The Story So Far
The original Dark Reign was released back in 1997, unfortunate enough to be released within weeks of Total Annihilation, and quickly written off as just another Command & Conquer clone.
This was perhaps a little unfair on the developers - Dark Reign might look rather dated today, but it was a nicely designed game that ran well on the computers of the time, and one of the key things that the developers did get right with Dark Reign was the story. Which brings us to the follow up, Dark Reign 2...
The original game pitted the Imperium, a technology orientated superpower, against the Freedom Guard and their rebellion against the imperial tyranny. Which admittedly sounds remarkably like Star Wars. The story for Dark Reign 2 is set further into the future of the game universe, after the defeat of both Freedom Guard and Imperium by Togra's forces.
Now the Jovian Detention Authority have become the controlling power, and having been part of the old Imperium their technology is an evolution on the units from the first game. They are opposed by the Sprawlers, who are once again attempting to fight against the apparent tyranny. As a commander in either the JDA or Sprawlers, it is your job to carry out the orders of your superiors as the story unfolds across twenty chapters, ultimately helping to crush your enemies.
To accomplish this you will find yourself commanding a wide range of units, including ground infantry, walkers, tanks, hover-tanks, aircraft and naval units.
Naturally each units has its own tactical strengths and weaknesses, dictated not only by their weaponry and armour, but also by the landscape over which they are fighting. It goes without saying that a standard tank can't go over water, whereas hover-tanks will take the rough with the smooth. The units are well balanced, with neither side possessing any single unit or weapon which doesn't have an equivalent in the enemy force, something which is obviously important, particularly for multiplayer.
As with any good real time strategy game these days, Dark Reign 2 allows you to assign waypoints, rally points and patrol routes for your units. Other features include a self destruct option, which can be helpful in preventing an enemy from capturing one of your buildings, and can also cause damage to nearby enemies.
You can also set unit behaviour, which allows your units to run almost autonomously in order to carry out certain objectives. One of the most useful is the 'terminator' setting which, combined with the explore order, will cause the selected units to find any enemy units and destroy them. This can be extremely useful when you are hunting for the last couple of units which are preventing you from completing a mission which requires you to 'destroy all enemy units'.
Let There Be 3D
Most real time strategy games now seem to be heading into the realms of 3D polygon based virtual worlds, with complex camera controls and increased use of landscape as a valid tactical feature - even the venerable Warcraft is going 3D in its next incarnation.
While other games have sported overly complex interfaces and difficult to use cameras (with Earth 2150 one of the few to make a reasonably good attempt at simplifying this), Dark Reign 2 has been designed for maximum ease of use. The camera itself is extremely intuitive, working in a similar way to the one in Homeworld, and it won't take long to get used to even if you haven't played other 3D strategy games.
Pandemic have also very thoughtfully realised that not all players may want to take full advantage of the new 3D viewpoints, and may prefer the classic overhead view. Fear not, as there are a number of preset camera heights in the game, and you can flick between them with the 'F' keys. One of the many presets is for an overhead view, which is well implemented and gives a very classic feel to a very new game.
Normally I would tend to stick with the 3D views, but there is sometimes a need to see the whole battle from above, and many other games of this type don't offer this kind of view.
Sound And Vision
The visuals are stunning, with the desolate run-down Earth looking very worn, with hi-tech buildings stretching out to form cities. The detail is high for a strategy game and while some of the units may seem quite simple in terms of their polygon count, this is more than made up for by the scenery.
There is something quite breathtaking about guiding troops around a snow covered valley as a handful of JDA Enforcers descend from the top of a big hill, guns at the ready. Some of the unit effects are also superbly done, especially the Sprawl Freakers. These units have the ability to cloak while standing still, which allows for some fairly intense ambushes to be set up. The cloaking effect is impressive enough for me to spend a couple of minutes just admiring it at first!
On the sound front Dark Reign 2 is superbly put together, with units sounding appropriately gruff or sophisticated. The soundtrack is also extremely good, and while it may not be everyone's cup of tea, it does sit incredibly well with the game. As you progress through a mission the music changes with it, which is fairly impressive considering that the music is old-fashioned CD audio based.
One last point to mention about the game's technology is the AI. It has to be said that most strategy games feature truly appalling AI, while others have AI that is so unbelievably fiendish that it can be almost impossible for the player to win. Dark Reign 2's computer opponents appear to be well set and seemingly intelligent, and attacks are varied not only in number and unit type, but also in direction, which means that building a defence along one perimeter won't always suffice.
Dark Reign 2 is a highly polished title, and one that I have been waiting on for some time. The length of the game might seem a little short for some of the more dedicated RTS players out there, but then remember that Homeworld only had 17 missions!
And with Pandemic releasing new maps on a weekly basis, Dark Reign 2 is sure to become a hit in multiplayer circles - commitment of this kind has been hard to find since Total Annihilation. Well worth a look for anybody who has dabbled in a little RTS and enjoyed the experience.