It's not easy trying to create a new genre of gaming. People generally don't like change, and history has shown that gamers flock to the familiar rather than risk disappointment with the new and innovative. So I try to appreciate the effort of a developer when it attempts to do something different. That's why I'm rooting for the success of the new action/strategy hybrid. That's also why I wanted to like Microsoft and Terra Tools' Urban Assault, the latest offering in this budding genre. Uprising and Battlezone were the first games to herald this new type of gaming. Uprising was a decent game, though hobbled with some problems. Battlezone, on the other hand, was a very good game that was clean, intuitive, attractive, and fun. Unfortunately, it didn't sell well, which doesn't bode well for this infant genre. So where does Urban Assault fit into this little pantheon? Can it become the first critical and commercial success for the action/strategy hybrid? The unfortunate answer is no.
I've watched Urban Assault throughout its development and always thought it was a good idea. But that was before I played the game. In Urban Assault, you are mankind's last hope to stop both an alien invasion and a three-way civil war among humans. It's a cliched setup that's overdone with an overly melodramatic introduction and mission videos. When you get down to it, it's just an excuse to bash through 40+ missions of finger-numbing action and unit building. The lack of a real story is a disappointment in light of the excellent storytelling in recent games like Starcraft and, to a lesser extent, Battlezone.
Urban Assault isn't too hard to learn. There are three tutorial missions that teach you the basics of gameplay: how to build units, how to exploit vital power stations, how to command your troops, and how to directly control individual units. It's a competent tutorial, although I wish there were subtitles for the extensive voice instructions.
For those who are wondering, Urban Assault is more action than strategy. In fact, the design of the game forces you to take active control of vehicles. You won't win a mission unless you do so. As to be expected, there are plenty of vehicles to take over, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.
My first problem with Urban Assault was the interface. It's daunting to play this game with the grid map, the unit-listing squadron manager, and command or vehicle HUD taking up three quarters of your screen. Sure, you can turn off the map and squadron manager, but you need to keep them open to command your troops while you're fighting. A game interface should also look like it belongs in a game. Urban Assault's interface, with its gray colors and monotonous windows-like buttons, looks like an old OS/2 interface, not a game interface.
The interface is also too cumbersome, especially when using the mouse, as it forces you to take your hand off the joystick, even in the heat of combat, and click back and forth between icons placed all over your screen. There are hotkeys for most of the commands, but they aren't arrayed logically like Battlezone's interface and are almost too numerous and spread out to memorize. Even with these hotkeys, you still have to use the mouse to resize the map and actually create a unit, which forces you to disengage from the joystick, usually at the worst times.
The squadron manager is useful for organizing and ordering your troops. However, it would be nice to be able to assign hotkey numbers to saved unit groups or to the most frequently used vehicles, which would have made the constant jumping between vehicle and base less of a hassle. The map, with its various levels of zoom, was also useful, although I had trouble seeing terrain on it.
The other problem I had with the game was the sheer monotony of missions. There are lots of missions and lots of branches so you can complete several missions in varying order, but all the missions end up playing the same. You arrive in a scenario, find a network of power stations to beam to, start cranking out troops, and then start sweeping the map for the enemy bases and technology upgrade sectors. Nearly every mission plays like this, with very little variation. Some mission variety would have made this game more interesting, and an attempt to tie the story into some of the missions would have been nice. As it is, each successive mission is just another deathmatch with more and bigger enemies. The game just gets harder and repetitive, rather than becoming more fun.
The graphics and environments also further the monotony. The levels all look the same - gray and dull, with scattered hulks of buildings, brown clouds overhead, and the same not-quite-shimmering blue energy screen walling you inside your scenario. I wish that in addition to different types of missions, there were different looks and environments to add variety. After a dozen missions or so, everything just looks the same. As for the quality of the game's graphics, they weren't bad, but even with 3D acceleration they failed to impress.
A few other problems surfaced that made me like the game even less. For all the production values in the intro and mission videos, there is a surprising lack of detail in the game. When airplanes and bombers take off, I want to see engines spewing exhaust from a vertical takeoff, instead of hovering up and down like they were pulled on strings. Another thing that seemed silly was taking over sectors - which you do by shooting the ground of the sector you want to control. Conquering the sectors on a map is vital to your power output, but after the millionth time of shooting rockets into the ground, it just seemed silly. Why couldn't there have been an automated drone that could just take over all empty sectors? Regarding Urban Assault's force-feedback support, I think Microsoft overdid it. Everything causes the joystick to bounce around ridiculously. Even when you're just driving across flat land the joystick starts bucking. It got so bad that I had to switch to a regular joystick several missions into the game.
Urban Assault isn't a bad game, but the truth is, I'd rather play Battlezone, which has more personality, is more fun, and better looking. If the interface was cleaned up, made more attractive and intuitive, and the missions and environments spiced up, this game would be good. The core gameplay is fun, but it just gets monotonous. And without any story to drive you forward, there really is no reason to continue playing.