If you're one those who enjoyed games like Command & Conquer and Total Annihilation back in the days I'm sure you've heard about Machines at War, a real-time strategy (RTS) game series by the indie developer Isotope 244. Now they've released the next part in the series, Machines at War 3. The game throws some big numbers at you; over 130 different types of units and battles with 5000 units! Numbers aside, playing a game with dozens of different units is nothing if it ain't fun so let's have a look at the game.
The story starts when your superior officers receive a distress signal from a military laboratory. You're sent in to investigate the matter only to find out that the scientists have vanished along with the research data they were working on. If this data falls to the wrong hands, it could spell trouble for the rest of the civilized world so you quickly assemble a team and start tracking down the scientists. The campaign spans 21 missions and the story is driven with text-only dialogue between each mission and during them. Luckily it's text-only since the voice-acting in the game is horrible. The dialogue itself is quite well written but it's lacking any sort of emotions which makes reading it a real task.
The gameplay is similar to any other RTS game to date; you build your base and construct different units in an effort to destroy the enemy base before they'll do the same to you. There are two resources that are required in order to build and maintain a base; Ore and Energy. Unlike some other RTS games you don't have to collect Ore but instead you automatically receive a set amount that depends on your headquarters and it's Tech level. A bit of an odd decision by the developers since cutting off an enemy's resource supply route has always been a successful (and fun) strategy. Energy is of course received from power plants which you have to build with your 'hard-earned' Ore.
The available buildings you can construct are divided into three categories; the first category has buildings which help you maintain and expand your base (such as power plants and radar towers), the second one has buildings that allow you to construct units (such as a land or a sea factory) and the third one has buildings that help with defending your base (such as an anti-air cannon or a ground turret). Each building has it's own Ore cost and Energy requirement, which you have to meet in order to build that certain building. More buildings become available as you progress through the game (if you're playing the campaign mode) and upgrade your headquarters Tech level. Some buildings can also be upgraded; the radar tower for example can be upgraded from just showing enemies on the minimap to showing their name tags also.
The different units you can construct are divided into three categories also; you have land, sea and air units. As with other RTS games, some units can't attack an unit of a certain type (the slow but hard-hitting tank for example can't attack air units) but fortunately you can easily see which unit types a certain unit can attack by simply looking at it's information panel. Each unit also has it's own strengths and weaknesses but unfortunately most of the units are just renames of other units; obviously the developers were just trying to squeeze in as many different units as possible. What the player is left with is an assortment of dozens of units which all behave almost identically. Luckily you can easily see the unit attributes by clicking on that certain unit. These attributes contain basic things like armor, speed and firing range but also another interesting (and useful) attribute rarely seen on an RTS game; DPS (damage per second). The DPS shows how much damage the unit does per second (duh) and it's very helpful when trying to create the perfect army. Destroying enough enemy units and/or buildings with an unit levels up that certain unit and raises it's statistics, adding some role-playing elements into the game.
The AI and pathing are very flawed; ordering your unit(s) to attack the enemy for example sends them off to the place where the enemy was standing and once they've reached that point, they start looking for their target. Even if they run into the enemy unit, they just push it off the way (even when using tanks to attack enemy infantry). Very awkward. The paths your units take are always as straight-forward as possible; if there's a lone structure in the path for example, they start shooting at it. Talk about collateral damage. There are also other gameplay quirks littered all over the game. For example in one mission you're tasked with scanning enemy buildings. Once you've found the building and the objective is complete, your units still continue scanning the buildings. "But sir, we have the info right here!" "Screw that and continue scanning everything you see!" The low production values show their ugly face in every corner. Luckily the game is very challenging (not counting the constant battle against the gameplay quirks) and even has an adaptive difficulty mode which makes the game easier or harder depending on how well you do.
Once you're done with the campaign you can continue playing the game with either singleplayer or multiplayer skirmishes. Both skirmish modes support 2-4 players but unfortunately there aren't any factions to choose from; each player uses exactly the same units, only the country name is different. There are lots of variables available to customize the skirmish battles; you can set the map size and it's climate for example and you can even set special mutators. These mutators include things like 'No ICBMs' (the game equivalent for a super weapon) or 'No Mega Units' (special units which cost a lot and usually dominate the battlefield). The skirmish battles are fun and take you back to the glory days of RTS games.
The sounds in the game (other than some annoying unit responses) do their part and deserve no extra attention... Until you start moving your ground vehicles. The sounds these units make while moving are extremely loud and hurt your ears, even if you've set the overall volume so low that you can barely hear the other sounds. Maybe the sound technicians left +30dB switch on when mixing them... Just a hint: do not play this game with your headphones on if you treasure your eardrums. The music in the game tries to be theatrical and it almost succeeds in it; it's just missing the final 'oomph'.
Graphically the game is a blast from the past; it's feels like someone just reinstalled Total Annihilation on your rig! The textures are of very low quality and the explosions and other 'effects' look like some gif -files made out of 2D sprites. True RTS fans don't mind this of course, the best strategy games are 2D. As with graphics of this 'caliber', there are practically no graphical options to tweak. This makes no difference since the game can be smoothly played with almost any computer capable of running Windows XP. Another thing that shows just how 'advanced' the graphics are is the size of the game; it takes only 234MB of HDD space once installed!
Overally the game feels like it was meant to be released in the late 90's; the gameplay is straight from that era along with the 2D sprite-based graphics. If you can close your eyes to the graphics (lolwut?) you're left with an enjoyable strategy game. Unfortunately the low production values and a bit steep price ($20) ensure this game is only for the hardcore RTS fans who grew up with games like Command & Conquer and Total Annihilation. Other gamers who want to experience the legendary RTS gameplay of the 90's should stick with the early Command & Conquer games which are available for free.