We've come a long way in the eight months or so since we last played Conflict: Desert Storm on the PS2. We've seen a few more tactical action titles come our way - some succeeding admirably, and others flopping pathetically. Conflict always sort of sat somewhere between the two, but hopefully the long-coming GameCube port can resurrect our faith.
A bit of rough
Ah yes, now I remember. Like a swift kick to the groin they hit you, and boy is it painful. The visuals, I mean. They weren't great when we last saw them, but time hasn't been kind and Conflict: Desert Storm looks absolutely tragic. Angular landscapes, low-res textures, chunky player models and animation that seems to have been motion-captured from a robotic dance troupe all do their best to make C:DS look an absolute stinker which, as we soon find out, it is not. But only just.
The game starts off with you in control of one man on a search and rescue mission, attempting to track down a demolitions expert who was captured trying to blow up an Iraqi-held bridge. This mission serves to break you into the decidedly alternative nature of C:DS' combat, and sees you struggling with the third-person automatic aim feature, then struggling to get the first-person aiming mode to work properly, and struggling to actually kill any of the enemy soldiers while you're at it.
Once you've rescued your pal, you are in direct control of them both, controlling one and ordering the other via the command interface. It's in the first mission of the game that you realise just how unwieldy the button combinations for even aiming and shooting are - let alone commanding troops. To enter first person mode requires a press of the left shoulder button all the way in until it clicks, but to enter the second level of zoom requires a second press, but not all the way in, otherwise you'll send yourself back out into third-person again.
Selecting weapons, or medi-kits, or any object of your inventory requires that you hold Y, scroll up or down with the D-pad, find what you want, use it, then scroll all the way back to your weapon using the same process. Without some kind of grouping of weapons and items or even some kind of hot key system for your most frequently used options, combat and even simple functions like placing an explosive charge become chores.
And we haven't even got to the command interface yet. Pivotal has clearly made an effort to craft a lot of function into the system, but hasn't made a good enough job of providing the player with visual clues as to what does what. We really shouldn't have to repeatedly refer to the manual in order to remember how to simply get our comrades to follow us, let alone how to get them to lay prone and provide covering fire in a certain direction, which is certainly possible if you can be bothered to figure it out. While apparently providing a system that enables you to conduct orders on-the-fly, wrestling the control pad in the middle of a mission had us wishing for a simple overhead map and menus that tell you what they're for, rather than the ambiguous icons provided.
Thanks to the initial fumbling, Conflict: Desert Storm gets off to a slow start. Eventually you'll start getting your head round the controls, but it takes far longer than we would have liked, and it's only when you get to control your full squad of four men that the game starts to pick up and draw you in at all. You could be forgiven for throwing down the controller in disgust long before the game starts getting any good.
Eventually though, the game manages to draw you in really quite well despite its total inability to engage visually. There's a very palpable atmosphere as you lead your troops through the streets escorting a Kuwaiti Emir, for example, picking out snipers in the windows and having your heavy weapons specialist run ahead and fire a couple of rockets up a tank's rear, clearing the path for your sniper. Though rare, there are some moments of brilliance to keep you soldiering on.
And it all goes wrong
That stalwart of tactical action frustration, AI, is implemented with mixed success in Conflict: Desert Storm. Team mates will occasionally take matters into their own hands, providing good cover and avoiding your line of fire and such, but you may find their behaviour more aggressive than you would like. The game emphasises the importance of stealth, yet unless you force the rest of your team to stay put while you creep forward with a silenced pistol, they will more often than not totally blow a stealth strike by charging ahead, firing all over the shop in full auto. Thus, stealth rarely works and so you're forced into an almost arcade-like run-and-gun approach which doesn't sit at all well with the game's plodding pace, ruining much of the realism.
Further destroying the realism is the ability to revive fallen soldiers with the simple application of a medi-kit. Admittedly this option is only available on the easiest settings, but it significantly shortens the life of an already fairly short game with only fifteen missions to its name. Interestingly though, the more a soldier does of something, the more proficient he will become at it - if a soldier uses lots of medi-kits then he will become more skilled as a healer. Likewise, more kills and shots on target will ensure a soldier becomes a more skilled all-round marksman. It's a shame these almost RPG elements couldn't have been developed further, making sure players really cared about being less slapdash on the battlefield and taking care of each man.
The GameCube brings four-player co-operative play to C:DS for the first time, which significantly improves and lengthens the life of the game, but unfortunately this still can't save it from the awful control mechanisms and dated visuals which really kill C:DS in light of far, far more sophisticated alternatives which have sprugn up since its original release.
After Red Storm beauties like Raven Shield and Splinter Cell, and even more recent efforts like Vietcong, Conflict: Desert Storm on the GameCube is a pretty embarrassing release. There's quite a nice game in there, but thanks to the terrible shortcomings outlined above it does little to justify your time and expense when lined up against the competition. Then again, there aren't many tactical action games on the Cube that will do you better than this one, it just boils down to how desperate you are for a fix.