Earth 2160 Hands-On - Multiplayer

We get a feel of how Earth 2160's unique gameplay mechanics work in multiplayer.

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Earth 2160 is one of the next generation of real-time strategy games coming out this year, in that it's a game that incorporates the kind of fancy graphical technology seen in cutting-edge action games. Yet, Earth 2160 is more than that. It's also the third game in the long-running Earth series, which dates back to 1997. The Earth games have carved out a loyal audience, thanks to some excellent and innovative gameplay, and Earth 2160 promises to up the ante even more. We've already previewed the single-player portion of the game, but we recently got our hands on the multiplayer side of the game for some impressions.

The four factions in Earth 2160 are distinctly unique in terms of look and abilities.
The four factions in Earth 2160 are distinctly unique in terms of look and abilities.

Multiplayer often defines the life of a real-time strategy game, since it is the challenge of playing against fellow humans that extends the time you spend with the game after you've finished the single-player campaign. We have fond memories of Earth 2150's multiplayer, especially since that game lent itself well to wild, unpredictable, huge battles.

Earth 2160 picks up the story right where the last expansion pack for Earth 2150 left off. With Earth wiped out, the three surviving factions of humanity flee to Mars to recommence the conflict, only to be joined by a new, alien faction. All four factions are available to play in multiplayer, and each is distinctly different from one another in look, style, and gameplay. If you're an Earth veteran, then you'll already be familiar with the three human factions, the Union of Civilized States, the European Dynasty, and the Lunar Corporation, though keep in mind that they've changed quite a bit since Earth 2150.

On the surface, Earth 2160 looks like a traditional real-time strategy game, in that you construct a slew of different buildings, research technologies, churn out lots of units, and then crush the enemy. However, as we discovered in multiplayer, despite the new game's new look, much of what made Earth 2150 great is still at the core of Earth 2160. The biggest hurdle is getting used to the new interface, as well as figuring out the new relationships between all the structures and the units. Each faction has a distinctly different building style. For example, the European Dynasty creates a sprawling, interconnected base that's all linked together, so it looks like a growing mass on the surface of Mars. The Lunar Corporation creates skyscraper-like towers, with new facilities built atop existing ones like the layers of a wedding cake. Meanwhile, the UCS has a more "traditional" real-time strategy build strategy, as it establishes separate buildings that can sprout specialized modules to enhance their capabilities.

The tech tree lets you research technologies, then mix and match new parts for your vehicles.
The tech tree lets you research technologies, then mix and match new parts for your vehicles.

Many of the mainstay features of the Earth series remain intact in Earth 2160, such as the ability to research new technologies and then custom design your vehicles using that new tech. You can go to the design screen and call up a current vehicle design, and you're presented with a list of potential upgrades. To begin research, just hold down the Ctrl key and click on the upgrade that you like, and the game will automatically begin research (if you've built a research facility) or put it in the queue to be researched. Once it is researched, you can redesign that class of vehicles by simply selecting the components you want. As always, there's a tradeoff between the different choices. More powerful engines give you more power in the weapon and shield systems, but faster engines give you better speed; traditional armor is great against projectile weapons, but reflective armor is designed to foil laser weapons. As you can probably guess, this can make for some intense gameplay, as you try to anticipate which technologies your opponents will use, and then race to develop countermeasures. Just keep in mind that they're also trying to do the same to you, so it's a constant struggle to adapt to an enemy's tactics and technologies.

Logistics also play a role in Earth 2160, which, to our detriment, we learned early in a multiplayer match when our units ran out of ammunition. This was also one of the features of Earth 2150--you could build helicopters that automatically supplied units the field. In Earth 2160, you must build support vehicles that tag along with your combatants and resupply them on the battlefield. This is preferable to the alternative, though--there's nothing worse than to break through an enemy's final line of defense only to run out of ammo. Finally, a new feature in Earth 2160 is infantry, as the previous Earth games were all vehicle-centric. Infantry are cheap units that you can churn out in large numbers, and if properly upgraded, they're decent units, though they can be thoroughly outclassed later in the game. Still, infantry form the backbone of your early force, and they're capable of holding off most early threats.

Graphically, multiplayer looks as good as the single-player game. All the elaborate lighting effects remain in place, and you'll admire the considerable amount of eye candy, like the way tiny headlights on the vehicles turn on at night, or the realistic, metallic sheen on many of the buildings.

The game looks great, thanks to a cutting-edge graphics engine.
The game looks great, thanks to a cutting-edge graphics engine.

The multiplayer suite looks fairly well fleshed out at this point. The game will ship with four multiplayer game types: destroy structures, or, in other words, raze the other side's base to the ground; kill enemy hero, or knock off the enemy's hero to knock that side out of the match; a cease-fire start, where players are prohibited from attacking each other for a set amount of time; and Uncle Sam, which gives you resources instantly. The game will support up to eight players in head-to-head and team-based play, and you can employ the artificial intelligence to fill in any empty slots.

Earth 2160 is nearing completion (in fact, it's already released in Europe), and the game looks like a faithful addition to the franchise, as well as a big leap forward in terms of technology. The final polishes are currently being applied to the US version, and we'll see it ship here later this month.

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