World War II and gaming are no strangers, it is safe to say that the majority of the war games out on the gaming market are based on the World War II era, atleast certainly the most popular ones. This strong presence doesn't limit itself to just FPS games either, the RTS genre has had its share of WWII greatness and today we check out another addition to the ample collection, Desert Rats vs Afrika Korps. With quite an impressive feature list on paper, DR vs AK is looking to take the PC RTS genre into a new world of detail and action, but can it deliver the goods?
The story mode is the premier offline mode in DR vs AK, introducing the game's four main characters to the player - Marius Lafarge of France, Erich von Hartmann of Germany, Wislon Goose of the USA and Gregory Sinclair of the UK. There are 20 missions included which tell the tale from both sides of the conflict, and whilst playing story mode on harder difficulties does indeed prove to be quite challenging, this mode is still reasonably short and doesn't really seem to capture the full potential of the game, atleast not as much as I would have liked. Never fear though, there are other modes included such as campaign mode, which takes you through missions on either the Allied or Axis side, and scenario mode, which lets you play finished campaigns on demand. If offline gaming isn't your thing then DR vs AK does offer multiplayer gaming over LAN and Internet, allowing for up to 4 gamers to compete on the same map under such modes as death match and conquer; classic RTS multiplayer style action.
One of the most promising and unique features in DR vs AK is its unit depth. Having specialised units is nothing new for the RTS genre, but DR vs AK goes a little further and really integrates the capabilities and special functions of the units into the gameplay. For infantry you have Rifleman, Machinegunners, Scouts, Snipers, Sappers, Medics, Grenadiers and Flamethrowers, each with their own special traits and skills designed for specific situations. On top of this, you have plenty of combat and transport vehicles, ranging from tanks and cannons to cargo trucks and jeeps which also have special skill and attributes of their own. Each vehicle must be equipped with human soldiers to operate, with its optimal operation achieved by filling the vehicle to its maximum, granting such enhancements as better sight and a higher firing rate. Not only this, but assigning vehicles with certain types of people will give it certain types of upgrades, for example, the Scout will grant better visibility. You also have a hero character, which is one from the four main characters mentioned above depending on the mission, which also grants vehicles with special enhancements when their onboard. All in all you have 70+ units included from all forms of infantry and machinery, which is a very impressive number.
Before each mission you will be able to choose your units with a limited amount of points to spend. Usually the default kit is the best here as it is designed for the mission at hand, which presumably you haven't done before, so it is hard to tell what is best when playing a mission for the first time. This feature is nice but isn't really substantial; it is handy when replaying previous missions that you know well, but tampering with the unit types before an unknown mission could prove frustrating, as it could be the reason behind a defeat. Sticking with the default kit and simply bypassing this stage is atleast guaranteed to offer a kit capable of victory.
However, whilst all this unit depth is great on paper, often it can bite you on the arse during gameplay with the pure amount of work required. Since each troop has special attributes, it is almost always necessary to take advantage of these if you want to win, and in the heat of battle with all these variables to consider, including unique characteristics of vehicles such as which position has weaker armour etc, not to mention the possibility of multiple battles going on at once over the map, you can see how easily it is just to rely on luck more than skill in most battles as it really can get overwhelming quickly. With all this management going on, it can become overkill for the game taking away its fun factor, there is a fine line between indepth detail and too much detail, and often DR vs AK ventures over this line. Another aspect which doesn't help is the apparent lack of formation control, making organisation of your units very difficult - often battles can be won where you are out numbered by using better unit positioning, however this only adds to the management horror as any useful formation has to be practically done by hand, which is overridden anyway as soon as you move your units again. It is a shame to see such promising features implemented like this, it is sad to say but often the only way to play DR vs AK without a serious headache is to go into battle, sit back and hope for the best.
Unfortunately another aspect of the gameplay that didn't quite stack up is the A.I. path finding. Often when commanding multiple units some members will fail to take the quickest or otherwise safest path to your set destination, which may not only be fatal for those offending units, but could also reveal your entire army's location to near by enemies, which can be devastating. Also, other aspects such as medics not getting to the wounded soldiers after commanding them to over and over again adds to the frustration caused by the path finding, not to mention faster units slowing down behind slower units, not looking for ways around them even in wide open scenarios. Unfortunately these problems exist throughout the game thoroughly, so it is really hard to avoid them.
As far as the visuals go, DR vs AK is very much up there with the best RTS games to date, including the likes of Ground Control 2. Besides the excellent animations and the high quality destructible environments, probably the best part about the visuals is the explosions, which not only look fantastic, but also add a very intense action packed element to the gameplay. Whilst we weren't exactly using a low end system, I can safely say most semi modern game PC's should be able to handle DR vs AK in its most impressive visual state, or atleast very close to it.
DR vs AK is a solid RTS with some very impressive elements, the visuals are simply amazing, particularly for a title from this genre, and the depth of the units isn't too shabby either, however it lacks that finishing polish and precise execution that would have made it that much better. This engine and concept is a solid start for hopefully a developing series or maybe even other titles from Digital Reality, for the mean time though, Desert Rats vs Afrika Korps is a reasonably fun and addictive distraction, albeit probably a reasonably short distraction.