Conflict Zone Preview

We get a chance to play through an early build of Ubi Soft's real-time strategy game.

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Because the real-time strategy genre is so competitive, developers are often looking for ways to set their games apart from the rest of the pack. French developer MASA hopes that its new real-time strategy game, Conflict Zone, will manage to turn some heads with its realistic setting, units, and unique resource system, all of which fit perfectly within the overall premise of the game. At the beginning of Conflict Zone, you can choose from one of two campaigns--one following the International Corps for Peace and the other focusing on the terrorist organization known simply as Ghost. Each of the two campaigns has a unique story, as well as a setting that takes place in different parts of the world. For example, the initial missions for the ICP start out in the Ukraine, where the Ghost terrorist organization has seized several small towns. Conversely, the Ghost campaign starts out in the Sahara Desert, where you must capture several valuable oil-producing areas.

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Missions for both the ICP and Ghost organizations begin with briefings from high-ranking individuals within each organization. The initial International Corps for Peace briefing shows that the game doesn't have an entirely serious tone, as you might expect from this type of game. The map screen behind the general changes to a scene depicting some cows on a pasture when all of a sudden, a shark fin travels through the grass. The camera angle then shifts to a side view, where a window into another room is visible. In keeping with the tone, the other room changes into a fish tank, a disco, and other odd scenes. The Ghost briefing isn't quite as over-the-top as the ICP briefing, but it still manages to maintain the same humorous theme by depicting a group of soldiers--disguised as camels--that manage to capture an enemy base.

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Once in the mission, you get a chance to become familiar with Conflict Zone's camera angles and controls. The default camera view is free roaming and lets you zoom in and out of the action with different keys and move across the landscape at ground level using the arrow keys. It takes some time to get used to the default camera view since you can't actually use the mouse to move across the terrain, but thankfully, there's also a classic-style real-time strategy view that places the camera directly above the action. However, this view still uses the keyboard to maneuver around the landscape. Controlling units can be done through the basic real-time strategy methods, where you can click on a single unit and give it orders--or give orders to an entire group by dragging the mouse over set of units you want to control. There's no limit to the number of units you can put into a group, so you can expect some pretty hectic and spectacular battles when you have an enormous group of units engaging the enemy organization.

Conflict Zone's interface is nonobtrusive, and rarely will you ever mistakenly click on the menu rather than an individual or group of units. The menu gives you the standard set of options for units and structures--you can order units to defend or attack or order different parts of your base to construct vehicles. While all of these features are fairly standard for a real-time strategy game, Conflict Zone's resource management takes a vastly different approach.

Smile, You're on Camera

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Many real-time strategy games tend to rely on the same formula when it comes to resource management--you send units to a special area to collect resources until the area can no longer supply you. Conflict Zone does away with resource-gathering units and instead bases the amount of money you receive on media coverage of the battle. For example, if you go into an enemy-controlled city and start shooting innocent civilians, your public rating sharply drops along with the funding for the missions. However, if you rescue civilians using one of your helicopters, your approval rating goes up and your funding increases.

An interesting side effect to this type of resource management is that it makes less-powerful units more useful and also affects your overall strategy for a mission. If you find that you're running low on money too quickly, you can build a group of basic soldiers equipped with guns and then move them into a town. Since their weapons don't do as much collateral damage as the bazooka soldiers, it's much easier to get into town and safely clear out all the enemies. However, if the enemy decides that civilian lives don't matter, they usually send in a few tanks or other heavy artillery to take care of your soldiers. So, you might have to bring some tanks to back up your soldiers in the village, but if you want to avoid killing civilians, you should try to draw the enemy completely out of the town first.

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There are some missions in the ICP campaign in which your main objective is to retrieve civilians and transport them back to your base and place them in the refugee camp. When you fly one of your rescue helicopters over a village, most civilians come running to your helicopter, but there are instances in which a few of them manage to hide in different areas on the map. This becomes incredibly frustrating as you spend most of your time scouring the terrain for the remaining civilians because they don't appear on your radar, which appears in the upper-right corner of the screen, unless you're in the same general area. Moreover, helicopters can hold only a certain number of civilians, so the problem is made worse by the fact that you lose track of where the remaining civilians are because you need to make numerous trips back to your base. The resource system has some minor problems, but overall, it appears to work well. You have a constant flow of money, but as a battle drags on, there usually isn't enough to build a large group of units in a short period of time. However, going into a town and saving its residents is a good way to secure some extra funding when you want to build enough units to make that one last push into enemy territory.

Along with the resource system, Conflict Zone has a number of other interesting features that work well with the realistic theme of the game, one of which is the interaction between units and varying types of terrain.

Final Thoughts

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Since Conflict Zone uses a full three-dimensional engine, the height of terrain plays an incredibly important role in the game. Essentially, as in real life, units that are at the base of a hill or small mountain are going have a harder time hitting units located near the top, and if you continue to fire on the units that have higher ground, you can do a sizable amount of damage to your own army. One example of this occurs in a later ICP mission, in which the enemy base is located through a mountain pass and beyond a small ridge. When you go through the pass for the first time, the enemy meets you at the entrance--near the ridge--and prevents your smaller long-range units from advancing. This results in your long-range units firing on your own army, and even when you try to retreat, the enemy pursues and continues to fire on you. The solution is to not get caught in that type of situation and to do some reconnaissance of the area--with a jeep or with a helicopter--before you send any units in, but if you find your units in such a situation, you can always send in a few choppers to alleviate the enemy attack.

Another contributing factor to such a situation can be that your units obey orders too closely, and therefore, they're more concerned with moving into position rather than attacking the enemy. Fortunately, you can change how your units act at any time during the mission by clicking on the appropriate icon in the menu. There are basically two settings--normal and aggressive. Whenever units are in normal mode, they follow your orders exactly and fire only when fired upon; whereas the aggressive mode lets them actively search out targets and launch the first strike whenever an enemy unit is detected. The aggressive mode is useful during the larger battles when you need to take your eye off the action because they continue to fight and search out more enemy units.

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Conflict Zone's graphics are fairly good, though somewhat lacking in secondary special effects. The landscape looks incredible, and when in the overhead camera angle, you might even think you're looking at a photograph. However, there are some fogging problems, and it becomes especially apparent when you're down on the ground level looking toward the horizon. Moreover, there are some nice details on units and structures, but most of them aren't very complex in terms of the number of polygons involved, which is understandable since there are often large battles with plenty of units on the screen at a single time.

There are still some bugs to work out in the rest of the game. The pathfinding AI on some units is abysmal at times, as tanks and other large vehicles move around in circles when confined to small spaces. Additionally, units tend to just stay in place when receiving heavy amounts of damage, which hampers any strategy that includes plans for retreat. Hopefully, MASA will address these problems before Conflict Zone's release in July.

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