It can be tough coming up with a good intro for a game review, and occasionally it's easiest to just throw up your hands and try to pawn off a rehash of the game's back story as the lead. But you'd be hard-pressed to do with that with M.A.X. 2, for one simple reason: The only place to learn the back story for M.A.X. 2 is in the original M.A.X. The game's opening sequence only shows various cities under attack by someone or something, and nowhere in the manual are you told just who you're fighting or, for that matter, who you're even supposed to be.
Granted, some players couldn't care less about a back story, but the total absence of one in M.A.X. 2 is just one of many questionable design decisions that ultimately sabotage what could have been a strategy game of the first order. To be frank, M.A.X. 2 feels and plays as if it were released before it was completed - an impression you'd think Interplay would be eager to avoid at all costs after the Descent to Undermountain fiasco less than a year ago.
M.A.X.2 is the sequel to what many consider the sleeper game of 1996, at least as far as strategy titles were concerned. M.A.X. had the usual combat, manufacturing, and resource-management features you'd expect in a strategy game, but on a fairly complex level - which goes a long way in explaining why the developers opted to include the choice of turn-based play or real-time action.
M.A.X. won numerous awards, so a sequel was almost a given. Like its predecessor, M.A.X. 2 includes a real-time mode as well as turn-based and simultaneous turn-based play. Improvements include a sophisticated waypoint system, free Internet play on dedicated M.A.X. 2 servers, line of sight and fog of war, upgradable units, and eight distinct races (although the only real difference in these "races" is that specific unit stats are increased - one race has stronger tanks and armored vehicles, another has stronger turrets and mines, and so on).
There's no denying that M.A.X. 2 has all the ingredients of a great game, but strange quirks in the game engine and some downright bugs prevent it from reaching its full potential. Things start out weirdly enough with the choice of install sizes, which jump from the reasonable 65MB to 561MB. Yep, if you don't have more than half a gigabyte free, you'll have to opt for the teeny-tiny install - and if you've got a slower CD-ROM drive, that means nice long delays as each mission loads from the disc. Come on - couldn't Interplay have provided some compromise install size that put at least some of the missions on your hard drive?
Gone are the tutorial missions that were so helpful in M.A.X.; instead, the manual says "Your best bet for getting into M.A.X. 2 is to run through the first campaign game." Gee, thanks a lot! And when you do hop into that first campaign game, you'll begin to encounter problem after problem, the most annoying involving commanding and controlling units - the heart and soul of any real-time strategy game.
Take unit groupings: M.A.X. 2 allows you to group only eight units at a time, making it needlessly difficult to move and control large numbers of units. I've been told this is to prevent the dreaded tank rush, but because M.A.X. 2 features so many strong defensive units, the tank rush isn't a valid tactic anyway. Imagine Eisenhower issuing orders to individual battalions during D-Day, and you'll get an idea of how frustrating this "eight is enough" rule can be.
Even if you can deal with that limitation, though, you'll soon discover that it doesn't even work as it's supposed to. It's easy enough to group several units together and assign them a hot-key number to quickly select the group - but if you issue a command to an individual unit in that group, it's automatically removed! If this isn't a bug, then someone at Flat Cat Studios has some strange ideas about unit control. To make matters worse, unit groupings seem to work for only very short periods of time. It's extremely frustrating to hit the "1" key expecting to control eight fast-moving assault guns, only to learn that Group 1 has been mysteriously disbanded.
But perhaps the biggest problem with unit groupings is that hitting a group number centers the view on that group. Imagine this: You send an AWACS all the way to the other side of the map and discover mining stations and heavy-unit factories guarded by a few artillery turrets. With the enemy base onscreen, you hit the "1" key to select a group and have it attack the turrets - but now your view has shifted all the way back to the other side of the map to show the selected group. It makes coordinating a large-scale attack nearly impossible in real time and is a major annoyance even in turn-based play.
In some missions the enemy units are identical to yours, adding even more to the confusion. (There's an option to put colored circles around your units, but it almost makes them look as if they've been selected and also clutters up the screen, particularly in large battles.) Want to load eight infantrymen into an APC? You'd think that highlighting them and clicking on the APC would do the trick, but instead you must load them one at a time.
Nearly everywhere you look in M.A.X. 2, you'll find some evidence that this game either wasn't fully tested or someone didn't care whether it worked or not. Two missions in the retail version couldn't be completed: One crashed after a certain number of turns, and another had a time limit that made it physically impossible to achieve the mission goals. The 1.3 patch makes both missions playable, but how could a game be released without someone checking to make sure the campaign missions worked? In M.A.X. 2, "fog of war" is simply fog - toggling it off simply lightens the entire map rather than revealing the location of enemies.
I've seen phantom constructor units flicker and shimmer onscreen, bewildering me because I wasn't sure whether it was a "ghost" or a unit I should have been able to control. The complex waypoint system is admirable, and while groups do follow the waypoints, you're not able to see the path marked onscreen. Your pilots report antiaircraft fire as enemy fighters - a big bug, since you'd naturally send either a mobile AA gun or a fighter plane to shoot down an airborne threat, instead of a ground unit or ground-attack plane to take care of a stationary threat. In one mission, the same enemy building is referred to as a "radar station" (in the briefing), a "relay station" (the unit name during play), and a "radar pod" (mission debriefing). This cost me the mission, because I destroyed the relay station rather than disabling it because I didn't know it was the objective.
I've read a lot of people saying that M.A.X. 2 was unplayable because of frequent crashes, but after installing the 1.3 patch I only experienced a couple during 10 to 15 hours of play (and at least one of those crashes might have been my own fault - I was running a screen-capture utility in the background).
Interplay is supporting multiplayer games of M.A.X. 2 with dedicated game servers, but in two full days of searching for opponents I only found one person online; there wasn't even anyone in the tech support chat room. I also kept trying to scare up games on Kali and IGZ, but no dice. Apparently there aren't too many people eager to play M.A.X. 2 online.
I'd be a liar if I said that every minute I spent with M.A.X. 2 was frustrating. It's obvious that a lot of effort has gone into the basic concepts behind M.A.X. 2, so much so that from time to time I found myself truly enjoying the action - only to be jerked back to reality by another clumsy interface design. Considering how deeply embedded most of the problems are in M.A.X. 2, it's doubtful that a patch will fix everything - but if at least some of the bigger problems aren't resolved, you can bet that there won't be nearly as many strategy fans waiting for M.A.X.3 as there were waiting for this game.