Dark Reign 2
Why fix something that ain’t broke?
You don’t need a game to be insanely original for it to be good. Though Dark Reign 2 doesn’t provide much in the way of real innovation, it does offer compelling gameplay, challenging missions, an intuitive interface, and one of the best engines to power an RTS game. In short, this game is a hell of a lot of fun, regardless of whether it’s all been done before.
The plot of Dark Reign 2 serves as a prequel to the original game. You control the Jovian Detention Authority (JDA) or the Sprawlers (precursors of the first game’s Imperium and Freedom Guard, respectively) as they battle for control of a dying Earth in the 26th century. The fascist JDA has sucked the planet dry of all its resources, and finally decides to evacuate a chosen few from the dying planet. Standing in their way are the Sprawlers, lower class citizens exiled to the wastelands.
Two 10-mission campaigns allow you to play through this storyline from the viewpoint of both sides. Gameplay is traditional RTS in style, meaning that you’ll try to defeat your opposite number by gathering resources, constructing buildings, and cranking out troops, tanks, and other devices of military mayhem. The interface lets you keep an eye on your energy supply, survey the battlefield via a map in the lower right corner, and even check on the time of day. It also handles the standard military commands that group your units into squads, give them specific orders, send them to waypoints, and so on.
The missions are generally good, though scripting that’s often a tad too obvious removes some of the tension. A number of missions feature enemy troops that spawn in out of nowhere, sometimes from off the edges of the map. They usually show up back at your base if things seem to be going too well up at the front lines. Nothing slows down a charge to victory like having to put out a few fires at home.
Almost every episode opens with a handful of units and a nearby source of Taelon, the all-powerful mineral that must be mined and refined into energy that serves as the basis of all structures and units in RTS land. Fortunately, this is about the only thing that the missions share. Each new assignment takes place in a completely new environment, with different objectives and challenges.. Urban maps require you to creep forward and prepare for an ambush at the end of every block. Wintry ones tend to feature a lot of narrow valleys ripe for fortification. Those with a number of rivers and lakes give you the option of building an army or a navy.
Another major strength of Dark Reign 2 is the wide variety of unit types. Each side boasts at least 20 markedly different units, along with 17 building types. This assortment lets you design just about any sort of strategic plan desired. If you want the JDA to go with heavy armor, upgrade your motor pool and start rolling out Growler and Bulldog tanks. Or you could go completely in the other direction and fashion an air force complete with Blackstars, Strikers, and Sky Fortresses.
About the only real flaws in the game include the pathfinding and the camera. Units always try to walk to their objectives in a straight line, resulting in a lot of collisions when moving a large force. On the second issue, the camera is responsive most of the time, but the 3D does tend to get in the way when navigating through jagged mountains and urban areas. Plus it gets really disorienting despite having an automap at hand – at times you just can’t tell where’s North. Yet Dark Reign 2 is still very fun and finely produced, and while not original, one can levy that same accusation towards StarCraft or Age of Empires 2.
System Requirements: Pentium 233 MHz, 64 MB RAM, Windows 95