Unless you're seriously into modern conventional warfare and are hungry for a 3D strategy game depicting it, you may not immediately warm up to Red Storm's Force 21. The game doesn't make the best first impression, thanks to its horrendous unit pathfinding and formation AI, confusing missions, and generally frustrating gameplay. However, if you stick with it long enough and learn to live with its quirks, Force 21 can grow on you. If nothing else, it's a decent real-time strategy game that doesn't force you to build a barracks.
The game begins in 2015 when the Chinese, having grown bold and restless after decades of economic growth, invade Kazakhstan. The United States and Russia move in to help the Kazakhs, and a computer game ensues, complete with a dramatic intro movie explaining how everything came to pass. You can attempt the single-player campaign as either a United States or Chinese commander, and although each side gets a slightly different campaign to play, all the missions are 100-percent scripted and linear, which proves extremely disappointing. Unit losses have no impact on the game beyond that particular mission, and if you lose a mission, you have to keep trying it until you win. Similarly, if you win a mission, but lose almost every unit in the process, that's OK: You'll get a fresh supply for the next mission.
In case you haven't guessed by now, Force 21 isn't a realistic wargame depicted in lifelike 3D, but rather just a game about war. It's action-oriented real-time strategy involving realistic units, like Bungie's Myth with T-72 tanks and Apache attack choppers. You don't build any bases, and there is no resource management - you simply take command of a fresh group of units for each mission and do your best to accomplish the objectives. What's more, your mission objectives tend to boil down to just having to kill everything. The only way to win most scenarios is to eliminate every single enemy unit on the map. No capturing key installations or choke points or anything of the sort.
As you fight, you'll find that your platoon leaders are the sole incentive for minding the health of your troops. If a platoon is wiped out, you lose that platoon's leader, which can affect your chances for success down the road. These leaders, who recall the operatives in Rainbow Six, each have a specialty and are individually rated for movement speed, combat skill, and enemy detection. The better the leader, the more effective a platoon will be. So just as you don't ever want to lose Chavez in Rainbow Six, you need to keep your best leaders alive in Force 21 in order to succeed. The game can be won using the no-name default platoon leaders, but it's easier when you have better guys in those roles. Interestingly, there are no female platoon leaders in the game; you'd think the battlefield of 2015 would be more progressive than that, especially since several of the operatives in Rainbow Six were women.
Although Force 21's gameplay is essentially similar to Myth's, the overall quality of the game is not. For each mission, you typically command a group of five or six platoons. For the United States, these can include groups of Bradley fighting vehicles, M1A3 tanks, and even Apaches and bridge-laying units. Chinese and Russian forces (the latter being routinely attached to the United States commander's group) offer equivalent hardware. You move and direct the fire of your platoons by selecting them and clicking on a destination or target. You can order waypoint movement on the game's strategic map, but your unit begins moving before you assign all the waypoints, and that's a problem when you're trying to coordinate the movement of numerous platoons. It would have been better if you could assign a complete set of waypoints and then issue the move command.
Movement and unit formations (there are four: line, wedge, reverse wedge, column) are hampered by the game's inadequate pathfinding and self-defense AI. Not only do platoons routinely spin in circles when you issue a movement command that takes them near an obstacle, but they also line up in their formations in a slipshod, unrealistic fashion. For example, if you order a platoon of tanks to face a new direction, they will typically turn only their turrets, oftentimes leaving their rear and sides exposed to direct enemy fire. This flies directly in the face of real-world doctrine, as main battle tanks tend to be very heavily armored in the front and not very heavily armored elsewhere. Also, even though the game's 3D engine depicts nicely rendered scenery complete with small forests, you can't move through or even near these trees, since your units tend to stay as far away from obstacles as possible. If you try to move in a line formation too close to a copse of trees, your formation will crumble into a messy column. And no, it will not reform once the obstacle is left behind.
Another problem: Unlike Myth, which plops those helpful little yellow and red destination markers on the map when you order units to move, Force 21 gives no visual cue for where your units are headed. This makes it difficult to move units efficiently, especially when they tend to stop 50 to 100 feet from the spot you thought you had clicked. Fine-tuning a defensive position is a nightmare in this game, as there is no simple move-forward/move-back command (which any fan of the original M1 Tank Platoon learned to love).
And even when you think you have the movement system mastered, you had better pray that your platoons don't move near or past any enemy units. Though your units will return fire when attacked, they will also continue moving to their destination. Again, this leads to disastrous results, as they will move past an enemy, exposing themselves to attack from the rear without the ability to return fire. You'd expect a real-world platoon would stop or at least maneuver itself into some sort of defensive footing if it runs smack into an enemy. Expecting the game to at least turn the platoon to face the enemy until one side or the other is dispatched seems reasonable enough. After all, what good are those platoon leaders if you have to micromanage every single engagement?
Of course, such surprise encounters would not occur so frequently if the game provided decent mission briefings. Not only are the briefings generally inaccurate, but they also lack any useful intelligence data whatsoever. At the beginning of the game, this is masked by the fact that both sides have limited intelligence on the enemy's movements and unit strengths. But later, when you're told in a briefing that satellite photos indicate a large group of Chinese armor to the south, I bet you'd like to know where those damn photos were taken and where you can expect to meet this imposing force.
Instead, you can expect vague and even confusing directions pretty much every time. For example, on one mission you are instructed to escort a personnel carrier to the southern highway. You then begin the mission in the southeast corner of the map, and your goal, as you'll discover after much wandering, is in fact to move west. Even worse, the second United States mission in the campaign is introduced as a defensive stand in which you must seek out good defensive positions and repel the Chinese onslaught, but only a single Chinese vehicle comes toward you. As for the rest, they are all stationary and scattered all over the map, so instead of a defensive scenario you must undertake a blind search-and-destroy effort in order to win. Yet another mission challenges you to reach and defend the northernmost sector of the map and prevent Chinese forces from moving into and through it. Why, then, do the Chinese begin this mission with two heavy tank platoons in that very sector? It's not as though the game is horribly difficult, it's just that it's tougher than it should be because you are not given adequate or even accurate information to work with.
Incidentally, the game offers no difficulty setting, which is surprising since Rainbow Six had three difficulty levels (a fact that certainly contributed to its broad appeal both to casual and hard-core gamers). Force 21 does include a mission editor, however, and it is pretty powerful. The editor is unsupported and isn't easy to use, but you can do an awful lot with it. The game also includes a decent multiplayer component for up to four players over LAN and Internet. You can also play the game over MSN Gaming Zone and Mplayer.
Force 21 is not a bad game, but it can be extremely frustrating. Other problems, such as the highly unintuitive unit-facing control, are apparent, but the poor mission briefings and the mindless pathfinding AI are the two biggest flaws in a game that could have been much, much better.