Dark Reign 2
Windows - 2000
Description of Dark Reign 2
The original Dark Reign appeared on store shelves shortly after the "come from nowhere" hit Total Annihilation. Though both offered new advances in technology and gameplay, ultimately, Total Annihilation won the hearts and minds of the serious gamer. That put me in the minority - I preferred Dark Reign. So it was with great anticipation that I bided my time waiting for Dark Reign 2, the sum of all my hopes and dreams for the pinnacle of real time strategy (RTS). As it happens, real time strategy hasn't evolved the way we thought. Many of us assumed that Total Annihilation would usher in the new age of 3D polygon graphics in RTS games. That has not been the case at all. If anything, Starcraft, Caesar III, Age of Empires II and numerous other "sprite-based" games have shown surprising longevity. Perhaps it wasn't the technology after all.
Technology From The Future
From a technology perspective, Dark Reign 2 picks up where Dark Reign 1 left off. The terrific Tactics engine remains intact, though everything else about the game presentation has been updated to today's technology. Whereas most RTS games present a single 45-degree perspective of the battlefield, Dark Reign 2 immerses you in the 3D world. Though other RTS games have tried this stunt, none have pulled it off as smoothly and easily as Dark Reign 2. Navigating the 3D world isn't as easy as a top-down 2D world, but this 3D interface is as good as it gets. Players can choose one of 6 view heights using the F1-F6 keys - from ground level to the 1,000 ft view. Most of the time you'll stick with the default angle (F3), as switching between the angles is rarely necessary.
Dark Reign 2 takes advantage of Intel's dynamic mesh technology. Big whoop, you say. You should be excited about this. Most 3D processors would bog down processing the enormous number of polygons in a typical battle. By utilizing Intel's mesh technology, the number of polygons that represent each unit is scaled on-the-fly to keep the graphics engine chugging along without impacting performance. As a result, nearby units look very detailed, while faraway units are scaled down. This means that the game always appears full of life and detail where it counts: right in front of you. Though you may have seen numerous screenshots of the game prior to reading this, none do the game justice. The world comes alive when you fly through the hills and above the water while you and the enemy exchange fire. This isn't a game of standing still, but of dynamic movement and changing conditions. Seeing is believing.
I was able to play Dark Reign 2 at 1280x1024x16 without any difficulties using my nVidia GeForce 256 32MB SDR card. Though the mouse was occasionally a bit sluggish (just barely), the game was much more responsive at this resolution than Unreal Tournament, for example. I also tried the game on a more modest ATI Rage processor and found 1024x768x16 absolutely perfect. No matter what your system, there are enough visual tweaks in the game to run without slowdown. That said, gamers with older video cards may not have the extended range of sight a GeForce offers (I'm not talking about line of sight - how far a unit can see, but range of sight - how far away an object must be before it fades into "fog".) Most gamers won't get lost on the battlefield with a "medium" range set, but an extended range can be a real benefit.
The in-game interface is among the best I've seen. Without cluttering the display, players maintain full control over the construction of units via a small window on the lower left corner of the screen. On the right-hand side sits a squad manager to give a heads-up view of the first five groups. For people with larger screens, this five-unit limit seems, well, limited. On smaller screens, such as 640x480, the five-squad limit makes perfect sense. The mini-map provides a general view of the world, but I often found the map frustrating in its limited size. I would have liked a pop-up map with more detail - as it is, the mini-map is practically useless for commanding units with any specificity.
Activision included the standard fare from a "futuristic holocaust" game - an evil empire of elitist snobs and a spunky-yet-honorable rebellion. In fact, Dark Reign 2 is a prequel to Dark Reign and each mission documents the foundation of the evil empire. The first few single-player missions introduce you to the various units and methods of attack and defense. Dark Reign 2 offers very little in the way of training missions - especially compared to Sierra's Ground Control. Instead, early missions are milquetoast, not true "training" missions. As the campaign continues, more and more of the storyline is laid out, but very little narrative ever develops as in StarCraft. For the most part, the game lacks characters and a compelling storyline. The 20 missions (ten for each side) are linear, meaning you must complete one mission to move to the next, and the results of each mission are largely irrelevant to your success in later missions. On several occasions, however, a mission will include multiple goals - many of which will not be known when the mission is undertaken. I don't want to spoil your fun, but let's just say that a desperate grab for the final goal will sometimes leave you unprepared for what happens next.
Following in the tradition of RTS games, Dark Reign 2 requires players to harvest a scarce resource - in this case, Taelon. Taelon is then cashed in at the refinery for money which is then used to purchase goods, services, plant and equipment (a fancy way of saying guns and forts). This is a slight deviation from Dark Reign, which required the collection of both water and Taelon. On the one hand, this makes the game a bit more manageable; on the other hand, it is not nearly as challenging as Age of Empires and WarCraft, each with multiple resource requirements. As a result - good or bad, Dark Reign 2 plays more like Command & Conquer than anything else.
Dark Reign 2 was designed from the ground up with online play in mind - perhaps even as the focus of the game. The game ships with several maps for two, three, four, six and eight players, though up to 32 can play at once. (Don't expect to play with more than eight players on your 56k modem.) My favorite mode of online play with Dark Reign was four-player, two-team mode. Cooperative play really brings out nuances of the game hidden in typical deathmatch scenarios and I'm glad to see it make a return appearance. Dark Reign 2 also features a new twist on cooperative play. Instead of two people commanding separate forces, commanders can both control the same units from one base. This can help a novice get up to speed under the tutelage of an old master, or allow one player to focus on building an offensive force while another builds out the defensive perimeter. The advantage of this method over team play is that you won't have to manage two bases. The disadvantage, of course, is that a unit you have penciled in for a defensive free safety may be assigned to an offensive force. One minute he's heading off to join his buddies at the front lines, the next minute he's back at the base on patrol. As with any cooperative game, communication is the key.
The multiplayer interface is quite good, though a bit confusing. I wouldn't have thought it confusing at all except on two occasions I ended up instructing newbies on how to select their team, their colors and their starting point. Believe it or not, it's not entirely straightforward. Even with these minor problems, the rest of the matchmaking service works without a hitch. Matchmaking is done within the game, so you won't need to leave Dark Reign 2 to join a game. Once you've logged on, you'll find several rooms and games. After joining, everyone's ping time is displayed in real time along with other essential information. I really like the Earth Map feature to let other people know where you (the real you) are located. I still can't figure out why a "point and click" interface wasn't added to this feature, but it's a good start.
The Jovian Detention Authority (the JDA - the precursor the the Empire) wields large and technically advanced weapons against more novel and unique Sprawler forces. This will probably lead you to play as the JDA when learning the game. These units are easy to understand and require less management to build and construct. On the other hand, the Sprawler forces possess unique abilities that more than hold their own against the JDA. The JDA seems to have an advantage in air power, while the Sprawler forces possess adequate multi-purpose anti-air capabilities. Both sides include stealth infantry units that disguise themselves as the enemy for infiltration purposes. If you enjoy a long and protracted battle, Dark Reign 2 offers more than enough defensive structures and units. By the same token, players that build an active fighting force may find themselves dangerously exposed at the home base if they haven't prepared for defense. This is a game that requires an equal focus on offensive and defensive building.
The two sides are equally matched - which is of paramount importance for online play. Command & Conquer: Red Alert seemed like a good game when played solo, but fell apart online because of the Tank Rush tactic: create loads of a single unit and rush the opposing base. For the most part, Dark Reign rose above this problem, though many players developed combination attacks that were almost indefensible. You will find the same game balance in Dark Reign 2 - no single unit can dominate the game, and every good attack has an equally effective countermeasure. Through hours of online play, I have seen a variety of tactics succeed and many fail, but I haven't seen an unbeatable combination. The closest I've come to that would be a group of JDA patrol boats and Dreadnaught artillery boats with air-cover serving as a spotter. This doesn't win any land battles, however, as the JDA lacks troop transports. Many gamers have also found the JDA air force an especially effective force against offensive-minded players.
Perhaps the most glaring problem with Dark Reign stemmed from the WOMD - weapons of mass destruction. Many online gamers would only play when a gentlemen's agreement was reached outlawing WOMD. Far too often a game would consist of little more than a few skirmishes on the perimeter followed by the entire destruction of your home base. The Dark Reign Empire would unleash one vortex after another until the enemy was helpless - or the rebels would sneak an earthquake tank close enough to destroy an entire base in one single sneak attack. Either way, many players refused to play with these rules. This has been addressed in Dark Reign 2 in two ways. First, players can adopt rules for online play that prohibit these weapons. Second, the WOMD are not nearly as powerful as they once were.
Instead, both sides can take advantage of Mojos and Air Strikes. These are off-map attacks that are not attached to any particular unit. A Mojo is cast by the Sprawlers after building a shrine. The four Mojos - eyebiter (blindness), rage (enhance the speed and power of your own units), berserker (killing spree - regardless of friend or foe) and the ingenious Baron Samedi. The Baron Samedi is a giant "golem" who temporarily walks the earth killing the enemy with crushing power. The JDA can produce air strikes, mines, assault bots (kamikaze terminators), EMP (temporarily powers down enemy forces and buildings), and a concussion bomb. (Try it, you'll like it!) Additionally, the JDA has access to teleporters. Unlike the teleporters of Dark Reign, these 'porters leave a reverse gate portal at the destination site. For a few moments after the teleporter is launched, units can go back through the portal into the unsuspecting enemy base.
Niggly Bits and Twits
In almost every respect, Dark Reign 2 fulfills every wish any self-respecting RTS fan could have. Well, almost. A few problems exist which, sadly, are carry-overs from Dark Reign. Most RTS fans want to group several units together into formations, not just "groups." You can't do that here. If you wanted your infantry in front and your tanks on the flanks and the medics at the rear, you can't do it. You can arrange your units manually, but the second you command the group to advance to another position, the formation disperses into mayhem. If Ensemble can figure this out for Age of Empires 2, why couldn't Pandemic figure it out for this game?
Second, the waypoint system is identical to that found in Dark Reign. Players create waypoints independent of units, then assign units to those waypoints. This makes waypoints useful for tasks such as patrols, but very little else. To Pandemic's credit, patrol waypoints are terrific. On the other hand (getting back to formations), once a group has been assigned to a waypoint, such as the path to follow to outflank the enemy, each individual unit queues up to follow the waypoints. The result is a single-file line down the waypoint path. If a slower unit gets in front, the faster units are held back.
I also found a few problems with pathfinding. Given the complexity of this fully 3D world, it's not surprising. Pathfinding, in many cases, is almost like it sounds, with a unit searching out every nook and cranny on its way to the destination. Sometimes a unit will get stuck and give up, which is not very common but definitely annoying. One time I had instructed several units to "scout" a path (meaning they held their fire when faced with an enemy). As it happens, they were blocked by a single medic in the pass. Since this wasn't an offensive unit, no combat took place. But my entire squad was held at the pass by a single unit. They were following orders, but all they needed to do was go around the enemy, and they wouldn't. Lastly, Dark Reign 2 suffers from the bane of most RTS games in that slower units can hold up an entire column of faster units - the faster units won't pass the slower unit. On the whole, pathfinding in Dark Reign 2 is no better or worse than any other RTS, but is exacerbated by the 3D terrain. Sometimes a pass will look wide enough for two abreast, but is in fact only wide enough for one.
On the more positive side, players can queue up unit-building to their heart's content. Though I've never queued up more than 30, I assume that this would be sufficient for most gamers. You can set a rally point for the units after they have been constructed, though waypointing a path for a unit to take as it leaves the facility is impossible. I was sorely peeved at StarCraft 's and Tiberian Sun 's limit on queue size and especially StarCraft 's limit on the number of units attached to a group. Neither of those limitations makes its way into Dark Reign 2. Instead, the total number of units is capped. By delving into the inner workings of the Tactics engine, I found that some units require more "command points" than other units. This means that you might max out at 40 artillery pieces or 55 infantry. Although I am generally opposed to any limitations (if you want to send swarming hordes of infantry over enemy lines, more power to you), this was probably a necessity to keep the game flowing smoothly. More than once I've seen Dark Reign, Command & Conquer and other RTS games slow to crawl from too many units. As it is, this keeps the fighting force manageable and encourages variety in your forces.
I am also very pleased with the semi-open architecture of the Tactics engine. The game comes with an excellent map- and mission-creation tool enabling players to create new scenarios and online maps. This should add to the longevity of the game online. Also, players interested in delving into the nuts and bolts of the Tactics engine can use the "unpack" tool included with the game. Once the game settings have been unpacked, a simple text editor allows players to modify (at their own risk) many features of the game. While you can't play online with a modified "pack" file, you can certainly have a good time solo. Want a killing spree? Just up the armor on the Go-Gos, cut the cost in half and double the damage done by its weapon.
Adding it all up, Dark Reign 2 weighs in as a worthy successor to the original. I am especially pleased that Pandemic and Activision pulled off the technical side: fully implementing a traditional RTS within a 3D world. Though the game lacks the compelling narrative of StarCraft, the technology tree of Age of Empires, or the sheer number of units available in Total Annihilation, it is one heck of a game. It is the most visually pleasing of any RTS I've played. Though Dark Reign 2 can boast the best technology on store shelves, it's not the technology that sells games - it's gameplay. In that respect, Dark Reign 2 stands shoulder to shoulder with the best. If you felt cheated by Tiberian Sun, you will feel fortunate when playing Dark Reign 2.
Review By GamesDomain
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