It's tricky to pinpoint exactly what makes a good tactical action shooter. Is it the tension as you guide your troops into hostile environments, completely outnumbered with the odds against them? Is it the ability to command like a professional and think on your feet instead of watching the action from afar? Or is it the sheer excitement of sweeping through the most closely guarded enemy installations without making a sound? In an ideal world, a good title has an excellent command of all of these and then some - how about Conflict: Desert Storm?
It's fair to say that I was immediately put off by Desert Storm's looks. I know, I know, book/cover and all that, but it really does look particularly third-rate. The textures are fuzzy, the low-poly character models have almost featureless faces, and the vast environments are so angular that they'd look more at home in a theme park. However, we gave it a chance, and behind its bargain bin looks is a surprisingly engaging and atmospheric game.
Obviously taking place during the Gulf War in 1991, the game centralises on four characters that build up your squad of troopers, but starts with some obligatory training from a particularly loud-mouthed American instructor. The training is essential for learning the nuances of the command interface in particular, and is an indispensable feature. It's just a shame the proceedings couldn't have been made more palatable by not having the instructor monotonously yell every single instruction at you for the fifteen minutes your training takes.
Getting into the action proper, the game first offers you the pleasing choice of joining either the British SAS or the American Delta Force. Naturally we selected the former and headed off into the fray. Starting off with a single soldier, the first mission involves the search and rescue of a comrade held captive in an Iraqi bunker. Once retrieved, you set him to work aiding you in the destruction of a crucial supply bridge. You really are thrown into the thick of things from the word go, but the learning curve is barely noticeable and you pick up the controls in no time.
Once you find a fellow soldier at some point during a mission, he then joins your squad for the next. For example, the prisoner you rescued on the first mission then aids you in escorting the Kuwaiti Emir to safety, and it's during this outing that you meet up with a fellow who eventually becomes your heavy weapons specialist. As you pick up a team member, you're able to switch between them easily with number keys and control them directly, along with their associated arsenal.
If you prefer a certain character's traits, then you can choose to be him and command the rest of the squad with the HUD interface. Commands range from simplistic Rainbow Six-ish group and individual hold, advance and follow orders, to a variety of more detailed options. Particularly handy is the ability to command a soldier to advance to a specific area and face in a certain direction. While the functionality is there though, the system is primarily keyboard shortcut based, and it can be tricky to remember the commands for a good few missions - we would have preferred some kind of graphical command interface to go with it. One other disadvantage the system has is the inability to queue up commands in order to execute any kind of flowing plan of attack, and this is due in part to the lack of an in-game tactical map which is frankly a baffling oversight.
The intelligence of your team members when you're not in control of them is in equal parts impressive and frustrating. If you have them all following you then they won't trail behind in single file and once you stop to engage enemies, they have the initiative to take matters into their own hands and crouch, avoiding your line of sight. They'll even cover their backs when retreating from enemy fire instead of simply running in the opposite direction because you have. Good. Elsewhere though, they can be teeth-grindingly stupid. If you were face to face with six or so advancing enemy soldiers and a couple of tanks, you'd take cover wouldn't you? Instead my soldiers deemed it necessary to shoot at the soldiers at all costs despite the large flaming shells whistling past, and in some cases landing on, their heads. Only when you tell them to do so will they move their sorry behinds into a safer position. Bad.
Thankfully the game's easier setting enables you to revive casualties with a simple application of a med pack. Each soldier has about six med packs with which to bolster his own energy or that of a team-mate, and revive fallen comrades. This can render missions a little too easy on occasions though, unless your entire team manages to get wiped out in one fell swoop before someone can be revived, which is a rare occurrence. However, the difficulty level can be bumped up and the luxury of resurrecting team-mates removed for those of you battle-hardy enough.
Despite its very obvious shortcomings in the visuals department, Desert Storm still manages to draw you into the combat wonderfully. The urban environments, while low on detail, are still well designed and the desert missions are... well, think of a dusty Project IGI on a budget and you're somewhere near the mark. The animation too is fairly good for the most part, although there's a disappointing lack of variety as each enemy crumples to the ground in the exact same way each time.
More impressive is Pivotal's effort in the audio department, with excellent ambient and spot effects building the atmosphere - we were particularly fond of the goat bells clanging away in the distance. And yes, you can shoot the lovingly crafted goats if you feel so inclined, you weirdo. Furthermore, a context-sensitive soundtrack complements the gameplay well, even if it does become a little over-dramatic at times.
Conflict: Desert Storm is an impressive effort from Pivotal. If the engine had more spit and polish to raise the realism bar higher, then we'd be close to a title that could become a firm favourite with the tactical action clique. It doesn't look too hot up against the graphical might of the Ghost Recon engine, yet we can still imagine Red Storm becoming a little nervous at the presence of this one. If you can forgive the whimsical visuals, then give it a spin - at least it's a rare opportunity for those of you stuck with low-spec systems to play something of true quality.