Although all of your initial impressions about Galactic Assault: Prisoner of Power lead you to believe that it's yet another cut-rate effort slapped together in a cold-water flat in a former Warsaw Pact nation, this is not the case. For starters, developer Wargaming.net is based in Louisiana. Second, this is one playable turn-based strategy game. Yes, it's based on a Russian sci-fi novel that you've never heard of. Yes, the developer is about as anonymous as a crowd on a subway platform to anyone who hasn't played its Massive Assault series. But the game itself is more polished than you would expect. It offers a great interface and enticing tactical engagements, despite miscues such as incoherent storytelling and missions that are a little too carefully constructed.
For a game based on a novel, you would think that Galactic Assault would at least have a strong story going for it. On the contrary, the plot of the campaign is so poorly told that even an English speaker could probably make more sense out of the original, untranslated book. Either some people at Wargaming.net need to brush up on their Russian, or authors Arkady and Boris Strugatsky need to work on their storytelling skills. It's pretty hard to even figure out what's going on here because the mission briefings make nothing clear. You apparently lead Maxim Kammerer of the Land of Unknown Fathers in a war for the alien planet of Saraksh against Khontie, Insular Empire, and Southern Barbarian factions. But beyond those basics, your guesses are as good as ours. You'd be better off making up a story like you were a five-year-old playing with toy soldiers than trying to comprehend the seemingly random cutscene voice-overs.
Thankfully, the missions themselves are smartly structured. Even though you might never know the reasons why you're fighting a war, at least you always know what you're supposed to be doing in the individual battles. Assignments are actually so masterfully laid out that even strategy-game beginners will have no problems grasping the basic concepts of warfare on Saraksh. After a brief tutorial mission to acquaint you with the interface, an advisor walks Maxim and his troops through the initial missions against the Khontie. This is a teensy bit tedious, given that you feel as if you're painting by numbers at times. Yet this measured approach does a great job of introducing the strengths of armored units as opposed to infantry, as well as how to use artillery to beef up defenses, the best way to dig in ground troops, and so on. It even covers elementary battle tactics such as flanking dug-in enemy positions.
All of these tips get you thinking strategically from the very beginning, so you won't waste any time on frontal assaults or stupid tank rushes. This is a very good thing, in that the structure of the game makes it look more like a simplistic real-time strategy game than the turn-based wargame that it actually is. The fairly generic army-man units in three of the four factions don't do much to help this visual distinction; only the Southern Barbarians sort of stand out, with more rough-and-ready equipment and monstrous ghouls standing in for shock troops. Turns are divided into separate sections for movement, combat, and reinforcement. Circular targets spell out which spots units can go to during the movement phase of each turn. Units can't be stacked, so they must be laid out in easy-to-spot formations when attacking or defending. Warnings let you know if you're about to end a turn with a unit still being able to move or fire. Unit strength and morale is depicted with a bar and a light, respectively, both of which go from green to yellow to red. Overall, this is one of the most helpful strategy interfaces to come along in some time. Many little touches here should be emulated by rival developers.
Everything else is based on a traditional real-time format, with the only difference being that you move units in turns, of course. Money earned for completing objectives and ka-booming the enemy is used to augment preexisting bases with depots that construct all manner of military hardware, from infantry grunts, to futuristic choppers, to engineering corps who can lay down bridges. However, production is relatively sedate. Instead of rolling hordes of troops and tanks off of production lines, fairly tight monetary limits force you to be cautious about what you're sending into the field. The pace of combat is also fairly measured. It can take a number of turns just to take out an infantry company, so there are no battles of attrition here. Yet at the same time, battles don't drag. For want of a better description, they feel right, with units that take appropriate amounts of damage before going down. Missions can stretch to an hour or so, although they generally move along quite quickly, which makes this one of the zippiest turn-based games you'll ever play.
That said, there are a few flies in the ointment. Enemy artificial intelligence is relentless on the attack, although it seems to hit you with a pretty blunt frontal assault much of the time instead of carefully managing its units. Missions are overly structured at times. This is pretty refreshing in the scenario and deathmatch solo modes of play, given that the detailed objectives provide both with a sense of purpose often missing from the cheapie sandbox styles that mark skirmish play in other strategy games. But such a design is also limiting, in that missions can become awfully linear. The only way to break away from this is to go multiplayer, and all it offers is one-on-one deathmatching (not that there ever seems to be anybody on the servers, anyhow). Bugs afflict some of the solo deathmatch maps, as well. On a regular basis, games will end suddenly after just a single turn. You get an error message that the game seems to be broken, and a bizarre prompt to fix it, followed by a quick exit to the main menu.
The presentation values raise further gripes. Although the audio effects are acceptable during battles, and the voice acting is actually pretty good for your standard wargame, the visuals are so grainy and dark that it's hard to tell one unit from another when zoomed out even a touch. The time of day changes as well, which makes this problem even worse when the sun goes down. At night, it's awfully tough to see much of anything without scrolling right down to field level.
Even with its flaws, Galactic Assault's great interface and emphasis on battlefield tactics make it worth a look. It could use some help when it comes to storytelling and visual design, but those missteps are largely balanced out by what this game does right.