Windows - 2001
Description of Conflict Zone Windows
Conflict Zone is a real-time strategy title from the talented bosom of up and coming European developer MASA and uber-publisher, Ubi Soft. Set in the near future, the current European peacekeeping forces have been disbanded to create the International Corps for Peace (ICP), tasked with combating strife and dissension across the world in the name of humanitarian aid. Unsurprisingly, there's an archenemy at play in the form of GHOST, a shadowy organisation dedicated to undermining political stability, causing conflict wherever necessary, and opposing the rise of ICP.
Sound familiar? It should, it's been played a hundred times across the screens of computer game fanatics, but MASA hopes to add something new to avoid the evils of JURTSS (Just Another Real Time Strategy Syndrome - yes ok, I made that up). The concept itself breaks no conventions - in each mission you establish your base, get enough of the right sorts of troops on the field, and blow the living hell out of the enemy in as many different ways as possible.
It starts to stray from the norm with the inclusion of media as a resource. In a nod to every war since Vietnam, the press have the eyes of the world focused on what you're doing, and the way the public views your actions directly affects your ability to function on the warfield. It's all about propaganda - the more popular you are, the more powerful machines you can command, and vice versa. It's novel, and might remind you of the system used in X-COM, but rather than having your popularity assessed by your performance across worlds, it's done in the field as each mission pans out.
MASA has also shored the game up with what's being touted as an extremely strong AI system. Named DirectIA(R), MASA consulted several researchers in cognitive science from highly rated laboratories in order to ensure that units in the field responded in an autonomous manner. Once units are assigned a particular behaviour, they can allocate tasks internally, and respond to external events according to their orders. As an additional feature as the game progresses, you have commanders at your disposal to whom you can assign units, resources and tasks, allowing you to concentrate on the parts of the game you enjoy. Each commander has a specific personality and tactical preference and supposedly learns from their interaction with you as the campaign progresses, adapting their behaviour accordingly.
And now over to our correspondent...
It all sounds very innovative, but how much of a difference does it make when it comes down to playing the game? Unfortunately, the answer comes down to which side you choose to play. Should you decide to do the right thing, don your blue hat, and defend the weak and weary in the name of the ICP, you're going to be in for a fairly dreary ride. The ICP are a blatant pastiche on UN peacekeeping forces, and therefore their popularity score depends on how well you treat the region's civilians. Much of the ICP game revolves around ferrying civilians via helicopter from their villages to refugee camps, and in some cases simply sitting staring at the screen until enough civilians pop back up in the villages to be rescued. Should a gung-ho general take it upon himself to slaughter a few in good faith, much of your remaining time will be spent desperately trying to drum up support, often to no avail.
In the case of the GHOST team, it's a bit more fun. The GHOST version of the refugee camp is an enlistment camp where 'rescued' civilians are converted to soldiers in civilian clothes. Should an ICP force shoot them, they suffer heavily, and the simple matter of enlisting the local population rockets your popularity percentage to 50 per cent. Included in the arsenal is a media centre, complete with roving cameramen - have the cameras record your victory and your popularity (and therefore available funding) soars. Not only do the bad guys have it easier, they also get to mess up the good guys and laugh in their face. No fair! [Sounds quite realistic, actually. -Ed]
Shut up man, how does it play?
Aside from tactical considerations, Conflict Zone is extremely accomplished. Graphically, it's excellent, with a number of viewing methods allowing access to the battlefield. The default viewing method is freeform, allowing panning in all directions - it sounds good, but with movement split between the mouse and keyboard, it can be frustrating and a little unwieldy. Fortunately, included is a fixed-viewpoint 'battle mode' which is much more stable, and even a fixed height top-down view for true retro freaks.
Detail is universally good, with units well presented even up close (if you ever want to watch your tank charge from the viewpoint of an infantryman, now's your chance). The environment is smooth and realistic through all of the available landscapes, and your units leave tyre tracks and scorch marks where they've annihilated the hapless opposition, not to mention the odd passing Yak.
Sound is generally excellent, and effectively tied in to the action on screen. Missiles and bazookas make satisfying sounds, and the media commentators reporting on the action are amusing and well voiced. The only slight niggle is with the constant repetition as you build multiple units. After hearing 'unit terminated' from the GHOST camp for the 200th time, you're ready to strangle the voiceover artist and raze their home to the ground.
The AI becomes apparent from the moment you begin. Units can be grouped together and labelled for ease of orders and movement. Either separately or en masse, they can be assigned one of three behaviours - cautious, strict, or aggressive, and then ordered to move to, attack or defend specific areas. The difference is obvious - aggressive units seek out confrontations, paying little if any attention to safety, whereas cautious units will only return fire, avoiding the enemy if at all possible. Unfortunately, it may be useful for scouting units or all-out offensives, but more often than not you'll want your units to actually do what they're told, so, sadly, strict is the choice you tend to make.
Units are able to divide out targets evenly, but they're a little stupid about deploying themselves. Rather than evenly placing themselves around, say, a defence point, you'll find units straggling out, bunched up and all over the place. The fact that they tell you they're 'in formation' beforehand is just irritating, and you'll spend valuable minutes arranging troops to your advantage. In some cases however, this is in genuine response to the landscape, and in that respect, territorial advantages can be played out to very good advantage - attacking an enemy from a territorial disadvantage becomes a real challenge of wit, something that's both unexpected and welcome in the over-saturated RTS world.
The generals available should add a pleasant relief to the frenzied pace of the game, since the idea is to assign portions of your strategy to them, and concentrate on other areas you're more interested in. In fact, the intelligence of the generals varies wildly as you move through the campaign, so you have to be very careful how you deploy their help. For example, the first general brings a whole new meaning to gung-ho, puts all his troops on aggressive, and in fact only does well when equipped with heavy armour in double figures. Any less and he'll stand there like a fool, suspiciously empty handed having wiped out a large proportion of your active fighting force. Also, sadly the AI only seems effective in clear areas - give your general a bridge to defend, and he'll likely position the units with familiar incompetence, wasting his forces. If the idea is to save you stress by managing portions of the game, it doesn't work since you spend an equal amount of time manipulating the generals' commands until they act sensibly.
What is pleasantly surprising about Conflict Zone is the intelligence with which the missions are constructed. Although earlier missions let you get away with fanatical Zergling-rushes on the opposition with as many armoured units as possible, you're forced into thinking intelligently as the campaigns progress. You'll find yourself using as many as possible of the 60+ different units available to each team simply because each scenario requires it - your strategy must change with each skirmish to counter the enemy AI, and that's to be commended. The learning curve is steep, causing hair-tearing rage in certain cases until the winning strategy becomes apparent, so it's fortunate that mid-level saves are permitted preventing tiring replays of entire missions. The two separate campaigns, ICP and GHOST, are different enough to want to play each separately, adding considerable longevity to the game. It's just a shame that the GHOST campaign is so much more interesting to play thanks to the more appealing popularity options, even if the difficulty is somewhat higher.
Ere, can my friend play with us?
In the multiplayer implementation of Conflict Zone, although there is space for strategy, the popularity score goes from being novel to downright irritating. Whereas in the campaign missions, GHOST has a definite advantage, in multiplayer mode ICP can ferry civilians back and forth to create a quick and often decisive advantage, whereas GHOST are crippled into forcing unready confrontation, just to raise their score. The media element can be turned off, with all units available from the start, but if you're going to do that, you're left with really very little new in the game.
There are also problematic technical issues in multiplayer mode - the view distance goes from huge to almost non-existent, with horrendous popup problems. Lag becomes an issue with lots of units on the field, and we only tested the game over a network with 2 people - needless to say, this doesn't bode well for larger matches. While there is a sublime joy in annihilating a real human being for a change, the imbalance of the two sides can quickly put paid to any cross-team fun.
Included with the game is a very basic level editor called Edland, featuring all the landscape elements included in the campaign maps. It's a little fiddly, not entirely helped by some of the instructions still being in French, however, with some time and effort, the dedicated RTS fan could theoretically produce useable and respectable maps.
Conflict Zone has some great ideas, but it's such a shame that more wasn't made of them. The AI is intuitive and genuinely intelligent in places, but at other times it can be desperately frustrating. With such a fuss made of its prowess, having to frequently hold your troops' collective hands to ensure they follow your orders just seems wrong. The game's major innovation centres around the popularity system - including the world media is a novel touch, and could bring a lot of interest to the game. But with such a limited set of means to increase the score, rather than being enjoyable, the process can become repetitive and annoying, especially if you choose to follow the ICP campaign.
Despite all this, the game itself is admirably constructed. The mission structure is progressive and intelligent, and any RTS fan will quickly find themselves engrossed in it. The problem is that the innovations seem incomplete, and without them, it really is just another RTS.
Review By GamesDomain
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