With so many real-time strategy games on store shelves, it doesn't taking a marketing wizard to realize how important it is for a publisher to come up with some distinct feature that makes its product stand out from the crowd. That's precisely what Media Station did with Extreme Tactics: In addition to the usual routine of collecting raw materials, constructing units, and embarking on military conquests, the game gives you complete control over the design of all your units - everything from selecting the chassis and weapons loadout to defining how the units behave during combat.
It might sound like a simple change to the RTS formula - so simple, in fact, that you might wonder why it hasn't been done before. But the ramifications of such a design are incredibly far-reaching, especially for multiplayer games. Because your opponents have no idea what type of weapons or defensive apparatus your units will be carrying, they can't simply crank out units for the dreaded tank rush; if they do, they run the risk of facing a unit you've designed that's all but impervious to their weapons.
What makes this feature even more impressive is how well it's been implemented: Creating or modifying a unit is a straightforward process of choosing a chassis (five available for each clan) and transport (treads, wheels, walkers, etc. - four per clan), then dragging and dropping weapons, shields, and specialized detection devices into open bays on the chassis. Larger chassis have more bays, naturally, but they also take longer to construct and move more slowly than smaller units.
Except for the chassis types, not all this stuff is available from the get-go; you'll only gain access to advanced features like heat-seeking missiles, cloaking devices, radar, antimagnetic shields, and hover jets when you reach certain technology levels. (You can adjust the tech level to any setting in a multiplayer game, however.) Complicating matters further are relay stations: Unless you've deployed the appropriate relay station - weapons, detection, shielding, stealth, transport, and tech (which enables units called "pods" to implant viruses in enemy vehicles that put them under your control) - you can't use the corresponding equipment.
You can imagine how deep the design process can become - but Extreme Tactics doesn't stop there. Once you've constructed a unit, you're able to set AI routines for its movement, repair, combat, and targeting. The choices for each parameter are simple and logical: When setting movement, for instance, you can make a unit ignore enemies en route to its destination; avoid moving within firing range of known threats; fire on the enemy but continue moving; or enter into combat mode and follow the AI selections you've made there.
And believe me, you have to think long and hard over some of these choices. Set a unit to return to a repair station when it takes 50 percent damage, and it might bug out just as it's about to deliver the coup de grace - but if you set the damage higher, there's a good chance the unit will be blasted to smithereens because its shields aren't strong enough to withstand the pounding it'll take from pursuing enemies as it returns for repairs.
Compared with the depth of the unit-design feature, the story leading up to the action is a little on the thin side; then again, about the only prerequisite for an RTS is two factions who've got some reason to annihilate one another. In this case, the combatants are the Hammerhawk and Bloodfox clans, both struggling to gain control of a precious mineral called coolar - the last energy source on their homeworld of Calibria. Because of pollution and atmospheric changes, both clans now live in domed, underground cities - but the sticky wicket is that the coolar is up on the inhospitable surface.
The Hammerhawk wants to harvest the remaining coolar to power a fleet of starships to escape the dying planet; the Bloodfox clan is dead set on sticking it out on Calibria. From within the safety of mobile command centers, robotic military units and utility vehicles are guided by remote control - and you're the one doing the controlling. While this story doesn't really take twists as you progress through the game, it at least explains how one person is able to quickly issue commands to a roving band of units.
In short, Extreme Tactics looks to have the makings of a grade-A title. But in spite of the myriad possibilities the unit-design feature brings to gameplay and its wonderfully simple interface, Extreme Tactics is likely to disappoint many real-time strategy fans. Simply put, many of the things that have been gained by allowing you to create your own units are offset by numerous flaws in gameplay.
One of the first annoyances you'll discover is that there's no in-game option to disable the long-winded intro sequences; you have to edit the game's INI file if you don't want to wait two minutes to start playing. Unfortunately, if you do that you won't get to see the animated briefing sequence for each mission - it's all or nothing when it comes to the movies. Actually, that's no big loss - the briefing animations are dreary and uninspired anyway, and you can read a brief description of your mission goals at any time. But you also have to edit the INI file to modify several things - graphics detail, port addresses, scrolling speed, and screen shake - that you'd normally (and reasonably) expect to alter from within the game.
Terrain graphics are flat and sometimes garish, ranging in quality from merely adequate (desert terrain) to downright ugly (arctic terrain). The vehicles look better, but you'll quickly discover that it's disgustingly hard to differentiate between unit types, especially if they have the same chassis. Many of them look similar at first glance, and because no unit name is displayed when you select them, the only way you can tell some of them apart is by checking to see which weapons they're carrying.
Deploying your units is no breeze, either. When the map is zoomed out, smaller units have a strange habit of positioning themselves almost completely off the battlefield map. This forces you to zoom in to select them - and the zoom-in mode shows so little of the battlefield that it's almost useless except for watching a melee. Another flaw of the zoom-in mode is that you can't scroll the battlefield display when selecting a group of units - you're limited to selecting only those in view, even if the unit you wish to include is a stone's throw away.
Once you do marshal your units into groups and move 'em out, you'll encounter some incredibly weak pathfinding AI routines - these units are as dumb as rocks. Even when there's plenty of room for a vehicle to maneuver, it'll run smack into a miner or scavenger (which collects a metal called calibrium used to build units) and refuse to proceed until the "obstacle" has moved out of its way. Even if you could set waypoints - which you can't - there's no guarantee a unit won't cuddle up to a miner or scavenger while the forces it's supposed to be reinforcing get pounded to dust. Scavengers are particularly stupid. When one comes rolling out of the mobile command center, it'll simply park unless scrap metal is in plain sight. Come on - can't a scrap-collecting vehicle be programmed to search for scrap on its own?
Trying to decide where to send your units can be troublesome, too. The areas you've explored are only partially visible - you can see the terrain, but not objects such as coolar fields, calibrium mines, or the remnants of destroyed units. It's pretty frustrating to spot a calibrium mine while you had a ship nearby, then not be able to see it when you decide to send a miner out there.
And the weaknesses don't end there. The simplest unit takes around 20 seconds to construct, and big ones can take almost two minutes, so if you think you'll be in charge of massive army groups, you'll be disappointed. Then again, it might be good that so few units hit the battlefield: As you get deeper into each mission, it takes longer and longer to switch map views or even scroll the map (I once had to wait ten seconds just to switch from one map location to another). The absence of an "are you sure?" prompt when deleting a design makes it all too easy to lose a precious vehicle you've spent time developing, and the confusing save feature forces you to save your campaign at the start of a mission rather than at the end (there's no auto-save, either).
What this all adds up to is a fairly big disappointment. Extreme Tactics' unit-design feature is so good that some players will be willing to overlook the game's problems - I know I've gone back to it after I'd sworn off playing it anymore - but there are so many problematic issues here that most gamers should look elsewhere to fulfill their real-time strategy cravings.