, each with their own price. AP accumulates slowly by itself, depending on how many units you already have in possession, and bigger chunks of AP are awarded for enemy unit kills. If you play your cards right, you can hang on to your strong squadron, produce more units, and pose huge losses to the enemy.
Keeping your troops in good shape is encouraged by enhancing the rank of each individual in exchange for the kills they’ve exacted, which in turn increases the damage they do, their accuracy in firing, etc. It’s a nice little nod to the nearly non-existent upgrading in GCII, and is rewarding enough that you’ll always want to have some sort of reparatory vehicle on the field. The longer they last and the more they destroy, the stronger they’ll get.
Each and every unit in GCII, which follow military templates for the NSA campaign and more imaginative but familiar designs for the contiguous Viron missions, has a primary and a secondary ability, neither of which is too wacky to remember in the heat of the moment. Infantry switches up between gun fire and anti-armor at the click of an icon. Tanks, vice versa. Anti-aircraft launchers double as missile defense systems. The Viron missions deepen the well of possibilities with their Meld capability, merging two like units together to create a stronger, related unit type. It’s not that difficult to keep track of what a unit can double as, and taking advantage of those abilities is a snap.
I have to say that the simplicity of the gameplay and the smaller number of unit types (compared to some RTSes) is deceptively thin. Anyone who’s played a Blizzard game will know what I’m talking about; death by depth - the inundation of details that, while well laid out, are still numerous enough to be an involved activity in and of themselves. Ground Control II doesn’t pander to a myriad of tiny details. It focuses on skilled usage of the units you have, an awareness of the units you must counter, the terrain advantages and limitations, and the LZs you have within your possession. GCII’s biggest charm is that it doesn’t do any more than it already has to in order to be entertaining. A very tricky balance, to be sure.
Your sensory functions certainly won’t be left without a hearty meal. Visuals in the third dimension, along with well articulated infantry and vehicle models create a satisfying battlefield presence. I must add that I have a soft spot in my heart for splurting, explosive foot soldier dismemberment, and GCII serves those up on silver platters. Landscapes are colorful, and make excellent usage of obstacles, path limitations, and easily defined elevations. Ground Control II utilizes forests better than I’ve seen them in most combat games. Foot soldiers are the only ones allowed within the confines of the tree line, and the defensive bonus they attain in their shrouded lair can mean the difference between instant death and becoming a formidable match for heavy armor vehicles. Battles play out with the weight they deserve, and are a strangely vilifying pleasure to watch.
Voice work throughout is masterful. Identifying the characters by voice is a cinch. All the usual environmental sounds do their job, and the music bops back and forth from orchestral to pounding guitar rock, depending on the mission. No complaints here – soaring melodies and boom-box machismo are what war is made of. The only quirk I noted was my over-reactive units that were “surrounded” as soon as a singular enemy appeared, or cried out in exaggerated alarm any time one bullet hit their flank. It got to the point that I was starting to dismiss my soldiers’ warnings in an effort to maintain a focus on more pressing matters.
Next on the list: niggling factors of woe. Damn the camera. If the camera hadn’t been as unruly and unforgiving as a weasel on meth, GCII would have topped out in the high 9’s. Repositioning the camera is twitchy, and getting it to stay at an established elevation is impossible. I’m sure this is practical on paper, but try keeping track of your forces crossing a bridge as the camera slowly sinks into the ravine you’re hovering over, and the action drops out of sight. One could get used to making the constant adjustments needed, but it detracts from the game, and that’s a problem. Part of reacting to a real-time situation is being able to see the real-time action.
Massive Entertainment should be very proud of themselves. They’ve managed to take a successful, entertaining pseudo-franchise and change just enough things to make the next-in-the-series even better. GCI’s more tactical structure is traded up for full-on real-time action in GCII, and it works beautifully. Breaking up the action with the NSA and Viron campaigns keeps the strategizing fresh, while the interface is the baby-butt smooth foundation on which the gameplay is built, ensuring pit-staining fun whether in the solitude of single-player or the frantic mayhem of multiplayer.
This is an RTS built for the masses. Gamers new to the genre can really experience the thrill of great clashes without being overwhelmed with crucial details. An accelerated difficulty in each campaign makes sure that later missions challenge the resourcefulness of the player, whether they’re just learning the ropes or are hardened RTS veterans. This is, without a doubt, a brilliant stroke of entertainment, and I would not hesitate to recommend it to everyone willing to talk to me about video games.