Conflict Zone: Modern War Strategy Review
By Corey Stoneburner |
French developer MASA Group makes their first attempt at a real-time strategy game with Conflict Zone (formerly Peacemakers), published by Ubi Soft for the PC, Sega Dreamcast, and Playstation 2. Incorporating their own DirectIA (short for Direct Intelligent Adaptation) engine, MASA claims each unit has its own 'brain' that can plan and learn with less direction from you, even adjusting to your style and skill level. Additionally, as the game progresses you are given commanders who can help defend your base or attack enemy positions. Fast paced and sometimes frustrating, the game offers a 'realistic' and unexplored approach to modern warfare in that public opinion affects your ability to win.
It's the year 2011 and the conflict is between the ICP (International Corps for Peace) and the greedy terrorist organization known as GHOST. While the ICP is primarily interested in - you guessed it - keeping the peace, those GHOST bad guys are concerned with profit. No morals, just profit. They even go so far as to brainwash civilians into fighting for them. The ICP must liberate towns from enemy GHOST units and rescue civilians while avoiding any collateral damage, and yes that includes those brainwashed civilians shooting at you. The plot unfolds through a series of lackluster, 3D-modeled briefings, a few cutscenes, and TV style news reports between missions. In an attempt to lighten the subject matter of the game, the briefings and cutscenes get a little wacky at times and may even invite the occasional chuckle. While it certainly didn't offend me in any way, the game uses some adult language in the mission briefings that could have been left out for the sake of younger children without hurting the game. The only way around it is to skip the briefings entirely.
As with most RTS games, you must create certain buildings before more advanced options become available. Units and buildings require a certain amount of money to deploy or build. Instead of the usual resource gathering, money is constantly trickling in. This is where Conflict Zone throws in a little something extra - the forces available also depend on the public's perception of your methods throughout the mission. Popularity is achieved by different methods depending on which side you play. On the ICP side, the media is watching your every move and your popularity plummets if you leave wounded soldiers on the field or accidentally drop a bomb on an unsuspecting village. Popularity goes up when you rescue civilians and take them back to refugee camps built in your base. On the GHOST side, you have a little more freedom and, perhaps, a little more fun. The GHOST organization runs their own media centers and uses them to manipulate the public. Brainwash civilians into fighting for you, send cameramen along with your forces to record victories, and park your forces in civilian towns, using them as human shields.
In the beginning you must choose to play the general for one of the two factions, or you can try the detailed tutorial which explains the basics of controls and camera views. In most of the missions you start with a command center and a predefined number of squares in which to develop the rest of your base. The absence of any units like Red Alert's moronic ore truck drivers or Warcraft II's tree chopping, gold hauling peons to deal with takes out a lot of potential frustration, but it's not without its own faults. Sometimes you have to wait for civilians to respawn before sending another choplifter over to their location so you'll have enough popularity points to enhance your base and complete the mission. Usually you can just send your civilian helicopter to one spot in the town and the civilians will come to you, but often you have to hunt them down yourself. And don't let that chopper get near an enemy mobile anti-aircraft unit or you'll be headed for a crash landing with no survivors. Units move slower when they're damaged and once you take a couple of hits you probably won't get away.
Over 30 missions are provided, with objectives ranging from simple search and destroy, to rescues, to large-scale battles in which you can use the help of your commanders to attack and defend multiple locations on the map. The battles are carried out in various parts of the world from the deserts of the Sahara to the mountains of the Himalayas. The maps are not extremely large but the terrain is highly detailed, allowing you to take advantage of higher ground and narrow paths to defend your bases. There is no shroud to obscure your view of any part of the map. Enemy forces, civilians, and wildlife, however, don't show up until they're within one of your unit's line of sight.
The forces at your disposal are primarily land and air based. In addition to foot soldiers wielding machine guns and shoulder-launched guided rockets, you get reconnaissance jeeps, tanks, mobile anti-aircraft, and mobile artillery units. Commandos and spies are also available and required for certain missions. Apache-style anti-tank helicopters and twin-rotor troop carriers supplement your ground attack forces, while rescue choppers carry civilians and wounded soldiers back to your base. Non-fighting units such as doctors, mechanics, and repair trucks will run between your units, healing or fixing them without requiring specific orders. You can also call in air strikes from fighter jets, cruise-missile launching destroyers or submarines, and get a peek at the enemy's base using AWACS spy planes and mobile radar units. Naval units are in fixed locations and can't move around the map. There are some units available to only one side such as the GHOST organization's mine-laying vehicles, or the ICP's mine-clearance experts. Instead of requiring you to create special buildings to upgrade your units, each of them starts out as a novice and grows tougher, stronger, and supposedly more intelligent with experience.
You control your units through the so-called Strategic Command System, which takes some getting used to. You have your choice of more traditional, fixed-camera, overhead views or you can use the fully rotating view in which you can zoom in on the action from ground level or zoom out as if you're watching from up in the clouds. The traditional views allow you to bump the edge of the screen with the pointer to move across the map. In the full 3D mode you rotate the view with the mouse, change camera elevation with the scroll-button or the page up/down keys, and float across the terrain using the arrow keys on the keyboard. Here lies one of my gripes with the game - you can't change the keyboard configuration from the arrow keys, and they're on the other side of the keyboard from the most of the default keys. Also, keyboard shortcuts for a number of often used commands, such as telling your troops to attack or defend a location, are not available. And whatever you do, do NOT hit the 'K' key with all your units selected. For some reason, this key allows you to kill all selected units. Not enemy units, but your units! There's no confirmation, just a boom and they're dead. The keys for controlling game speed are dangerously close by, so modifying the default keyboard configuration before playing is advisable.
While MASA claims each unit has its own 'brain', sometimes you'll be left wondering what sort of mental or personality disorders they came with. Let me go ahead and break it down for you. There are the obsessive compulsive types like the tanks that keep moving back and forth or constantly bumping into the same building (or maybe that's just hyperactivity - these things can be hard to diagnose). And you've got the antisocial soldiers who sit on one side of your base while the ones on the other side are slaughtered by a group of marauding enemy tanks. Half your base is destroyed and those guys are over there warming their hands on your burning vehicle factory. "Gee, I'm glad they lit this fire, Sgt. Carter! Brrrr - it sure is cold out here." Banging on your keyboard or mouse does not seem to prevent this phenomenon. Trust me - I tried.
You also have the occasional unit that refuses to move where you tell him and thinks it would be more fun to play catch with the enemy's grenade soldiers. "I got it! I got it!" Ooooh... He got it. Your enemy has his own suicidal units, too. "Let's see, the last 20 helicopters we sent over that mountain were blown all to hell by those four mobile anti-aircraft units sitting on the other side. Hmm, maybe they'll just let us slip on by this time..." And the civilians must have been in the wrong line when MASA was handing out brains, because they have a tendency to wander around like zombies while tanks and soldiers are firing right next to them. "Hey, look at the pretty fireworks!"
Don't get me wrong, though. For the most part the AI in Conflict Zone is truly quite impressive, but these gaps ruin the overall experience. Moving along, you have three different modes available that will change the way your units respond to your orders. In Strict mode, units head directly to the spot you click, fighting enemy units along the way. If you set them to aggressive they head in that direction and actively look for a fight, chasing down any enemies they see. This is good for sending large numbers of units into an enemy base and having them destroy everything in sight. In cautious mode your units will try to avoid combat, only firing at enemy units when fired upon. It's good to use this when moving a small group through territory patrolled by the enemy or when you're trying to get that helicopter full of civilians back to your base. You can group your units and hit a key to select individual groups, telling them to attack, defend, move, or patrol a path you select. Groups can number in the hundreds of units. I had very few problems with pathfinding even when leading a group of over 100 vehicles and soldiers through a narrow, curvy mountain pass. Try doing that in Icewind Dale if you have a few days of free time. Units do get stuck going around in circles on occasion, but usually just when they're confined to small spaces.
Your commanders, gained one at a time through various missions, can help a great deal. There are 4 different commanders for each side who specialize in various fields. One commander may be better at attacking while another may be better suited for defense. You can allocate resources to your commanders and have them attack enemy positions, defend bases or towns, or perform the more mundane task of developing a base. In some cases these guys can act very intelligently, instantly taking charge of a base and setting up defenses at all points while creating the buildings needed for the base. At other times you may send your commander off to attack an enemy base with most of your forces and he'll somehow manage to botch it up while you're busy doing something else.
The 3D engine provides excellent graphics that keep getting better as you turn up the resolution, all the way up to 1600x1200 if your monitor is large enough and your computer fast enough. While the units themselves aren't extremely detailed, they do look good. The vehicles tend to look a little better than the soldiers, which are easily identifiable by their big blue or red helmets. There are some problems with units driving through trees and such, but from a bird's eye view these faults go largely unnoticed. Vehicles leave tracks on the ground, but destroyed units turn dark and fade away quickly. Cool effects such as rockets flying across the screen, explosions, smoke, and burning buildings can create some impressive battle scenes. Although I didn't experience any problems on my Geforce2 powered system, the games readme file warns users of ATI's Rage and Radeon series video cards that there may be display problems.
The voice acting throughout the game is acceptable, but the 3D modeled reporter and news anchor could use a Milli Vanilli lip-sync lesson. It's not because they were originally done in French - it's just the same video played over and over with different sound. The game music is nothing spectacular either, but seems does seem to fit the mood and provides much needed background noise. With the music turned off the game stays pretty quiet most of the time, although engines, explosions, gunfire, and death scream sound effects are provided. The voices get old real quick, especially in the GHOST campaign where you'll hear "construction terminated" literally over a thousand times.
The included map editor is very basic and allows you to create your own maps for multiplayer skirmish games. Keep in mind that it's a map editor and not a mission editor, so you won't be able to do any scripting as seen in the single player missions included with the game. The tools allow you to place terrain, which must be matched up to adjacent tiles manually, and there's no built-in undo function -- just copy and paste. Still, it leaves open the possibility for distribution of fan created maps that could prolong interest in the game. One odd thing I found was that all of Conflict Zone's multimedia content is installed to your hard drive in standard formats. Everything from the jpeg skins that go on all the 3D models, to the mpeg movies of the cutscenes between missions, to the wav files that provide the games music and sounds. Theoretically, if you didn't like the music or a particular sound, you could just replace that file with one of your preference. In fact you could change the look and sound of just about everything in the game. Sadly this takes away from the feeling that you are unlocking any secrets when you complete higher-level missions. Where's the reward in seeing a new cutscene if you could have just clicked on the icon in the game directory to view it?
Multiplayer games are possible either online or on a LAN, with four players allowed online and eight on the faster LAN connection. With the media element turned on in multiplayer, the ICP team has the advantage with the ability to rescue civilians and therefore get more cash quickly. But if you turn off the media elements you might as well be playing one of the other, more well developed RTS titles. Custom multiplayer maps may add some longevity to the game, but I don't see a big fan community taking off.
Unfortunately, Conflict Zone has a not-quite-finished feel and isn't likely to bring many new fans to the RTS genre. The AI, while impressive in some situations, isn't consistent throughout the game. The control system could have used some refinement. The mission briefings might be OK for a console game, but are not what PC gamers have come to expect after such titles as the Command and Conquer: Red Alert series. It's still a fun and challenging game with great graphics and an interesting twist to a played-out RTS model, especially considering the 20-dollar price tag, but I can only recommend it to veteran RTS players who are looking for something new.
-- Bill Blake
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