Publisher: 3000 AD
Developer: 3000 AD
System requirements: Windows XP SP3 or Vista SP1; Pentium IV 3.4 GHz or AMD Athlon 64 X2 3.0 ghz CPU; 1 GB RAM (2 GB for Vista); 256 MB graphics card with Shader Model 3.0, DirectX 9.0c-compatible sound card
Genre: First-person shooter/air combat sim
Release date: Available now
Independent game developers are the mavericks of the industry. Much like their cinematic brethren, they create products intended for a specific niche audience, sometimes financing them out of their own pockets. One such developer is 3000 AD, which has been producing space combat sims since 1996, for the most part under the mainstream gaming radar. With All Aspect Warfare, 3000 AD returns gamers once again to a distant world and a seemingly unending war.
An interplanetary conflict between Earth and a race known as the Gammulans has stretched out for many bloody years. The forces of Earth go on the offensive, sending an invasion fleet to the enemy homeworld, but are repelled at every turn. So, in a desperate maneuver, they send a decoy ship to LV-115, an important Gammulan military base, armed with a planet-killer bomb. The ship crash lands on the planet, and the bomb arms itself, forcing a squad of stranded Marines to make its way across the desolate world, fight through heavy enemy forces and either disarm the bomb or find a way to get off the planet before it detonates.
Single-player AAW includes a 16-scenario campaign, two sandbox modes and 16 self-contained mini-campaigns called Instant Action missions, almost evenly divided between air combat and FPS infantry sequences. In the campaign, you choose one of the four Marine squad members (two heavy ground-pounders, a sniper and a pilot). You also select one of up to eight preset inventory loadouts; each character can carry four weapons, 10 grenades and four auxiliary items, all of which can be replenished at supply stations found on bases. You start in a desert, where you and your squad fight a group of determined Gammulans trying to set up a defensive facility, steal a shuttlecraft and fly to the nearest enemy base, where a teleportation device sends you to the only remaining human stronghold on the planet and starts you on your perilous journey to locate and disarm the bomb. AAW multiplayer features up to 64 players on ranked or unranked servers or LAN. The six available MP modes include the usual suspects (Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch), a co-op versus mode and an interesting variation called Nuclear Winter, in which your team locates and arms the other team’s nuke, then tries to keep control of it until it explodes.
Gamers don’t read manuals anymore (except for flight-sim fans, who revel in them). It might be the same pride that keeps men from asking for directions when they’re lost, but we like the idea of figuring these things out for ourselves. But if you have any desire to check out AAW, you need to swallow your pride and read the documentation. All 53 pages of it. Because if you don’t, your gameplay experience will be like swinging at a Nolan Ryan fastball while wearing a blindfold. The single-player HUD and vehicle cockpit displays are amazingly detailed and are filled with acronyms that only experienced video-game pilots will recognize without looking them up. All the vital information you need to complete a scenario can be found in the HUDs, if you know how to find it. The multifunction radar display is especially important, making it much easier to navigate the 400-square-kilometer game world, distinguish between enemies and friendlies, and find objectives. Game difficulty is determined by the character you choose to play (newbies should definitely pick Lucas, the only character with access to the sniper rifle, even though he’s also the only one of the four who doesn’t get the very useful jetpack as part of his loadouts). Game controls include lots of alt- and ctrl-key combinations, but fortunately they can be remapped to your heart’s content. Players with good sound setups will appreciate the excellent sound design, which helps you identify where that pesky alien is hiding as he goes for the headshot (which is always lethal). And, thankfully, 3000 AD has tossed us a bone by allowing us to save at any time in the game (at least in the PC version). You’ll thank them for that when you finally get to the end of a level that’s been kicking your butt for hours.
And have no doubt, your butt will be sore for a long time. AAW‘s uncompromising design makes its learning curve one of the steepest I’ve seen in any game. It took me more than an entire afternoon of experimenting with characters, loadouts and tactics before I managed to get out of the desert and onto my first base. But there are also common, mundane problems that contribute to AAW‘s undoing. You have to spend quite a bit of time micromanaging your squadmates, who rarely do anything without your orders. Some enemy structures can be destroyed with just two frag grenades. NPCs have major pathfinding issues; my comrades were constantly getting caught in corners of buildings and running in place like Marine mimes. The graphics are decidedly old-school, with lots of sharp corners and flat textures, although the terrain models that you can see during the flight sequences are sharp and detailed. The Gammulans are expert marksmen, especially in their aircraft, and they never give up when they have you in their sights; once I ducked inside a building to hide from an enemy pilot, who destroyed the entire building to get to me, so if they’re locked onto you, there’s most likely a reload in your immediate future. But as deadly as they are, the Gammulans are also sometimes dumb as a post; there were times when I could walk right up to an enemy and shoot him between the eyes from close range without so much as a clue that they knew I was there. Game music consists of exactly one several-minute theme that repeats without end (visit the options menu to turn it off, as I did). And if you’re running a 64-bit OS, you’ll be treated to a nasty crash-to-desktop bug that was an incessant nuisance during my time with the game.
All Aspect Warfare is obviously intended for a very limited audience, including hard-core flight simmers, air-combat fans and those who have loved 3000 AD’s games in the past. This is certainly not a bad thing for gamers, although it does make life difficult for the developer in the marketplace. And any player who’s not stimulated by a challenge should stick to their favorite PopCap games. But there’s challenging, and then there’s slam-your-head-into-the-desk-and-throw-objects-at-the-screen challenging, and that’s one of the reasons why it’s almost impossible to recommend this game to the average player. An intriguing story and some impressively detailed cockpit graphics are eventually betrayed by questionable AI behavior, sometimes overwhelming complexity and (at least in my case) a frustrating crash bug that wouldn’t go away. But despite it’s faults, All Aspect Warfare is also surprisingly addictive. Patient indie fans might find some enjoyment in it. But for the rest of you, make sure to try the demo before you buy. And don’t forget to read the manual.