Summary: Load up your rifle, get in your terradyne and get ready to pound some ground. The original RTS without a base comes back... with control points. So apparently there's a lot more controlling of ground in Ground Control II than the first game led us to believe. Tough, that's the life of a marine. Dying for a worthless chunk of rock, desert or ice. Oh, and forget your squad. You're alone now, maggot.
While generally getting positive reviews with the occasional glowing remark, Ground Control II simply doesn't impress here. It has removed just about every feature that made the original unique and substituted those with Standard RTS Design. Squads? Gone - get used to playing with single units… oh right, you already are used to it from every other RTS out there. Tough choices to make when choosing units for a mission's start? That's been taken out of your hands anyway. You'll get your units and you'll like them. Freedom from defending resource bases? That's been taken away and now you have to worry about control points.
Ground Control II commits every RTS sin ever. It hassles you with tedious bouts of micromanagement. Those units you left behind to protect a drop zone - well, the jeeps (AKA light terradynes) got blown up because the enemy wasn't in range of the infantry and the infantry didn't feel like helping their dying friends. Instead, they'd rather sit back, relax, get pummeled by enemy units which they won't attack in return because the enemy is too far to shoot at. GC2 likes to tout this feature as "dealing with the enemy on multiple fronts". I like to think of it as "defending arbitrarily selected control points to split the player's forces so as to increase the work involved in dealing with inadequate AI".
Half the time the enemy AI won't even make a real, honest grab for the control points. Rather, they'll sneak in some cheap, single unit and take possession while you're not looking. It's like those insipid situations in the Battlefield games where a lone pilot ejects way behind enemy lines and captures a flag all by himself. Sure, that turned the tide, but it's a cheap, abusive, annoying tactic. It forces players to have the boring task of babysitting otherwise worthless flag points. Unreal Tournament 2004 showed us a much better way of playing like this in its Onslaught mode - if you want a flag, you need the flags leading to it. Even real wars are fought like this.
Suspension of disbelief routinely flies out the window. In one of the earlier, better missions in the game, the player is sent off on a special task with a dozen infantry and some light terradynes - the most basic units in the game. Now, not to spoil anything, but it turns out that this piddling force of no more than 20 units apparently was the core of a defensive army. Don't get me wrong, I'm no military expert, but it strikes me that when the absence of a score of the most basic units in an army is cause for concern, it's time to import a French combat manual. Your war is finished.
Ground Control II has a lot of basics going for it. The terrain is not just beautiful but it's also useful. Buildings and trees provide cover for infantry and of course there are the natural advantages to higher ground. Units also have armor ratings, generally stronger up front, weaker on the sides and pathetic in the rear. All units have a second ability; light infantry switch from rifles to rocket launchers in order to take on mechanical units, the heavy tank will deploy itself as a mini-fortress with cover for other units, etc.
However, sometimes, these mode changes are unnecessary and forced on the player. The sniper is the perfect example - in order to shoot, he needs to have his mode switched. Since he can't move while in shooting mode, one would think the game could automatically switch him to shooting mode whenever he's not moving.
The second race, the Virons, are somewhat unique. They combine themselves to make different, usually better units. In the end though, they're really not all that dissimilar to the human units. There's still a heavy tank, a light tank, an artillery unit, etc. The differences between the two races are more like those between the Chinese and Americans in C&C Generals than between Terrans and Zerg in StarCraft.
The game's sounds are quite strong; the effects are crisp and clear. Units all have unique weapon sounds, acknowledgements and even movement effects. The only sound effect oddity we noticed is of infantry walking surprisingly loudly - almost like Imperial walkers. Where the sound falls flat is in the voice acting department. It's not particularly atrocious, but the mismatched accents and poor delivery by non-major characters can be jarring.
The interface is a real disappointment. The camera is completely under the player's control but requires constant adjustment through no fault of the player. It's easy to set up a good angle that would work on most of a map or at least the local battlefield, but the game loves resetting the camera to default position. Any time a gamer finds himself double-tapping a group key to select and move the camera to that group, the camera will change position. Also, should you happen to use the mini-map to move fast across the game world, you'll quickly learn (and learn to hate) the glitch that the game engine doesn't compensate for elevation differences when the camera is moved via the mini-map.
Multiplayer is done through (ugh) GameSpy Arcade or MassGate (which refused to work in our review copy, though we've heard no complaints about it) but is otherwise the most impressive aspect of the game. For starters, co-op missions are available. Any of the singleplayer missions can be done with a friend, and of course there is team vs team multiplayer - up to 8 people. Unfortunately only 10 maps are provided, though at least they are quite large and interesting.
As with singleplayer, the goal is to capture the control points to get acquisition points with which you buy units. This neatly does away with the traditional base building aspect of the RTS genre but in reality GC2 is still all about the economy. Since more APs are rewarded the more control points are owned, the initial part of the game is still a huge land grab. The number of units, which is quite small in singleplayer, can get overwhelming during multiplayer. Our 2GHz review machine with a 256MB 5950 Ultra ground to a halt during two particularly massive battles as what must have been well almost 200 units were slogging it out on one screen.
GC2 does strike a nice balance between the needs of economy and action, but the multi-front battles that develop can get very overwhelming. If anything, the game's action is too fast and hectic to be completely enjoyed. There's always a fight going on - your opponent sent in a small group to probe your defenses in one area, assaults another completely, and is constantly trying to air transport units in behind your lines. As with the singleplayer, we think that the multiplayer would work much better if the control points had a linked-node system similar to Onslaught in UT2K4. Not to eliminate multiple fronts, just to keep the action reasonable and prevent annoying gameplay tactics like contesting control points with a single unit, moments after a huge army left it.
On the other hand, the core gameplay mechanics are there. The units are nicely thought out, the idea of stronger armor up front and weaker at the sides and rear is long overdue in the genre and quite welcome. Infantry which is actually useful, capable of doing traditional infantry tasks - occupying buildings, taking cover in trees - is, again, a concept long overdue and quite welcome. Plus, we're very grateful for the ability to play the singleplayer missions in co-op mode. That alone makes up for the poor plot, though not the badly implemented control points.
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