Here's something different: Wargaming.net's Massive Assault looks like a 3D real-time strategy game but plays like a streamlined turn-based wargame--or a souped-up version of chess. While it might look simplistic, at first, it actually requires careful thinking and offers some entertaining gameplay. Unfortunately, even though Massive Assault is fairly easy to learn and is very user-friendly, it can be excessively difficult, sometimes putting an end to the fun as soon as it begins.
If you were to glance at Massive Assault, you might assume it was a knockoff of the classic real-time strategy game Total Annihilation. Like Total Annihilation, Massive Assault does feature an overhead view of little units on 3D terrain, as well as a generic science fiction setting with two rival powers. That's pretty much where the similarities end though. Massive Assault is actually a turn-based game, and while you don't see hexes all over the map, Massive Assault is, in essence, a hex-based game. Whenever you select a unit, little circles light up on the map, revealing a grid of potential movement destinations. A large red circle also appears to show the extent of your selected unit's weapons range.
During each turn, you first move your units in any order, choosing from their available grid positions. The game takes on a chesslike feel, since each type of unit can only move a particular number of grid spaces each turn. Additionally, ground units can't move through an occupied space. This makes coordinating your forces, and effectively blocking enemy units, quite tricky. To make things more complex, only certain units can fire over friendly units.
After you've made your moves, you can instruct each unit to fire on the enemies of your choice, if they're in range. Then you click a button to end your turn, after which the smart, aggressive AI works through its moves and attacks. You can watch these moves at different speeds or simply skip to the end of the turn to see the results without watching all the movement and combat animations.
You get to fight with bristling battleships, clomping mechs, sleek bombers, and more. Vehicles break down into air, ground, sea, and amphibious units, and you also get fixed defensive towers. Each unit has just a few straightforward stats, and each side has equivalent units that merely differ cosmetically.
Massive Assault is about more than just the tactics of moving units around. There are interesting strategic elements, too, like deciding exactly what units to purchase when, as you have only limited revenues from certain territories. Another strategic twist is the way you select your starting territories, out of a number of possibilities, and then get to reveal secret allied territories as the match progresses. Your choices can dramatically change the ebb and flow of combat on each map, adding replayability.
One of the great things about Massive Assault is its user-friendliness. As long as you haven't clicked the button that ends your turn, you can undo all your moves and attacks. Everything just rewinds: damaged units become whole again, a disembarked unit is suddenly back on a transport, and so forth. Because of Massive Assault's chesslike feel, you'll probably find yourself taking full advantage of this undo feature to test different tactics. You'll need to do a lot of experimenting to figure out the best ways to: bring units within firing range, maneuver units through tight spaces, screen particularly valuable units, outflank the enemy, and so forth.
Massive Assault does a great job of making your life easier in other ways too. The interface is unusually clear, and a lot of optional gameplay aids help keep you on track. For example, if you click to finish a turn but forgot to order a unit to attack, the game will ask if you really want to proceed. Each scenario begins with an introduction that clearly explains your goals with colorful pointers and text boxes. One of the most important gameplay aids also illustrates one of the game's defining features: Each unit type has a fixed number of hit points, and its weapons always cause a fixed amount of damage. Icons clearly let you know the exact status of all units' remaining hit points, and they remind you precisely how much damage a potential attack will do. There's no randomness or guesswork here, just careful planning.
Sadly, despite these play aids, Massive Assault can become really frustrating at times. The tutorial missions are underdeveloped, teaching only the basics of movement and combat. Fortunately, you get a lengthy series of graded scenarios that introduce different combat situations by simply throwing you into the fray. Despite being labeled as "easy," "medium," or "hard," the difficulty levels are all over the map. More than a few engagements are almost impossibly tough. Unfortunately, there's no way to adjust the AI's skill level in these scenarios, and you can't do it in the game's two campaign-style modes either--which is something you'd expect from nearly any game.
Fortunately, you can get around this by finding a human opponent whose skills match your own. Massive Assault offers both hotseat and Internet skirmish games. The latter is akin to a play-by-e-mail system, but the game automates the process for you, letting you challenge opponents (who are ranked by wins) by sending turns through a very smooth interface.
Stylistically, Massive Assault leaves something to be desired. On the one hand, the setting and units feel anonymous and generic. Also, there's only one voice-over artist for the whole game--a woman with a very heavy Eastern European accent who's burdened by some embarrassingly cheesy dialogue. When you win a match, she might say, in a bored, halting tone, "I will reward you personally later if you want." On the other hand, despite the overall lack of imagination, the graphics look really sharp and attractive. Everything is vibrantly colored, weapons fire and explosions look dramatic, and lots of little details, like waves lapping against beaches and trees swaying in the breeze, make for some pretty scenes. You can easily zoom, rotate, and pan the camera to get the best view of the action. The music and sound effects (outside of the voice-overs) are, likewise, solid, even if they fail to give the game a unique ambience.
Massive Assault is an ironic game. It's fairly easy to learn, offers tons of user-friendly features, and calls to mind classic board games. It's just too bad it doesn't offer a more memorable setting and truly adjustable difficultly levels to suit both beginners and experts alike, because otherwise it can be addictive fun.