It’s a strange thing to know that you’re powerless. As the realization dawns, possibilities and options fall away, leaving you with one inevitable conclusion. While wave after wave of my bombers streak across the sky, I have to imagine that my opponent is feeling helpless. When the bombers drop their payload, it will mark my sixth consecutive multiplayer victory using the same tactic. But the more I play, the more I’ve come to realize that Act of Aggression builds itself on these moments. Each player probes his or her foes, poking for weaknesses before they inexorably find one. But even then, the end comes slowly, and the loser has time to reflect on what went wrong.
On paper, Act of Aggression isn’t that different from any other RTS. You have three basic functions that represent the three core tactics these sorts of games have always had: one for rushing an enemy before they can get themselves established, one for building up defenses until you can wait for superior (albeit more expensive) technology to overwhelm your foes, and one that’s a balance of the two. You gather resources, build bases, train units, and gain control of territory. None of this is new, and Act of Aggression doesn’t handle these ideas in any novel or particularly interesting ways. What makes Act of Aggression special is its rhythm.
Each match begins with a core base and one scouting unit. Pretty standard so far. Immediately, though, the formula begins to diverge. Because there's no central location where you'll find all the resources you need, nor any way to build out your base with larger and larger shells as in Age of Empires, you're forced to do things a little differently. First I'd rush with lightly armed troops, stretching out with vulnerable tendrils grabbing what I could. Then I'd hunker down and secure the position with big guns and long-term emplacements. Both of these tactics are common in other games, but here they are essential, and it means that outposts need to be self-sufficient.
Play, then, revolves around poking your opponents' units and buildings to see if they've been careless, to see what they've neglected. Any position can be overwhelmed with enough force, but if you're playing well you'll often spread yourself a bit too thin to secure everything. This makes for an interesting twist on the usual pattern of strategy game play, and one that always left me uneasy. I never felt safe or secure-- was always pushing and always repelling. By itself, that pattern of play is remarkable. It's exhilarating, and I found myself challenging my own tried and true tactics and algorithms I'd built and refined after years of competitive strategy gaming. But it doesn't take long for cracks to start showing in that veneer.
The first and by far the biggest problem Act of Aggression faces is that achieving a level of fluency
The first and by far the biggest problem Act of Aggression faces is that achieving a level of fluency, where play is comprehensible and more importantly manageable, takes some work. As yet, there's no proper tutorial, and the campaign follows some of the worst tropes of its genre. Act of Aggression locks units, buildings, and ideas behind arbitrary walls, only revealing them for isolated lessons that don't teach you how to use these tools and adapt to new challenges. Instead it holds you to a strict path without being able to explore the potential of its own design. If anything, I found that finishing the campaign left me worse off when it came time to square with others. That's exacerbated by abysmal voice work and a cliché plot torn straight from the pages of a Clancy novel.
Even when you do familiarize yourself with the proceedings, Act of Aggression bogs itself down with unnecessary fluff. Your typical battle will have you working with twenty or more buildings, for example, most of which look so similar that it's hard to keep each of them straight. It leads to odd situations where you'll build a "light vehicle" factory that can also make some of the strongest attack copters in the game, long before you have access to the ostensibly helicopter-centric "helipad." That'd be excusable, of course, if the latter building was strictly better, but I only used it once.
This is a complaint that runs throughout. Some units have niches so specific that it's a wonder their role wasn't condensed into something simpler. Yes, options are generally a great idea, but in a game that already struggles with a clean and effective user interface, this manifests as another frustration. It gives the impression that most of the game could have been condensed. It complicates affairs without adding anything of value into the mix.
Act of Aggression's user interface is similarly overwrought. The expand-hold-expand structure encourages waging several small battles across multiple fronts at once, but there's no persistent indication of where you need to direct your attention. There is a ticker in the upper-left hand corner of the screen, but clicking those notifications doesn't auto-snap to the event the game describes. It often led me to lose track of threats and left me ill-informed about the status of the battlefield. Despite these problems, Act of Aggression manages to find legs in multiplayer matches. In my time with the game, I played more than a dozen rounds with a bevy of opponents and each was an exhilarating slugfest.
Despite these problems, Act of Aggression manages to find legs in multiplayer matches.
Keeping to the rhythm I described earlier, I'd start by reaching out for critical points on the map and lock myself down, waiting for my foes' nascent probes. Countless times we'd start firefights that lasted the rest of the game. Banks--neutral buildings that provide a steady, constant stream of income to any player that holds them--were particularly contentious. When infantry takes refuge in a bank, they're well-defended, making them a difficult target for opposing soldiers to capture. Even with plenty of support, wresting an established foothold near a bank is almost impossible. Yet, the cost was low enough and the reward high enough to incentivize a constant, smoldering conflict.
When one of us did start to crack, though, it took time to restructure our war efforts and finish the job. And that's the biggest oddity here. For all of its speed, for all of its, well, aggression, the final moments of any given match are typically quiet. Even when players start wielding the earth-shattering super weapons, countermeasures are easy to deploy. Again, it means that you're waiting to find the one thing your opponent never considered, the one thing they ignored or thought they could do without if only for a little while.
These kinds of games don't exist anymore. For better or worse, Act of Aggression isn't from this decade. It opens with riotous bombast backed with haughty metal riffs and maintains a jubilant, adolescent tone throughout. It's rough, it's incomplete, it's awful in places. But it's also raw and decadent. Soaked to the core in that quintessentially nineties cocktail of cynicism and an exultant love of violence, playing Act of Aggression feels like going back in time and returning to a home that only exists in your oldest memories. And that's special, even if it means dealing with some obtuse design issues.