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Game Over Online ~ Ground Control

GameOver Game Reviews - Ground Control (c) Sierra Sports, Reviewed by - Rorschach

Game & Publisher Ground Control (c) Sierra Sports
System Requirements Windows 9X, Pentium II, 32 MB, DirectX 7.0
Overall Rating 71%
Date Published Tuesday, June 13th, 2000 at 02:30 PM

Divider Left By: Rorschach Divider Right

The genre of real time strategy (RTS) is very well established in the gaming world. There probably isn't a gamer alive who isn't at least familiar with RTS game aspects: resource gathering, unit and building construction, base fortification, and going forth and smiting thine enemies. I'll admit that battling with enemy hoards while trying to establish a toehold base and resource facilities can be exciting, but sometimes I'm not interested in the buildup, and would like to get right to the smiting. I read a review a few years ago for Warhammer: Dark Omen which called it a 3D battle game (not as snazzy a name as RTS), and Ground Control, an offering from Massive published by Sierra, is at heart an updated version of that game. In Ground Control you don't resource gather anything, no gold, no wood, no stone, no Tiberium, no crystals, no nothing. You also don't build anything, neither buildings nor units, and there's no research or construction tree. The game revolves around moving squads of mixed units in combat to accomplish some mission goal - its appeal is clearly focused on those who like the smiting angle so if you are in the mood for battle, there is a great deal to like in Ground Control. There are however also some control, camera, and AI issues (I believe people had many of those same complaints with this year's earlier disappointment, Force Commander.) that can be a source of great frustration.

It's the classic conflict of giant corporation (The Crayven Corporation) versus cult of religious zealots (The Order of the New Dawn) over alien artifacts whose function no one exactly understands. Not quite the Pulitzer of plotlines, but it's serviceable, and the cut scenes and passable voice acting throughout keep the plot grinding along. Crayven units are heavily armored and slow and are based on contemporary technologies, while Order units are lighter armored and faster, and have hovercraft unit and futuristic energy weapons at their disposal.

Mission briefings (ala Starcraft) are like watching a conference call between you and your superiors. Missions range across the usual fare: destroy enemy base, escort some unit, protect some location, etc. As near as I can tell, the mission tree does not fork. During the briefing you can adjust the upcoming mission difficulty among 4 levels and I must say that I found this very convenient as, rather than butting my head against a particularly difficult level for the 5th time, I could just set the game to easy to get through it. You are given a number of units to conduct the mission, but not all the units will fit into the drop ships you are given to transport them to the planet surface, so some must be left behind. I found the strategy necessary to create the drop ship loadouts kind of thin, and you can just let the computer choose the units for you. The units under your command are infantries, scout vehicles, tanks, artillery, rocket launchers, bombers, fighters, and such. Surviving units at the end of the mission gain experience (as in Warhammer: Dark Omen), but I must admit that I didn't notice higher experience units shooting with greater accuracy or moving more quickly than lower experience units, so I'm not sure it means anything.

Once on the planet surface, you maneuver and issue orders to your squads of infantry and vehicles. Combat is heavily tactical, as you must plan aircraft attacks on artillery emplacements, and artillery shelling to take out anti-aircraft assets, while using fast scouts to locate ambushes before you're inside them, etc. Only an effective use of mixed forces will succeed. The camera flies in a 3D isometric view controlled by you, but it can be a little tricky moving the camera to see your units and enemy units, and on the harder difficulty levels I have lost entire squads while trying to get a glimpse of them and the enemy through the trees or in a deep valley. You can define hotkeys to call up squads or collections of squads, and assign these squads a level of aggressiveness and one of three formations (block, line, or column). Ammunition is unlimited, but units also have a limited (3 shots) special combat weapon such as a mortar round or high explosive round that is controlled by a different hot key or mouse click. The display is fairly well arranged, letting you know which units are taking fire and their damage level. There is a mini map in the corner that displays the entire battlefield (your units in green, the selected units in flashing green, and the enemy in red), but it's a little difficult to locate selected units on the mini map because it is so small. On the whole, it's a lot of hot keys and mouse clicks between the camera and unit control, and it can be quite a handful controlling everything when multiple enemy units are attacking on multiple fronts.

The path finding of the units isn't the worst I've seen, but it isn't the best either. Going across rocky terrain, units would sometimes hang up on rocks or in crowds of other units. Also judging hills is difficult, and sometimes infantry will climb a hill that vehicles have to find a way around, leading to a frustrating and unpredictable separation of forces. Additionally, my units would sometimes fire on a mountainside or into trees, not realizing that the line of fire to the enemy isn't clear. The minimum unit size is the squad (usually 8 guys, or 4 vehicles). If one vehicle in a squad is damaged, you can't just withdraw that unit, you have to pull the whole squad back, and that is kind of disappointing. In a close combat situation, the squad often can't find a clear path out of the combat quickly enough anyway, and the vehicle is as good as destroyed. Friendly fire is an enormous problem, and units under friendly fire make no attempt to get out of the way, nor do the firing units attempt to find a clearer field of fire. The final great frustration is that your Command APC (which apparently has you on board, and if it is destroyed in combat the mission is a failure) also serves the dual role of repair vehicle. If you set it to follow the front line units to issue a constant stream of repair during combat, it will often end up in front of them taking both enemy and friendly fire!

The graphics engine handles multiple resolutions up to 1024 x 768 with 32-bit rendering, but you better have some extreme horsepower for that. Running at 1024 x 768 with 32-bit rendering I would find that there would be significant slowdown during heavy action. Solar glare looks excellent and actually made me squint on more than one occasion. There are clouds in the sky, which travel, and cast realistic shadows on the ground. Smoke, fire, and exhaust trails are all done nicely. Colored lighting from muzzle flashes is reflected from nearby buildings and trees and looks very good in night combat. Units are well drawn and animated, but they're pretty much just vehicles and guys so the art department didn't have to work too hard to earn its pay, and the camera is frequently too far away to appreciate it. Otherwise, there have been some odd graphical choices made along the way. For instance, units leave tire tracks in the sand or snow or whatever the ground is made of, but while blowing up a tank makes a big explosion and flying debris, it ultimately leaves no mark upon the ground. Buildings and damaged vehicles hardly smoke at all before blowing up. As such, it is very difficult to use smoke as an indicator of which vehicles are damaged.

The higher up the camera view, the quieter the sound, but even at low camera heights the sound doesn't pack as much punch as you hope it would given the amount of heavy ammunition and vehicles that are being expended. Music, even during combat, is a sort of melancholy military tune that doesn't exactly build excitement. I suspect the designers intended you to keep the camera pretty high up and build a sort of an epic battle feeling, and if that was their intent, I'd have to say that to a certain extent they succeeded.

As a whole, this is a difficult game to control as you try and keep the camera and all your units going in the right directions with the mouse and keyboard. Still, it has an easy setting for those who have problems, and on the easy setting the game really is not very difficult. If you are looking for a heavy combat experience with quite a bit of tactical strategy mixed in, and can handle the headaches listed above, Ground Control will definitely entertain. I suspect that between the fixed units per mission and the fixed mission tree, that it's replay value is extremely limited.


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