Act of War: Direct Action

David Yun David Yun: (contact-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2008-02-07 05:36:38

Act of War: Direct Action - Rank B

Developer: Eugen Systems
Publisher: Atari
Date: 3/15/05

Minimum Specs:
Pentium 4 1.5 GHz
256 MB RAM
64 MB Hardware T&L compatible video card
DirectX 9 compatible sound card
6 GB hard drive space
Broadband Internet connection for online play

Recommended Specs:
Pentium 4 2.2 GHz
512 MB RAM
128 MB Hardware T&L compatible video card

Act of War: Direct Action is a traditional RTS that flew under everyone's radar, but deserved more attention. Imagine taking Command and Conquer and replacing its G.I. Joe-style sensibilities with a Tom Clancyish aesthetic. Act of War combines this techno-thriller flavor with proven RTS elements and stylish presentation, and subtly pushes the final package toward a faster paced tactical style of play.

The single player campaign is quite good, easing you into the basics and gradually stressing you with multi-layered complexity once you grasp the fundamental concepts and control scheme. It presents a passable story fueled by post-9/11 oil/terrorist/conspiracy paranoia, pushed along between missions by -get this- live action cut scenes. They're totally cheesy (I doubt any of the actors are SAG members), but they sport surprisingly high production values, and the poorly acted melodrama actually works in a "so bad it's good" kind of way.

Act of War features three factions. The U.S. Army is a balanced force, capable in all areas, but lacking any particular specialties, and takes some time to really get rolling. Task Force Talon is a high-tech, covert organization with a fast strike personality that fields expensive units like elite commandos, unmanned drones, and multi-role power armor infantry. The Consortium bad guys are accessible only outside of the campaign mode, and rely on cheap waves of cannon fodder to survive until its tech tree can deliver devastating endgame units.

I generally dislike the "strategy" portion of RTS games. It usually breaks down to sending your peons to dig up resources, memorizing the optimal build order, and then unleashing your forces in an unorganized horde. I much prefer "tactical" elements that require you to assess fluid situations and make the appropriate command decisions. Act of War is an evolutionary step in the right direction - there's only one resource: money. You earn funds by building oil derricks, seizing a bank, or capturing enemy soldiers. There's no feeling worse than realizing that your soldiers have surrendered and are now P.O.W.s generating income for the enemy. This encourages you to counterattack and send in some Blackhawk choppers to medevac your wounded.

I also appreciate the fact that infantry remains indispensable throughout the game. You need them to storm and hold buildings (the aforementioned banks), and recognizing vital choke points to place ambushes is immensely satisfying. A squad of heavy infantry pouring rocket fire from windows can turn an armored column into a heap of smoldering wreckage in short order. This harsh and realistic rock/paper/scissor match-up extends through all of the units. Armor annihilates light infantry which shoots down aircraft which busts up heavy infantry and back around again. You can't send out a fleet of Abrams or Apaches without the appropriate infantry support. We've seen hints of these balanced mechanics before, but too many RTS games feature overpowered units that achieve victory alone if in sufficient numbers. Act of War particularly stresses the need for proper use of combined arms. These are just a couple of examples of how Act of War emphasizes tactical action over the minutia of maintaining your peasantry's work detail.

Act of War also has a great visual design. The campaign has you securing beautifully dense urban settings: San Francisco and Washington D.C. with all of their key landmarks. There's a wide array of authentic units from commandos and snipers, humvees and artillery, attack choppers and unmanned drones, and cruise missiles and defense systems. They all have a good military geek feel to them, and Act of War feels like moving hyper-realistic little army toys around. The graphics are great, with crumbling buildings, satisfying explosions, and an attention to little details like lampposts and small trees falling as tanks roll over them.

Act of War isn't an innovative breakthrough by any stretch. If you've played any RTS before, you'll find yourself right at home. The age old RTS gripes abound: weird pathfinding (units sometimes take strange circuitous routes to their destination), wonky enemy A.I. (their assaults sometimes make no strategic sense), and clumsy troop transportation (disembarking infantry from choppers or APCs could be smoother). What I do appreciate about Act of War is that it's a well-polished refinement of the genre. It offers a unique experience, from its subject matter to its style of gameplay, particularly in multiplayer (up to 8 people).

Note: If you love this game and must have more, an expansion pack entitled High Treason, featuring mercenaries and naval units was released to little fanfare. Unfortunately, those awesomely bad live action cut scenes are absent.

[Edit: Act of War is now available on Steam.]

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