Set in the year 2741, Ground Control 2: Operation Exodus carries on the moderately popular futuristic RTS series to new heights, as it attempts to not only provide the best visual experience ever seen in the genre, but also the best single and multiplayer experience. As roughly 5000 lucky gamers world wide battle online with the beta version, many more avid fans are waiting patiently for its release. So, for the mean time, we thought we'd lend our impressions of the current beta build for these said fans.
Like most RTS titles in the past, there are a few major forces in GC2 - the NSA, the Virons and the Terran Empire. Unlike many other RTS's in the past, however, these races differ dramatically. The NSA are the "good guys" in this war, they represent the free people who value freedom and life. The Terran Empire are out to reunite all of mankind at whatever cost for a reason only their superiors know, utilizing the likes of energy weapons, hover tanks and devoted legionnaires. Finally, the Virons are an alien type force that use nano-bionic technology to survive with no desire to make peace with any other force.
Each faction has a distinct feature - the NSA rely heavily on brute force projectile weaponry, the Terran Empire have no compassion and hence will do anything to reach their goals, and the Virons are practically a mystery to everyone, with strange and unconventional forces on their side. For example, it is possible to 'morph' two units together in GC2 with the Virons to create somewhat of a super unit. This can only be done once with two of the same units, but the newly created unit is almost always considerably better with all new abilities. In the multiplayer arena, each have their own pros and cons, but your style of gameplay is bound to suit one.
The main feature that all these factions share is the drop ship. Traditionally, units in RTS games that are created simply shoot out of a barrack or a siege building, however in GC2, all created units are brought into battle via the 'dropship'. You purchase the desired units, confirm the order and in a minute of two, your dropship will fly in and dump them off in any landing zone under your control. This is quite an ingenious design, because not only does your dropship act as a unit transporter, if you spend your points accordingly, you can beef it up for battle as well. Air units have an advantage in GC2 in the fact most ground units can't attack them, however they are usually quite weak armour wise. With a drop ship maxed out in both armour and weapons, you have one very powerful air unit at your disposal. Dropships were a feature in the original GC, however they were not quite as influential as they are now. Now you must really balance the use of your dropship, and spend your upgrades wisely (if you choose to do so at all). Loosing your dropship in battle is a reality and without one, your territory becomes very vulnerable.
As far as the general impressions go, so far I must admit I have been taken by surprise with GC2's entire experience. Before hand, I was not the most avid RTS gamer, so much in fact I can't remember the last time I played one online, however GC2 will almost certainly change that for me. The reason I never use to enjoy RTS games in multiplayer was generally because of the micromanagement, as it could take half a day just to defeat one other human player. GC2, however, features very little micromanagement - there are no buildings to construct, no units to upgrade (besides your dropship) and there are no resources to collect. The main focus is on combat, and the strategy required to get your units the positioning and favoritism needed to win battles. In some cases, brute force with huge numbers is the best option, while decoys or long range attacks may be better in other scenarios. Even just selecting the right units for a certain situation is very important - you can't defeat a flock of enemy air units with tanks. If you ask me, this is the formula for true great RTS multiplayer gameplay - you can sit there building a community offline, it is the combat that you want online and GC2 delivers.
As mentioned, there are no resources to collect, just "APs". These points are not mined or farmed, rather, they are collected based on your map control. Certain maps will feature zones that, when controlled, deliver a higher rate of AP's per second. This generally creates the scenario of the richer getting richer, and the poorer getting poorer, but remember, this is no diddle-daddle RTS game here, if you lose positioning early on, chances are you're done for. A typical battle will last probably 1.5 hours max, so when a player starts to lose control points on the map, his/her ability to produce units will drop and it is likely they will eventually fall. This is not to say a come back is impossible, because the other players will still need to apply serious pressure to even small armies, just expect a very uphill battle if you only control one Landing Zone with 5 units.
As a beta there are still plenty of aspects that need fine tuning, such as the path finding, the attack AI, the unit balancing etc, but with already two patches released and another on the way soon, the development team at Massive Entertainment are very dedicated in fixing whatever bugs come up, and introducing whatever features the testers feel are needed. I expect to see the same sort of support for the retail release, although Ground Control 2 is anything but a 'rush-n-release' title so I imagine most if not all of the serious quirk will be well and truly stamped out before its release.
Unfortunately, the current beta is multiplayer only so we could not comment on any single player mode, which means no comments on the story line or general computer A.I.
Visually, the game is coming along very nicely indeed. GC2 uses DirectX 9 hardware including Pixel Shader 2.0, most evident in the absolutely superb water effects. The game also has inbuilt anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering, a big plus for convenience sake, along with various other image quality settings. The end result is probably the best eye candy RTS that I've ever seen. Of course, RTS gameplay is usually done with a long distance camera angle so the level of detail for each individual object isn't usually overly high with most detail going to the environments, however GC2's camera can go from making troops look like ants to giants, which is completely under your control using the mouse's scroll button. Sprinkle on a dash of high quality texturing, and you have one extremely visually impressive RTS.
When it comes down to it, GC2 is still very much in its early stages, and although there are a few quirks here and there, the development team seem very keen to iron them all out before official release. When it runs smoothly, which is more often than not even in its beta stage now, you have one very addictive and fun multiplayer RTS game on your hands - forget micromanagement and resource development but don't forget strategy, because GC2 will be all about combat. It may sound basic from that description, but I think we will all be pleasantly surprised, RTS fan or not, when Ground Control 2 finally hits the shelves in June. As for single player, we are yet to see this in action, but from our MP impressions here there is nothing to suggest it won't be just as impressive.