The real-time strategy realm, once overflowing in cheap clones, has been relatively quiet this year. Apart from gems like Age of Kings and Homeworld, and overblown disappointments like Tiberian Sun, new games have been far and few between.
This is probably going to work to the advantage of Psygnosis' crack at the genre, Metal Fatigue. Take Acclaim's under-rated Machines, mix in some Total Annihilation, a good dose of anime and Psygnosis' usual sharp, shiny graphics, and you've got a pretty fair idea of what to expect in this game created by a developer previously only known for console games.
A few features immediately stand out. The first is the attempt to put a personalised story into the game. The overall story is a fairly standard "warring corporations fighting for alien technologies" sort of thing, but its three campaigns are wedded to the tales of three brothers. They become separated in the opening cinema and find themselves at opposing corporations.
Another is the graphics. They are incredibly impressive. The 3D terrain, seen from the overhead, isometric perspective, is smooth, detailed and realistic, with plenty of contours and variations in elevation. Lighting and shadow effects are exceptionally well done and the game engine pumps out some of the most convincing-looking 3D accelerated scenery we've seen.
The game takes place not just on planetary surfaces, but in underground mines and on bases and islands suspended above the atmosphere of the alien worlds. In the aerial levels, Combots will need to be fitted with jump jets allowing them to have the flying mobility they'll need to get around; underground, you'll have drilling units that can drill through obstacles on the map, such as solid rock walls. This drilling ability enables the player to create whole new passageways and caverns, adding an interesting layer to the gameplay.
The units are even more impressive. While the game sports the usual array of tanks, turrets, buildings and builder units, the real stars are the Combots. You assemble these giant robots piece by piece in a factory, and the various types of arms, legs and torsos allow both fast, lightly-armed bots and heavy ones with weapons in each hand and missiles launchers on their legs.
Even better, when you destroy other Combots, you can salvage their parts and use them in your own bots. They can eject their own parts at any time - a bot can get a speed boost by losing an arm - and individual parts can be knocked off during combat.
Another interesting addition - one reminiscent of turn-based gaming - is the "pre-Build" phase. The game lets you set up your initial base as you want before the mission starts, so that players aren't rushed into using a specific base-building sequence just to keep up in the opening part of a mission.
This facet of the game should be especially interesting in multiplay, since most Net players are speed players who use the fastest base-building sequence possible. With the pre-Build mode, slower players will hopefully achieve a more equal footing at the start of the game. (A time limit will be used for this part of the game, at least in multiplayer games.) Metal Fatigue's AI should hold some interesting surprises for players as well. Created by respected war game designer Mark Baldwin, the game has what Zono refers to as "AI Generals". Using this method, the developers can pit players against a variety of different AI personalities, each with different tactics on which to focus. One might be highly aggressive and try to strike you with powerful force, while another might prefer to use covert attacks. Depending on the level, which general the game uses might be a random selection, or just an AI type that the designers felt was best suited for a given mission.
Even better, in multiplayer games with computer players, Zono is planning to allow you to choose which general you want to use for AI players. Other than that, the AI has some learning abilities as well, so that it can alter its strategies against you depending on your tactics and reactions to situations. This way, you won't simply be facing a pre-programmed force every time you play a level, since there will always be some random element in how the computer fights you.
With a few notable exceptions, it's hard to get excited about any real-time strategy game these days. Metal Fatigue, though, is shaping up to be an appealing game - particularly for graduates of Total Annihilation and Machines. It has beautiful graphics, a solid story and accessible gameplay, and the Combots are a lot of fun to build and battle.
Product: Metal Fatigue