PC action gamers rely on strength, stamina, and strategy to fight wildfires in this release from Take 2. Hand-pick a team of able smoke jumpers for each mission. Parachute the team in to contain out-of-control forest fires in the American Northwest and Southwest. Fires move realistically across the wilderness according to factors such as terrain, winds, and moisture. Completing missions provides cash for new equipment, allowing the fire fighters to take on even greater challenges. The game features over 50 missions in all, which can be altered and adjusted for replay value.
I think someone could come along and do one of these firefighting simulations right, but for now, the subgenre is relegated to the budget lineup, and the production values aren't quite there yet. I've played a couple that were pretty neat, and the best one seems to be Emergency Fire Response. The lesson EFR teaches me is that firefighting is a lot more compelling in urban environments than in national parks and feels a lot more dangerous. It's also a lot easier for a graphics engine to render a couple city blocks than thousands of acres of forest.
What hurts Wildfire the most, though, is the camera implementation. Now, you'd think that the RTS model would have worked those kinks by now, and I thought it had. But I immediately found that I couldn't rotate the camera. I could pan and zoom, and that was all right, but I had to consult the slim manual in the jewel case to discover that something as mouse-integral as rotation had been shunted off to the / and * keys on the number pad. Not only is this kinda out of the way, but it's not very intuitive, and the rotation speed is pretty slow. Having to look down at the keyboard for such a common task because it's been put in an uncommon location is not a good thing. You also can't remap any of the keys.
But that's not what makes the camera bad. It also has an elevation lock. As you pan across hill and dale, the camera's elevation remains fixed to a specific distance from the ground, instead of staying at the height you started with. It's kind of disorienting, and it's often difficult to get an effective tactical look at the fire. You'll have a minimap in the upper right-hand corner, and it actually pretty handy. You can filter out buildings, the fire, fuel (AKA "trees, bushes, grass," etc.) and the map geography. But you can choose between canopy and ground fires. This is important because some units can't put out canopy fires.
Although this is an RTS, there's no construction tree or economy (although you can build small remote bases). You get a preset amount of money and a preset group of units you can purchase, which becomes more extensive as the game progresses. When a unit dies, you can't replace it, so you'll have to treat them like real people. The firefighters will take damage if they get too close to the fire, and will need to rest to regain health. You'll also have units that are called in like airstrikes, like the superscoop, which rains down thousands of gallons of anti-fire juice. Regular units include the backburner, who gets rid of fuel before a big fire can reach it, and smokejumpers, who come in on parachutes. They can be dropped right in, a huge plus in a wilderness environment, but they're a lot more expensive and you have to be careful not to place them too close, or else they'll die before they can get clear.
But units can and will die of their own accord, because pathfinding is a little weak. Instead of clicking on a fire and telling them to go put it out, you click once to start a path and then somewhere else to end that path, like creating a patrol route. Unfortunately, the guys have a habit of walking through one fire to get to another. This is particularly bad due to not being able to replace units. However, you can reduce exposure by having them cut down trees and dig firebreaks (trenches of soil blocking the fire from fuel on the other side). If you do it right, you can isolate the fire without having to actively put it out.
Graphics are actually pretty solid, all things considered, and the in-game options allow for some wide performance flexibility. The clipping plane is very far out, and the textures, and you can zoom in to fly-on-the-wall distance (although this is pretty useless), but there is a lot of texture poppage on the foliage. And there's also a lot of foliage, as you may have noticed. The fire effects are also just serviceable, although this is admittedly a difficult thing to make look nice without bogging things down.
What seals the deal against Wildfire in the end is that it's not quite as interesting as it could be. It feels more instructional than anything else, whereas Emergency Fire Response was populated by optional sub-missions, varied scenarios, and many different types of units, allowing for all kinds of strategic subtlety. There's only three different types of fighters here. And it's just a lot more interesting to be saving people than saving trees.
People who downloaded Wildfire have also downloaded:
Wildlife Park, Will of Steel, Fire Department (a.k.a. Fire Chief / Emergency Fire Response), Firefighter Command: Raging Inferno, Waterloo: Napoleon's Last Battle, Fire Department: Episode 3, West Front, Warlords 3: Reign of Heroes
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