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Graphics: Dark Reign 2 displays the beauty of 3D landscapes like never before. The terrain varies from the rubble of destroyed cities to the frozen mountainous wastelands of a nuclear holocaust. Humongous lakes and waterfalls surrounded by trees and lush grasses eventually give way to rolling sand dunes of the barren desert. Complete with weather effects that include water drops landing on river beds and blizzard-like snow storms, Dark Reign 2 provides a Carmack-esque visual impact. The graphical advancements evident here are huge and include colored lighting, 1600×1200 resolution, 32-bit color and incredible real-time night and day light-sourcing. Dark Reign 2 represents the best in graphical technology, and does so in a manner that’s not unfriendly to lower-end machines. Everything from a graphical perspective is robust, including the many cinematics, which make use of the game engine. Weapon effects, explosions and atmospheric content are all unmistakably top-notch.
Interface: The interface is clean and concise, making it fairly easy to understand and use. Dark Reign 2′s layout makes sense and provides you with a lot of information, assuming you’re familiar with what all its symbols mean. Once comfortable with the buttons, players will always know the amount of taelon collected and the current level of energy for their base.
In addition to the wonderful visuals are the multiple ways in which you can view them. You are able to use Dark Reign 2′s super cameras to view any area on your screen from any viewpoint. This gives you marvelous advantages when planning battles and incursions and allows you to examine terrain, units and buildings from all sorts of never seen before perspectives. Changing your view from a first person perspective to that of a zoomed out overhead view is simple, allowing gamers to change at will without compromising gameplay. This is easily the most robust viewing system ever offered in a 3D RTS title, and for that I give it lots of credit. Not everyone is sold on the 3D RTS genre, and many would just as soon continue to see two dimensional offerings such as Age of Empires continue their domination. Dark Reign 2′s camera system proves that 3D and real-time strategy are capable of co-existing, and capable of doing it quite nicely as well.
Sadly, the folks at Pandemic forgot to provide Dark Reign 2 with some of the “other” features needed to insure overwhelming success. There’s no way to make formations and you can’t control the manner or speed in which your troops move. They’ve also not included interface commands that allow you to select specific unit types from a large group. A major faux pas with the interface is the lack of customization. You can’t configure your keyboard or mouse layout at all, and there’s not nearly enough hotkeys available either.
Gameplay: For the most part, Dark Reign 2 is a traditional RTS offering — collect a resource, build bases and armies and attack your enemy. One of the variances in Dark Reign 2 compared to the original is that you only collect one resource. Resource management is the one area where I believe they were right the first time, but it’s more of a personal choice than anything. Dark Reign 2 plays somewhat like Command & Conquer in terms of managing resources, and as such the “attack the harvester” tactic is, to a degree, overly powerful here as well. The resource spots in Dark Reign 2 are usually short-lived, and a couple of collectors can ravage a site in no time. This requires players to build in different locations, and depending on how long the game goes, it’s plausible a player may have buildings in more than 10 locations. The dynamics in finding, mining and defending these locations during the course of a conflict becomes one of the title’s primary draws. There’s a good amount of strategy involved with maintaining control of a map’s resources, and Dark Reign 2 surely provides some of the best attrition wars the genre has seen.
Unit construction is also nicely handled. Queues are provided that allow players to rack up troops without having to be at their base, and there’s virtually no limit on the amount of units one player can control or build. Combat is also a lot of fun, as long as you’re able to get past how pretty things look. The lack of formation ability, extreme pathfinding problems and some boneheaded AI are causes of frustration, though, and negatively impact gameplay. However, these concerns are more evident in the single player campaigns and do not affect online play nearly as much.
The vast amount of units and their weaponry available is really cool too. Pandemic obviously spent a lot of time on making sure the opposing sides were balanced and yet unique. Certain units have natural defenses against one another, which makes unit selection key to victory. While Dark Reign 2 doesn’t have the experience system and location specific damage model offered in Ground Control, its units are still pretty cool and are a positive trait overall.
Sound FX: The dialogue of the mission briefings and cutscenes helps the storyline to progress, and is delivered with quality and professionalism. The in-game sound effects spoken by the individual units, however, is a little less polished. Attempts to be humorous aren’t and some of the acknowledgments to directives can get repetitive. As for the rest of the sounds, such as weapons and explosions, it’s all pretty standard stuff.
Musical Score: Played directly from the CD, the music is sometimes good, but most of the time overbearing. The combination of orchestral and vocal melodies with techno beats gives Dark Reign 2 a unique and futuristic sound, which I like. The music loops continuously, though, and whether you are in the midst of a large battle or just doing a little exploring there appears to be nothing tying it to the on-screen action.
Intelligence & Difficulty: Dark Reign 2 provides players with four difficulty settings, ranging from easy to brainsick. The problem with this is that no matter how hard or easy the setting is, you’ll encounter the same headaches, which are led front and center by the artificial intelligence of the units — both yours and the enemy’s. Moving an army through a narrow passage can give even the most patient player an aneurysm. Units move one by one in a row and when one unit stops all those behind him come to a stop — in essence rear-ending the units in front of them. My other big gripe about the AI is how stupid units are in relation to their friendlies. Say a group of infantry is standing on a hill and is attacked from the east from below. Units that are within range of the enemy will return fire, but, regardless of the AI profile they’ve been given, the other units will remain at ease if they aren’t able to see the enemy, even if the guy standing right next to them is being ripped to shreds with cannon fire. This happens all the time in Dark Reign 2 and will become a real sore spot as you maneuverer units across the large landscapes and have multiple squads in numerous places.
There is a good aspect to Dark Reign 2‘s AI however, and that is with the unit specific commands. Players can direct units and squads in regard to their likeliness to fight, when they retreat and if they will return to base for healing and when. You can set units to guard, patrol, explore and initiate hit and run sequences with ease. All of these features have been added in order to minimize the amount of player micromanagement in large battles. It’s too bad the above failings prevent these features from fully realizing their potential.
Overall: Dark Reign 2 is a massive improvement over its predecessor, especially in terms of the way it looks. It is without a doubt the best looking RTS title to date, and with its super camera system is destined to be the benchmark which other forthcoming games in the genre look to for guidance. Dark Reign 2 includes a vast array of other features that will prevent it from becoming outdated any time soon. It sports excellent online play with tons of play styles, and has a developer that is committed to continued support of the product, providing weekly downloads to enhance the playability; it even comes equipped with a nice editor that should prove a big hit with the mod community. Overall Dark Reign 2 is a positive example of why the RTS genre should embrace the third dimension. Despite its somewhat inadequate interface and flawed AI, Dark Reign 2 delivers a high-quality experience. If you’re trying to decide which of the latest 3D strategy offerings to buy, Dark Reign 2 is a good choice. It’s not quite as polished as Sierra’s heavily tactical Ground Control, but it’s as good or better than anything else, including Earth 2150.
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