While vacationing in Idaho the last two weeks of February many things happened here at ModDB. The biggest buzz surrounded the Mod of the Year awards, but for me there was something almost as big, and I almost missed it! One of the highest profile Command and Conquer 3 mods, MidEast Crisis 2, let loose a little surprise on February 23rd: their first public release candidate. Being a big RTS fan, I downloaded it as soon as I found out and have played it quite a bit since. Now I'd like to share my impressions and thoughts with all of you. Please note that this is not a review, as this is only a release candidate. The full version is not out yet and so I won't be assigning any kind of numerical scores until version 1.0 is out.
What Has Come Before: A Short History
The first MidEast Crisis was a total conversion for Command and Conquer: Generals: Zero Hour in which you battle as either Israel or Syria in a bloody, modern era conflict on the dusty plains of the Middle East. Released in 2005, it was well received by many members of the community, including sites like Planet CnC and Command and Conquer Files, which praised it for it's visual, sound and game design. Notable changes to the gameplay included more realistic units and changes to the economic structure, but not everyone was so thrilled with the mod. Technical glitches, balance issues and even some debate over the faction choices soured some people's experience. But for those that could ignore it's minor faults and embrace it's new ideas, MEC was one of the best total conversions available for Generals: Zero Hour.
After three and a half years we finally have MidEast Crisis 2—or at least most of it. Officially announced in September of 2007, the sequel is built from the ground up to take advantage of the many improvements to the SAGE engine in Command and Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars. For this project developer Isotx has added many talented members from some of the best known mods in the Command and Conquer community. Blitzkrieg 2, Halogen and Rise of Rome are all represented, as well the original MidEast Crisis crew. With all this pedigree there are high expectations for this mod and much anticipation.
Tomorrow's Technology Today: Units and Setting
This time around you have three factions to chose from: UN Peacekeepers, Israeli Defense Force or Guardians of Islam. The UN is not available in this release but will be soon (we hope). Each faction has it's own unique units, structures and abilities. The conflict has advanced a few years so you now have some more futuristic toys to play with, such as levitating repair drones, MiG-39s and flying aircraft carriers. There are also some modern favorites like T-90 tanks, Mi-25 Hinds and the legendary F-15. Other units round out the lineup that will be familiar to any strategy fan such as rocket troops, rifle men, APCs and mobile artillery. The total number of units is a bit less than you see in many other strategy games and mods. However most of the units are distinctive, in that they don't all have exact counterparts in the other faction. For example: while the GoI's basic rifle infantry (the Jihadists) can fire at both ground and air targets, the IDF's Sayeret teams can't fire skywards, but they do have C4 explosives. Similarly the GoI's Fedayeen anti-tank infantry can't shoot down aircraft like the IDF's rocket toting Reservists, but they can capture tech structures. Vehicles are even more varied between the two sides with the exception of tanks, which are functionally the same for both factions. In general the IDF's troops are of better quality than the GoI but more expensive. IDF also has access to some toys that their opponents don't, like nukes, laser guided missiles and aerial reconnaissance blimps. The Guardians make up for this disadvantage in technology with numbers, stealth and lots of bombs.
There isn't any story at this point beyond the very plausible premise of a full scale war breaking out in the Middle East. None is really needed as there is only skirmish and multiplayer in this release.
More Than a Pretty Face, But Still a Pretty Face: Graphics and Sound
There was a time when production value in mods was nonexistent. They consisted mostly of quickly thrown together models with textures that weren't up the the standard of the original game, maps that were little more than stock materials rearranged in a jumbled mess and sound was an afterthought at best. But in the years since the humble beginnings of modifying games there have been a few mods that have dared to be something more, something better. Their quality on par, or even surpassing the game on which the were built. More of these mods have been appearing as modding grows in popularity and media attention. MidEast Crisis 2 is one of the best examples of this kind of mod. It has a level of polish to it that is rarely seen, even in full priced games, in both concept and implementation. Every unit is exceptionally detailed with crisp textures and high poly models. Animations are smooth and natural and each soldier is brought to life with professionally done voices. This is, without a doubt, the best looking and sounding C&C3 mod to date. To show you this first hand I have made a few videos for your viewing pleasure.
Another thing that MEC 2 does better than most game studios is maps. The four maps that are included in this release have a level of detail that goes beyond just looks. They each have their own dangers and perks that give them their own personality. For example: the “Temple Mount” map has murders (flocks) of crows flying around the famed Dome of the Rock. This area is marked as a no fly zone by a ring floating text. Any flying unit that enters this area takes damage. If you clear out these feathered vermin with anti-air units a message reports the event to all players. These details really do give you a felling that your in a living world that your battling in, and that your actions are affecting more than you and the troops under your command.
There are a few minor inconsistencies in the presentation, though they don't distract from the overall experience much, if at all. For one the main menu is static. The image is nice enough but it would have been a nice touch if it was animated, like the C&C3's menu. Also, when units are air dropped the transports start off their decent slow and smoothly but then they suddenly drop out of the sky. This, I think, is more a matter of practicality. It could be an engine limitation as this is how it is in C&C3. It's just a little more apparent because IDF uses a lot of air drops. Again these are only very minor issues and in no way take away from the incredible look of this mod.
Blood and Oil: Resources and Gameplay
Beauty, as they say, is only skin deep. A mod can't survive on screen shots alone, not if it wants to be remembered ten years from now. How well it plays is what's going to determine if people keep it on their hard drives or delete it after a single session. The short answer? If you are the type that gets thrills from gathering resources to build a massive base and spam units at your enemy you're going to be disappointed. This is a game of annihilation though the conquest of land, resources and supplies. Described as “Occupation Warfare” by the developers, the gameplay focuses on controlling the map in order to control the battle. Managing your resources is key, and more involved then simply building five harvesters and waiting for the credits to roll in.
The two main resources in the game are money and fuel. Practically everything in the game requires money to buy and most of the support powers cost some to use. Fuel, on the other hand, is functionally more like power in Command and Conquer; using the power bar on the interface to show how much you have and how much you are using. Much like in C&C games you have a certain amount of fuel that is used every time you build a building. When your use exceeds your reserves your base shuts down. Unlike C&C, units also cost you some fuel. You'll quickly find yourself in need of more and the only way to increase your fuel reserves (other than using the “Buy Magino Oil” support power, which is only temporary) is to capture fuel buildings such as gas stations. (Oil trucks can also be capture and then moved). These are usually found right between you and your enemy, so you will have to be fast or be ready to fight for them. In order to capture these structures you must use units with the building capture ability (each faction has one) and move that unit into the building. Once you have control of that building it will increase your fuel reserves until destroyed or captured by your enemy, so keep them safe!
Getting Money is somewhat similar, but more varied as there are many ways of gaining it. The most consistent method involves several fixed points all over the map. They look like gray dollar signs ($) on the field and are some of the most important pieces of land in the game. In order to earn money from them you must place a unit onto the point to capture it, somewhat akin to Relic's War Hammer 40K: Dawn of War or Company of Heroes. However, only a certain type of unit can capture these points (again, one per faction, but different from the ones that capture buildings). The more points you have the more you earn but there are only so many per map and the other guy will be trying to take as many as he can too. You can deploy your point capping units so that they stay put, which helps since there's no indicator on the mini map of what points you have. I have run into a problem with these deployed units; sometimes you aren't able to target enemy cappers when deployed. The AI also doesn't recognize them as threats so you have to force fire on them. This can be a little frustrating when you're trying to shut down your opponent's economy quickly.
This type of fixed point resource system is becoming more and more popular in real time strategy games, even Red Alert 3 has something like it. I think that this is a good thing in the long run. Instead of long, drawn out slugging matches you are forced to venture into the unknown and be active on the battlefield. That's when the real fun begins.
In addition, both sides also have a support power which they can use to get more ready cash. The IDF can deploy news drones to fly over the battle field for a few seconds; taking pictures for the evening news (which earn more money for combat pictures). The GoI make some extra Money by selling their Fuel overseas for a short time. This nets a tidy profit, but it also shuts down your base.
If you need yet more Money then there are faction specific, neutral buildings and units that you can capture. You do this in the same way and with the same units you use to capture the Fuel buildings. The GoI can take control of Wireless Towers which, after you've done some research, allow you to hack the web and send a steady stream of cash into your coffers. IDF players can capture news vans that act much like the news drones, only you can control where they go and they only quit when they're destroyed.
But you can't fight a war with raw materials alone. Without troops there is no army, and without an army there is no victory. The IDF calls in all their units from off map, either to a helipad or directly onto the field while the GoI still produce most of their units on site, much like in all the other C&C games. The GoI keep mobile by having a movable barracks. This gives both sides the ability to take the battle anywhere on the map; without having to wait as long for back up when things get ugly. This helps the flow of the game to stay fluid, but it does tend to make it a little hard to hunt down the last few GoI Outposts, as they can stealth when not deployed. Anyone that's played Starcraft online can probably remember at least one match where they had a Terran player all but beaten but he had one SCV left that built a Supply Depot in a far off corner of the map and wouldn't give up.
The unit balance is a little more realistic in MidEast Crisis 2 than in Tiberium Wars. Infantry will explode into little bits when hit directly by a single tank shell, so you're going to want to use them a little more tactically. Combat is still fast paced and casualties will generally be high. You need to keep your money flowing in if you want to keep from being overpowered. If your forces are still having trouble pushing though the enemy lines you can try using your offensive support powers. The IDF can call in an F-15 air strike while GoI can unleash a Scud Storm. Both of these powers cost a lot of money to use though and don't do enough damage to take out a main base. Don't expect to use them as last minute victory snatchers (like the Anthrax Bomb in Generals).
How well you do in combat will depend greatly on how well you manage your unit's special abilities and upgrades. Nearly every unit in MeC2 has at least one upgrade or ability they can use to increase their effectiveness. The Martyr, for example, can hijack a car and turn it into a motorized bomb (like the Terrorist in Generals), IDF's tank can be upgraded to heal infantry and the Ark (a flying, dirigible aircraft carrier) can add rockets to it's drone fighters and anti-munitions guns to defend it's self. Unit variety is also important. Spamming tanks and throwing them at the enemy base won't work well against an organized opponent here. Unit counters are well thought out and effective at discouraging unbalanced forces. Anti-air is especially important compared with most RTS games. Keeping an eye on what the other guy has is vital to mounting a successful attack, or defense. Balance between the factions seems to favor Israel slightly in my experience so far (though still against AI). If they can keep the cash flowing and pump out fully upgraded Arks it can be pretty difficult to punch though as GoI, but not impossible.
My only real complaints about the gameplay is that there are still a few bugs and some possible balance issues that will need to be addressed before 1.0 hits the web. Overall, MidEast Crisis 2 combines traditional and modern RTS conventions, along with some of their own twists, into a package that helps eliminate some of the tedium that many non-strategy gamers associate with the RTS genre—and do so without sacrificing the depth that strategy fans love. The MEC2 developers have put a lot of time and effort into making sure these features work and are well implemented. Add to this a layer of polish that would put many would associate with a commercial title, and you have a marvelous strategy experience that recommend to anyone that enjoys even the thought of leading digital armies into battle.