Joint Task Force Review

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Graphics: 9.0
Sound : 8.0
Gameplay : 7.0
Multiplayer : 6.0
Overall : 7.5
Review by Clarke Read
This past year was considered one of the best in memory in the Real-Time Strategy (RTS) genre. From the excellent Company of Heroes to the innovative Spellforce 2, RTS games were here both in quantity and quality. As the genre became more crowded than it was before, more and more games decided to just use a single gimmick or trick to sell their product; other than this small detail, many games could all be seen as basically the same thing.

Joint Task Force tries to stand out from this crowd by playing differently - even on a fundamental level - than almost any other RTS out there. JTF is a "tactical" RTS - no base building, just using the units you are given or bring in. While this has been done before, rarely has it been done in such a harsh and uncompromising way as it is here. Combine this with a unique modern setting and an extreme focus on realism and you get a game that truly shines in some areas, but is brought down by some inexcusable flaws.

Like other tactical RTS's, JTF gives you a few units at the start of a mission, then allows you some reinforcements of your choosing later. The emphasis isn't on creating a "war machine" to pump out hordes of powerful units; instead, shrewd use of the limited resources you are given is necessary. Knowledge of the battlefield and its terrain are vital, and recon and intelligence are extremely useful. Basically, instead of creating a hammer of units as in Warcraft, JTF forces you to use a needle.

The tools at your disposal range from infantry units to tanks, choppers, and repair stations, and a few things in between. Every unit is very good at one or a few things, but has at least one critical weakness. This gives the game a very strong rock-paper-scissors dynamic that is the major deciding factor in most of the combat.

Infantry units can be given equipment, and these attachments drastically increase their capabilities. A ranger can usually only damage other infantry. Equip him with an anti-tank launcher and use it at the right time, and suddenly he can destroy a Humvee, or even a tank with some help. These equipments include grenades and grenade launchers, C4, mines, anti-air missiles, and even night-vision goggles for fighting in adverse conditions. Each weapon has a very limited amount of ammo, but they are devastatingly effective if used correctly.

These equipments create an interesting balance between infantry and vehicles. While any given infantry unit will have much less health and armor than a vehicle, if they are equipped correctly, they can do nearly as much damage. This allows an intelligently designed mixture of infantry and vehicle units to be just as effective, but much cheaper than, an entirely vehicular force.

All vehicles in the game require infantry units to staff them or run any accessory functions. For example, if a tank has 2 turrets, it requires 3 infantry to run fully; one to drive, and one for each turret. In combat, a fully staffed tank is a thing to be feared. Due to the extreme fragility of infantry in the face of a machinegun, these vehicles are also useful simply for the protection they provide. Even weaponless APC's will be a welcome sight, if only for this purpose.

All these factors combine to create an infantry-vehicle balance as good as anything since Act of War. A pure-vehicle strategy can be successful, but the smart use of infantry, along with vehicles to complement them, can achieve the same results for a significantly reduced cost. This is a very refreshing mechanic that adds a huge amount of depth and uniqueness to the game's strategic model.

Because of the above-mentioned fragility of units, skirmishes take seconds, not minutes. A battle between two medium-sized forces is over in a flash - Infantry are cut down by machineguns, but not before firing off anti-tank missiles…suddenly, the Humvees have all been blown up and only the few infantry that went prone remain. Another volley of tank fire and explosions rip through the air again, sending bodies flying and metal shards spinning. In 10 seconds, only one smoking tank remains.

This type of battle can be very frustrating, as a brilliantly planned strategy can be torn to shreds in an instant if the wrong infantryman or vehicle is killed at the wrong time. With the pause button at hand, the game becomes a methodical chess match, placing pieces correctly to set up for the big battle. If everything works correctly, a smaller, well-planted force can beat a larger one with minimal losses - this makes the game, at times, very satisfying. Expect to become very familiar with the "load" button, however, for when things inevitably go wrong (and go wrong again, and again, and again...). And note the word "methodical" - planning for this game can take a very long time, and some missions become very drawn out because of it.
Possibly the most interesting mechanic for this type of game is the inclusion of hero units. During battle, units gain experience from healing other units, killing enemies, and otherwise helping the cause. If a unit gains enough experience, it will level up, and will be able to spawn in the next mission as a hero. By being a hero, the unit gains significantly increased health and combat effectiveness and, if it gains enough experience to level up again, gains access to a skill tree to further increase its abilities.

This skill tree mechanic is a very intriguing twist that truly changes the gameplay. By allotting skill points down a certain chain of abilities, a ranger can become a leader who gives bonuses to his men, or a driver can turn any tank he is in into an even more lethal weapon than it was before. The range of skills allows a character to fit into nearly any role you want him to within his class, and this RPG-style development is very compelling. It's great to be able to watch a trained marksman take out an entire group of guerrilas, or watch as an ace in the skies devastates a batch of helicopters. Getting these men to level up without dying is a pain, but using them is a blast.

The resource model, by design, greatly restricts the amount of units you can use. You are given a small number of units at the beginning of each mission and a few hundred thousand dollars with which you can purchase reinforcements. When an objective is reached, more money is granted. Usually, these funds don't add up to much - an extra tank, or a few well-equipped infantry are all that are granted per objective. As such, choosing which units to get is vital - while a tank or 6 anti-tank-launcher-toting infantry both cost approximately the same amount, a tank will stomp through most infantry forces, while the infantry would be better equipped against a single or a few enemy vehicles.

When this works correctly, it is a beautiful system. Get intelligence on the enemy near your next objective with a satellite scan or a Predator surveillance drone, and then devise the perfect way to counter these units. Wait for the reinforcements to drop in, set them up, and pounce. When you pick the correct units, it is a cool and satisfying system that really makes you feel like a successful general.

In reality, this reinforcement method just becomes trial and error. Too often enemy units are placed in illogical or unusual areas, or are simply invisible to satellite scans. An intelligently created force goes up in flames when an unseen tank crashes the party. If you fight these guys again, though, the same units will always appear in the same places at the same time - the enemy's only reinforcements are scripted sequences. If something messes up, load a previous save, change your force to suit the exact enemy you know will be there, and win the fight the second time. This always seems like exploiting the game, but given the uncompromising nature of combat, it is often the only way to win.

The big gimmick of JTF was supposed to be its media aspect - the media is constantly watching you and filming your actions. Based on how well you fight and how little destruction you cause when in front of a camera lens, a small media bar will increase or decrease. This correlates to the amount of money you get at each objective - earn the support of the homefront, and the money pours your way, while acting heartlessly will leave you with empty pockets.

This potentially compelling aspect ends up feeling contrived. Every encounter with the media either has your media-rating move for an extremely obscure or a painfully obvious reason. Either you have a choice whether or not to save a few stranded orphans (which you obviously should do) or you get a sudden news report about what you should have done, but had no idea to do at the time. Overall, it's an easy aspect to forget, but it adds a semi-interesting edge to the game.

Similarly, the story is compelling, but forgettable. While you are hearing and seeing it, either through the commander's earpiece or in nicely done prerendered cinematics, it will evoke the same emotions about the war that the U.S.'s current war does. I was very pleased to find myself cursing some things and cheering for others, then being able to link them to instances in the current Iraqi conflict. The story as a whole, however, is nothing worth remembering.

It does take a while to get through, though. The game has 20 missions, and these missions can take upwards of 2 hours each, including retries. These maps start off big, and only get larger as more objectives get added. If you really enjoy the game, it'll be a while before you run out of campaign…for most people, however, it will drag on far too long, and they'll give up early.

At times, the skirmish/multiplayer mode feels almost like a completely different game. Here, the cash flows freely as you try to capture command points. Instead of the calculated, 5-on-5 conflicts of the campaign, sides can regularly have huge numbers of units. At times, it's possible to have more money than you know what to do with. The core strategy is still pretty good, and the excellent vehicle-infantry balance is still very visible. Also, a couple interesting modes, such as one that slowly deletes parts of the map, or another that destroys all vehicles after a certain amount of time, make this skirmish mode much more fully-featured and, at least in the short term, at least as fun as many of its competitors. The lack of the pause button takes most of the precision out of combat, though, and makes it a fair amount less strategic and much more traditional-feeling.

Like Company of Heroes, JTF is really bolstered by its presentation. Every unit is officially licensed by Lockheed, Boeing, or whoever its creator was. As a result, the units are all extremely detailed and look great, both stationary and in motion. Tanks kick up dust, Humvees bounce over any terrain, and rangers glance at rooftops nervously. It all looks very convincing and authentic. The landcapes are fairly pedestrian in design, but very clean and well done technically. Most impressively, all of this holds up under close examination, even on a midrange PC.

As one would expect from the developers' Codename Panzers pedigree, the explosions and unit deaths are the real stars of the show. When a unit dies, it doesn't just crumble away - even Humvees explode in a brilliant fireworks display of metal, glass, and flame. AT Missile tracers streak across the battlefield, tanks boom and rock as they fire, and Havok physics send dead infantry flying into the air when they die. Even the environments crumble nicely, with buildings falling dynamically under a hail of gunfire and trees, fences, and walls collapsing under the mighty treads of a tank. All in all, the chaos of war is a spectacular sight in JTF. While it still doesn't compete with the very best in the business, it will undoubtedly elicit a few malicious grins.

The sound is similarly impressive. The din of war is very immersive and convincing, as the individual units fighting can be picked out simply by the sounds of the weapons. Voice acting is not horrible - except for a few ridiculous stereotypes slapped on some units - but still not good. Luckily, you'll be hearing bullets much more than blabbing, and for this, the sound is more than sufficient.

If everything here worked as well as it should have, this would be a very compelling game. A few inexcusable problems and glitches, however, prevent this game from reaching the heights it should have.

The unit pathfinding is the main culprit. There were more than a few times I called some tanks in to help an attack, only to find them 2 minutes away, doing circles around a building or getting themselves stuck on a cliff face. In most games, this is a problem, but in the fast-paced world of Joint Task Force, it is even more so - it will cost many a man and create tons of frustration.

Mostly, the game is really a victim of its own ideas. Some will relish the brutally uncompromising nature of this game - one slip can end the life of your units. For the vast majority of gamers, though, the game will simply be an exercise in frustration. Plans that took half an hour to make can go up in flames in 5 seconds. While this is realistic, it‘ll have you gritting your teeth and cursing the game. Couple this with long loading times and it may take hours to make a significant amount of progress.

This makes JTF almost the Rainbow Six of RTS games - some will find a great deal of enjoyment in its complexity, depth, and many strategic options. While it can't even do this correctly 100% of the time, it does accomplish this goal fairly well. For the general public, however, this is not a game I would consider "fun".

The enjoyment in Joint Task Force does not come out of adrenaline-laced combat or any sort of quick thrills; instead, it comes from the satisfaction of seeing a well-laid strategy work. It is a hard pill to swallow for most, as its flaws keep it from seriously competing with the big-name titles. If you are looking for something that tries to be different and, for the most part, succeeds, or you want more "strategy" in your real time strategy, Joint Task Force is worth a definite look.