Real Time Strategy games are definitely a niche genre and it's no surprise that the people who play them are smarter than you, as a general rule of thumb. Sure I don't even know you, but I'm pretty certain that I'm 100% correct. It only stands to reason that gamers who prefer tinkering with the minutia of battle - base building, micro-management, strategic warfare - are going to have a few more neurons snapping in their noggins compared to the guys who run around shooting out tires in Grand Theft Auto San Andreas and laughing hysterically each time they manage to hit one. Come on, you know I'm right.

I'm just teasing. For one, I'd consider you near genius material just for looking at this review. Do you think for a minute that the kids who are eagerly anticipating the next TMNT game, would even click on this link? Not even accidentally. Never. Too busy adjusting their droolcups.

Atari's Act Of War: Direct Action might just appeal to these most basic of gamers, as developer Eugen Systems has managed to create an action packed RTS that allows you to - almost - shoot first, build bases later. Act of War's single player game definitely falls within this description as newbies to the genre can jump into any mission right from the start without having to creep their way through a linear campaign frought with punishments everytime you make a slight error in judgement. And that alone will appeal to all fans of the genre.

The concept of Act of War is to teach players about the fundamental rules of engagement in this reality while still maintaining enough creative embellishments to make it interesting across the board. After you complete the game, you will have a far greater knowledge of modern battlefield tactics and it is fair to say you'll use this information to appear much more learned at your next social function if God forbid somebody mentions the war. You'll go on for hours (at least it will seem like that to your bored audience) as to why tanks must first rely on days of aircraft drops or on ground infantry sweeps of the area before arriving on the scene, why troops must always follow the regiment of fire, cover, movement, why helicopters don't just flank the areas with submachines... it's all very interesting, especially when Act of War teaches you the hard way. When you stroll your tank into enemy territory without first securing the area and some insurgent with a rocket launcher blows it up in one shot, you'll realize the error of your ways. Preconceived notions that you possessed going into Act of War in regards to battlefield strategies will likely be extremely different coming out of it. And in that sense, Act of War succeeds not only as a wonderful teacher but an entertaining and well produced product.

The storyline written by NY Times bestselling Dale Brown (Plan of Attack, Dreamland: Armageddon) is one that will hit close to home. Terrorists attack the streets of America and they aren't going home without a fight. The game progresses via cutscenes which clash tremendously with the overall quality of the ingame visuals and the well thought out gameplay. Advanced via television newscasts of the invasion, the production values are somewhat suspect that the intermission sequences border on "camp" which I doubt was the intention of Eugen. While this hiccup in presentation won't ruin the game for you, it won't inspire the fear and confusion that the developer was hoping for. Personally I enjoyed it on a tongue and cheek level, but I'm well aware that I like that sort of thing to begin with.

Gamers will love the insane level of detail that permeates every aspect of the game from the detailed cities to the explosions to the little things like trees and benches that are destroyed in the wake of war. Visually Eugen has set a high benchmark for future RTS games. Unlike most games in the genre that places the importance on the details of management and cuts corners in terms of graphical chutzpah, Act of War throws you into extremely detailed cities and renders the entire area at one time so there aren't load times each time you move sectors. As you fight all over the world you'll see familiar landmarks such as the White House, Buckingham Palace and the Golden Gate Bridge and of course the urban sprawl that surrounds them. Everything in the environments can be destroyed including the landmarks I just mentioned and this has an adverse affect on your battlefield strategy. As the landscape is altered you'll require other areas to bunker down. Hiding behind structures renders you invisible to the enemy as it would in reality, however once your hiding spot is destroyed you'll be attacked with a vengeance if you don't act swiftly.

The name of the game is money. Without money you won't be winning this war. Money is earned in a variety of surprising ways, some never before seen in an RTS game to date as to my knowledge. Downed enemies won't die but can be picked up as POWs if you're quick enough and sent to camps where they will magically start making bucks for the war campaign. Maybe they're making license plates... If wait too long to nab these nasty villains, their own troops will heal them and they'll live to see another die and perhaps the turn the battle in their favor - so it's best to get them off the street permanently. Other ways to earn cash is to drill for oil and take over banks. Yes, it suspends belief when you take over a US bank and get all of its money, since it's sort of "ours" to begin with, but take what you can get.

The multiplayer mode places much more emphasis on the building and strategic elements and less on all out action, which will be more familiar too the RTS purists in the audience. Therefore if you spend all your time playing the single player campaigns, be prepared for a huge learning curve once you decide to play online. Act of War also provides a single player Skirmish mode, which will have all but the most patient gamers pulling out there hair. After playing a few rounds and losing, almost instanteously, I'm pretty sure the A.I. is programmed to take some necessary shortcuts. I didn't spend a lot of time in Skirmish mode because I'm of the opinion that to win you'd need to find a magical exploit rather than relying on battle tactics. Another bonus is the easy to setup LAN game, which only requires one version of the game, a few PC's and the hardest piece of the puzzle - a few good friends to play it with. Hey, most of you gamers aren't labeled as the worlds most dangerous loners for nothing, you crazy buncha basement dwelling sociopaths. I mean that as a compliment, of course.

Act of War beautfiully bridges the gap between action and strategy and provides an all out assault of the senses thanks to the incredble level of visual detail, intuitive control and an aural symphony comprised of the sounds of destruction. Games like Act of War usually take a backseat to superhyped overblown titles like Doom 3 and that is a total injustice. Eugen Systems and Atari have succeeded in providing us with one of the first contenders for RTS of the year and as mentioned earlier, other developers are going to have to go big or go home to tackle it. I'm not merely recommending you play Act of War, I'm demanding it. That's an order soldier!


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System: PC
Dev: Eugen Systems
Pub: Atari
Release: Mar 2005
Players: 1 - 8
Review by Vaughn