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GF! Archival Version Copyright 1995-2004


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by Interplay
What the game is about:
M.A.X. (Mechanized Assault and Exploration) is a futuristic strategy game that incorporates elements of Command and Conquer, chess, and—oddly enough—Harpoon. Players guide one of eight clans in a fight for survival that is as cerebral as it is fun.

The Review:
There is a moment in M.A.X. that nicely sums up the game. While scrolling around the map during the first campaign mission, I saw a strange blemish and zoomed in for a closer look. There, rusted and in pieces was a Harvester from Command and Conquer.

This was not an act of cockiness from Interplay’s designers. Instead, it served as a grim reminder that I wasn’t in kiddy-land any longer. The chuckles the image elicited were soon replaced by groans of desperation and anguish as I stumbled through the mission and watched my motley war machine crumble in the face of one of the smartest AI opponents I have ever come up against. And that was before I installed the Version 1.4 patch—an enhancement that makes the original AI routine look like a dunce in the corner.

Actually, comparing M.A.X. to any real-time extravaganza currently plaguing the market is like pitting a wading pool against the Marianas Trench. It offers more depth and subtlety than anyone could ever plumb. For instance, although each of the eight (!) factions vying for control uses the same basic equipment (like Warcraft II), every clan excels at certain aspects. The Chosen are masters of the sky, so their air assets get bonuses. The Von Griffin clan cranks out superior spies and scouts. And the list goes on.

Further distinguishing the game from its peers is that it is not played in real time. Instead, Interplay has devised a simultaneous turn mode, as well as offering traditional turn-based play. Simultaneous mode is not for the faint of heart, and I was never able to beat the computer using it because the thing was simply too damned fast. I’m sure that it would be fun in a multiplayer game, but until I find a friend with another copy, I’ll stick to taking turns the old-fashioned way.

One of the main elements an aspiring M.A.X. commander will have to master is that each piece of equipment has a certain scan range, and a certain firing range. For example, an anti-aircraft gun can shoot farther than it can see. This means that in order to be effective, the guns must be used in conjunction with a spotting unit (such as a fragile radar device). The game can display these ranges as colored rings on the map—Harpoon style.

Interestingly enough, this information can even be displayed for enemy units. Clicking on an enemy long-range radar brings up a yellow circle that depicts the maximum range of the device. You can fly your aircraft right up to the edge of this ring and the enemy will never know you are there (very fun, trust me). Like chess, you always know the capabilities of the opposing pieces, and vice versa. This allowed me to fine-tune my tactics to a level I never though possible.

Dozens of unit types are modeled in the game; from lowly scouts with high scan ranges but weak offensive power to specialized air units like AWACs, transport planes and ground attack aircraft. There are also naval units, and several vehicles are amphibious. Combined arms is a must, as the units' abilities make for the most complex rock-paper-scissors match going. All of the units can be modified with better ranges, more shots per round and a variety of other enhancements—slight modifications can go a long way in this game. Upgrading your tank’s spotting and firing ranges by one point can make all the difference in a protracted ground battle.

Combat in M.A.X. also reminded me of chess. Units always hit a target for a fixed amount of damage—there are no random misses or glancing blows. This allowed me to refine my tactics to an even higher degree, but made the game feel a little stiff and predictable.

Actually, there is one element of randomness Interplay built in—Infiltrators. There are only a few units that can spot these stealthy infantry forces, so they can be used to sneak into an enemy base to disable or steal equipment. Sometimes they fail in this, meaning they get spotted by everyone and his dog in the area and subsequently splattered all over the playing field. Infiltrators can also be used to find and clear minefields, clearing a path for the heavy equipment.

Aside from combat, M.A.X. commanders are responsible for building complex bases and scouting for resources. Unlike most games, M.A.X. has three natural resources that players can exploit; gold, raw materials, and fuel. Gold is used to buy upgrades, raw materials to build units and fuel to power bases. These resources are hidden until players use a surveyor to determine where they are. Despite this level of detail , the game is both easy and fun to manage.

There were only two flaws I found with the game, and one of them is extremely nit-picky. The first has to do with the AI routine that controls the path which units take to reach a destination. Simply put—it sucks. I was forced to move my units one space at a time when anywhere near an enemy, because the computer never failed to put my units in the line of fire when it was allowed to choose the route. Not even the version 1.4 patch fixed this problem.

The other problem I had was with the graphics. Sounds and cut-scenes were excellent, but the graphics were rendered from a straight top-down perspective. This made them look very two-dimensional and sometimes hard to distinguish.

Oh, and I don’t want to finish this article without mentioning the zooming ability that is built into this game. Rather than the typical 1X, 2X etc. views found in similar titles, M.A.X. uses a slider bar that smoothly zooms from a full map view to an extreme close-up without any "steps." It truly has to be seen to be appreciated.

Final Summary:
If you like strategy but Warcraft II and Command and Conquer are getting too tame, M.A.X. is what you are looking for. Interplay has combined just the right amounts of depth, gameplay and sheer fun to make M.A.X. a title that will be spending a lot of time in my CD-ROM drive.

--Tracy Baker