Ground Control II: Operation Exodus is set 300 years after Ground Control. The democracy-loving Northern Star Alliance is being threatened by the brutal Terran Empire, and a ground war has just started on the last NSA planet, Morningstar Prime. Players take control of Jacob Angelus, a NSA officer, and lead the defense against the Terran Empire. Gameplay involves a tactical single-player campaign, but players can also participate in online multiplayer games. An included editor provides a full complement of modification tools as well.
In the crowded market of real-time strategy games, the original Ground Control stood out by not following the pack. By disregarding that most sacred of RTS features, base building, that game put you in command of a sci-fi military campaign, not some mamby-pamby construction project. Ground Control II continues its predecessor's proud disregard for base building, and the game has also been honed and refined with additional features and high-production value. The intense gameplay makes it one of the best strategy games we've played this year.
Though this is only the second game in the series, the plot is deep. The game's manual devotes four pages to the game's backstory, detailing the events of 400 years up to the moment you take the reins of the campaign. A lot has happened since the original Ground Control. The previous factions of the Order of the New Dawn and Crayven Corporation are gone, replaced by the ruthless Empire of Terra and the resistant Northern Star Alliance. In the single-player campaign, you'll take on the role of Captain Jacob Angelus, a new NSA commander who's trying to defend his home world from imperial forces. As the battle rages on, a new army, the Viron Nomads, enters the scene to lend their organic weaponry to the empire.
With a few exceptions in the single-player mode, Ground Control II is a capture-and-hold RTS. There are no bases to build or resources you need to tediously deploy workers to collect. The game takes its title seriously; your army will only grow with the acquisition of territory. There is only one resource -- acquisition points -- and the only way to get them is to dispatch your troops to take certain points on the map called victory locations. The locations are positioned at key points around the map that usually feature choke points and hardened defenses. The longer you hold the point, the more APs you'll acquire. APs can be spent on troops, which will arrive at a landing zone via a dropship deployed from some off-map base. Unlike most RTSs, there is no tech tree. As long as you've got the APs and space on your dropship, you can field any unit.
There are some built-in limitations to your army's growth. If enemy troops take over your landing zone, your dropship will be unable to land in order to dump reinforcements. Another thing that limits an army's size is the maintenance costs of fielding your army. Your troops require upkeep in the form of APs. A handy little gauge at the top of your screen will tell you the percentage of APs you're actually gaining from your victory points after your troops take their cut. If you're fielding a lot of troops, it's very possible you won't see any APs to buy more, and you'll have to make do with what you have. Maintenance costs force generals to take risks. In order to push ahead, troops on defense will have to be deployed to the front lines. A failed offensive operation can allow the enemy to quickly take your ground while you're waiting for your dropship to deliver reinforcements.
Tactics play a strong role in Ground Control II. Forces deployed on higher ground have an advantage. Soldiers can enter buildings and forests to employ hard cover. Snipers can take out an enemy before they know what's happening. Deploying sensors on the field will let you to catch a glimpse of enemy movements, allowing you to prepare a specialized defense. A clever player will be able to capitalize on his knowledge of the enemy, his troops and the terrain to take out a force much larger than his own.
You'll command two armies in the regular campaign. The NSA troops are your typical human force made up of three different types of infantry and a variety of ground and air units. There are only eight basic units in the alien Viron army, but they can meld with each other in order to create up to eight enhanced units. The Viron ground recon unit, for example, is able to meld with another to create an anti-air unit. The melding process takes around fifteen seconds to finish, during which time the units can't move or fire. Melding makes the Virons especially adept at fielding a flexible force.
Every soldier and vehicle you'll command, both NSA and Viron alike, has an alternate mode that changes its abilities. For instance, the basic NSA light trooper has the ability to change his weapon from an anti-infantry rifle to an anti-vehicle rocket launcher. The NSA light recon vehicle, a speedy light gun platform, is able to trade speed and armament in order to become practically invisible to enemy troops. Many vehicles trade movement for enhanced armor. Mastering the alternate modes of your army's troops can frequently turn defeat into victory.
Overall, the single-player mode has a great plot and an interesting bunch of characters. A lot of care obviously went into creating an entertaining story. The voice acting is superb and excellent sound all around makes for an immersive experience. Ground Control II is also a looker. Once you get used to controlling the game's free-floating camera, you'll be manipulating it constantly to get the best possible view of the action. The camera can get very, very close, allowing glimpses of the game's beautifully rendered units. The amount of detail will keep you entertained even when your ass is getting kicked all over the map.
Ground Control II also has some serious multiplayer going on. You'll be able to designate friends, chat, and look at the records of your fellow Ground Control II players. There are many ways to get your game on; you and up to two buddies can take on any of the single-player missions, or up to eight players can split into two teams to battle on ten multiplayer maps. The maps feature a variety of terrain, from snow fields to dense jungles and idyllic fields. Some of the maps are huge, but since victory locations are the key to the game, there's never a problem with finding a fight.
The slow, measured pace of the single-player game can be thrown out the window in multiplayer. The host is able to dictate how many APs are given to players when the game starts and how much is gained from the control of victory locations. If the host is feeling generous, you'll have access to an almost infinite amount of troops. The host will also be able to dictate whether new players can drop in to play while the game is in progress.
If you consider yourself an RTS gamer of a more strategic bent, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy. The graphics are amazing, the single-player mode is entertaining, there are good times to be had online, and the gameplay is deep and rewarding. Not only that, but the game also ships with a level editor. Let go of your base building ways -- you won't miss them.
People who downloaded Ground Control II: Operation Exodus have also downloaded:
Ground Control, Ground Control: Dark Conspiracy, Empires: Dawn of the Modern World, Homeworld 2, Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords, Emperor: Battle for Dune, Haegemonia: Legions of Iron, Dune 2000
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