Ground Control II: Operation Exodus Final Hands-On Impressions

Here's our last take on the retail version of Ground Control II before the review.

We've had a chance to try out the final release version of Ground Control II over the last several days. The game is about a day away from retail release, so these will be our final preview impressions before the review. As with its predecessor, Ground Control II seems to make the greatest impact with its superb graphics engine. The game isn't all looks and no substance, though. From what we've played, Ground Control II offers a solid gameplay experience with a long 24-mission campaign that should keep real-time strategy fans busy for quite a while.

You'll be fighting in quite a variety of different environments.

The game's superb 3D graphics engine renders very large maps complete with rolling terrain, such as hills, mountains, and deep canyons spanned by strategically important bridges. Environments are varied; sometimes you'll be fighting in temperate regions full of thick forests in which you can hide. Urban areas with bombed-out factories and skyscrapers are also available. You'll also fight in lush swamps with winding rivers as well as in desolate arctic areas complete with falling snow. The most striking aspect of the environments is the way the game renders water, particularly the way it shimmers and reflects sunlight and any nearby structures on the surface.

Unit detail is also quite evident, and many of the vehicles have moving parts. You'll see artillery aim their cannons skyward before firing their glowing projectiles in majestic arcs through the air. Tank cannons recoil when fired, and armored personnel carriers shoot tongues of flame to engulf oncoming infantry. While most of this detail can be enjoyed when zoomed in, most people will play the game zoomed out, so as to see as much of the battlefield as possible. Even with the camera set up high, Ground Control II maintains a lot of its graphical beauty.

The gameplay focuses entirely on fighting. As is becoming more common in RTS games of late, there is no base construction in Ground Control II, nor is there any resource-gathering. Instead, you'll steadily earn acquisition points that you can use to buy new units. These are delivered from offscreen via dropship to any landing zones you have control over. You can also use acquisition points to upgrade your dropship in various ways, such as expanding its cargo hold to deliver more troops and units per trip. The dropship can also play a role in combat, as it will automatically attack enemy units it sees on the way to and around the landing zone. You can actually instruct the dropship to remain and assist with defense, making it a key strategic consideration. However, if you're careless and allow your ship to be destroyed, you will be without reinforcements for a short time until you're assigned a new dropship.

Infantry can hole up in forests or buildings for defensive bonuses.

The rate at which you gain acquisition points depends on a couple of factors. The larger your standing army, the slower you'll gain points. If you already have a massive army with dozens of units, your flow of points may slow to a trickle or even stop entirely. Gaining control of special areas on the map called victory locations will increase your flow of acquisition points, allowing you to build up a larger army.

Once in battle, you're faced with a number of tactical considerations aside from employing proper unit counters. The game takes elevation into account, affording proper bonuses to units on high ground. Infantry can take up residence in buildings for defensive bonuses as well as hide in forests for similar bonuses and to hide from line of sight. Unit facing is also important, as vehicles have thinner armor in the sides and to the rear than they do in the front. In practice, flanking maneuvers actually do pay off, as vehicles can be destroyed much more quickly from the rear. There are also static gun emplacements that can be repaired and captured for use.

From what we've played of the campaign, Ground Control II also offers a good variety of mission types. Some missions will have you fighting a multiple front battle alongside allied commanders who control their own troops and dropships and who pursue their own objectives independently. The second mission actually has you and allies storming a heavily defended beach as you desperately try to rush inland and capture a landing zone to ferry in reinforcements. Other missions involve prison rescues, base attacks, and sieges.

Based on what we've played so far, Ground Control II feels like a solid sci-fi, real-time strategy game, packed with gorgeous graphics and solid gameplay mechanics. Our only qualms so far would be that the game only includes two playable races, and the free camera control takes a little while to get used to. Stay tuned to GameSpot for a full review of Ground Control II in the near future.

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