Stories: like sequences of events strung into some kind of structure. Joint Task Force has a story, and it's a story of redemption. (Square jaw, thousand-yard stare into smoky sunset...) And it's about fighting.
Joint Task Force is hero-based strategising, with your soldier chap leading the real-time fighting from the front and muttering his way through the cinematics in a voice-acted parody, far from the way real soldiers talk (have you seen them on the news?) In these scenes his international combat club is pitched against both petty despotism and the 'pettiness' of the media, all the while intending to do right by the people he's previously caused harm - the innocents caught up in conflict. What JTF would like to show you (with its sequence of events) is that the men in the field can't always live up to such good intentions. Theirs is a life of hard decisions, and the unblinking eye of international attention will judge them harshly whether they mean to do good or ill. The television is the final arbiter of modern war.
Joint Task Force wants you to buy into these ideas, and more. Some of these ideas are good, but others are just okay. Then there are others that are as memorable as last year's sofa-sale advertising.
Once we're into the game proper the action is overlaid with news reports that are keen to emphasize that the media is watching. Well, we are watching, but we're also a bit bored. JTF is moderately entertaining throughout, but that media theme meanders through play in a way that makes me think of how irritating it is when someone is watching Sky News or listening to Local FM in the background of a decent gaming session. Anyway, that's just me...
I've been enjoying real-time strategy for the last couple of years, and hey, there's even been a really good World War II strategy game out this month, but I can't bring myself to really enjoy Joint Task Force. It has a kind of generic fiddliness to it, and such a sub-standard GUI that just makes me put my face down on the keyboard and dream of far away meadows. The glow of my ancient cathode-ray ziggurat has seen many hours of contented RTS doings, but they weren't greatly extended by this contemporary combat beast. I feel like I should be keen - there's nothing actually too unpleasant about it, and the explosions are lovely, there's just... something wrong.
Fortunately there's lots of good stuff for me to talk about in this awkward middle bit of the review, like the way that you rely heavily on (almost) realistic infantry tactics. JTF skips the base building traditions of its genre and sets you attacking individual buildings and securing the terrain in the same way modern armies are forced to do in actual counter-insurgency. The maps in which all this takes place are gorgeously detailed, almost hand-drawn. The facilities that have to be captured can be utilised for bringing in new units in various directions. Airstrips, for example, allow you to call in hot-dropping Hercules transport planes which dump hardware on the runway. Communications towers can be used to summon choppers, which are either useful as units in the own right, or will stay just long enough to drop off some of your specialist troopers. Snipers, bazooka, medics, that kind of thing.
As mentioned, there are some heroes loitering across the field of war, and their experience can open up a number of special abilities. Keeping them alive is essential and the key characters will lead to a 'game over' scenario when they die. While this adds to the sense of risk and challenge it can also be rather irritating when Captain Protagonist gets a grenade in the face and we have to start again. This is particularly frustrating when you've tried to use cover but failed. Certain things, such as sandbags, make your men near invulnerable while others, like the steel chassis of an oil tanker, might as well not be there at all. Designated cover leads to all kinds of tactical incongruities.
All of which feature listing brings us back to the wrongness. The missions are beautifully detailed, but characterless. The acting is just a few inflections the wrong side of ham. The units simply don't pack the punch you want from modern combat, and that lack of zing is pretty much found throughout the game. You feel detached from the action, which is peculiar since its particle-cleverness credentials should outweigh the far more visceral experience of, say, Dawn of War. JTF has all the ingredients of RTS excellence, but they're mixed wrong, as if all the levels on a pop single were out of whack, too much bass hooked up to not enough wizardry. It does support a campaign co-op mode though, which is one up on Company Of Heroes...