Extreme Tactics Preview

Stephen Poole takes a peek under the hood of Media Station's upcoming real-timer, which will allow you to design and build your own mobile war units

Game developers working on real-time strategy games have a heavy burden to bear: Not only must they create a strong game with great replay value, but they also have to convince the gaming public that their product isn't just another knockoff of Red Alert or Warcraft II.

Extreme Tactics is a perfect example. It's clear that this game owes a debt to Red Alert - the storyline centers on two factions locked in a struggle over coolar crystals, the single remaining source of energy on the a distant planet called Calibria - but to dismiss it as simply another Red Alert clone would be a big mistake. Yes, coolar sounds a lot like tiberium, but once you look past that similarity you'll find that Extreme Tactics is very much its own game.

The most unique feature of Extreme Tactics is that you have complete control over what units will be available for construction during each battle. You're not restricted to a predefined roster of units; instead, you're able to build vehicles from the ground up and make radical modifications to existing units, then start churning out your drawing-board wonders once the action starts.

Whether designing a new vehicle or modifying an existing one, you're able to choose its chassis, weapons loadout, shield types, tread styles, and stealth and enemy detection capabilities. The result is that you can create units with highly specialized capabilities, from mammoth war machines with incredible firepower and massive shielding (but without even rudimentary stealth technology) to speedy, almost invisible reconnaissance craft that put a premium on flight over fight. Toss in the differences in construction times for each unit, and it's easy to see how you could spend hours coming up with the perfect complement of units to suit your strategic and tactical style.

Using some of these weapons and defensive capabilities, though, requires the construction of "power relay stations." It's one thing to design a vehicle with shields on it, but until you deploy a Shield Power Relay Station the shields won't work - and if your opponent blows up the station, then all of the shields on all your vehicles are knocked out. Erecting a station is a simple matter of sending out a vehicle that automatically transforms into the appropriate structure, but defending it adds yet another ingredient to the strategic mix.

The amount of freedom you have in unit design is enough to have any real-time strategy fan drooling for action, but your sphere of control doesn't end there. Extreme Tactics offers a broad array of AI options that defines how each unit moves and fights. In the preview version there are twenty AI options covering movement, combat and pursuit, targeting, repair, formations, and post-combat (after an enemy has been destroyed). A vehicle with more than one weapon mounted, for instance, can be "programmed" to fire all of its weapons at a single target or to spread its firepower out among all enemies in range - and if you want to override and fire a single weapon on a unit, you can do it with the press of a function key.

Making things even more interesting is the inclusion of "specialty units" such as miners, scavengers, and repair vehicles. Miners head for any mine entrance they see and begin extracting ore (hence the name), and what makes them so crucial is that metal is just as precious as coolar when it comes to manufacturing new units. Scavengers collect wreckage of destroyed vehicles for use in construction, augmenting the miners' efforts and adding yet another unique element to gameplay. And repair vehicles can be sent around the battlefield, moving in to assist damaged friendlies as soon as they come into view.

With so many potential unit types to control, being able to manage all your resources effectively is obviously a decisive factor in achieving victory. Fortunately, a "battalions" feature allows you to place like units in specific groups, making it easy to marshal your forces with only a few mouse clicks. Need to build a medium-sized assault unit, but you don't want to scroll through every single unit in your order of battle? Then click on "medium assault" (or whatever you named the battalion of medium-sized attack units) and choose just the right one for your specific needs.

Need another unique touch? OK, how about the ability to use "pods," or drone vehicles, to infiltrate enemy units by means of a computer virus? Once a pod has infected an enemy vehicle, you're able to see the area all around it, even as the enemy controls it. Infect a miner, for instance, and as it heads back to the enemy base, it will expose the terrain for you (as in most real-time strategy games, you have to move over terrain to see it on the big map). If the infected enemy unit has attack capability, you can click on it to take control and launch a surprise assault in the heart of the enemy base; if it's just a miner or scavenger, send it toward your nearest unit for immediate destruction.

Extreme Tactics will have the usual multiplayer support of most real-time strategy games - modem, LAN, and Internet play are all planned - but Media Station says that until it has signed up with a publisher there's no way to predict on what service, if any, Net players will enjoy the game (a spokesperson did say the company was currently leaning toward making it available on Mplayer, however). Four-player games are supported, with up to three computer or human opponents. System requirements? Not too imposing: Though it's a bit early to make a guarantee, Media Station says it projects that Extreme Tactics will run on a 90MHz Pentium with 16MB RAM and a fast video card.

There's no ironclad guarantee that Extreme Tactics will deliver all it promises. Media Station promises that over the next few months special attention will be paid to play balance, vehicle movement, enemy AI, technology levels, new terrain objects, additional weapons and vehicles, explosion and projectile art, and vehicle animation, to name just a few areas. Even so, the preview version proves that Extreme Tactics will explore new areas in real-time strategy gaming, and that alone makes it worth keeping an eye on as it evolves over the next few months.

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