Version tested: PC
It does exactly what it says on the box...
If Altar Interactive are to be believed, the key to penetrating the layer of detritus floating on the surface of the real-time strategy genre is to splice in some role-playing elements; like experience points, character development and a decent story. The aptly named Original War sets itself up in Siberia, where a time travel device has been uncovered that sends anything it comes into contact with two million years into the past. The machine is powered by Siberite, a rare element discovered only in the neighbouring area of Russia. The Russian government isn't happy about all this, and doesn't like the idea of Americans exploiting their resources. In an inventive twist, it becomes your job to hop two million years into the past and excavate Siberite deposits, leaving them neatly stacked in Alaska, which was of course just around the corner in those days. It gets better, and the game is delightfully non-linear, encouraging you to write your own ticket. The difficulty of future missions and the choices to be made in them depend on your actions in the present, and there are plenty of different ways to complete the various missions, with the story traced in the sand by some hammy voice acting and amusing characters in your unit.
Real time strategy games aren't generally known for the roving nature of their missions, but Original War is all about keeping on the move, directing units according to your orders (which may conflict with one another, requiring a bit of planning on your part). There's no base unit, no tank-rushing, no boring build-rush-build-rush cycle and all the other things that plagued the likes of Red Alert. In fact you can't actually mass-produce anything, least of all troops. Instead you have to put up with your pre-determined units. Although it shies away from a lot of real-time strategy traditions the fog of war still exists, but you need to be careful how you deal with it. The usual trick of dispatching a jeep out into the black is unrealistic here; it would just end up getting shot to pieces by the first patrol it meets and leaving you none the wiser. The trick is to marshal your efforts conservatively. Space your troops out, but never abandon them, and don't leave people on their own. Before you set off into the unknown though, troops have to be trained as a soldier, a mechanic, an engineer or a scientist. Many of these skills will be required regularly, and like role-playing game characters your men develop experience in their work, and become more and more valuable as they work or fight. At the conclusion of each mission you can upgrade the attributes of the various troops in your unit and train them in new disciplines. For example, as your mechanics peak in prowess you can teach them to drive a tank. Vehicles are pretty powerful on the whole, and virtually every one can be customized to improve its weaponry, speed, power source, chassis and more. You can also opt to change your men's discipline mid-mission - quite useful if you're under attack and your scientists are loitering near the armoury…
As you can probably tell, Original War's biggest virtue is that it tries to endear you to your units. It doesn't give you a pack of disposable troops and a wad of cash to reinforce them over and over, but instead offers you a number of men with different skills and asks you to manipulate them. When you take the level of customization and non-linearity into account, you've got the prospect of a pretty exciting strategy romp. Structures are rare but don't fall easily, troops and vehicles are often extremely individual, and I haven't played a single level of the game involving a group of tanks speeding furiously into the enemy stronghold with a minute gone. It's .. original. Obviously all this pleasure has to come at a price though, and Original War is marred by a number of small problems. I haven't mentioned the visuals up to now, because by and large they are neither remarkable or terrible, but there are gaps. For instance, troops don't run. I'm sure their combat gear is probably quite heavy, but why not have them throw it down and shed a number of experience points if a tank is bearing down on them, instead of walking very, very slowly in the opposite direction.
Another problem is the artificial intelligence. I know you're groaning at the thought of yet another strategy game with dodgy AI, but there's no escaping it. For the most part there's nothing to worry about and the troops all wander around and help one another out, but in the thick of battle there seem to be invisible range-limiters at work, with troops ignoring the warning signs of fallen comrades and standing around catching their breath for a few seconds before hot-footing it towards the nearest tank moments later armed only with a bayonet. A little common sense might have been useful. Lassoing troops away from danger should be the least of your worries when you're under attack. Of course, you might not expect this sort of thing from the average real-time strategy game, but Original War is a game that encourages thought and stimulates the grey matter from time to time. The troops natter away with one another, complaining about the weather and hard going, and the stereotypical love-of-war character who spurs them on sounds like a mixture of virtually every Arnold Schwarzenegger character you have ever seen. This isn't a game that should suffer from dumb-soldier syndrome. Ultimately though, it would be unfair to neglect Original War because of these minor niggles. Okay, so the voice acting is a bit daft and the artificial intelligence has 'issues', but there is so much here that deserves to be enjoyed. For crying out loud, it's a real time strategy game that innovates. Open ye wallet, sir, and avail yourself of £30. You won't regret it.
8 / 10