For many visitors to ECTS last month, there was only one stand which constituted a must-see - namely Vivendi's, housing as it did the theatre where Half-Life 2 was shown to the world again. As it transpired, Valve had nothing new to show us - deciding instead to replay the same excellent but nonetheless painfully familiar videos from E3 - but as the largely disappointed punters left the Vivendi stand, their eye might have been caught by another game which was on show behind the Half-Life 2 theatre (UK Gold edition).
With machines playing a two-level demo on free display, Ground Control 2 was rather easier to see than Half-Life 2 - and in its own way, every bit as interesting. The original Ground Control caused quite a stir when it was originally released - here was a game with RTS gameplay better than even the best that the established franchises like Command & Conquer had to offer, but with no base building or troop manufacture. Instead the game focused on preparing dropships of troops and armour to deposit on the excellently realised 3D map, achieving objectives with your limited resources, and possibly securing additional landing zones for more troops.
Plus ca change...
After a lengthy demonstration of the game, our impression of Ground Control 2 is that it takes that basic concept and expands it out towards the horizons of strategy gaming. In fact, as fans of the original, we were nothing short of gobsmacked by the wealth of enhancements which the developer has heaped upon the game. Obviously not content with simply providing updated graphics, new missions and slapping a "2" onto the end of the name, they've created a title which is as far ahead of the original Ground Control as Red Alert was from Dune 2.
The premise, of course, is similar. You play a military commander of the future, and must guide your forces through a sequence of linked missions on a variety of planets - played out by deploying forces from a pool held on ships in orbit to the planet's surface through the medium of dropships not dissimilar to the ones seen in Aliens. So far, so simple - but in this game, dropships are units themselves, which can be shot down by air defences, fail to land if the LZ isn't clear, and can even engage in combat if suitably armed up.
As such, the key to many missions will be holding the strategic landing zones for your dropships, and making sure that the enemy's air defences are incapacitated sufficiently to let them come in without sustaining heavy damage. You can upgrade dropships with heavier armour and weapons, which makes them more suitable for "hot" drops, but the trade-off, of course, is that they can carry less weight. From what we saw, the most rewarding way to play is to bring in a couple of small squads on hot drops, and then use them intelligently to clear air defence and LZ sites so that you can bring in a crushing force for the last stages of the level.
The first level we saw was exactly like that, and seemed to be a pretty typical example of what to expect from the game. Set in a massive swamp (and we do mean massive - the map was easily several kilometres across), your objective was to take out an orbital cannon and an enemy base - and the path could be made much smoother by mopping up enemy forces around the landing sites and sending a small team in to wipe out the generator powering aerial defences. With that done, it was time to land heavy armour and artillery and plough through the enemy lines to your objectives.
That last stage is one of the most impressive things we've ever seen in a strategy game, because Ground Control 2 is not only graphically stunning, but has a real sense of the dramatic to go with it. The levels themselves are rendered beautifully - the swamp was full of detailed foliage, rippling water and swirling mist, while the units and buildings are incredibly detailed, to the extent that you can see facial expressions through the reflective faceplates of your troops' helmets or watch individual shell cartridges being ejected from the side of a heavy trooper's chaingun.
When a conflict erupts, however, it erupts with real ferocity - explosions send water and earth flying into the air, bullets kick up dirt, tanks churn up the ground into a muddy quagmire and destroyed vehicles smoulder like the embers of a dying fire. Best of all, the graphics engine lets you get right up close to the action easily, and we challenge even the most hardcore strategy fan to resist the urge to swoop his camera down from the heavens and mingle with the battle from a soldiers-eye view, getting a close-up eyeball on the carnage.
The second level we were shown was from earlier in the game, and had you controlling a group of heavily armed infantry troopers clearing out pockets of resistance from a sprawling and badly damaged city. While the gameplay was as you'd expect from this sort of mission (We suspect that it's designed to get you used to controlling small groups of troops in tight situations), it certainly served to highlight the versatility of the graphics engine. Wrecked buildings burned as cratered roads wound between them, neon signs flickered through the smoke pall and bloody close-quarters combat erupted at junctions. Getting your men into buildings and under cover was vital to survival - hinting at the possibility of some intense, large scale street to street fighting later in the game.
The range of units on offer seemed very comprehensive, although we were assured that we'd only seen a tantalising slice of the full line-up (both of units and of missions). Squads of infantry troopers mixed it up with light and heavy armour, while artillery units deployed behind the front lines rained explosive death on enemy positions and legged walker units navigated tough terrain with ease - a real science-fiction battleground of which any action movie director would be proud.
Atmospheric, challenging and fascinating, Ground Control 2 was a worthy winner of our Best PC Game "Muffy" award earlier this month. Only a few scant weeks after our first glimpse of Rome: Total War left us with our jaws on the floor, we've found yet another strategy title which takes the genre to places it's never been before - with the promise of incredibly tight, addictive gameplay combined with glorious, cinematic graphics that bring battle to life on a scale we could only have imagined a few years ago. Fans of the original almost certainly already have this game on their watchlist - we'd advise every other PC gamer to add it to theirs right away.