As a change of pace from the glut of science fiction and fantasy RTS titles, World War III: Black Gold offers a real-world strategy experience with realism ranging from the appearance of soldiers and vehicles to their gritty actions. The Arab Federation halts the flow of oil, causing panic among world powers as they search for alternate energy sources. A former Communist general from the days before Russia's breakup decides to amass an army to take over the oil fields and return the Motherland to its former glory. NATO members, reacting to the threat to security and wealth, send their own armies to stop the Russians. It's global war and you call the shots!
The game features a single player campaign, multiplayer action, and a computer opponent skirmish mode, with only minor differences in actual gameplay. In single player action, you must first win the United States campaign before you can play as Iraq, and eventually Russia. Although this somewhat restrictive feature may annoy some gamers, the linearity doesn't significantly hurt gameplay.
Your first confrontation playing as the U. S. is against Iraq. The process of locating oil to sell to finance your campaign is done automatically prior to building forces and buildings, thus you're not required to find, gather, store and refine it. Building a solid base is fairly rapid, as you surround it with gun batteries for protection -- something the enemy is also doing. Your base is limited by access to the technical tree, similar to Heroes of Might and Magic, and building more units and buildings creates additional opportunities. The base progression is so fast, in fact, that you'll often crush an enemy base only to discover that he's already built a new one two sites away, which can be frustrating.
With only one resource, you can focus attention on building up your base and units. All factions have basically the same main forces, tanks and helicopters, but have special skills as well. Due to expert skills in field repairs, Russians have self-repairing vehicles, as well as chemical weapons that can cut through armor. As the Iraqis, you can camouflage desert units perfectly for ambushes, and have access to truck bombs and SCUD missile launchers. U. S. forces employ long-range mortars and build towers to call in air strikes from F-15 fighters and B-2 bombers.
Units gain experience by eliminating the enemy, with some needing protection to eventually turn them into high-ranking troops and elite killing machines. Keeping them alive, though, isn't always easy, as the game is designed more for "amass and attack" type strategy than unit development. In order to develop your units fully, the enemy needs to be willing to do the same, which rarely happens since the AI is set to swarm over your base as soon and as fast as possible.
The interface is fairly easy to master, and offers a choice between a basic or advanced set up, dependant on the level of investment you want to make in developing your base and units. Units can be assigned to a control group so they'll join the right outfit once produced. Each mission features new units to create and, occasionally, a special unit that's instrumental in completing the mission is automatically generated. The technology tree is similar for each army and very slow to develop, and allows research of only one item at a time, which severely hampers base development, units and their effectiveness. Often, you simply set events in motion and wait for them to finish before advancing.
The AI is very good, but your troops occasionally have a bit of trouble getting out of each other's way. Collectively, though, they work well together and put up a great fight against the fast-swarming enemy. Friendly troops generally handle things nicely as they keep track of weapon stockpiles, call for more when supplies gets low, and send repair trucks where they're needed with little prompting. Units automatically search for the most easily passable terrain rather than get bogged down in difficult areas.
Researched items carry over from mission to mission, allowing you to continually ramp up your base and units to get a head start on the unrelenting enemy. Even so, the sides are fairly and equally matched in terms of strengths and weaknesses. Base and unit planning affects how the game plays out, with each choice you make having a huge impact on how the game progresses and whether you win or lose. Unlike so many other RTS games, the amount of resources you generate aren't the only factor, which adds a bit more depth to decision-making, albeit it can be nerve wracking as well.
The other two game modes are straightforward in the same manner as single-player. In addition to those included with the game, multi-player maps can be downloaded from the Internet, and up to 16 players can join. While unwieldy at times, the fast-paced action can be exciting, too. Skirmish mode takes you to a variety of places and situations in Limited Cost Battle, Destroy Structures, and Tech War scenarios.
The map editor is limited only to altering what the terrain looks like and it's location and becomes boring fairly quickly. The environment ranges from desert to snow, and you can make huge mountain ranges or dunes that go on for miles. It's easy, but, unfortunately, too limited to be practical. Despite the flaws, World War III: Black Gold is solid and offers more RTS realism than many others in the genre.
Graphics: Graphics are solid, though standard fare. The day/night changes are nicely done, with units turning on headlights and bases lighting up, which can affect fighting. Weather changes effectively change the scenery at times. The world is built on a well-designed grid-like system and areas and environments never obstruct your view.
Sound: Sounds are detailed and effective, and loudness adjusts in conjunction with camera proximity to events. If you're far away from tanks, they sound faint, but up close the rumble is impressive. Voice acting is stereotypical, with Russian and Iraqi accents a bit over the top and possibly offensive to some gamers. The music enhances rather than detracts from gameplay and reflects the mood of battle appropriately.
Enjoyment: Choosing which side you want to play from the beginning would make the game a bit more flexible, but the realism makes the game a fun challenge.
Replay Value: With three sides to play, each with distinctive weapons and units, some replay is assured. Being able to network with up to 16 players extends game life significantly.
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