The 3D real-time strategy genre has come into its own only relatively recently. Older games such as Battlezone and Warzone 2100 showed that it was perfectly feasible to integrate the gameplay of classic real-time strategy games into a 3D environment. But 3D real-time strategy games continue to rapidly improve, and developer TopWare's Earth 2150 provides further evidence of this trend.
Earth 2150's plot might be improbable, but it sets up an interesting premise for the game: The global market has disintegrated, and war has ravaged the land. Out of the ashes come three distinct factions - the United Civilized States, the Eurasian Dynasty, and the Lunar Corporation. The United Civilized States comprises a decadent society whose workforce - and army - consists solely of robots. The Eurasian Dynasty founded its military technology on 20th-century Russian tanks and helicopters that were scavenged after the Holocaust. The Lunar Corporation is a faction that colonized the moon to avoid the impending disasters on Earth, and its technology surpasses that of the other two factions. A series of nuclear attacks knocks Earth slightly out of orbit, enough so that it's on a steady collision course with the sun. Time to get out. The goal of the game becomes a race to mine enough resources to build an enormous evacuation ship and eventually colonize Mars. Unfortunately, there are only enough resources for one faction to accomplish the task. Time to eliminate the competition.
You play through the single-player missions in Earth 2150 as one of the three factions. In the single-player game, each side has a main base area that's safe from the enemy. Here, you can create structures and units as you do in the mission scenarios, and everything stays in place for the duration of the game. In fact, you can transfer extra resources and units back and forth between your current mission and the main base. This makes it possible to salvage unused resources and surviving units at the end of a mission. When a mission has ended, you can return to the main base area, repair troops, manufacture troops, research new weapons, or allocate funds to the Mars evacuation project before you head on to the next mission. The end-all goal is to get to Mars, and you're updated periodically with messages on your fund-raising progress.
Earth 2150's graphics are quite good - for the most part. Smoke billows from power-plant chimneys, mining vehicles pick up boxes and place them on moving conveyer belts, and rockets whoosh out and explode with a glowing impact. Weather effects, such as snow, rain, and fog not only look great but also have an effect on your various units, thus adding an additional element of strategy. Fortunately, almost any combination of graphical features can be switched on or off to better accommodate your hardware. With everything turned on, the game can get quite sluggish on slower systems. Another downside to the graphics is that your units can be tough to differentiate at times, making quick unit selection under fire somewhat daunting. Add fog effects, and ordering your units in battle can become even more troublesome. But otherwise, Earth 2150's graphics are impressive. When you zoom the camera in, you can pick out little details such as gun turrets mounted on buildings, mining drills chugging up and down, and recoiling guns. Such graphic trimmings help make the game seem more realistic.
Earth 2150 has a different look and style, depending on which faction you're commanding. There's something for everybody: Each side has its own distinct set of units and its own research tree. As new weaponry is developed, you use the unit-construction center to mix and match various chassis with mounted equipment like cannons, machine guns, rocket launchers, grenade launchers, plasma guns, lasers, repair mechanisms, and more. Individual buildings can also be outfitted with any of the above to defend against invading enemies. The sheer number of upgrades and the variety of weapons keep the gameplay interesting.
Earth 2150's graphics are good, but ultimately it's the gameplay that will keep you coming back for more. Each side plays slightly differently, and you can solve each mission in a variety of ways. Like many real-time strategy games, you begin each mission with a set number of resources and units. Then it's up to you to seek out a resource field, set up a mining system, and accumulate enough credits to build up your base and army. You can queue up several units to be built at a single weapons production center. You can also queue up several technologies for research. The progress meter on queued units or research starts and stops as money gets depleted, and then begins again once you've acquired additional resources. This automation lets you build up an army while you concentrate on other matters, such as building turrets or engaging the enemy.
You'll also have to account for many other elements during battle. For example, maybe a group of enemy tanks has invaded your base, and it's taking out your power plants. You start raining rockets on the group, and meanwhile, a group of choppers fly in to take out your ammo-supply crafts. Just when you think you've canned the tanks, your ammo runs out, and you need to build more ammo suppliers. But the one power plant fueling the vehicle production building has already been leveled. Earth 2150 is full of moments like these, and you're constantly compelled to retry missions to see if you can save a few units here and a few resources there to take with you to the next scenario. Everything you manage in the game is inextricably linked to everything else. Learning the relationships between your units' various strengths and weaknesses and applying your own strategy to offset their shortcomings are the most rewarding things about Earth 2150. In the end, good resource management ensures success.
Because of the 3D environment and all the details you have to keep track of, Earth 2150's interface takes some getting used to. In fact, those unaccustomed to real-time strategy games may find that it makes Earth 2150 seem more like work than play. Fortunately, once you get the hang of the interface, it's virtually transparent: The developers made learning all its many functions as painless as possible. For one thing, the camera is easy to control. Scrolling, tilting, zooming, and rotating are all accomplished by using the mouse. Clicking on a unit or building immediately brings up its various properties in the console below, making adding defenses and editing unit behavior much easier. Hitting the number-lock key pauses the game and lets you issue orders in the meantime. Unpause the game, and the orders are carried out. The map function also works well, and it quickly becomes an indispensable navigation tool. Yet another good feature in Earth 2150 is that you can break the battle screen up into three parts, thus letting you keep track of three different areas at the same time. But again, on slower systems, you'll probably just want to stick to one screen.
The sound in Earth 2150 could have been considerably better. The unit voice responses are pretty similar among all the different units - in general, they lack character. Some of the voices are even downright annoying. In addition, although the game is fully 3D, the sound effects don't help your spatial orientation much, as the game's sound effects don't seem to grow louder as you get closer to the action. Fortunately, Earth 2150's soundtrack makes up for a lot of its auditory shortcomings. The soundtrack ranges from military snare-drum suites to ambient space largos, and the music is different depending on which side you're playing. However, the cheesy action music that chimes in during a battle might put some players off.
Fortunately, the game's multiplayer and skirmish modes are also good - they help reduce some of the initial learning curve if you play against similarly experienced opponents, or against a computer opponent set to a lower difficulty. Although the game's computer-controlled opponent is generally effective, playing against a human opponent helps prove that Earth 2150's three sides are well balanced against one another. Also, it's easy to get into a four-player game over the Microsoft Gaming Zone.
Earth 2150 is a fun but complex game. Hard-core real-time strategy players should be able to figure out the interface without much trouble, but on the other hand, more casual players will run the risk of being alienated and frustrated. Ultimately, Earth 2150 delivers complex and challenging gameplay - and even an absorbing story. It's a great 3D adaptation of traditional real-time strategy gameplay.