Conflict Zone Preview

Conflict Zone is a real-time strategy game that mixes napalm with a bit of CNN. You can destroy your enemy with your infantry and tanks, or you can use the power of the media to ruin your enemy's political reputation.

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No doubt, there aren't many third parties left in the Dreamcast-development market--and the few that are have already booked their flights to greener pastures. Don't let the mass migration fool you, though. The system's last batch of games shouldn't be dismissed out of hand, as there are still a few big titles on the horizon that aren't made by Sega's crack development teams. One game with a lot of potential is the upcoming Conflict Zone (formerly known as Peacemakers). Developed by Masa--a French company known more for its work in artificial intelligence than in game development--Conflict Zone attempts to flesh out the cardboard RTS genre by shifting the focus away from haphazard tank rushes and resource gathering to a more refined system that requires tactical planning and political manipulation to win.

The game's plot takes place in a fictional near future, where massive alliances and secret pacts have come back into style. The world's major political powers have divided themselves into five major factions, who, instead of instigating World War III, have come together to form the International Corps for Peace, an alliance of nations that keeps warring independent countries in line and local conflicts from spreading too far out of control. The ICP, in theory, is much like our modern-day UN--the major difference being that these guys back up their peace-and-love rhetoric with a big military bite. As either the ICP or one of the independent dictatorships that opposes them, you'll fight your opponents both on the field of battle and in the realm of public opinion.

Conflict Zone takes a cue from the classic Civilization by giving you more than one path to victory. You can earn a typical military victory through conquest and destruction, or you can earn a political victory through the use of the media. Use your cameramen units to catch your opponent killing civilians or suffering heavy losses at your hands, and watch your enemy's morale and public support plummet. Finish them off by constructing a propaganda station that will portray your opponent as an inhumane monster while depicting you as a crusader for humanity. A bar at the top of the screen sums up your pull with the people; if you can convince enough of the world that your enemy is wrong and you're right, you win--regardless of the actual military strength of either side.

Make no mistake, though, Conflict Zone, at its core, will still be a real-time strategy game with the same base building, resource hoarding, and bloody melees that made Command & Conquer and Starcraft classics on the PC. Masa's goal isn't to eliminate combat, but to curb the messy, confusing, and uncoordinated action that is a staple of most of these games. To this end, all the game's units have the ability to function on their own if you order them to do so. Using advanced AI routines, units behave "naturally," seeking defensive positions and running from tanks and other big equipment. The enemy AI is cunning, too, and it will adapt to your tactics if you keep running the same attacks over and over. Most significant are Conflict Zone's "commanders." These independent characters can be used to command your armies with tactics and strategies that become progressively more complicated and intelligent the longer you can keep them alive. Commanders also possess a level of charisma, which can positively or negatively affect the troops under their command. For example, an ineffective leader will find his troops easily shaken and prone to disobeying his orders, while a forceful leader will engender fanaticism and loyalty to the very end.

Getting down to the nuts and bolts of gameplay, Conflict Zone has unique campaigns for both the ICP and dictators, and each campaign spans eight missions. Despite the game's slightly futuristic setting, it features mostly modern-day weapons, with various types of helicopters, tanks, APCs, and infantry for both sides. Most units have multiple abilities--infantry units, for example, can camouflage themselves quickly in the terrain, setting up ambushes or fortifying positions, and some helicopters can both attack enemies and carry troops or small equipment. The levels are extremely large, spanning as many as 20 kilometers in any direction. The game also features Internet support for up to four players simultaneously on SegaNet.

Graphically, Conflict Zone looks pretty sharp. Like most RTS games nowadays, both the landscapes and units are entirely 3D and look realistic. The game features varying weather types, as well as daytime and nighttime missions. There are also cool effects like environmental deformation for artillery craters and water ripples when units move across a river or marshy shallows. Masa claims Conflict Zone features a sizeable draw-in distance, though it's apparent in levels like the desert that the game almost instantly resorts to an excessive wall of fog once the engine reaches its limit.

Of course, Conflict Zone won't be able to make a name for itself on its graphics alone. Moreover, the game's subject matter and genre are nothing that we haven't seen before. This all means that Masa's focus on "real-world" combat--the sociopolitical repercussions of media and warfare--will be the biggest factor in whether or not Conflict Zone finds an audience on the DC. In that respect, the game has potential (and at least looks unique), since this real-world context and its repercussions on the game are all but ignored in conventional RTS games that are set in fictional versions of Earth, or in fairy-tale lands. Look for Conflict Zone to arrive on Dreamcasts this summer.

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