the writings of a mind

Genre: RTS
Big Word: Aphrodite
Strap: Incredible good looks, and a personality to match. It could only come from Sweden.

Come here, I want to show you something. I want you to just look at the pictures on this page. These are in-game shots. I promise. But don’t forget that these are pictures that have been captured from the game, messed about with by the art department, shrunken down incredibly small, and then printed out into a magazine. Try to take that into account. And then try to imagine them moving.

If only there was a way to share with you quite how this game really looks. If only we lived a few decades into the future, when while sitting in your silvery suit having just been down to the newsagent in your hover-car, you would watch the animated holo-grabs showing a brief glimpse of the in-game graphics. Or perhaps more simply, and with less poorly written future-historical tense, if only Massive had gotten around to putting out a demo. Look, just go out an buy it, even if you hate the sound of it, just to watch it move…

But wait, I have stumbled ahead of myself in fevered excitement. I’m meant to begin with a vague yet enticing paragraph that pulls you in, and leaves you wondering just what exactly PC Gamer thinks about this thing. (Yes, we do labour under the illusion that you (the fine reader) don’t skip ahead straight to the score at the end, before ploughing through the enrapturing texts. It is one of the things that keeps us going, alongside beer, and the promise of trips to the funfair). So please humour me as I indulge in a good-old-fashioned Opening Paragraph…

The RTS genre has sat safely in its ample throne for a good few years now. It is secure in the knowledge that there is a huge fan-base who will happily absorb more of the same, because the same is already quite so good. None involved see any need to ruffle any feathers. Massive, however, do no see things this way. When Massive see any neatly arranged feathers, they become completely overwhelmed by the urge to don a pair of good, sturdy gloves, and rustle like their lives depended on it. A good idea? Well, this is the vague but enticing bit. So read on. (And no skipping ahead to the score).

It’s about four hundred years into the future. You wouldn’t recognise the place. A 3rd World War has made a few changes to good-ol’ Earth, and sent a few people packing. Since this event, quite interestingly, Earth-bound war has been banned, which is a very peculiar concept. And if you are of a cynical bent, one you might think some would not be able to put up with. If so, your sceptical ways are right – though they choose not to wage their ways on our home planet, but instead many light years away.

People have split into two opposing groups, the Crayven Corporation, and the Order of the New Dawn. These two rival factions are battling it out to colonize new worlds in a fight to become the superior, and hence control the powers in the known universe…

If the thought rushing around inside your brain at the moment is, "uh, heard this all before.", then you ain’t wrong. War followed by faction split followed by fight to colonize isn’t exactly the most groundbreaking of ideas. But perhaps think about things like this:

If you wanted to build a special house – a house like no one has seen before, with amazing new ideas and original concepts - are you going to want to radically change the foundations? Or would you want to stick with the tried-n-tested basis that all strong houses have been built on for years? Ground Control is bravely taking the RTS in a direction it has yet to be entirely led, and with this kind of tree-shaking, throwing in an earthquake as well would probably be a bad idea.

So which direction? Down the path of pure, undiluted combat. When inviting the constituent parts of the RTS into its Swedish offices, Massive warmly welcomed the third-person perspective, heartily shook the hand of fully 3D graphics, took the hat and coat of real-time combat, and offered drinks and biscuits to a good strong storyline. It was only when resource management arrived on the doorstep that the bouncers had to be called over. There truly is absolutely none. Not your Force Commander no-resource-management-apart-from-the-odd-resource-management-bits stylee, but your complete and utter eradication of the whole damn lot. But surely there is still the ability to build a base? Nope. What about harvesting? Gone. The gathering of materials to build more units? Not on your Nellie. Every last bit of every last aspect has been swept up into a big pan, and unceremoniously deposited into the nearest convenient waste disposal unit.

This is all very well, but if you are going to obliterate one of the most stable aspects of a genre, you’d bloomin’ well be putting some new stuff in to replace it. And that is exactly what has been done. Into the hole left behind has been poured a thick, gooey liquid of explosion-blazoned, gun-toting, missile-launching, raging battle glory. (To quote the master, I’m talking BANG). Quite frankly, there just wouldn’t be room for silly little crop-chopping and bricking-piling while you were sending your troops around the back of the mountain, and launching your missiles into the suspicious hole behind the trees.

Units are controlled in teams, rather than each as an individual. Your six Light Tanks will always be six Light Tanks together, until one or more get blown to pieces. This means that you have a much more efficient and speedy control over your army, which is a huge necessity when the enemy are flanking you on three sides, with hidden traps set up in case you survive. Each team of units can be assigned a hot key that allows for a very neat control system, and saves frantic mouse clicking. Uniquely to Ground Control, your army will also always contain a unit known as the APC (Armed People Carrier). This is an only very lightly armed unit that is intended for two important purposes. To ferry your infantry, and to repair damaged units. It is vital to survival as it is the vehicle in which the character you play resides. Therefore your tactics must always carry the burden of protecting the APC, which pays the benefit of an infinite source of repair. It really is all about tactics. More tactics than a room full of tactics eating tactics for lunch. We are talking AI out of this world, using a combination of random activity, and reaction triggered scripting, to keep you on your tactical toes.

The other byte-based poly-fila is a hefty storyline. Much like Force Commander, Ground Control plays you as a character involved in an ongoing situation, where all is not what it seems. Although your allegiance is with the side you fight for, this will not stop fleeting twitters of doubt from entering your mind as to where your loyalties should really lie. From the very first mission briefing, suspicions as to your commanding officers motives are aroused. But again like Force Commander, this is not a story spelt out in mission briefings and cut scenes – it is the actual events of the mission that really tell the tale through which you must wander. As you carry out orders and investigate bases, new truths will unveil themselves to you, taking you through twists and turns that you would normally find in quality cinema. If you think that I am being a tad vague here, this is entirely on purpose. If I were reviewing a book of this game, I would certainly not wish to tell you any more of the story than I already have, and so I shall follow the same rules here. A twist is only a twist when it remains a surprise, and you won’t find any spoilt surprises here. (I could mention the alien technology story, but I’m not going to).

But I must go back to my original excited babble. While more-than-capably backed up by the plot and the combat, Ground Control really stands out because of its phenomenal graphics. I think I can safely say that this is the most beautiful game ever made. An admittedly huge claim, but one that is hard to deny once you have seen the sun emerge over the hills as you march your army of Quake 3 skin quality troops through the jungle, birds flying overhead, in utterly smooth motion. Your view is through a floating, 360 degree camera, controlled through methods familiar to any FPS gamer. It is intuitive and natural, and lets you nip around easily and efficiently – vitally important for success in the heat of battle.

Problems? Well, kind of. Despite the fact that the removal of resource management is amply reimbursed, it does mean that things slip slightly into repetition. Great lengths have been used to insure that there is variation in the challenges of each level – but you are still ultimately playing the same idea through. Win the battle. That’s it. You may be smuggling out a hostage, or destroying a certain base, but you are still all about victory. But I assure you that this is the most minor of niggles. Those who love to manage their C&C crop rotation are going to need to do a bit of adjusting, but once settled in, this is a fantastic experience. It just excels and excels and excels.

Margin Notes:
When Massive first set out, they swore that they would strive to make the best explosions ever. And the have let no one down. They are spectacular. Nothing blows up by halves, and most things blow up into thousandths. And with an incredible physics engine, these booms will bulge your eyes from your head. We are talking, HUGE.

Deserving of more space than this, the multiplay feature is a game in itself. Although only realistically playable with a maximum of around four, there are all sorts of various styles of play, from last man standing to a variant on capture the flag. The single player game still shines most strongly, but vast amounts of time have gone in to making the more sociable play a great experience.

If you are one of the few to still not have invested in a 3D card, this should be the game to convince you. As a new generation emerges, the excellent TNT2’s are plummeting in price, making things much more affordable. And a quick glance at the System Miser will show you what a difference it will make. When things look this good, it really is worth it.

 Fast, nicely complicated, and so bloody gorgeous you could cry.


Tech Specs:

Publisher: Sierra
Developer: Massive
Minimum System: PII 233, 32 Mb RAM, 400Mb HD, 4Mb video card
Recommended: PII 333+, 64 Mb RAM, Direct 3D 12Mb video card
Multi-player: Internet, LAN
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