Given the amazing visuals in WarCraft III and the forthcoming C&C Generals, it's fair to say that as a breed, RTS games are no longer largely 2D, overhead titles which lack the definition of their counterparts in other genres. However, Earth 2150: Lost Souls hasn't grown a great deal on the back of past outings, and the game starts off looking tired, despite some nice weather and terrain effects, and some detailed unit design. Not a good start.
Fortunately, though the graphics engine may be a bit creaky compared to current monstrosities, it's very good at what it does do. Zooming in and out is a very smooth process on all but the wimpiest of PCs, with units, buildings and terrain scaling nicely, and the dynamic camerawork throughout is almost always good enough that you don't need to worry about it, leaving you to concentrate on the strategy of pummelling your opponent.
And there's a lot of strategy to worry about in Lost Souls. It's one of the most detailed, old-school RTS titles we've come across since StarCraft.
No, it is the end of the world
The narrative aims to wrap up those ends still flapping in the nuclear winds of previous titles, and with the Earth still teetering on the brink of destruction as it spins uncontrollably off its axis, players must take the reigns of the Eurasian Dynasty, Lunar Corporation or United Civilized States' forces and fight through a number of missions in a story-driven campaign.
As the final remnants of humanity fight bitterly for survival on the face of the Earth, you'll find yourself not endowed with pre-made units to 'tank rush' one another with, but armed with scientists and lengthy technology trees to build your own units. Although you can choose from a few of prefab units, the emphasis is on researching things like chassis and weapons technology separately, and combining them to build your own custom units from scratch. These units can then be deployed in battle, and as with The Moon Project, the last game in the series, you can store these at your base between missions, and over the course of the campaign they grow in experience and ability. This approach is obviously a lot more realistic than the likes of C&C, but sometimes Lost Souls perhaps goes a little too far - having to worry about how much ammo individual units have, for instance, can be maddening.
The attention to detail elsewhere is greatly appreciated though. Being able to paint your units the colour of enemy troops can lead to some incredibly sneaky multiplayer tactics, although disappointingly the computer AI has no trouble spotting impostors.
Apart from that though, AI is on the whole excellent. The charred remains of the Earth's terrain form a formidable barrier between you and your enemy's forces, and it'll often take a while to pick a route to the other end of the map, splitting your forces asunder unless you're careful. In fact, there's a lot more real-life battle strategy to Lost Souls than we'd anticipated. The AI is wise to this, and makes sure to position troops in elevated positions and to avoid obstacles entirely without waypoints, maintaining line-of-sight during an encounter and retreating behind cover if needs be.
The engine also deals with day and night cycles, which allows you to attack in the twilight, hopefully when the enemy least expects it. What's more, because it's so frequently dark in Lost Souls, you have to pay attention to the headlights setting on your units and buildings - a bit of floodlighting costs a bit of energy, but it saves a bit of hassle when enemy tanks roll into the base and you spot them quickly.
The only thing in Lost Souls which doesn't match up to the flow of attention to detail is the audio aspect. Sound effects and unit voicing is repetitive and mildly irritating after a few missions, and the soundtrack is puzzlingly static. Tunes play oblivious to the action, when in this day and age we generally expect the music to ebb and flow with the mood and situation. A small oversight though, and it doesn't detract too greatly from the action on-screen - the music isn't too bad, which helps!
Lost Souls is an excellent old-school real-time strategy game. Thanks to the customisable units and obvious thought that has gone into each of the three campaigns, they're all equally worthy of your time. Each side feels like an entirely different force. Although the tech may be a bit long in the tooth, the game is very well composed and each campaign sufficiently long and challenging that you'll be playing it for quite a while, particularly if you can rope some friends into the LAN or internet play. Easy to get into and hard to let go of, Lost Souls adds an almost unblemished varnish to the old-school RTS.