Some say that Real Time Strategy is a dying genre, but Eugen Systems are having none of it. After shifting a million copies of Wargame, the passionate PC studio plans to bring the RTS back to its roots.
Act Of Aggression may be the spiritual successor to 2005's Act Of War, but judging by what Eugen co-founder Alexis Le Dressay showed me at Gamescom 2014, it's also set to be a spiritual revival of the classic fast-paced, over-the-top and brutal RTS action we once adored in the Command & Conquer days.
Set in the 2020s, Act Of Aggression sees three factions fighting over real-world locations in the strategic equivalent of a Clancy-esque techno thriller. The US' conventional military might faces off against the shadowy Cartel: a high-tech criminal syndicate who tacitly fund a vast number of PMCs, bringing sleek and futuristic tech to the table. Like the Brotherhood of NOD, perhaps, only eschewing religion for big business and bigger tanks. Finally, the United Nations rely on the Chimera; a hardbitten Private Military contractor empowered to act on their behalf.
The stage is set for epic showdowns on asymmetrical maps, with the time-honoured gameplay pillars of resource collection, base-building, tech trees and high-octane combat between dozens of powerful units and aircraft. However, despite its old-school pretensions, Act Of Aggression is loaded with cutting-edge new features that make real strategy the key to victory.
Gameplay flow will be familiar to any old-school RTS fan. You'll start out with a modular base and a handful of units, at which point you'll need to explore the terrain in search of three key resources: aluminium, petrol and hard earth elements. This often used to involve memorising the maps and rushing straight for the nearest cache of resources before your opponent, but placement is now semi-randomised, meaning that you'll have to genuinely explore to secure your war chest and potentially encounter your enemies doing the same, resulting in some fierce and unpredictable early-game skirmishes.
Base-building and construction is heavily automated, meaning that we won't need to sweat the small stuff. Once you order a new building (an extractor, power plant, turret or somesuch), your base automatically deploys a builder unit that intelligently pathfinds its way over to the construction site. Supply lines are set up in a similar way, as transport vehicles then ferry your goods back home, while ammo trucks can automatically resupply artillery units in the field with the click of a button. Each faction has different builders and transporters (the US, our faction in the gameplay demo, fields relatively slow yet beefy logistic vehicles), which you'll naturally need to defend to avoid foes attacking your vulnerable supply chain.
Not only are transport trucks physically represented in the game, but so are the resources themselves, appearing as enormous stockpiles and shipping crates back at base. Bolting on new modules and upgrades is a breeze, as each base is surrounded by square grids that show where you can place a new building. As such, bases actually resemble functional, realistically laid-out military facilities as opposed to haphazard collections of disparate buildings scattered across the area.
Let's face it, though, sooner or later we'll want to create an enormous army and turn our opponent's base into burning rubble, Act Of Aggression features more than 70 units with 100 upgrades, accessible via a tech tree, which allow you to create a flexible and versatile task force by carefully choosing which weapons to equip and in what sort of proportions. As an example, Le Dressay demonstrated that the basic US Humvee unit has half-a-dozen different turret options, one of which is a powerful TOW missile capable of punching holes in armoured targets. However, these missiles (and other similar projectiles) are physically represented and can be shot out of the air by Humvees equipped with gatling guns, creating an effective defensive perimeter.
It's the classic rock-paper-scissors approach that has served many an RTS well, but with more nuances and options for players to Not limited to a huge variety of aircraft (that can be conveniently controlled using a slick air camera interface, usable if you build an air control facility), infantry that can capture and garrison buildings and various flavours of artillery with differing ranges, build costs, ammunition and most importantly accuracy. Light artillery can shellack a wide area with massive damage and appalling accuracy, whereas more expensive units can deal out pinpoint barrages at the cost of limited numbers and the need to regularly resupply; potentially allowing enemies to attack your ammunition transports.
Oh, and super weapons. Of course their are super-weapons.
Building a huge squadron of tanks may be satisfying and incredibly destructive in the right hands, but a single unspecialised task force can easily fall prey to a more versatile, less brittle and more tactically adept enemy. Units have real line-of-sight that's blocked by topography, meaning that you can set up ambushes on top of mesas or cliffs, able to look down on an oblivious enemy task force that can't see you until you begin the assault. Conversely, you'll need to carefully scout out potential bottlenecks or ambush sites before committing your troops.
It's certainly deep in that trademark Eugen Systems kind of way, but combat seems set to be fast-paced, accessible and most importantly cathartic fun. Tanks and armoured vehicles can smash right through fences, trees and small buildings, crushing everything in their way. Explosions are enormous, ripping huge chunks out of the scenery and structures thanks to an enthusiastic physics engine. Massed combat looks gorgeous in the live production code, as does the game itself, which promises day/night cycles, dynamic lighting and attractive particle effects.
Le Dressay loves the idea of seeing a beautiful real-world environments become a smoking crater as players engage in massive battles, massed bombings and call down the nukes. So do we.
Act Of Aggression is currently on course to hit VIP beta at the end of the year before a 2015 release. Fans of Command & Conquer -- especially Generals -- have much to look forward to.