When I first wrote this review, it was noticeably different. I opened originally with the sentence "I have tried so hard to like Earth 2150 (E2150), it's almost embarrassing to admit the lengths to which I've gone." That was a prelude for what was an ultimately negative review of the game. To my credit, I followed that immediately with "I just can't help feeling like there's something there that I must be missing." I'm happy to report that I was right. After writing the initially negative review, I was again struck by the sheer genius of the game mechanics, and I decided to give E2150 one more try. I have to say I'm glad that I did, for just as this game is not at all easy to "pick up", it's similarly difficult to "put down" once you've finally gotten into it.
The game was released some time ago compared to the date of this writing (viz., 02/01/2000), but even now there are few (if any) RTS games on the market that do the sort of nifty things E2150 does in the visual department. To be more specific, E2150 features very detailed models, realistic terrain, real-time lighting and shadows, wonderful particle effects, some of the most amazing explosions ever seen in an RTS game and a host of other eye-candy features that make it highly worthwhile. My lone complaint with the visuals in E2150 is that the camera can't be pulled back far enough. Too often, the relatively low camera view makes it too difficult to control one's units, and with the kind of frenzied battles that erupt in E2150, this can be a real problem.
It bears mentioning that some of the texturing is now a bit dated, but at the time when the game was released, it was one of the only true-3D RTS games. As such, its textures were essentially the best the market had to offer. Even today, they're not bad. I'm just a fussy gamer—and a spoiled one, frankly—after playing more recent RTS games like Sacrifice, Homeworld, etc. Suffice it to say that though the game looks a little dated at this point, it's no slouch in the visual department and should please all but the most jaded and shallow gamers.
As game audio goes, E2150 is pretty good. It isn't great, mind you, but it's pretty good. The music is well-themed for each side to play, the sound effects are decent (though too soft—even when turned up all the way), and the various ambient sounds are also good. Where the sound really falls down, I think, is with the units. That is, the voice messages become annoying very quickly for some reason. I'm not sure if it's the simple repetition (i.e., multiple sounds for each unit might help) or if it's bad voice acting. Either way, I find the unit speech to be pretty annoying, which is a pity since there is so very much of it.
The in-mission interface for E2150 is very good. I particularly like the ability to bind hotkeys to virtually everything. This made it easy for me to create multiple profiles for my Microsoft Sidewinder Strategic Commander™, which did much to improve my degree of control. The interface panels display a great deal of useful and important information, yet can be removed quickly in times when seeing more of the battle is crucial. I like the separation of unit features and functions into tabs on the panels, and all the display elements work rather nicely. The user-configurable three-pane camera view is also a first in RTS games to my knowledge, and it is very helpful, though too difficult to configure and somewhat buggy. In one instance, for example, I actually lost the ability to switch the view to the remote mission site, which ultimately required a reload to fix, as I needed to click the "end mission" graphic which is visible only when viewing the remote mission site. Oops.
My primary gripe about the in-mission interface would have to be with the way mouse selection is handled. E2150 is the only RTS game I've played with which I'm constantly giving the wrong orders to units. One clicks the left mouse button to select units, but left-clicking the ground does not deselect them as I expect it to. Rather, one must right-click the ground to do this. The end result is that I'll left click units to give them commands, issue the command, move somewhere else and then accidentally give them new orders when clicking the ground, a structure or something else. There might be a way to change that, though if so I haven't found it. I just wish it worked more like Starcraft, Homeworld, Warcraft II, Command & Conquer or pretty much any other RTS game.
The more damning gripe, however, concerns the out-of-mission interface, namely, the general menu structure for the campaign really detracts from giving the game any unity. Because of the way it works, E2150 ends up seeming more like a series of largely discrete and disconnected missions. There is no unifying feel. Briefings are given by reading static text. There are some interesting cinematics before many of the missions, which keep the player updated on his progress while filling in some of the plot details, but they just aren't that effective at pulling the player into the story. I suspect this is the case because they play in static windows, which makes them seem like an unconnected afterthought for the game as a whole. In short, while the interface is functional, and quite flexible in terms of key bindings, it really detracts from the game's unity outside of the missions.
The game mechanics are the reason E2150 is a work of genius in the RTS genre. It's also the reason I kept coming back to the game for more than a year until it finally "clicked" with me. As RTS games go, it is utterly groundbreaking. Even today, 19 months after its release, nothing else comes close. Among the merely uncommon or heretofore-unheard-of features E2150 sports are the following:
Real-time terrain deformation and augmentation. The units used for building things can dig ditches, build bridges, dig tunnels and so forth. The player may even excavate an entire system of underground tunnels for a new and completely different playing field beneath the normal surface! It's worth noting, also, that terrain features figure prominently into combat; i.e., units on the high ground can see further and so forth as one would expect. It's quite effective, for example, to dig trenches around one's base, especially if water is nearby as it will flow downhill and produce a moat! That really has to be seen to be believed.
Completely user-definable units. The user may select the chassis, weapons system(s) and other customizations within the construction shop. The designs are added to the list of units that may then be built at the various unit-construction facilities. And the customizations don't stop once the units are built; rather, all kinds of parameters may then be tweaked. The savvy player may even write his own scripts to control unit behavior—how's that for flexible!?
User customizable buildings. Unlike other games, even the buildings in E2150 pack a wallop. They may be enhanced with banners (to increase morale and thus effectiveness in combat), guns, rockets and so forth. This sure helps make one's base more easily defensible.
Flexible and queue-able research. The player need not research everything as in so many other games. Rather, he may (and arguably must) make some choices about what to research in order to save his resources for other important things. Should the player wish to research multiple items, however, the projects may be queued up with a couple of simple mouse clicks and then forgotten.
Platoons. Grouping units into platoons adds a whole new level of AI and customizability to unit control while simultaneously simplifying the user interface, as selecting any unit in a platoon selects the entire platoon. Further, just as scripts for individual units may be customized, so too may the scripts assigned to platoons. This is a huge leap forward in RTS AI insofar as platoons behave intelligently as a group, rather than as an ad-hoc collection of individual units.
Realistic logistics. No more can units simply wander out into the field and fire hundreds of thousands of rounds. Each unit with projectile or missile weapons has a fixed loadout and is thus utterly dependent upon resupply craft. This adds still more strategic depth to the game as planning and protecting one's supply lines can make the difference between victory and defeat.
Separation of bases. The missions separate the player's home base, which so far as I could tell never comes under attack, from his remote base within the mission at hand. This allows a great deal of flexibility in how the player chooses to approach the game. A transport is available for ferrying resources and units back and forth, though it does take some time to do so. I take this to be groundbreaking because it takes care of the silliness present in most other RTS games. In Starcraft, for example, I always found it terribly irritating that I would have to re-research technologies from one mission to the next, rebuild structures and so forth. In E2150, this isn't an issue, and it makes much more sense.
Things that should be automated are. This sounds kind of trivial, but it's something that only E2150 does well. For example, by building a base headquarters, one can leave the development of base facilities, units and defensive structures entirely to the AI. It costs resources, of course, but it's sometimes worth it to allow the player to focus his attention elsewhere. Similarly, in a move that every future RTS game should emulate, units that are capable of providing supplies, repairing damaged units/buildings and so forth, do their jobs without any specific orders to do so. I found it ridiculous in Starcraft, for example, that SCVs would not automatically repair units. It makes it very difficult in the middle of combat to make sure that damaged units or buildings get repaired. In contrast, this just happens automatically in E2150. Of course, the player can change the way such units behave (or even write custom scripts for them), but they work so well by default, one just doesn't need to, and that is a big step forward in my book.
In short, the game mechanics of E2150 are nothing short of groundbreaking, stunning or pick your favorite, similar adjective. No other RTS game succeeds at, or frankly even attempts, so much—even today.
The story is typically armageddonistic sci-fi junk. It is kind of an interesting twist, of course, that each of the three factions must seek to flee the doomed planet Earth. This twist also sets the stage for what might supply a nicely unifying thematic backdrop for the missions were it not for the aforementioned problems with game unity. In short, the story isn't much to get excited about. It's interesting, and it helps the game along, but it doesn't put the player on the edge of his seat or anything like that as is the case with other games (e.g., Starcraft, Deus Ex, etc.).
To give credit where it's due, however, the story at least does make sense out of the all-out war for resources, which is a pretty realistic reason for such conflict. Each of three factions, the Eurasian Dynasty (ED), the United Civilized States (UCS) and the Lunar Corporation (LC) need Earth's resources to save their people. There simply isn't enough to go around, and that sets the whole game in motion. The manual provides enough back-story that the weapons and other details make sense in light of each faction's history. That's better than a lot of games do.
This is where I previously lambasted E2150 for having missions that just aren't that much fun to play. In retrospect, though, I think I know why that seemed to be the case to me: I was still coming to the game with all my prior conceptions of how an RTS game should work. That is, I was expecting a kind of rock-paper-scissors model in combat (i.e., a model in which one must always try to have the right unit to trump the other guy's unit), I was thinking defensively only in terms of units, I wasn't leveraging the automation features of the game and so forth. Let me explain a bit in order to help clarify this for persons in the same situation.
First, regarding the combat model, I wasn't thinking realistically. In a game like Starcraft, for example, one's units do a certain amount of damage in a certain amount of time, period. This is the way it works in almost all of the unit-based games I've played. In E2150, however, the combat model is far more realistic. Rockets fired at helicopters will frequently miss. Rockets and grenades fired against units on the ground may also miss if the unit is maneuverable enough. Chainguns hit far more often for targets that are in range, but a heavily armored target can take an awful lot of it. Just as in real life, then, heavily armored tanks that can be cracked open with a rocket or two can take chaingun fire for a long time before their armor is finally breached. In short, there is a focus on realism in the combat that is simply not present in other RTS games. I had to stop thinking in terms of accomplishing goals being equivalent to expending n number of units and instead focus on what units and weapons to use and how.
Second, I wasn't thinking defensively in terms of anything more than having lots of handy units around. Admittedly with as little progress as I'd made in the game, I didn't yet have access to the large, defensive towers and so forth. But largely from my own ignorance, I wasn't building walls or trenches to be able to choke the enemy at a particular point. Similarly, I wasn't building small defensive towers for antiaircraft (AA) fire after I'd found them to be of little use against ground forces. Further, I wasn't equipping my units with the right weapons to handle the threats at hand. When facing armor, it's much smarter to have some rocket/grenade-equipped units around to pack a heavy punch. Sure, fast armored units can dodge them, but even the quickest unit has to slow down to take turns. In short, I just wasn't approaching defense as a cohesive whole. I was doing what I've grown accustomed to doing in other RTS games; i.e., building a bunch of units and leaving them in-base. This is a surefire recipe for failure in E2150 as the enemy will simply keep attacking in waves until your base is dust.
Let me use one of the game's missions to illustrate the overall point. The "Arctic II" mission from the UCS campaign provides a perfect example of how I just wasn't "getting it". In that mission, one starts with a small force at a small resource field at the remote base. The mission goal is pretty simple: send home at least 30,000 resource units. Since only a few thousand such units are available at the remote base, it's obvious one needs to start looking around for more. Unfortunately, there is a rather largish enemy base right in the middle of the map. It's possible, through luck or deliberate care, to avoid running into the enemy for a while. But once a new resource field is located, the player is faced with an evil choice. He can either divide his forces and try to hold both bases or essentially sacrifice all of the buildings and such at the original remote base, which means he must spend resources to rebuild them elsewhere. Either way, the mission is tough until you're approaching things the E2150 way.
Before I really understood the game, if I divided my forces, then I was essentially doomed. As soon as I started mining at a new site, the enemy attacked both bases with lots and lots of units. I was always able to beat back the first wave, but the enemy apparently didn't have to worry about silly little things like time or resources, as they showed up again with a second wave mere seconds after the first wave all but demolished the defenses of each base. This allowed the enemy to destroy both bases handily and ended the mission in failure. Gee, that was fun. If I chose instead to move all my forces to the new resource field, then the enemy first destroys his old base, which admittedly buys some time to build the new base, before sending hordes of units at the new base. Again, because the enemy didn't seem to have to worry about silly little things like time or resources, they again hit with wave after wave after wave after wave until I lost again. Gee, that too was fun.
What I wasn't doing was building a proper base. I've played this mission a couple of different ways since "getting it", and the simplest solution is to sacrifice the original remote site then dig in frantically while the enemy is destroying it. I walled off access points to my base, dug trenches, built defensive towers overlooking these new terrain features and so forth. Ultimately, I forced the enemy to come to me on my terms through a choke point of my own creation. This allowed the few units I tasked to defense to hold off the assault while I secretly tunneled underground toward the enemy base. When the enemy sent his largest attack force to my front door, I popped out in roughly the rear of his base—far from his defensive structures, I should note—and started pummeling his base from within. His units sounded a quick retreat, of course, and then quickly found themselves taking fire up the tailpipe as my defensive units were brought up behind them. Ultimately, I squeezed the enemy out of existence from both sides in what was essentially a classic pincer move. With a simple change in philosophy, I went from it being impossible to win to making it out of the mission without losing more than a small number of units. It's amazing to me the degree to which E2150 rewards careful tactics and punishes sloppiness.
At any rate, armed with this new understanding, the game has been a lot of fun. I still wish that the whole campaign seemed a bit more unified, but I can no longer complain about the missions. And by the way, it bears mentioning that there are plenty of them. From what I've gleaned from the few fan sites I can find, the ED campaign is 30 missions long, the LC campaign is 20 missions long and the UCS campaign lies presumably somewhere in-between. Some of those are very short move-the-plot-line-forward kinds of missions (e.g., displaying the results of scientific breakthroughs and so forth), but that's still an awful lot of gameplay, particularly when you consider there are so many different ways to approach the different situations.
The environments are not that varied as the entire game takes place on Earth, but the terrain is varied nicely within that limitation. The different weather conditions, terrain types and so forth really make for a pleasing variety of locales in which to play. Further, each of the factions has a pretty good number of unique and interesting units. This game isn't balanced along lines like Warcraft II or Star Trek: Armada; i.e., it's not the case that the races are balanced because each race has the same types of units (e.g., small scout, medium-sized attacker, heavy cruiser, etc.). Though there is some technological overlap, which makes sense given the story, each race has its own distinct "feel" and way of doing things. The ultimate weapons reflect this too insofar as the ED has nuclear missiles, the UCS has a powerful plasma cannon that can fire anywhere on Earth and the LC has weather-control technology that can cause all kinds of nasty trouble. Overall, there is a very pleasant variety of weapons, chassis, special devices and so forth. To sum up, E2150 includes an awful lot of elements, all of which add something special to the game.
I wish I could say something useful about the multi-player aspect of E2150, but I can't. In all the time I've had the game, I haven't found a single opponent on-line against whom to play. On one lone occasion, someone was in the GameSpy Arcade chat room for E2150, but he left before I could hit him up for a game. I imagine many of the frustrations I mention above would likely not obtain in a game against a human opponent, but I guess I'll never know. Still, I suppose I can say this much: if you're the type who buys games for the multi-player aspect, E2150 is clearly not for you simply because of the utter dearth of opponents.
In the final analysis, E2150 is an utterly groundbreaking game, supplying things that no other RTS game has even begun to touch in over a year since its release. It's not the greatest game I've played, nor is it even the best RTS game I've played, but it is a refreshing, innovative and highly playable product in the RTS genre. Bear in mind, however, that this is not an easy game with which to get started—well, unless you're a heck of a lot better than I am at adapting to it. All of the problems I had getting into it (and it did take me over a year) stem ultimately from my inability to approach E2150 on its own terms. That is, I was approaching the game as if it were any other RTS game, which it most certainly is not.
Thus, though I have enjoyed it a great deal, and will continue to do so for some time, I can't recommend this game for everyone. For causal RTS players, gamers who aren't willing to put in some serious time and effort or those who aren't interested in trying a fundamentally new approach to the genre, E2150 is not a good choice. For those who are serious RTS players, however, or those who are willing to invest some time and effort in order to "get it", E2150 is one of the most interesting and entertaining RTS games available. To those persons, I heartily suggest picking up a copy. They're a bit scarce these days, but I expect they're also pretty cheap by now. I can say this much with certainty: E2150 has given me such a return on my investment that I will be buying the sequel once I play through the original for a while longer. It's just that good if you're willing to work at it a bit.
Reviewed by Phileosophos