Two defining hits,and Warcraft 2, had just seemingly set the so-called real-time strategy formula into stone. SSI wanted a piece of the cake and came dangerously close to territory. At least they put some thoughts into it and offered a few unique selling points. Professional critics gave good marks, but the general public did not translate such ratings into major sales.
What was it that set this game apart? In principle, it follows the established formula of base building, resource harvesting, production of military units and finally storming the enemy installations.tried to score with a focus on individual units. No faceless tanks or masses of swordmen, but a countable amount of basic units which could, however, individually equipped and upgraded. Probably, the player was supposed to form a roleplaying-like bond with those units, further strengthened by the option to take a couple from level to level. Fostering and care instead of cannon fodder.
In retrospect, what critics of the time identified as 'innovation' actually said more about the state of the PC gaming market back then rather than this game itself. The fact that 90% of the gameplay was closely following a formula was just accepted without notice. A formula which may have been super trendy at the time, but which nevertheless was just a formula.
What about those remaining 10%? Those, too, are quite an unstable house of cards. In each and every level, you research the same five special abilities over and over again (for whatever reason). Those can then be applied to the units. Given the broad availability of resources, there is really no reason not to have every unit learn everything.
In theory, some of this sounds like it may open up interesting tactical possibilities. Units can camouflage themselves as belonging to the enemy army or even turn invisible. Though for each of these abilities, there is a countermeasure; like for example the ability to spot the disguise. Meaning in the end, it is nothing but an expensive race of arms which eventually negates itself. Nevertheless, there is no way to just ignore it, because otherwise the enemy will be at a major advantage. Mechanically, this necessity to upgrade leads to manual clickfests as no automation functions exist. Those buyable upgrades aside, the by then genre typical rock-paper-scissors principle has not been followed.
The second often cited aspect is the plot circling around four parties which are all seemingly very different. Seemingly. In fact, differences are of a mostly graphical nature. Sure, there are reptiles, pig-bears, plant-beings and… weird blob magicians. Still, in the end, their buildings and units fulfil the same functions. Individual magic spells can hardly be triggered in any targeted way in the heat of battle. This throws the units back to their basic abilities, and whether a soldier fires his huge gun, aims his magic wand or produces a fireball with a wave of his hands makes no effective gameplay difference.
At least there is some little plot spun around an uprising against a ruling class. Each tribe is playable, but each campaign consists of only seven levels. This encourages playing through more than one, allowing for different viewpoints on the story. Just that, again, if there are only seven levels cover to cover it would have been nice not to waste three as a sort of tutorial. Only in the fourth, the full game begins.
A few smaller things remain, like the in-game leader unit, which if killed loses the game instantly. Who commands an influence rating which increases or decreases based on won or lost battles, which in turn is needed to trigger certain actions at all (e.g. research). It runs like a thread through this review, but this, too, has not really been thought through. What does the player do if influence is too low? She buys some more using harvested resources. Taking another idea back to the stale genre formula: grab more resources and you win.
Genre typical issues of the time come on top. Pathfinding fails repeatedly. Workers stand idle next to a healthy forest instead of chopping wood. Single units lost somewhere are virtually impossible to find again on the mini map, and where the objective is to kill all enemy units, look forward to find the damn last one hidden somewhere!
What critics saw at the time must have been the potential which could have been fulfilled, had those ideas been followed through to the end and implemented effectively. Yes, truly focussing on individual units instead of mass assaults, giving them really individual abilities, could have lead to a totally different type of game. Games likeand Mech Commander demonstrated this just a couple of years later. wasn't this big step, but remained an average genre entry of its time.
Maybe players already realized this at the time, different from the critics. Though then, the mediocre sales may have been rather caused by the limited usability on LAN parties. Yes, there is a multiplayer mode, but large levels are rather slow paced. Not an issue for single players, but in this emerging context, it was usually not acceptable.