Ever since Westwood's seminal Dune II appeared on the Amiga and PC ten years ago, the real time strategy genre has become one of the most compulsive gaming experiences out there. But the genre's reliance on the mouse and high detail maps has ensured that this is one strand of gaming that won't be whoring itself on console systems any time soon, unlike various PC innovations we could name. This combination of practicality and happy accident means the clutch of developers loyal to the RTS are still refining their craft on the platform and thus it has become one of the most interesting, competitive and lucrative genres on the PC.
With this in mind, it will hardly come as a shock to note that several of the PC's forthcoming biggies are RTSs; EA has C&C Generals, CDV has American Conquest and Koch has World War II to name just a few. But last week we were shown one that has the potential to outshine them all. Developed by German team Exortus, and published by utility specialist Data Becker, the game goes by the name of America II - a sequel to a two year old title many of you won't have come across if you live outside of Germany and the United States. Apparently it "transports players to a time when gunslingers, cowboys and Native Americans fought over the Western Frontier", and it's looking pretty darned good already.
"I was a Miner, I was a Mexican, I was an Apache between the wars…"
America II is not due for release until September, and won't be playable until E3, but it's clear that even this far away from release that it could be one of the most anticipated games in the genre, if two hours in its company is anything to go by. Set in the Wild West era of 1820 to 1880, it has a gloss, and a host of interesting features, which help it to stand out immediately.
In common with every RTS ever, players get to choose a side with which to conquer their foe. In America II's case you get five distinct cultures; Apaches, Comanches, Mexicans, Americans, and Miners, plus one non player culture that you can bribe to come on your side, the Outlaws. Each culture is constituted of around 15 different units; two workers and the rest being made up of warriors of varying strengths and unique abilities.
In the name of balance, every culture has its plusses and minuses. For example, play as the Mexicans and you get manned walls, an armed station wagon, and even a hot air balloon for spying sorties. The Comanches' mastery of herding Buffalo gives them the ability to send a stampede on the enemy. Meanwhile, the Miners have the rather amusing ability to send whores into the enemy bases to seduce and distract the enemy. It's touches like this [groan -Ed] that give America II a sense of fun, and will bring a smile to the most jaded of RTS veteran - in fact you could write a standalone feature on each culture's special attacks, such is their variety and ingenuity.
Fun as a priority
Delivering a fun experience seems to have been the priority for America II, and it's no surprise to hear that historical accuracy has been abandoned, as Data Becker's product manager Markus Zink explains: "We want the players to feel like they're in a movie, and so we've gone for a cool storyline with characters people will associate with the stereotypes of the era. They're not supposed to be historical and have deliberately been based on clichés and taken from Hollywood movies."
But fun or not, it's still an RTS, and that means playing by the rules laid down by Westwood all those years ago. Yes it's still a case of resource gathering and management, unit building and upgrading, as well as the inevitable battles against your foes, but America II succeeds by building and refining this well worn gaming template with attention to detail on several levels. Firstly - and most obviously - is the lavish NURBS-based 3D graphics engine that the game employs (NURBS: Non-Uniform Rational B-Spline - a mathematical way of representing 3D data). Called rather unimaginatively the Exortus 3D engine, it has been designed from the ground up by the German developer. The terrain and lighting effects have not been fully implemented as yet, but the level of scenery/building detail and quality of the texturing are looking impressive already.
The area that really impresses currently is the detail on each individual unit. From a distance they're already quite detailed, but zoomed in at close quarters the armies are rendered with a level of detail and animation that wouldn't look out of place in a high-end first person shooter. Each culture's 15 different units feature, apparently, "thousands of single frames", and around 3,000 polygons each. From the limited amount we saw, the incidental animation bears this claim out, and battle scenes were all the more impressive because of it. The fighting animations weren't quite nippy enough and don't collide presentably in this early build, but if Exortus can sharpen this area, the battle sequences should be superb to watch.
It's a looker
Don't panic if you've got an ageing system: despite the lavishness, Zink promises that America II won't be a system hog: "It will work just fine at around 25 frames per second on a PIII 800, 128 MB RAM, and a GeForce II MX. With some of the details turned off, it will run on 64MB RAM."
Eye candy's one thing, but just providing visual gloss isn't the only thing RTS fans will need for America II to stand out from the crowded market. Just as well, then, that innovation can be found in its unit upgrade system - an RPG style three pronged tech-tree system that allows for limitless upgrades to individual units, the entire culture or each unit's special abilities.
An intriguing prospect
Depending on the level of resources available to you, and/or collected, you'll be able to keep upgrading as much as you like - although the cost to building these superior units will rise accordingly. For example, upgrading leather means your units will have more hit points, while upgrading shoes means they move faster. How this unlimited upgrade system will work in practise is hard to gauge at this non-playable stage, but it's an intriguing prospect at the very least.
Talking of resources, every culture needs a subtly different raw material to sustain them. The Comanches have to hunt buffalos, Miners need wood to make booze(!), while the Americans need all five resources (wood, food, gold, leather and stone) to grow and prosper thanks to their all round abilities. One area Exortus seem to have nailed is balancing each side; whatever strengths you have, you can bet your enemy also has a bunch of abilities to expose chinks in your armour - and it'll perhaps be here that America II will shine.
With 30 single player missions and at least three difficulty levels promised, Zink reckons lone players will get between 40 and 50 hours of gameplay from America II on the 'normal' difficulty level - and that's not taking into account the multiplayer mode that supports up to eight players simultaneously.
America II is set to be "feature complete" according to Zink in April, with a playable version set to debut at E3. Let's hope the game lives up to its promise, but until then, check out the none-too-shoddy screenshots dotted around this page.