Massive Assault was a game that had a lot of potential but only partially realized it. Released last October, Massive Assault looked like a 3D real-time strategy game but played like a streamlined turn-based wargame. It featured some interesting gameplay ideas and was easy to learn but challenging to master. In fact, it was often too challenging, what with its nonadjustable artificial intelligence and imbalanced scenarios that were often so tough that they made the game more punishing than fun. Fortunately, you could also play against humans via hotseat, or you could engage in play-by-e-mail-style games, thus avoiding these problems. Now, developer Wargaming.net has released an updated yet very similar version of Massive Assault called Massive Assault Network. It tries to avoid some of the problems found in the original game by simply jettisoning most of the single-player component and only slightly upgrading the multiplayer options. With these changes, Massive Assault Network isn't so much a step forward as it is a step sideways--or even backward.
One of the biggest differences between Massive Assault and Massive Assault Network is simply a new pricing and delivery scheme. The new game is available in a trial format as a free download and features a simple offline tutorial, three scenarios against the AI, and unlimited skirmish play versus the AI or humans on a single, small map. Paying for a monthly subscription grants you access to naval units and eight maps for online play--and more is scheduled for later release. A subscription also lets you play in tournaments, track your online stats, and rise higher in the posted rankings than players of the trial version.
Both the trial and full versions are compatible with the original Massive Assault, since the game engine and gameplay are essentially identical. It's a shame there are no new units or game modes in Massive Assault Network, but then again, the original Massive Assault gameplay was pretty well honed. The game is turn-based, and while you don't see hexes all over the map, Massive Assault Network is essentially a hex-based game. Whenever you select a unit, little circles light up on the map, revealing a grid of potential movement destinations. A large red circle also appears to show the extent of your selected unit's weapons range.
During each turn, you move your units in any order, choosing from their available grid positions. The game takes on a chesslike feel, since each type of unit can only move a particular number of grid spaces each turn; also, ground units can't move through an occupied space. This makes coordinating your forces and effectively blocking enemy units quite tricky. To make things more complex, only certain units can fire over friendly units.
After you've made your moves, you can instruct each unit to fire on the enemies of your choice, if the enemy units are in range. Then you click a button to end your turn, after which your opponent moves and attacks. You can watch the resulting animations at different speeds, or you can simply skip to the end to see the final outcome.
You'll get to fight with clomping mechs, sleek bombers, wheeled missile launchers and more. Vehicles break down into ground, air, sea, and amphibious units, and you also get fixed defensive towers. Each unit has just a few straightforward stats, and each side gets equivalent units that only differ cosmetically.
Massive Assault Network is about more than just the tactics involved with moving units around. There are interesting strategic elements, too, so you'll have to decide exactly what units to purchase at what point, since you get only limited revenues from certain territories. A major strategic twist that's a Massive Assault hallmark is the way you select your starting territories from a number of possibilities and then get to reveal secret allied territories as the match progresses. Your choices can dramatically change the ebb and flow of combat on each map, and they can turn your enemy's well-made plans around. This adds a lot of strategic interest and replayability to what's otherwise a fairly simple game.
One of the best things about the original Massive Assault was its user-friendliness, which remains more or less intact. You still get the generous undo and rewind buttons, which let you try out different tactics before choosing to end your current turn. You also still get helpful optional prompts when making key game decisions--or when you forget to make them (as the case may be).
You also get eight brief tutorial missions and three brief scenarios versus the AI. These still don't cover everything you need to know, because they focus on basic movement and combat concepts rather than on strategy. Unbelievably, the game doesn't come with a manual. As a result, you'll have to root around on the official Web site for answers, or you can search through a hard-to-read text file that's littered with html tags. You can hit F1 for help screens, but you probably wouldn't know this without having played the original Massive Assault.
The AI now has three difficulty settings (previously added in a patch to the original game). This makes the tutorial missions and three scenarios a breeze, but even on the easiest setting, the AI is still utterly unrelenting in the skirmish mode. Many players will likely find matches more discouraging than fun. On the bright side, Massive Assault Network lets you play online games against three official mentors. The mentor we played was friendly enough but didn't actually mentor us; he never even offered any advice or hints until we asked him if he was supposed to do so.
You can battle these mentors or other players over the Internet with a system akin to play-by-e-mail. The game automates the process for you, letting you send and receive turns through a central server and a smooth interface. Massive Assault Network has removed the hotseat option, and there's still no way to play a truly live match, like in some other turn-based strategy games, but you will find beefed-up opponent-finding options. Now you can engage in real-time chat, send messages, and issue public challenges to any players who meet the criteria you select. Additionally, you can send out private challenges to specific players. These are nice features, but since it was easy to find numerous online matches in the original Massive Assault, it's hard to get excited about these upgrades.
Outside of some slightly upgraded planet and sky textures, the presentation of Massive Assault Network is the same as in the original game. Once again, the game leaves a lot to be desired stylistically. There's no story, and the setting and units feel utterly anonymous and generic. Also, there's still only one voice-over artist for the whole game, and it's the same woman who did the voice work for the first game. With her very heavy Eastern European accent, "win" comes out as "ween," and "enemy" can sound like "enema." This sure ruins the mood in a hurry.
Despite these failings, the graphics at least look sharp and reasonably attractive. Everything is vibrantly colored, weapons fire, and explosions look dramatic. Furthermore, lots of little details, like waves lapping against beaches and trees swaying in the breeze, make for some pretty scenes. You can easily zoom, rotate, and pan the camera to get the best view of the action. The music and sound effects (outside of the voice-overs) are likewise solid, even if they fail to give the game any sort of distinctive ambience.
Massive Assault Network is an odd release. On the one hand, the gameplay is as interesting, challenging, and addictive as ever. Strategy lovers who are looking for something different should certainly check out either the original game or the free trial version of this new one. On the other hand, Massive Assault Network is ultimately just a simple retread of the first Massive Assault--but with very little to entice existing fans. It fixes few, if any, of the major problems found in the original and inexplicably ditches most of the single-player game. Why not improve and expand it? The new multiplayer features are nice enough, but the changes in Massive Assault Network are relatively small and would have made more sense if they had been released as a patch to the original game rather than as a separate, new release. Like the original Massive Assault, Massive Assault Network has a lot of potential but fails to fully realize it.