No Man's Land Hands-On Preview

The creators of America are returning to the Wild West in a new real-time strategy game--we take a hands-on look at No Man's Land.

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While the majority of real-time strategy games focus on fantasy or sci-fi themes, German developer Related Designs has ventured outside the common conventions by basing its games on American history. The studio's first real-time strategy game, America, took place in the Wild West, with settlers battling against Mexicans and Native Americans. The company's newest effort, No Man's Land, returns to the Old West era but also includes factions from earlier colonial days. The result is a broad historical setting that stretches from the creation of the colonies in the 1500s to the settling of the West in the 1800s.

Spanish and English warships duke it out in this cutscene.
Spanish and English warships duke it out in this cutscene.

We recently had a chance to try out a playable build of No Man's Land that included one mission from each of the game's six different factions--the English, Spanish, woodland and prairie Native Americans, patriots, and settlers. The available levels offered a good sampling of the different mission types you'll find in the game. While the missions for the Native Americans and settlers offered standard base building and search-and-destroy scenarios, the Spanish mission was based more on stealth, giving us control of only two elite units to sneak around defenses and free some slaves from English plantations. The English mission involved ship combat, while the patriots' mission put us in control of an American rebel fort being attacked by waves of English redcoats and cannons.

No Man's Land will have three campaigns, with a total of roughly 30 missions. The first campaign will cover the Spanish, and the second will tell the story of both Native American tribes. The final campaign will chronicle the history of a single English family, starting from their time as colonists, on up through the American Revolution, and ending with their migration to the West as settlers.

Each of the factions in No Man's Land offers a number of combat units, some of which are unique, and some of which vary only slightly from those of the other sides. For example, only the English can build attack dogs, which can't take a lot of hits but can do a great deal of damage against all types of infantry. Both of the Native American tribes can build spear-wielding warriors, but the woodland spearmen use their weapons in melee combat, while the prairie tribesmen throw their spears. All units in the game gain experience over time and become more powerful (gaining hit points and doing greater damage) with every increase in rank.

These tepees can be folded up and moved to different areas of the map.
These tepees can be folded up and moved to different areas of the map.

The architectural styles of the various factions also vary in logical fashion. The settlers' buildings resemble rickety wooden structures out of the Old West, while the Spanish buildings appear to include more stone and adobe. There will be some functional differences as well--the prairie Native Americans' tepees, for example, can be folded up and moved to different areas on the map. This faction can even build observation posts that look like trees. These structures can house two ranged attackers to ambush unsuspecting enemies.

The various factions will also differ based on their elite units, who have unique special powers. The Spanish for example, have a gunslinger character with the ability to take an aimed shot and kill a regular unit instantly. The English have a tracker with a scouting ability that lets him briefly reveal any area on the map, while shamans of the woodland Native Americans can raise powerful spirits from corpses on the ground. These spirits can rapidly drain the health of any enemies they touch. The use of these abilities is limited by a power bar that slowly regenerates over time.

Plague and Firewater

Firearms in No Man's Land belch smoke with every shot.
Firearms in No Man's Land belch smoke with every shot.

No Man's Land, much like America, allows some units to be mounted on horses. Getting your infantry equipped with horses allows them to move a little faster and gives them an advantage over foot soldiers. While the patriots and settlers will be able to build their own horses to outfit their troops, Native American factions will have to find their horses wandering wild on the map, or steal them. No Man's Land makes it possible to take an opponent's horses, as dead cavalry troops will fall from their mounts, making the horses freely available to any nearby foot soldiers with the ability to ride.

The graphics in No Man's Land are based on a 3D engine capable of rendering lush jungle terrain, snowy woodlands, or desolate, scrubby deserts. Every structure, unit, and tree in the game casts a shadow on the ground, while bodies of water shimmer with a nice degree of translucency. Schools of fish and sharks swim about in ocean waters, while birds of prey circle the skies above prairies. Other fauna, like panthers in the jungles or deer and bears in the forests, can pose a danger to your gatherers but can also be hunted for food.

The combat animations feature many subtle visual details, such as the puffs of smoke wafting up after a musket has been fired or the muzzle flash from a cannon shot. European soldiers stop and reload their primitive rifles using a ramrod after firing, while Native American archers pause to nock a new arrow before shooting again. Units moving on soft beach sand or in snow will even leave footprints that fade gradually over time. The game's visuals are look quite good with the camera zoomed out, but zooming in too far does reveal some blemishes in texturing and in the details of the units.

Trains coming in at the railroad station can ferry in new troops.
Trains coming in at the railroad station can ferry in new troops.

Unfortunately, a couple of the features that are supposed to further differentiate No Man's Land from other RTS games on the market were not available in our preview build. These include the computer-controlled bounty hunters that you can hire to hunt and kill enemy elite units. We also didn't get a chance to try out any of the game's counter upgrades, which are research items that impair your enemy for a short amount of time. The plague, for example, can be researched to slow enemy food production. Firewater is another counter upgrade that will temporarily decrease the combat efficiency of enemy soldiers.

What we've seen of No Man's Land so far indicates that the game should offer something new and different to fans of real-time strategy games who are weary of the fantasy, modern, and science fiction themes so prevalent in the genre. No Man's Land is scheduled to ship later this year for the PC.

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