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1995-2001
GamesFirst! Magazine


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by Data Becker

 

Remember the real-time strategy glory days of ’97 and ’98, when you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting some Warcraft II or Total Annihilation or AoE knockoff? Remember how utterly forgettable most of those games were? Well, playing DataBecker’s America is like a trip back to those days of yore. Amazingly, it plays just like one of those oldtimey RTS games, and it’s even got the same mediocre graphics, limited multiplayer, and numbnuts AI. The only thing America’s really got going for it is its setting, which will no doubt prompt more than a couple of unsuspecting gamers to plunk down their money. America is set in the American West, and you can play campaigns as one of four “peoples”—Settlers, Outlaws, Mexicans, and Native Americans. That sounds pretty interesting, right? Certainly more engaging than the standard fantasy, medieval or futuristic man vs. alien RTS, right?

Sure. But even the setting ends up being problematic, in part because America’s American West is the American West as translated by Germans whose experience of the American West seems garnered from a few history books and a lot of television. Don’t get me wrong, even that might not have been so bad—it might have been very cool, in fact—but when you combine the game’s curious stabs at historical veracity with its utterly ahistorical units and gameplay and then cipher in a total lack of Wild West atmosphere the whole thing just falls flat. It doesn’t help any that some individuals will probably find at least some of the game to be offensive. The Mexican and Indian units are treated with much less sensitivity than we post-Dances with Wolves Americans are used to. If you’re looking to be offended, you no doubt will be. I don’t know if we can really blame DataBecker for this; I don’t imagine many Germans are up on the culture wars Americans have inflicted upon themselves over the last couple of decades. But I live in a state where we’re thinking of changing hundreds of place names which contain the word “squaw” to something less offensive—and when DataBecker uses the term “squaw” for the Indian peon unit, I can’t help but cringe a little.

Flawed as the potentially terrific setting is, the real problem with America is its gameplay. While the game does include some nice little touches, like the ability to raid outposts for food and guns or to capture and mount wild horses, it is lacking many of the features that RTS gamers have grown used to—like the ability to queue up farms (prepare to spend a lot of time replanting fields) or set waypoints. No waypoints means you often have to depend on the units to find their own way across the map, and since the pathing AI is pretty bad, you’ll often find them taking circuitous and dangerous routes to their destinations. And the AI really hurts in combat. Units are very slow to react to threats, and will often ignore enemy units that move past them and sometimes refuse to attack units that are shooting at them. When moving into combat, units seem to take a long time to deploy. This means that even attacks launched at overwhelming odds can be thwarted pretty easily by the enemy. While the game does allow you to use different formations, they don’t seem to make much difference in combat, and since the enemy AI seems tweaked to always be ahead of you on the tech tree the only truly effective tactic is the old “tank rush”--or “horse rush”, whatever. 

This makes the campaigns really tough to get through, not because you’re presented with challenging situations that you have to think through, but rather because you’ve been so sandbagged that you’re always playing from behind.  The solution to most scenarios is to keep producing units and attacking until you wear the enemy down. Another problem with the game is the predictability of the scenarios. While some of the scenarios have some fairly interesting “triggered events”, most of them have little bearing on the game itself, which soon devolves into the aforementioned “build and attack” exercise. The scenarios also seem disconnected from each other, linked together only by a tedious narrative voiceover at the beginning of each mission.

The graphics are also somewhat dated. While most of the building graphics are pretty good, unit sprites are indistinct and blurry, and it’s fairly easy to lose sight of them on the map, especially when they’re located in trees. But the most disappointing thing about the game’s graphics is that they convey none of either the realism of the American West or  the romance of the Wild West. The maps are unbelievably generic and bland. As any Westerner (or Easterner who’s seen any John Ford movie) will tell you, an essential part of the West’s mythos and allure is its landscape. For the most part, America’s maps look like they could be modeling Indiana.

Finally, there’s no provision for multiplayer except over LAN. While I don’t demand that every genre of game have a multiplayer component, it seems that RTS’s pretty much require solid multiplayer. American doesn’t.

Not like it matters much, because this game really isn’t worth playing. While the setting is intriguing, there are much better RTS’s out there. Unless you really miss those bygone days of 1997, I’d advise steering clear of this one.

Rick Fehrenbacher

Snapshot

Ups: Setting could have been interesting.

Downs: Just about everything else. A 1997-vintage RTS, and a mediocre one at that.

System Reqs: Pentium 300 MMX or compatible Windows 2000/98/95, 128 MB of RAM, 650 MB hard disk space, CD-ROM

 

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