Act of Aggression reminds me of the original Command and Conquer, the one from Westwood that started it all. Don’t get me wrong, Act of Aggression is solid. A handful of bugs that spoiled saved games were taken care of quickly after release and the engine runs well even with a cluttered screen full of screaming shells dying troops, but it’s targeting a market at least a decade in the past.
Act of Aggression is a ‘modern’ real-time strategy game. The timeline is in the near-future where three quasi-shadowy factions vie against each other in different solo campaigns: The Cartel, a nasty-bad coalition of selfish capitalists; the multinational UN military called Chimera which is a force to be reckoned with somehow, and the US Army, which doesn’t have a campaign (do I smell future expansion?).
You can at least play all three sides in the skirmish mode, and all three are delightful melodies of multi-national troops with units that have modern-day equivalents. For example, the Chimera infantry (which are all French because reasons) are referred to as “FELINs,” which reflects that they all use the FELIN combat system, which you can see in all the best armies in today’s Europe. Other units carry the very real KRISS sub-machine gun, the Puma APC can be seen in German armies, etc. It’s a nice flavor mechanic, and it’s even sprinkled in with some near-future tech, such as stealth technology and power-suits combined with hand-held heavy machine guns.
For most maps you are given a base from which you make a combination of resource-gathering buildings and unit-producing buildings, and then you make enough units to go out and get slaught–erm, ah, valiantly find and slay the evil doers. Yes, your troops will get regularly obliterated on the skull-numbingly hard single player campaign, but there is a new mechanic of allowing foot soldiers to occupy buildings so they have a modicum of protection, at least until the vehicles roll in and blow them to smithereens from outside their range.
Your UN overseers give you thinly veiled backstory as you are indiscriminately placed in mildly different maps with semi-urban environments, with an almost-random carousel of units to choose from as you are commanded to chase shadowy terrorist organizations around the world. Alas, the plot is quite obviously an afterthought to shoehorn you into the next murder field. The mission details are given as if you are eavesdropping on a phone call and without either the eye-contact of a caring NPC or quality voice acting, the lack of a personally gripping motivation lets the details of who you are chasing and why slip into gelatinous pool of grey haze. Of course a game doesn’t need to blow the FX budget on mission intros, but does it really take that much to have an actor read their lines meaningfully into a camera so your boring story at least has a personal touch? From C&C’s egomaniacle Cain to Army of Two’s Alice, it’s always better to give at least a hint of intimate contact.
As mentioned, the single player campaign is stunningly hard. For most RTS’s, a reasonable knowledge of units mechanics and a healthy sense of caution are all that’s needed to roll a map. If extra time is taken and a mammoth army is created unto the allowed maximum, for most games victory can be assured. But not so here! More than once I’ve seen a carefully choreographed assault chopped to bits from a ludicrously overwhelming opposing force. Several reloads and a copious amount of foretold knowledge have seen the day eventually carried, but good god sir, if I’ve built every unit the map allows me to build and _still_ get casually overrun, one might ponder the source of the problem. To die once is happenstance, but twice looks like carelessness.
The game also steps off the beaten path by giving you unit types, letting you play with them, raise them, fall in love with them, and then heartlessly ripping them away. In one of the first missions you are introduced to an upgrade for the APC that lets them heal foot units from a distance. Sounds awesome, yeah? Well, hope you hated that, because you won’t see it for awhile, especially in the missions where it would be really, really nice to have. Same thing for rocket troops. Yes, they’re good against vehicles. Yes, they’d be helpful in that one building that keeps getting attacked by vehicles, but you only get FELINs and snipers for this mission. *insert evil laugh here*
One path it steadfastly refuses to step off of is the flavor of thematics. Each side, the Cartel, the Chimera, and the US Army all have the same feel. Each side can field nameless Guys With Machine Guns, which can then be followed up with Light Tanks and later with Big Tanks. Sure, some have artillery and some have different air units, but they’re all just throwing bullets of a relatively similar caliber at other people in slightly different uniforms.
The point here is that it’s all been done before, and it’s been done better. From the aforementioned C&C to Dawn of War to Starcraft, the world is awash in high-quality real time strategy games, and I can’t see what yawning niche this game is supposed to print money from. One theory might be that it’s trying to cash in on naked nostalgia, and that’s a fair and lucrative pit to mine. But to head in that direction one should cleave to good practices, and this game simply doesn’t.
The game also supports multiplayer, but the online community is about as vibrant as a reunion of the veterans of the Battle of Hastings. Mind you, there are usually some number greater than zero games going on, but to actually play in one might take some waiting, which is the opposite of what you would expect for an excellent game hot off a new release, but exactly what you’d expect of a game that can be accurately called “solid, but uninspired.”
To sum up I don’t really have any major beef with Act of Aggression, other than to wish that I’d seen something more from it. For all I know it might have a vast glowing vein of fun buried deep down, but it does nothing to motivate me to dig hard enough to find out.