With so many real-time strategy games out there, developers are trying hard to breathe new life into an overloaded genre. Just about every sci-fi universe, from "Star Wars" to "Dune" (and only excepting "Star Trek"), has had its entry into real-time strategy, but few have lived up to standard-bearers "Command & Conquer," "Total Annihilation" and "Starcraft."
The strengths of these classics include addictive game play, eye-popping graphics and relatively intriguing story lines. They all let you look down on a battlefield from a "God" perspective, building up bases and sending out troops and vehicles to fight enemies. Two ballyhooed new entries in the genre--"MechCommander" and "Dominion: Storm Over Gift3"--offer twists on the old formula but don't break through as innovators. All these games are recommended for teenagers and older.
"MechCommander" (Fasa/Microprose; PC; $50) held promise as a crossover from the "MechWarrior" line of games. Those games put you inside a futuristic battle exoskeleton, a la "RoboCop," outfitted with lasers, long-range missiles and other heavy gear. Unfortunately, the switch to real-time strategy takes you out of the gear and has you commanding a brigade of MechWarriors. They look a lot less imposing from afar, and the graphics are cheesy and reminiscent of old flight simulators even when you zoom in on the action.
In fact, while "MechCommander" is speedier than most real-time strategy games by eliminating the base buildups, it becomes bogged down in a monotonous string of missions. You also have to repair and buy armaments for each of your troops between missions. For hard-core fans of the "Mech" series, these details can be fun; for the rest of us, it can be painful tedium.
Worse still, there's no way to save the game in the middle of missions, which means you end up playing the beginning of missions over and over. Though the game is fairly easy to pick up without the manual, the complex guide looks daunting and doesn't include a quick-start section.
"Dominion: Storm Over Gift3" (Ion Storm/Eidos; PC; $50) is a little more entertaining than "MechCommander" and is a more traditional real-time strategy game. You build up bases and play as one of four races, although the differences among the creatures are more in look than in substance. Humans are battle-hardened Marines; Darken are red beasts chomping cigars; Scorps are chirping green scorpion people; and Mercs are blue aliens with British accents.
Whichever race you play, however, the strategy is very similar. Build up a base and stretch power lines to protect your land with walls of energy. Unlike similar games, you can stretch your influence easier with "umbilical" power relays. You also can direct troops easier by clicking with your right mouse button and choosing from a menu of options.
Despite these pluses, "Dominion" shares some problems with "MechCommander." Its look is a bit flat, with figures seemingly pasted on the background. The details are so small that it's hard to distinguish artillery men from bazooka shooters and engineers, which can be fatal in the heat of battle. The game's sleek interface looks a lot better than the action. Still, there's a mini hint book to help you get started, and the game play does improve with practice.
Both titles are worth a look, but they don't hold a candle to the stalwarts in real-time strategy.
\o7 Mark Glaser is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org\f7