If we are to believe movies like Terminator, humankind's destiny ends in destruction at the hands of nefarious machines. If this is to be, let's hope the hyperintelligent robotic brains look to late-20th-century real-time-strategy artificial intelligence to govern their military tactics. At least we might have a fighting chance. Case in point: Acclaim and Charydbis' Machines. This 3D real-time strategy game features enough dazzling visuals for several games of its type, but it's hampered by its been-there-done-that gameplay and poor unit intelligence.
After the fourth world war, humankind's biggest threat becomes overcrowding, as significant medical advances double the life-expectancy rate. When the need for additional resources arises, humans launch numerous "seeder ships" and machines to colonize and harvest alien worlds. A hundred years pass; the machines continue to collect resources and evolve, but humans never arrive to join them. Exhausting all resources, the machines move on to additional worlds, and, after many years, two machine "races" encounter one another in a distant star system. During the confrontation, an artificial intelligence defect causes a galactic war to break out among the machines.
Machines follows basic real-time strategy principles and only breaks the mold with its 3D engine and camera angles. Gameplay involves collecting building material units (BMUs), then utilizing them to research new technology and construct military and builder units. Several basic units are provided, with the more powerful constructors and offensive machines residing high up the technology tree. Unlike the similar Warzone 2100, Machines places greater emphasis on resource collecting and base management. Transports, locator bots, smelters, and mines must be constructed to keep the BMUs flowing and your coffers full.
It's obvious the age of 3D real-time strategy games has finally arrived; Machines' 3D-accelerator-only engine boosts some impressive special effects. Units are completely three-dimensional, and most are wonderfully animated, particularly the spider-like reaper and the intimidating gorilla (one of the coolest-looking RTS units ever). Those are the standouts, though, as many other units look extremely similar to each other and lack discernable features. Unit weapon effects fare better, with a scattering of bright laser beams and smoke-trailing missiles, all with ample doses of colored lighting and adequate sound effects. Terrain features are sparse, with only the occasional small hill or valley to liven things up, and terrain height appears to have little effect on strategy or unit abilities.
The visuals really shine in Machines' two free-floating-camera options. Included are the zenith camera, the default isometric perspective providing the best view of base layout, and the ground camera, a field-level perspective that places you in the middle of the action. But, while the ground camera provides an amazing viewpoint, core game elements, like base and resource management, become nearly impossible. Machines also features a first-person perspective and, much like Activision's action/strategy hybrid Battlezone, lets you hop into and control any of your units. Again, an intriguing gimmick, but one that's not useful, or integral, to gameplay - the machines are too sluggish to control effectively, and you have no way of controlling other base functions while in this view.
Where Machines falters most is in the single-player campaign and unit intelligence. The solo missions feel more like loosely connected skirmish levels than a cleverly woven campaign. With little continuity (often you must research the same technology over and over across several missions) and even less storytelling, Machines' solo offering lacks the rewards to inspire you to continue onward.
As for unit intelligence, the computer-controlled opponent offers little challenge, typically tossing a wave of two or three units at your defenses, rarely doing significant damage until later levels when the quantities are greater and the technologies more powerful. Unfortunately, your own troops aren't much better. A simple three-setting "initiative" meter can be adjusted, but it doesn't affect important gameplay aspects like BMU transports moving to a new mine once their designated resource has been exhausted or a healing machine acting on its own to mend your troops. Instead, they just sit there, waiting patiently for your orders.
Poor unit pathfinding, a bane of real-time strategies, rears its ugly head once again. BMU transports move slow and often get hung up on one another and other base structures when trying to reach their assigned mine or smelter. Further, when ordering your military units around the map, getting them to actually follow the order can be a patience-trying task. Units will stop for no apparent reason or navigate so poorly around objects or terrain features that they'll fall significantly behind the rest of the pack. And the lumbering, mech-like gorilla seems to occasionally walk on an invisible treadmill, a frustrating occurrence during a hectic battle. Pathfinding issues are compounded when engaging in one of the indoor missions; the structure's layout, filled with narrow corridors and tight doorways, is enough to send your machines into pathfinding overload.
Pitting your Machines skills against up to four human opponents can be accomplished over modem, serial, LAN, or TCP/IP connection. In addition to those protocols, a matchmaking lobby has been set up at Microsoft's Internet Gaming Zone - so finding an online adversary shouldn't be too difficult. Multiplayer gameplay has some interesting features, such as the spy unit, which can covertly plant explosives in enemy structures, and the need to build special locator units to discover resources. Numerous options and game styles (including "gorilla jousting") help diversify the action and strategy, but apart from the 3D engine and colorful visuals, not much new ground has been broken here. There's only one army of machines to choose from - though the colors are different, each player receives the same units and technology tree.
For players new to the real-time strategy genre, Machines might be a worthy entry point. The single-player game starts off quite easy and doesn't really offer a challenge until well into the campaign. Veteran players, however, won't be impressed, apart from the camera angles and pyrotechnics, and will be less forgiving of the game's pathfinding and AI shortcomings.