Act of War: Direct Action Hands-On

We get some final impressions of Act of War before the game ships, and so far the game is really, really good.

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Act of War: Direct Action
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Conventional wisdom is that live-action cutscenes in games are a thing of the past, an embarrassing byproduct of the failed "synergy" between Hollywood and Silicon Valley. After all, it's far cheaper to tell a story using computer-generated cutscenes, or even using in-game cutscenes that take advantage of a game's graphics engine, rather than spending money on actors, production personnel, sets, props, and the like. To its credit, Act of War: Direct Action eschews conventional wisdom and embraces live-action cutscenes in a way that's actually captivating. Act of War should arrive on most retail shelves today, and we're currently working on our review, but we have some quick thoughts about the game we'd like to share.

The game uses live-action cutscenes to really immerse you in the action.
The game uses live-action cutscenes to really immerse you in the action.

Perhaps the best thing that we can say so far is that playing the early levels of Act of War feels like you're taking part in a riveting episode of the tense television drama 24. In the game, a huge terrorist organization known as the Consortium has launched an assault on the United States and its Western allies, and you must control elite commando units as they attempt to capture terrorist leaders, rescue important hostages, and even repulse an invasion of San Francisco. The gameplay seamlessly blends beautiful 3D gameplay with live-action cutscenes; you can go from watching a filmed scene of commandos taking fire on a London street to taking direct control of them in the game with barely any interruption, so you never get the feeling of being taken out of the moment.

In many ways, Act of War feels like a better, and more serious, version of EA's Command & Conquer series, whose real-time strategy games featured extensive live-action cutscenes. However, where Command & Conquer always went for camp with scenery-chewing performances and over-the-top plots, Act of War goes for gritty realism. The geopolitical nature of the plot lends the game an "It could happen tomorrow" feel. Meanwhile, the handheld camera shots along with the quick edits give the cutscenes the feel of an action movie, while the amount of technical jargon flying about will certainly impress military fans. Of course, that's probably expected, since Eugen Systems, the game's developer, worked with the New York Times best-selling author Dale Brown on the game's plot.

The gameplay thus far is really good, as Act of War manages to elude the traditional real-time strategy game formula of spending a lot of time sitting around waiting to do stuff. You don't have soldiers running around gathering resources on the battlefield, since most of your revenue comes from simply doing your job by achieving objectives. You can raise extra cash by capturing prisoners on the battlefield. Either way, you'll use your money to do some base-building and to requisition new units, so there is still a fair amount of base management in the game. However, the ratio between base-building and combat leans heavily toward the latter.

Act of War does urban combat better than any real-time strategy game in recent memory, because it actually treats buildings as your best friend, or your worst enemy, depending on which side is barricaded in them. For example, you can take heavy losses if you try to bulldoze through the narrow streets of London or San Francisco without clearing out the many buildings along your way. You can send infantry teams to assault and clear out a building, either by sending them through the front door or delivering them by helicopter to the roof. It's also possible to have infantry teams use leapfrog tactics, with one team barricading itself in a building to provide cover while another team advances up the street to the next building.

In addition to infantry, you have plenty of cool military vehicles to play with, including M1 tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, Apache attack helicopters, and more, many of which are drawn from real-world arsenals. While the controls are a bit cumbersome, especially when you control large numbers of infantry and vehicles at the same time, it's still relatively easy to blow stuff up. And it's fun to send a hunter-killer group of Apache helicopters to take out a roadblock that your ground forces have run into, or have tanks shatter a building that enemy infantry are barricaded in. The idea of using combined-arms warfare to have infantry and vehicles support each other and to compensate for their individual weaknesses is heavily enforced in the game.

I left my Apache attack helicopter in San Francisco...
I left my Apache attack helicopter in San Francisco...

So far, it's hard not to be impressed by Act of War, from both a gameplay and an aesthetic point of view. You can't help but feel that a fairly significant sum of money was spent on the live-action cutscenes alone, but they're so well done and so well integrated that it feels refreshing for a change, rather than like a gimmick. We'll have our full review of Act of War soon, so check back for a final report on this promising real-time strategy game.

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