Swedish developer Massive Entertainment's Ground Control is a 3D real-time tactical combat game that puts you in command of squads of high-tech military vehicles and powerful infantry squads. Despite its few shortcomings and frustrating design issues, you'll find that Ground Control is not only one of the best-looking games to date but also one that's suitably challenging and rewarding.
Ground Control looks absolutely awesome. The game's fully 3D engine renders each of the game's realistically animated military units with lots of detail, even when you view them up close. The game's texture maps are clean and seamless, and the scenery is fully realized: You can see dunes in the sand, and bugs buzzing around in dense patches of tropical foliage. You can also see shell casings pouring out of your infantry's automatic weapons, dirt kicking up in the wake of your treaded vehicles, and crackling energy emanating from your beam weapons. You can even see the pilots sitting in the cockpits of some of your vehicles. Ground Control also features exceptionally good special effects, from the muzzle flash and tracers of your tanks' weapons to the bright, radiant explosions that ensue when their targets are struck. In addition, realistic lighting effects distinguish battles taking place at different times of day. The game's artillery weapons are especially impressive - they launch volleys of devastating projectiles high into the air in a deadly arc. Ground Control's flying units also make spectacular swoops and dives above the battlefield. You really get a good sense of the scale and intensity of battle when you play Ground Control - thanks in part to the game's dynamic sound. When your camera view is zoomed out, you hear the general tumult of warfare; closer in, you'll be able to distinguish the sounds of the specific units that are closest to you. The effect is well done, even though the game's sound effects themselves aren't especially noteworthy.
In spite of the superb quality of Ground Control's graphics and presentation, the unit detail is not as evident when you're concentrating on controlling your forces, because you'll have to view the game from a raised, isometric perspective that fits a couple of dozen units comfortably onscreen. From this angle, it becomes harder to distinguish different types of units, even at higher resolutions. In addition, as with many 3D real-time strategy games, Ground Control's interface takes some getting used to. Fortunately, it works pretty well once you figure it out. You use the mouse to rotate and tilt your view, but the controls for scrolling and zooming your perspective are on the keyboard. Small onscreen buttons that are difficult to click on in the heat of battle represent your various squads' special abilities, but they can be mapped to keyboard hotkeys to make their functions easier to use. Ground Control's step-by-step in-game tutorial does a good job of getting you accustomed to the camera and unit controls.
When you select a unit in Ground Control, you give orders to its entire squad. At first it may seem disorienting when you order a marine to use his mortar and his entire squad lets loose with its deadly special weapons. So while all your individual units behave and fire independently in combat, and can get split up and individually damaged and destroyed, essentially you only have control over the squad as a whole. Squads range from eight-man infantry teams to small platoons of four or even just two tanks. And artillery squads comprise only a single vehicle. The squad-level control means that while you'll need to pay close attention to your individual units' health, you'll usually be occupied with keeping track of the entire squad's status. This can get frustrating, as you'll be inclined to retreat individual units that are taking the brunt of the enemy's fire, but you won't be able to do so without retreating the entire squad. You'll watch individual tanks be destroyed all the time because you can't micromanage their squads. And sometimes they'll even be destroyed before you know it, because the game's colored selection indicators use the same color as the units' little health meters. As such, it's difficult to tell how much damage a unit has sustained, except from the more evident onscreen indications when the unit itself catches fire and starts smoking.
Furthermore, the game's minimap, which shows a top-down overview of the battlefield and your forces, doesn't clearly indicate what's happening and where your camera is centered. Ground Control also doesn't let you adjust the speed of the gameplay. You can imagine that situations may heat up and become overwhelming very quickly if you're not prepared for them.
Fortunately, the game's single-player campaign does a good job of gradually increasing the number of units you control from mission to mission. The 30-mission campaign is divided in half to tell the story from the perspective of either of the game's opposing factions, a powerful corporation and what appears to be a religious cult. And Ground Control's story is actually quite involving, as it slowly unravels through mission briefings, post-mission narratives, and in-mission scripted sequences. Nevertheless, the game's rather straightforward science-fiction setting may initially discourage some, who may be put off by the game's somewhat typical-looking units and its familiar premise. But in fact, Ground Control's linear campaign is superior to that of most real-time strategy games - the missions have a lot of variety, and they're contextually relevant because of the game's good plot. Unfortunately, it's impossible to save your game during a mission, and since the later missions are rather long and certainly tough, you'll inevitably end up having to play through them many times. Because the game doesn't include an in-mission save feature, the campaign is needlessly frustrating. Ground Control's a difficult game even at the default setting, but at least you can adjust the difficulty of each mission.
Since Ground Control is a tactical game, you'll never have to worry about managing resources - you just have to worry about keeping your units in line and using them to maximum effect. This is easier said than done: Although your units will act autonomously to a limited degree, you're responsible for maneuvering them into the best position to fight their foes. Moving your units to higher ground, into darkness, or behind cover are all viable means of increasing their combat efficiency. Similarly, you'll want to flank your enemies and attack their weaker armor on the sides and back. Fortunately, Ground Control looks so realistic that such tactical decisions quickly become intuitive. Yet while you'll enjoy the advantages presented by the various terrain features outlying each battle, you'll also quickly learn to loathe your units' tendency to indiscriminately shoot one another in the back. It's supposed to be a feature - part of your role as commander is to prevent your forces from getting in one another's way. But in practice, you'll find that they'll shoot one another all the time. You need to keep your units close together so they can concentrate their attacks, but when you do so, they'll end up hurting themselves. Friendly fire is disabled on the lower difficulty settings, but then again, Ground Control is a simpler game without it. It's unfortunate that friendly fire is so common in the game and that your units don't have the sense to realign themselves to some limited extent on their own. In addition, because there's no fog of war in Ground Control, it's difficult to tell just when exactly your units are close enough to detect their enemies. At the same time, some of your units are supposed to have higher ratings for stealth, but in practice it's difficult to tell just how close they can get without being spotted. Issues like this can make the outcomes of battles in Ground Control a lot less controllable than you'd like.
Though most of these problems also affect the game when you're playing against a human opponent, multiplayer Ground Control can still be a lot of fun - especially with the option to drop in on a game in progress. The game has a fully integrated game-server search feature through Sierra's WON.net, which virtually guarantees that you'll find online competition. You can choose to play Ground Control in teams or with several types of victory conditions, and you can set it so that your forces will be reinforced intermittently. Unfortunately, there's no way to play a skirmish battle against the computer, nor can you include computer opponents in a match against other human players. This shortcoming points to an issue with the single-player campaigns, which seem to be entirely scripted such that your enemies have very little sense of their own. Their behavior is simply predefined according to the mission. Otherwise, playing Ground Control against other human players really accentuates the differences between the game's two different factions: One consists primarily of traditional-looking treaded vehicles, while the other uses lighter, faster hovering vehicles with energy weapons. The two sides play differently, and each has a few particularly unusual units and plenty of interesting special weapons.
Ground Control is an outstanding game with occasional problems that affect its longevity and its tactical depth. The game's long single-player campaign is enjoyable and interesting enough to offset any frustration you'll inevitably experience as you're forced to replay its scenarios. And while the game's multiplayer mode lacks the breadth of features you'd wish for in a game of such high quality as Ground Control, you'll still find it highly enjoyable thanks to the team tactics that are introduced when the game's two factions join forces. Ultimately, Ground Control is a fast-paced game of skill that's highly accessible and often very impressive.