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Dark Reign 2

Three years ago, at about this same time of year, the real-time strategy genre was king of the computing world. Riding high on the successful coattails of Westwood Studios' Command & Conquer line, as well as Blizzard's Warcraft series, the RTS race to market was on, and seemingly every developer on the planet had an offering to share. While there were some standouts such as Chris Taylor's Total Annihilation, the majority of 1997's releases fell somewhere between the run-of-the-mill me-too stuff like SSI's Warwind and the completely useless, such as Eidos' ill-fated Conquest Earth. Lost somewhere in the middle of this real-time strategic mayhem was a game by Australian developer Auran, called Dark Reign. Published by Activision, Dark Reign's development marked the departure of Ron Millar, one of Blizzard's top designers. This individual and word of his involvement with the project consequently sparked a lot of interest from RTS hounds all over the world.

Hyped as the first RTS title to fully incorporate the third dimension into its gameplay, as well as the premier title to expand the horizons of unit specific artificial intelligence, Dark Reign ended up being overshadowed by the surprise debut of Bungie's spectacular Myth, and the aforementioned surprise hit Total Annihilation. Yet, while Dark Reign was heavily criticized for its flawed attempts to incorporate 3D line-of-sight gameplay into a two-dimensional engine, those that played it found that it delivered unit-specific artificial intelligence as well as a lot of addictive gameplay. Even so, with its relatively poor showing at the cash register and the subsequent departure of Millar, I personally didn't think Dark Reign had much chance of getting a sequel.

Activision, however, saw some potential in the design and began developing a sequel internally soon after the initial release. Not long afterwards, project director Greg Borrud, along with the other members of the team, left Activision to venture on their own, forming Pandemic Studios. In development for three years, it is this California-based development house, along with publisher Activision, that brings forth the sequel, Dark Reign 2.

Dark Reign 2 however, at least in terms of storyline, isn't a sequel at all. Rather, it's a prequel, with the main storyline taking place a number of years before the mutiny of the Marked and the subsequent war between the Imperium and Freedom Guard. Dark Reign 2 introduces us to the Earth in the 26th century: a planet sick with famine, over-population and ecological catastrophes. Society has split into two main sections, the wealthy elite who live in environmentally safe domes, and the poor majority called Sprawlers. The Sprawlers, exposed to the toxins in the air as well as all manner of disease and pestilence, have adapted, you could say mutated, in order to survive their harsh reality.

The main conflict in Dark Reign 2 is between the elite protectorate JDA and the many gangs and militias that form the Sprawlers. The JDA are a renegade police force charged with maintaining the wealthy's status quo. While the storyline never gets too much more involved than that, the gameplay consists of ten missions for each side that relate the events leading up to the original Dark Reign. A somewhat subtle and interesting aspect of the two sides is how the units came to be a part of their respective forces. For example, two of the base-line units for the Sprawlers are the Rumblers and the Go-Go's. The Rumblers are made up of a group of street militias, while the Go-Gos are a female motorcycle gang. The entire Sprawler force is made up of squabbling tribes that have put aside their differences in order to combat the JDA. The JDA on the other hand are a highly militarized police force that's generously funded by the elitist population. They're equipped with the latest technology including robotics, and possess a quick maneuvering army that's capable of mass destruction. The end result of these differences is good news for real-time strategy fans. The two sides are decidedly different and even at the lower levels do not overlap units, as so many products in this genre end up doing. Giving each force different core technologies allows players to develop unique strategies for each, and accomodates individual play styles. Even within the ranks of each army, things are nicely balanced. For example, the JDA, which have an overall affinity to the offensive, are nonetheless equipped with enough defensive units to level the playing field.

Many of the missions, both single and multiplayer, require you to use specific units for given situations; because most lower-level units move fairly slowly,no one unit will dominate the game. I've tried a number of "tank-rush" methods in Dark Reign 2, against the computer and human opponents, and none of them seem fool-proof. Even the sniper and artillery modes, which I've become fairly accustomed to in multiplayer, can be flushed out and squashed by experienced players. Pandemic made a number of good decisions and has tested them well in regards to building and unit pricing, and build times. Level one buildings and units do not cost a lot relative to the default resources, and this is true for defensive buildings such as gun turrets as well. Dark Reign 2 does a nice job of allowing both defensively and offensively minded players the same opportunities for success.


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