The essence of Wildfire is: promising idea, weak execution. The concept of fighting wildfires lends itself well to the real-time strategy format since these fires are inherently dramatic and fast paced. Small quirks in weather or terrain can easily turn a tiny brushfire into a raging inferno, roaring up a mountainside and turning a verdant blanket of trees into an eerie waste of charred stumps and ash. Fighting these blazes could have made for a really exciting RTS, but with Wildfire it makes for a merely mediocre RTS. The game does a fine job of getting across the unpredictability and speed of wildfires, but it lacks any larger strategic elements and buckles under the weight of major control and camera issues.
Wildfire offers 16 preset scenarios that you can unlock. They begin with three tutorial missions and progress to harder challenges with more fires, larger fires, and/or faster-spreading fires. You also get a random scenario generator with nine difficulty levels and four maps. You know you're in for a rough ride when you start with the tutorials and find that they don't really teach you anything. It essentially just says, "Here's a fire, put it out." The tutorials fail to adequately explain units and tactics, leaving you to rely on the skimpy manual and guesswork.
Getting things done in Wildfire can be quite a challenge--often for the wrong reasons. Actually making units do what you want can be a big chore. Serious artificial intelligence and pathfinding problems often lead your firefighters right into harm's way or cause them to wander circuitously instead of taking a more direct route. You can't center on units with a hotkey, so good luck finding them. Commands can't be queued and often don't register; get ready to do lots of extra clicking to get units to obey. You can call in a special airborne unit that drops a chemical fire retardant, but you only get one chance to assign its drop zone. If you slip up when plotting its mission, well, that's just too bad. You can't reassign command hotkeys for any units, and a clunky camera system only adds to your woes. You can zoom and pan with the mouse, but you're forced to resort to numeric keypad buttons or onscreen icons to tilt and rotate the camera. Other games give you easy, complete camera control with the mouse alone, just as it should be. Why not here, too?
All these flaws are a shame, because Wildfire can, when it's not making your life difficult, challenge you for the right reasons. You can only purchase a small handful of units out of a possible pool of unit types, such as bulldozers, helicopters, and parachuting smoke jumpers. You'll have to choose and use wisely.
Then again, there's really not a whole lot to the gameplay since there are no long-term strategic elements, just the basic moment-to-moment tactics of dousing flames and digging firebreaks. Still, you do have to make quick decisions under stress, figuring out how best to contain fires that can dramatically shift and gobble up big chunks of landscape before you know it. When you only have four or five units, some quite slow, and three different fires raging, what do you do? Which fire is likely to find more brush fuel first or jump to a nearby stand of trees if the wind shifts? You have to analyze the wind and terrain and leap into action. Fortunately you can issue orders while paused if things get too hectic, as they often will.
Wildfire is a budget game, and frankly it shows in the plain Jane presentation. The fires look hot enough to singe you and the smoke bellows realistically, but those are the only highlights. Bland terrain and lighting, hokey-looking trees, and some weird animations that can cause helicopters to jitter spastically do the game no favors. The sound effects are realistic enough, but then again, the everyday sounds of chain saws and digging don't exactly get the blood pumping. The game really needs much stronger voice-overs and music to complement the effects so the audio can be brought to life.
Wildfire can be tense and challenging, but the control and camera problems are like big thorns in your side, twisted repeatedly. The lack of any overarching strategic elements also means that the game can get old fast, even though individual missions can present fun challenges. Wildfire certainly offers an unusual subject, but too often the game fizzles instead of sizzles.