M.A.X. 2 Mechanized Assault & Exploration

Muddled and half-broken, MAX 2 sinks into the strategy game abyss.

2MAX 2 is one of those maddening instances where a sterling game system is undermined by sub-standard production values. The design specs for MAX 2 must have looked great. It is an elegant tactical combat system with simple rules for complex ideas: sensor ranges, terrain masking, spotting for long range fire, naval and air units, armor and shields, vehicle repairs, resource management, research, unit upgrades, and so on. These all sound great, but much of the game’s elegance was lost somewhere during the development process.

MAX 2’s graphics are muddled and dark. If you want to be charitable, you can say it’s woefully out of date. You can squint all you want to distinguish Assault Guns from Rocket Launchers or trees from Sheevat Spawns, but you’re better off scouring the terrain with your mouse cursor, waiting for a unit name to pop up in the message box. The ground units all look like dirty blobs, while the air units look like tiny identical birds. Many times, you’ll lose a unit to opportunity fire because you can’t distinguish an enemy, which is supposedly in plain view, from the murky terrain beneath it. The irony is that the scalable graphics were probably supposed to make the game more attractive. They zoom in and out fluidly, and you can even tilt them a bit to get a better sense for elevations, but they muddy up an otherwise crisp game.

The coarse graphics also lead to some interface problems. There are some helpful options that will superimpose important info on the map, but this is often clunky or inconvenient, making it hard to get an overview of your forces, skirt enemy firing ranges, or manage unit formations. The spycam, which allows you to store views in a small inset window, is too small to be useful with the game’s grainy graphics. Many of the conveniences we’ve come to expect in real-time games are also present in MAX 2, but they don’t always work.

6And this is where MAX 2 is most frustrating. Even after a couple of patches from the developers, there are still horrible bugs in the game. Units will disregard orders and sit idle. Resource management or building rates will sometimes implode. Sometimes graphics effects, such as explosions, are completely missing. The game will lock up or crash hard. And the multiplayer games are especially touchy, disconnecting whenever a gentle breeze blows. The programming in MAX 2 appears to be just as rough as the graphics.

Surprisingly, MAX 2 succeeds in straddling real-time and turn-based gameplay, a compromise that has ruined other games. MAX 2 has enough detail to accommodate turn-based players, but not enough to overwhelm real-time players. This is a delicate balancing act made possible with some judicious rules tweaks. Anxious real-timers can set the game to pause when enemies are sighted, and orders can always be given while the game is paused; this all but eliminates the twitch factor. Conversely, time limits can be placed on turn-based turns, and the game can also be played with a simultaneous execution phase, trimming some of the possible tedium from turn-based play, especially in multiplayer games.

9Unfortunately, it seems that some of the game’s scenarios weren’t tested for turn-based gameplay; the time limited scenarios are ridiculously hard in turn-based mode, and some of them are literally impossible. The four campaigns are a linear progression of canned scenarios, but an amazingly simple option lowers the frustration factor: you can skip any scenario in a campaign, but only after you’ve tried and failed, and only one at a time. There are some good single missions and a skirmish mode can be used with any of the game’s handful of maps. The AI is good at defense, but mounts poorly conceived attacks.

All of this is a shame considering the superior quality of the first game, which was fun, original and offered a new spin on a tired formula. MAX 2 fails on these fronts, and in the end just can’t seem to offer enough enjoyment to justify its own existence on your hard-drive.

System Requirements: Pentium 166 MHz, 32 MB RAM, Win95

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