Released four years ago, the original Ground Control was an excellent real-time strategy game set in a sci-fi universe, though it never reached the popularity level of the big-name RTS games like Starcraft or the Command & Conquer series. Nevertheless, it made quite an impact in the genre with its gorgeous 3D engine, which was both powerful and flexible enough to support large maps along with the ability to zoom in to your units to get a look at the action up close. The sequel, Ground Control II: Operation Exodus, keeps this signature element while delivering a stunning presentation coupled with solid gameplay and a lengthy campaign.
The game's story puts you in the role of Jacob Angelus, a captain in the Northern Star Alliance. Your home planet, Morningstar Prime, is currently under siege by Imperial Terran forces led by the ruthless Imperator Vlaana. As you make your way through the campaign, an alien race, known as the Virons, will eventually get involved in both sides of the conflict. The game includes a pair of linear, 12-mission campaigns where you'll control the NSA forces and then the Virons. Though the storyline behooves you to play the campaigns in that order, you may choose to start on either campaign at the outset of the game.
As mentioned before, the most striking aspect of Ground Control II is its beautiful graphics engine. Maps are suitably large and vast with rolling terrain and thickets of lush forest. Bodies of water shimmer and reflect sunlight--images that take advantage of the advanced capabilities of the latest graphics cards. The units themselves are extremely detailed--they are fully articulated with moving parts and they can be seen rocking back as their cannons fire. You can also see infantry carrying miscellaneous pieces of equipment, such as the massive backpacks of ammo carried by NSA siege infantry. And if you zoom in close enough to foot soldiers, you can actually hear them marching across hard ground. While it is true that you lose a lot of this detail while you're zoomed out (which is more ideal for actually controlling the game), battles still seem suitably epic as you see opposing sides light up the field with missiles and streams of tracer fire. Artillery is especially impressive, like the shells that arc high overhead before crashing down.
The game's sound effects are also excellent: missiles whoosh toward their targets and artillery fire rumbles as it impacts the ground. The NSA siege infantry's miniguns sound particularly fearsome when they go into fully automatic mode, pouring out a fusillade of death. Ground Control II's soundtrack is equal to its sound effects, offering pumping rock tunes that get you amped up for battle. You'll also receive constant reports on the battlefield about various positions that are being attacked and overrun, similar to what you would hear over the course of a match in Battlefield 1942. These reports help keep the mood appropriately tense as you ride the razor's edge between victory and defeat. About the only aspect bringing the game's audio down a bit would be the voice acting. There's a lot of it, as characters interact extensively before, during, and after missions, but some may find Captain Angelus' thick British accent a little cheesy or even farcical. His compatriot, Lieutenant (or "leftenant" as Angelus calls her) LaCroix, also sports a seemingly forced French accent.
Ground Control II's gameplay style doesn't follow the mold of most RTS games. There's no base building involved, so you don't have to worry about managing an economy or a tech tree. Reinforcements are called in via dropship, and you must have control of at least one landing zone on the battlefield to receive these extra troops. Over the course of a battle, you're slowly fed acquisition points that you can use to purchase new troops or upgrade your dropship in various aspects, such as cargo space, speed, fuel capacity, armor, and weapons. If you have a large standing army, the acquisition points come in very slowly, and if your forces are few, they'll build up more quickly. You can also earn more acquisition points by destroying enemy units in battle and by capturing and holding special spots on the map called victory locations.
One of the more interesting strategic aspects of the game is the ability to have your dropship stay on station at the landing zone to assist in defense against incoming forces. It's powerful enough to turn the tide of an attack, so using your dropship in battle can have important strategic consequences. The ship has a finite amount of fuel, however, so when it's out it will return to its off-screen base automatically. The dropship is also vulnerable to fire, so if it's destroyed, you'll be unable to call in reinforcements for a period of time until you get a new one.
The environment plays a big role in Ground Control II's tactics. Units on elevated ground get defensive bonuses. Infantry can hole up in buildings such as guard towers and bunkers for a defensive boost as well; the game even allows you to pick which side of the building the infantry will defend. Infantry are also the only units that can go into forests, which is where they can hide out of line of sight and also gain defensive bonuses. Special gun emplacements are also scattered around the maps. Some of these, like the flamethrowers, are specialized for taking out infantry while others include large cannons that are more suited for blowing up vehicles. You can use engineer units to repair any damaged emplacements you find, and you can have any one of your infantry man the turret. These emplacements, like bunkers and other buildings, cannot be fully destroyed, but concentrated fire can kill any infantry inside.
Aside from environmental factors, the game models the armor thickness of your vehicles. Flanking maneuvers, therefore, become a useful strategy, as you can typically do much more damage to a vehicle from the side or behind. Your units also gain experience through combat, reflected in stripe and star symbols that you can see above each unit when selected. Experienced units are more effective than new ones, so it pays to keep your troops alive when possible. In skirmish and multiplayer modes, you even have the option of calling in air strikes, which you pay for with acquisition points.
All of these nifty gameplay features wouldn't mean much if not for Ground Control II's lengthy and varied campaigns. Although they're entirely linear, the mission design is fairly interesting. In most cases, you'll be managing multiple fronts, trying to simultaneously lead attacks on Terran strongholds while fending off attacks to your rear flanks. The game's artificial intelligence seems smart enough to find any holes in your defense to sneak strike forces through and attack your more lightly defended landing zones and victory locations. The result is a satisfyingly frenetic pace, which should challenge most RTS veterans. You'll also be fighting alongside allied commanders in many missions, including NSA comrades Lieutenant LaCroix, Major Grant, and later on, Viron allies. These commanders are entirely self-reliant, and they are able to manage their own dropships and reinforcements while attacking and capturing victory locations on their own.
The designers at Massive Entertainment mix up the gameplay well over the course of the campaigns. One mission is a stealth exercise where you must hijack an enemy vehicle to sneak in and steal data from a Terran base. Another mission will have you on the run from an overwhelming force of Terran pursuers as you try to escort an important armored personnel carrier to an escape point. In order to keep from getting overrun, the mission forces you to strategically drop off your limited troops at various choke points in order to slow down the cadre of enemies on your tail. Another mission in the Viron campaign has you navigating a maze of swamps to collect gas canisters as Terran harassers roam the same swamps trying to destroy your objectives.
Most of the game's 24 missions take between 20 minutes to an hour, not counting any reloads. Unlike the first Ground Control, you can save your progress in the middle of any mission in Ground Control II, and considering the difficulty of some of the missions, you'll be glad you can. The campaign should keep most players busy for quite a while, but once you're done with it you can still play against up to seven computer or human opponents in skirmish mode using the game's multiplayer maps. You can also play any of the single-player missions in cooperative mode with up to three players.
The NSA and the Virons are the only two playable factions in Ground Control II. The former represents your typical humanoid science fiction army with an array of different infantry types, ground vehicles, and aircraft. Each unit in the game has a secondary function, though, which contributes to the strategy and variety. To give a couple of examples, NSA light infantry has a regular assault rifle for their primary attack while their secondary mode lets them shoot antivehicle rockets from a stationary position. The standard "liberator terradyne" is a fast-moving tank with a cannon for taking out vehicles. Its secondary mode is a machine gun that's extremely effective against infantry.
The Virons are a race of aliens with biological "vehicles" called centruroids. Overall, Viron units fill many of the same roles as those of the NSA and Terran, with artillery, antiaircraft, antivehicle, and other specialists. What makes the Virons unique is their ability to meld. Two similar Viron units can meld together into a different type of unit to fill a different role. That melded unit can also unmeld to split apart again into its two component units. One example would be melding two missile infantry Virons into a mortar infantry unit. Whereas the original units were effective against aircraft and vehicles, the resulting unit is great at long-range attacks. The ability to meld and unmeld gives the Viron army greater flexibility than the NSA.
The multiplayer aspect of Ground Control II uses a player matching service called MassGate. It has basic functions, such as chat, a friends list, and a list of available games and servers to join. There's also a ladder which will allow players to track their record and rank. Online games feel pretty smooth for the most part, and the game is quite enjoyable even with only two races from which to choose. Since there's no need to worry about an economy or resource gathering, matches are usually wall-to-wall action. The only caveat is that the game ships with just 10 multiplayer maps, but with the included map editor, hopefully Ground Control II's player community will be able to flesh out the map list more over time.
There's a lot to like about Ground Control II, though the game isn't without a few relatively minor shortcomings. The free-form camera will take some getting used to, particularly for players accustomed to a fixed camera like in most RTS games (novice RTS gamers may find it entirely unwieldy). There's an option for a camera mode that fixes the view angle, but at some point, most players will find that camera style too restrictive. It's also disappointing that the Terran race, which factors into the campaigns, isn't actually playable, even in multiplayer. From the single-player campaign, it's obvious that the Terrans have a number of interesting units, such as hovercraft that can cross water and mechlike "striders" armed with missiles and cannons. Few RTS games today only offer you a pair of playable races, but with each of the NSA and Viron units having secondary modes along with the Virons' ability to meld, there should be enough variety here to keep most players satisfied for a good while.
Overall, Ground Control II comes together as a great game, offering excellent graphics, a lengthy and varied single-player campaign, and multiplayer action that is fun and direct. It's clearly one of the best real-time strategy games so far this year.