25 July, 2014

Dustin’ Off – Ground Control (Part 3)

In the final part of Dustin' Off - Ground Control, we'll examine the the sequel, Ground Control II : Operation Exodus - where it strayed from the tight formula of the original, and the redemptive power of beach-bums.  

Ground Control II : Operation Exodus 

In 2004, Massive released the sequel, Ground Control II : Operation Exodus. In many ways, it felt like a pretty natural progression from the original game, for better or worse however, there were some key gameplay changes - tactical depth, great story telling and beautiful visuals were retained.

Ground Control II is set more than 300 years after the events of Ground Control and Dark Conspiracy, the galaxy as changed; gone are Crayven Corporation and the Dawnies. In their place, the Empire of Terra (the Terrans) is reconquering long lost elements of humanity, including your home world, Morningstar Prime. You, Captain Jacob Angelus of the Northern Star Alliance, are promoted - just in time to combat the Terran invasion, convenient no?  Much like the original game, Ground Control II's narrative strength is the cast of charismatic commanders, rather than the actually story, it does however, handle the key plot points with much greater deft than Dark Conspiracy did.

Captain Angelus, and his often-distressing damsel, Dr. McNeal are the two most, one-note and flat characters in the game. The people you serve alongside are far more diverse; I remain a staunch fan of beach-bum Sergeant Rho, but the boisterous,  Confederate style of Major Grant, and the terse barks from General Warhurst have their place too.

Ground Control II was built on the same core tenants as the original, both in terms of storytelling, and tactical nuance and depth, however, unlike the predecessor, Ground Control II could not resist the insatiable lure of resources. Whereas, in the original game (and the expansion) missions are completed with very limited units, in Ground Control II, you rather disappointingly call in reinforcements from your dropship. The demanding gameplay was retained in Ground Control II; positioning and knowledge of your unit's strengths remains crucial, offsetting this; is the availability reinforcements, that allow the player's mistakes to be mitigated by simply overwhelming the enemy.

As is the case in any strategy game, ever, mission one begins slowly, setting the scene and getting used to movement, but by mission two, you’ll find yourself storming Gideon’s Landing, at the center of a Normandy-esque beach assault. The Virons, the second playable faction, are introduced in a chilling scene on the precipice of your then-greatest victory, viewing it again now, it certainly lacks visual splendour but is nonetheless effective.   

The Virons are a ‘Zethane’ breathing race of aliens, not encountered in hundreds of years, they play very differently than the NSA, or Terran factions. Where both human factions simply call in reinforcements and fight quite conventionally, the Virons can Meld different units together, mid-battle – both infantry and armour, to form new units, with different strengths and abilities.

Correcting the glaring omission from the original Ground Control, II features a player versus A.I. skirmish mode, pitting the NSA and Virons against one another across the ten, considerably different maps. Skirmishes place a much greater demand on strategic use of the player’s dropship, which can be upgraded during the course of a battle. Taking time to upgrade is crucial, dropships can be shot down with relative ease – especially if you risk deploying your dropship a contested area, or closer to the enemy. Upgrading your ship takes time, during which you won’t have reinforcements, and if your dropship is taken down, you’ll have wait for a replacement – potentially crippling your forces and your chances at victory. Unfortunately, the Terran faction is not playable, thankfully support for this faction has already been added with mods like this one, found on moddb.com.
So much of the battle is obscured by the intrusive interface.

As expected, Ground Control II looked quite stunning when it was released, and obviously holds up today better than the original game. Remember the pleasant, minimal, spartan user interface of the original Ground Control? Well it was replaced by an eyesore of panels and buttons which, pretty needlessly take up huge amounts of the screen.

The Ground Control series were some of the more defining games of my childhood, and revisiting them for this feature was a joy. Its been fourteen years since the original game, and they have certainly aged. Nevertheless, anyone interested can pick up, Ground Control (Dark Conspiracy included) and Ground Control II, on gog.com for just $5.99 each.

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