Earth 2160 is the latest game in a series that's flown a bit under the radar for some time now. Though not as well known as Warcraft or Age of Empires, the Earth games have still managed to garner a solid following thanks to some excellent gameplay mechanics, as well as graphics that have always pushed the boundaries of technology. And, on the surface, Earth 2160 delivers the same. It has a state-of-the-art graphics engine along with some great mechanics. However, all of that can't quite overcome a badly told single-player campaign that overstays its welcome. Still, if you can get over these flaws, there's a good game lurking in there.
Picking up after the events of Earth 2150 and its expansions, Earth 2160 takes place on Mars and the outer solar system, where the three surviving factions of humanity continue to battle for supremacy and a new home. As always, the factions in Earth 2160 are quite distinct from one another. The European Dynasty could probably be considered the most "conventional" of the three, as it has tanklike units and builds sprawling, interconnected bases. The Lunar Corporation is an Amazon-like faction headed up by women, and it relies on lots of hovercraft-like units and constructs towering, vertical bases. Then there's the Union of Civilized States, a powerful, technologically advanced faction that favors multilegged robotic units, as well as alienlike bases that "sprout" out of the ground. And speaking of alienlike, there's a fourth new faction in the game, the aliens, which differ from the human races because they don't research technology or build bases. Instead, the aliens have the ability to clone themselves and mutate to powerful new forms.
Earth 2160 essentially improves on the formula established by its predecessors. This is a real-time strategy game with a lot of depth, thanks to the ability to design your own units based on the technology that you've researched. If you encounter an enemy that uses a lot of laser weaponry, which cuts through your conventional armor like a hot knife through butter, then go back to the lab and research reflective armor, redesign and churn out new and improved units, and take it to the enemy. And considering the wide variety of chassis and parts to choose from, you can create a huge number of unit types, from mobile antiaircraft batteries, lumbering artillery, and huge, multiturreted tanks. What's even better is that the campaign features persistence, so the technology that you research remains with you as you go farther in the game (there's no need to reinvent the wheel every mission, like you do in most real-time strategy games). Instead, you can research even more-powerful technology, which can make your end units feel incredibly strong.
Unfortunately, while this style of gameplay is great for Earth 2160's skirmish modes, it ends up feeling a bit frustrating in the campaigns. Earth 2160 tells the tale of how humanity finds and fights for a distant new homeworld inhabited by the aliens. Structurally, the overarching story is interesting, because each faction gets its own campaign, and the campaigns tie together in a rather cool way. Or, at least, they would tie together in a cool way, if it weren't so badly hampered by terrible writing and amateurish voice acting. We've heard Saturday morning cartoons that featured better dialogue and delivery. It's almost painful at times to listen to. You can also tell that Earth 2160 was originally produced in another language, because there are awkward pauses, as well as plenty of moments when the poorly rendered characters speak, but no words come out of their mouths, like a badly translated kung-fu film.
An even bigger issue is that Earth 2160 manages to bury its otherwise excellent gameplay mechanics in a badly paced campaign that drags on for far too long. There are a lot of missions, considering all four factions have their own campaigns. However, you'll quickly discover that most of them require you to sit back and wait for things to develop. For instance, the research-and-adapt mechanic will require you to constantly experiment with different unit types until you figure out the magic combination. And even then, you'll often find yourself in a weary and grinding battle of attrition, as another problem is that defenses are ridiculously overpowered. You have to slowly whittle away your opponent's defenses with waves of units that take time to build. For example, trying to wipe out an alien base can be a frustrating chore, as the aliens can crush most units within seconds. The result is that the "shorter" missions may last more than an hour, while the longer missions can take hours.
Because of this, it makes sense that Earth 2160 plays a lot better in the skirmish and multiplayer modes, since the lackluster story or the preset mission objectives don't tie players down. Instead, the goal is to simply pummel one another by adapting and building better units. (Not surprisingly, skirmish mode was also a highlight of the Earth 2150 games.) It's a lot of fun researching your way to the "uber" unit, building a dozen of them, and then unleashing them on the enemy. The game can be downright cinematic at times, due to the beautiful graphics engine that makes lavish use of advanced effects, such as per-pixel lighting, which gives vehicle headlights a realistic look when they cut through the darkness. Earth 2160 easily holds its own with the best-looking strategy games on the market. It's cool to zoom in and see some of the UCS units (which all look and move like the animals they're named after) in action, or to see the alien cruisers pummel an enemy base while point defense lasers shoot down enemy missiles. Though Earth 2160 lacks the sheer scale of Earth 2150 (which let you build hundreds of units), it makes up for it in graphical appeal. The audio, aside from the bad voice acting, is about what you'd expect for the genre, though nothing really stands out as memorable. The music swells dramatically, like you'd expect, though it's mainly sonic wallpaper for the most part.
Earth 2160 is a game that definitely has some strong ideas. The four factions are very different from one another (and not just superficially different). There's a lot of depth, and you can find yourself continuously trying to outwit and outlast your opponents in the tech race by designing units to counter whatever your opponent can come up with. If not for the frustrating single-player campaign, Earth 2160 would be fantastic. Still, this is a fairly good strategy game, if you can overcome its single-player woes.