Real-time strategy game designers face a difficult task: If their game stays too closely within the path laid down by Red Alert and Warcraft II, it is sure to be criticized for being derivative. On the other hand, if they tinker with the formulas of those classic games, they may find themselves outside the familiar and comfortable bounds of the genre, and thus, without an audience. The only solution - one which is very rarely achieved - is to create a game that is instantly accessible to real-time strategy gamers, but which at the same time offers new and significant innovations that take the experience beyond its previous limits and into the realm of the new and unexpected.
Dark Reign is such a game. At first glance (and at first play) Dark Reign appears to be little more than a Red Alert clone - experienced players will certainly have a sense of deja vu at their first encounter with the game's visual presentation, sound effects, and single-player missions. However, two or three hours of play (or completion of the advanced online tutorials) reveal a real-time strategy game that is, in many respects, altogether different from its predecessors.
The reason that Dark Reign is such a success is twofold: First, it fixes almost everything that was wrong with its most obvious influence, Red Alert. Take unit production, for example. Where Red Alert required you to manually select each unit to be produced, Dark Reign lets you create a production queue for as many units as you wish. Not only that, it also allows you to set an exit point for units produced by a particular building. The result is that you can create and group entire divisions of troops anywhere on the map with just a few clicks of the mouse - freeing your mind to concentrate on more important matters. Another example: One of the most frustrating aspects of Red Alert was the tendency of units to be drawn away from their selected position by enemy attacks. In Dark Reign, you can instruct your units to attack without moving. This greatly enhances the effectiveness of defensive unit placement, as well as the offensive deployment of artillery units. These types of subtle improvements, which are the obvious result of long and careful thought about what did and didn't work in earlier real-time strategy games, permeate Dark Reign, and make it a true pleasure to play.
But Dark Reign does more than overcome the shortcomings of earlier titles. It also introduces major new strategic options that greatly enhance the depth of the gaming experience. The two most important innovations are the inclusion of a very sophisticated waypoint system, which lets you easily dictate the paths which your troops will follow, and an AI control panel, which allows you to set general parameters for troop behavior and responses to specific situations.
The waypoint system is easy to use and remarkably flexible, with application to a wide variety of offensive, defensive, and reconnaissance initiatives. You can specify an attack path to maximize stealth and efficiency, create elaborate patrol schemes to protect key areas and root out intruders, or send scouts to search just those areas of the map that are still uncovered. You can even save paths to allow quick and easy assignment of new troops to an existing set of orders. After a short while using the waypoint system, you will wonder how real-time strategy games ever got along without it.
The AI control panel is equally impressive. It allows you to tell your troops to guard a specific location, harass enemy troops using gun-and-run tactics, scout out hidden areas of the map, or to seek "kill or be killed" encounters with the enemy. Even better, you can dictate to your troops how aggressively to pursue enemy units they encounter and how much damage to take before returning to a repair facility.
Both the waypoint system and AI panel are powerful when used alone, but when used in conjunction with one another, they allow you to execute extremely complex strategic maneuvers. For example, you could send a unit group along a path into the enemy base, then give them orders to search and destroy and to retreat to a repair facility after taking minimal damage. They will reach the base, spread out, and then quickly retreat, drawing out the enemy troops in the process. By careful placement of the repair facility to which they are returning (buildings can be placed anywhere on the map), the pursuing enemies could be drawn directly into an ambush, carried out by a second group located in a highly favorable position, with orders not to move from it. Meanwhile, a third formation could be sent along a set path into the heart of the weakly defended enemy base, with their end point near a critical installation (such as a power plant), which they can then attack, crippling the base.
This level of strategic depth would be enough in and of itself to recommend Dark Reign. But there is much more to consider. The unit design in particular is worth noting, as it offers exceptional variety and balance while at the same time maintaining a clear (and consistent) distinction between the two sides. The computer AI is quite good, attacking in swarms, retreating when outnumbered or outgunned, and brutally impervious to basic tank-rush tactics. Dark Reign's dual resource management (one earns money, the other speeds production) adds yet another degree of depth to the game.
The only components that are somewhat disappointing are Dark Reign's line-of-sight and 3D terrain features. While both work to a degree, neither has quite the impact on gameplay that one would expect. While the slope (as well as the composition) of the terrain does clearly affect unit movement speed, it rarely matters that one takes the "high" ground - range and accuracy of weapons are negligibly affected (if at all), and the increase in visual range is minor. And while the line-of-sight feature does offer a new twist on enemy encounters, it's more of an annoyance than anything else.
All this may sound like a lot to take in, and it is. Fortunately, Dark Reign includes an excellent series of tutorials that gently introduce you to the game's many unique facets. It's also comforting to know that it is not necessary to understand all, or even most, of Dark Reign's more subtle features in the early missions - experienced gamers will be able to start playing without even reading the manual. The game presents the player with a smooth and steady learning curve, and by the later missions, you will be well equipped to take full advantage of all of the strategic options at your disposal.
Even once you've mastered the solo missions, you'll still get plenty more out of the game. The multiplayer version, which supports up to eight players on a LAN, four players over the Internet, and two players using a direct modem connection, is extremely easy to use. Just click on multiplayer, and within moments you'll be logged onto the Dark Reign Server, where matches are continually launched.
Another of Dark Reign's special features is its bundled construction kit. With it, you can (relatively) easily construct your own levels and maps, complete with any terrain, buildings, or features you want, as well as set unit distribution, behavior, and stats. While most players will find the bundled multiplayer maps (there are some 20 in all, including maps designed specifically for various numbers of players) to be more than enough, the construction kit ensures that new maps will be continually available on the Web.
There is much more that could be said about Dark Reign, but potential buyers of the game have surely heard enough already. This is one of the best real-time strategy games ever (Total Annihilation and the upcoming Starcraft are the two potential contemporary competitors) and one of the most impressive games released this year in any genre. We'll be playing it for many months to come.