In this age of unrelenting hype surrounding PC games, it's refreshing to be surprised by a hot new title out of the blue. Ground Control is the debut game from Swedish developers, Massive Entertainment, and they've gone straight for the throat with a 3D accelerated real-time strategy game which is as grand as any that have come before.
Ground Control isn't the sort of RTS where you have to mine resources though, or build anything at all in fact. Massive has focused the game design on the combat element of the RTS genre, rather than the often-tedious resource management and construction model. Each of the 30 single player missions cut right to the chase, and as a result Ground Control should appeal to those gamers who have eschewed RTS games of the past in favour of more trigger happy action games.
Similarly cutting to the chase with my impressions of Ground Control .. in a word superb. For a start, the graphics are absolutely stonking, and Ground Control raises the bar. Somehow distance fog and heavy duty lens-flares from the sun actually make the game look like a real landscape instead of cheap bolt-on effects. Perhaps it's the hi-res ground textures, cloud shadows drifting across the landscape, or details such as the dirt thrown up from vehicles. Well-modelled flora replete with strange alien creatures going about their business just adds to the impressive graphical attention to detail.
The change of scenery from desert to jungle is quite breathtaking, and the game executes flawlessly on any NVIDIA or 3dfx based graphics card. It even supports the Transform and Lighting (T&L) acceleration found on the GeForce cards! The game does have a non hardware-accelerated software mode, but it hardly does the game justice.
While it looks even better in 32-bit, I found the cut-scenes had difficulty playing smoothly in this mode. Not that this is much of a loss, because the game itself is so beautiful that I found the rather average CGI cut-scenes distracting, and only a minor aid to the unfolding story.
In fact if you are one of those players that whacks "escape" right the way through cut-scenes and mission briefings you will still find Ground Control playable, if a heck of a lot harder.
New Control Approach
Ground Control's approach to unit control is tackled with a similar breath of fresh air. Units come pre-grouped in squads, which simplifies the micro-management aspect of the game greatly.
In the pre-mission briefing it's possible to select between different types of units, be they ground (terradynes) or air (aerodynes). So, let's just pick the biggest Main Battle Terradynes we can, right? Well sure, you can, but when a huge gun turret emerges out of the haze you will be left wondering why you didn't deploy a scout squad, which could have spotted for artillery and then retreated before taking fatal damage.
Massive has done an awesome job of balancing control simplification with customisation. Another example of this is that there are different options available as special equipment and special weapons for each unit type, and these expand as the game unfolds. Here's where it is a good idea to pay attention to mission briefings. Expecting heavy aerodyne resistance? Choose some light terradynes with anti-air sentry guns as special equipment.
Other elements that often let RTS games down are pleasantly absent - the pathfinding in Ground Control is solid, for a start. If you still want to manually over-ride the AI though, a way-point system can be used with the shift key.
The units appear to take the right amount of damage before being destroyed. Missions present a different feel from one to the next based on time constraints. The player is taught not to treat their units as dispensable, since you can't build any replacements during a mission, and simply moving damaged units close to the command APC repairs them. In summary - Ground Control feels right, and it feels fun.
One element that often makes 3D strategy games difficult to grasp is camera control in a world where the entire landscape and viewing angle can be altered at will.
It must come as little surprise by now then that Massive have delivered here too. Cursors move the camera along the X and Y axis, as you would expect, but moving the mouse to the edges of the screen rotates (left and right) and tilts (up and down) your view. It can be confusing to get around like this at first, but a quick click on the radar can teleport the camera to the action. Tracking units is easy too.
By default the mouse wheel raises and lowers the camera. Quick flick of the wheel and a tilt down, voila overhead view. This sort of zooming right out is especially valuable to control aerodynes, that realistically have very high holding patterns, rather than hovering in space like in most strategy games.
Because Ground Control is an action focused game, it is ideally suited to multiplayer, and here is another area where Massive must be congratulated with high honours.
Imagine a multiplayer strategy game where players drop in deathmatch style. Since you are dealt a fixed number of units that are dumped into the arena via dropships, Ground Control works in exactly the same way that made the deathmatch first-person shooter so popular.
Yet for all of this, Ground Control is blissfully a client-server based game, with the server freely downloadable! Again, just like a first person shooter. This is something we have been screaming for in the RTS genre for years...
Roll in team-based game modes and we are faced with an RTS with the same sort of multiplayer promise as the first person shooter genre - it's even got Capture The Flag! Clearly we can expect online leagues and tourneys in the same vein. Perhaps Ground Control even has what it takes to be considered a strategy game worthy of professional gaming?
Ground Control is a marvellous game. It sparkles with polish, detail and originality. Creative reworking of the weak points in an old genre make Ground Control for the real-time strategy genre what Half-Life was to the first person shooter.
If there are any criticisms, they might be levelled at the enemy AI, which tends to always behave in the same way when faced with a similar situation. The game can also run a little slowly if you turn everything up, but then at least it takes advantage of high-end systems given the chance. The music is a bit pants too, but the sound effects are heavy duty battle sounds overlaying ambient effects to good immersive effect.
Roll in the wonderful attention to multiplayer and it can be no exaggeration to say that Ground Control is a ground breaking new game. Expect fast loading times, spunky believable graphics, awesome weaponry, gorgeous looking firefights and challenging missions exercising the grey matter.
This is a wonderful game that just begs to be played in both single and multi-player. Buy it now!