Just a little more than a year ago, it seemed that most every game on the horizon was another real-time strategy game, each with its own "hook," a gimmick that would set it slightly apart from the dozens of other like-minded games around it. But Total Annihilation and Starcraft proved that a simple hook was not enough. The former, with its new approach to the mechanics of the genre, and the latter, emphasizing refinement and content, showed that a slight change to a formula was not enough to create a memorable game.
In the wake of the real-time deluge, several other games took the real-time strategy game's basic mechanics (build, harvest, destroy) and used them to create a new kind of experience, the action/strategy hybrid or the first-person strategy game. Of these, Cyclone Studios' Uprising and Activision's Battlezone were the most notable. The only thing lacking from these games was a way to access the big picture. Trapped in a first-person, ground-level view, it was easy to long for a means to simply sit back and command your troops from the more familiar top-down perspective.
This intriguing game hopes to combine the best of both worlds. Coming this spring from Acclaim and Charybdis Ltd. (not to be confused Charybdis Enterprises, the makers of iPanzer '44 and iM1A2 Abrams), Machines is three-quarters Total Annihilation and one-quarter Battlezone. Your basic mechanics are much like the typical real-time strategy game. You begin by gathering resources and setting up a base. There is one slight difference here, though: You must actually hunt for resources using a sensor-equipped scout. Once your base is up and running, you begin building troops and sending them off to war.
Your troops in Machines are, perhaps not surprisingly, machines - a collection of tanks and robotic walkers, the latter ranging from Mech-like bipeds to insect-like units. There's no avalanche of units as in Total Annihilation, but are there are a fair number - a few dozen, counting all the subtypes. It's these subtypes that are particularly interesting; research lets you create more powerful versions of units you already possess, giving you a variety of different options in weapons, armor, and mobility.
Research in the game doesn't follow the typical structure of the genre. To research new technologies, you must build research labs. There are different labs for civilian and military research. To actually begin researching new technologies, you must build techheads, weak units that simply work in your labs, and you choose what technologies they'll research.
The technology element of Machines is one of its most intriguing aspects. You can sneak into other players' bases and actually steal the technology they've accrued, provided you can get one of your own units safely into their research labs.
This brings us to the point where Machines stops being your typical real-time strategy game. Borrowing from games like Battle zone and Uprising, Machines lets you jump into any of your units and control them at any time. Beyond this, you can actually walk into your own - or enemy - buildings. The game can be viewed from a standard, top-down perspective. But the 3D nature of the Machines engine lets you rotate and zoom the camera to any point, and you can even place the camera on the ground and zoom around your base. As in Total Annihilation, the 3D nature of the game lends itself to the map as well, allowing for tactical elevation advantages and the like.
The ability to view the game from any position is a useful option, and it doesn't hurt that Machines is graphically impressive. The polygonal units employ detailed animations, as do the buildings, which move and churn and produce smoke. Machines is 3D accelerated via Direct3D, so you're also treated to some nice lighting effects, such as the green bolt of an ion cannon or the white flash that lights up an area when builders are welding a new structure together.
Machines has a great deal going for it. It takes many of the innovations first seen in Total Annihilation, combines them with the unit personalities of Starcraft, and adds a number of its own interesting features, not the least of which are its 3D graphics or the ability to enter buildings or units to control them. But a great strategy game is more than the sum of its parts. It takes an excellent implementation of its features to make a good single-player game and a precise balance to keep multiplayer interesting (Machines will support four players over a LAN or the Internet). Machines has all the right ingredients. Let's hope they come together to make a satisfying whole.