(Note: This is a look at how Act of War holds up, rather than a review. The campaigns are the best way to go about doing this as they give a very reliable view of how each faction plays out as well as an overall impression of the games themselves. The only exception is the Consortium since they cannot be played in the campaign, so single player battles were necessary. As such, there is no commentary on the multiplayer.)
It has been over ten years since Act of War Direct Action first launched in 2005. It quickly became my favorite RTS at the time. I always had a fondness for military history and technology, so Act of War fit the bill perfectly. It combined an intriguing plot, great gameplay, and (at the time) gorgeous visuals along with a fantastic soundtrack. A years later in 2006, a sequel, High Treason, was released. I do not remember High Treason quite so fondly as the original, but still, I remember it being fun enough.
Unfortunately, the games were not a big commercial success at the time. To make matters worse, the game was not well optimized for future systems, as it has a 3 GB RAM limit that basically spelled the death knell for the franchise.
Fortunately though, GoG.com has managed to bring Act of War Gold Edition up to modern standards and a new generation of gamers can experience one of the best RTS of the last ten years.
So how does Act of War hold up? Very well.
Beginning with Direct Action, the plot is still an intriguing, if admittedly cheesy affair. Set in the near future, it tells the story of the American officer Jason Richter as he battles a mysterious opponent who is terrorizing the West. The combination of live action and in-game cinematics harkens back to Command and Conquer, and does an effective job of pushing the plot forward. It certainly is ambitious to dedicate such audiovisual resources to an RTS. The writing varies from very good to downright cheesy, but it does keep you engaged. What starts off as a regular capture of a Muslim terrorist leader in Libya, quickly evolves into street fighting in Western cities and ultimately high scale engagements in the Middle East and Russia. Each mission is a carefully crafted engagement that slowly introduces the player to new units and tactics while also keeping the immersion intact.
What is good about the writing is how it syncs with the factions you play with. When a mission calls for precision and agility, you will helm Task Force Talon. Equipped with futuristic weaponry and powerful, but expensive, units, the plot does a great job of utilizing their versatile capabilities, especially early on when the full force of the United States Army is unavailable.
When the U.S. Army does come into play, you will find it to be a sledgehammer against nails. From powerful M1A2 Abrams tanks to B-2 bombers, there is no force that can match the power of the U.S. Army. They rely on specialized units, which makes them the most powerful conventional force in the game. The downside is that the specialization means they are not particularly versatile though, and you will find yourself having to micromanage a mixed set of units compared to the other factions. The plot does a good job of limiting the U.S. Army's potential till the end when its full force is unleashed, and it is quite a spectacle.
The faction you are up against, The Consortium, is also well written into the game. A faction of mercenaries, religious extremists, and stolen U.S. technology, it relies on massing cheap units early on to either overwhelm or distract the opposition long enough for its more advanced and secretive technologies to come to light. The faction flows very well with the plot as what seems to be a bunch of rag tag amateurs and professionals attacking you is actually something much more dangerous.
While campaigns in RTS (along with FPS) are often thought of as just tutorials for multiplayer, Direct Action’s campaign, while not being an exception to that, helps to bring sense and explanation to the various factions. The campaign itself on standard difficulty is a pretty easy affair, but even then, rush too fast or push too far in, and you will find yourself cutoff and ultimately destroyed.
Act of War’s gameplay is still a lot of fun and even somewhat innovative, despite leaps made by games like Dawn of War 2 and Company of Heroes. Urban combat is still one of the game’s biggest strengths. Fighting building to building is one of the most thrilling engagements, and even vital as certain buildings will offer money if you occupy them. Depending on the building, be it position or worth, engagements become reminiscent of Pavlov’s house with both sides trying to take the structure. Buildings can hold out for a long time, especially with the right troop mixture, and can seriously slow and even annoy the opponent, denying him valuable resources or maneuvering room.
Another interesting mechanic is the prisoner of war. In battles, unarmed or wounded units can be taken prisoner by infantry. They generate a cash bonus upon capture, and if you have a prison, a recurring cash bonus. You can also give up a prisoner of war in exchange for revealing a portion of the battlefield. Thus how you handle your infantry is vital, and throwing them recklessly can essentially hand your opponent an economic and military edge.
Air Power is also something that must be commended. Whereas games like Command and Conquer Generals (whose influence is obvious here) had units who were under your direct control, Act of War tries something different. Rather, you launch aircraft to designated locations and they (if applicable) will fire at least half their payload along the way. This helps to take away some of the micromanagement, but it can lead to difficulties if your opponent had anti-aircraft units along the way to your target destination.
Not everything with the gameplay works though. I was surprised to find that the pathfinding is actually pretty awful, especially with vehicles. Some instances it is reminiscent of Force Commander’s infamous rotating AT-AT. It can be pretty frustrating trying to get your units to move out of the way when an artillery strike is bearing down on them and you lose vital units because your vehicles do not know how to go around even your infantry and just spin. This is especially aggravating in urban or tight environments in general. Though those instances would make vehicular travel sensibly difficult, spinning is just silly.
Visually it is still a good looking game, with great explosion effects. Unfortunately the game’s resolution will only go up to 1360 x 1024. Audio-wise, it is top-notch with fantastic sound effects and a phenomenal soundtrack. A rather eerie effect is the sound of trees and cars being run over in the fog of war, which tells you that your opponent is coming and is bringing some heavy vehicles, and not knowing what they are, makes it scary.
Overall, I found myself still satisfied with Direct Action even after years of other RTS games since I stopped playing it.
High Treason though…phew!
The best I can describe High Treason is… overwhelming. From the plot to the gameplay, to even the options, the ante has been upped, but not all for the good. I fully remember now why I had issues with it.
The plot is certainly much more dynamic than in Direct Action. From the get go, the stakes could not be higher with threatened senators and a ‘high-level’ assassination. High Treason pulls no punches in a plotline that rivals Hollywood movies in terms of tension and intrigue. The writing itself is certainly better than in Direct Action and less cheesy. The voice actors are obviously different, but prove to be better than those in the original. Some of their banter is quite enjoyable. Unfortunately, the live-action cinematics are no where to be found.
Mission design is also much more varied. Stealth missions with singular units, ship battles while island hopping, combat on the top of buildings... the list goes on and is certainly a change of pace from Direct Action.
What is not acceptable however is the sheer difficulty of High Treason. Even on standard, many levels are overwhelming in terms of both macro and micro concerns. The enemy just seems to have an infinite supply of money and will continually send hoards of units at you from many directions. It is exhausting just pumping out units to counter attacks that just grind your forces down and leads to a frustrating war of attrition that you lose more often than not. Those stealth missions I mentioned are even worse. I hate stealth enough as it is, but RTS and stealth really do not go together, especially with how Act of War is designed. Much frustration was had.
Thankfully, you can just skip over sections of or whole missions with chapter selection. Unfortunately, it means missing out on chunks of the plot.
Gameplay-wise, a number of improvements and additions stuck out.
The 1st major addition is mercenaries. Once you can access a mercenary outpost, you can purchase various mercenary units from close combat shotgun infantry to an F-117 Nighthawk. They come in handy once accessible but are an expensive lot, and you will quickly find you coffers dwindle as they have an upkeep fee on top of a hefty initial price.
The 2nd major addition is ships. Now you can manufacture different types of ships, from aircraft carriers to submarines, adding the naval dimension to combat. Their style of play is chaotic to say the least with missiles flying, counter-battery firing, and aircraft whizzing by, yet it manages to be fun when it works. Bombing an island's defenses with ship cannons and aircraft before landing troops on the beach really brings out the military tactician in you. Unfortunately, ship pathfinding is practically non-existent and can get really, really frustrating as your ships will not even respond to your orders at times.
Improvements include additional rank levels for units, and changes in how aircraft and airstrikes are managed, as well as changes to artillery units in terms of the ranges and effect. Another helpful improvement is how healing and repairs are done. Previously, you would have to select the individual unit, but now an interface option on your HUD allows you to select the area and the available unit will travel and heal that area.
There are also new units and changes to existing units. For instance, Task Force Talon gets a new stationary machine gunner that can switch between anti-infantry and anti-tank rounds. The U.S. Army has a unit that can function in three different forms: Cloaking, EMP, and Damage Enhancement for surrounding units. The Consortium has a fast moving sniper vehicle. There are other additions to each faction, which all function to bolster 'weaknesses' within each faction. If I had one complaint about all of this, it is that in addition to mercenaries, suddenly the factions blend more than contrast. In a sense, it was the GLA 'problem' in Command and Conquer Generals where they did not have an airforce as opposed to the Chinese and USA. While player concerns were valid to a point, it kept the uniqueness of the GLA and thus forced players to play them differently rather than conventionally. With all of these new units, suddenly the three factions get a little bit less unique, but the new units certainly do help and are quite fun.
Visually, Act of War looks better than ever as the resolution has been unlocked and the addition of shaders increases the graphical fidelity markedly. The audio in High Treason continues to impress as the soundtrack is much more bombastic and driving.
Unfortunately though, High Treason does have a game breaking bug. During missions involving ship combat, I repeatedly came across an audio bug that eventually cut the sound out and I had to restart the game in order for the audio to return. Despite my grievances with ship combat, it can be fun, but having to consistently restart the game during my time with it left a sour taste in my mouth. Direct Action had virtually no problems, and I feel that High Treason did not get the same level of quality and assurance.
So revisiting the two games, I can comfortably make the judgement that Direct Action is my preferred choice. By most accounts, High Treason is the better game. The plot and writing are better, the gameplay has several improvements and helpful additions, and the audiovisual presentation is also a step up. Unfortunately, High Treason is overwhelming and feels rushed. Direct Action feels like the more comfortable and better handled game.
However, both games stand as great examples of high quality military real time strategy games. At $9.99 at GoG.com, Act of War Gold Edition is practically a steal. My highest recommendation to them. Definitely looking forward to Act of Aggression which is set to launch later this year.
So have you played Act of War? Does it still hold up to you? Are you looking forward to Act of Aggression? Sound off in the comments below.