A new breed of RTS' is emerging in the gaming community. As games which have set the standard for RTS' (Command and Conquer, Warcraft, and *grips chest in pain* Starcraft), are slowly dying, a breed of 3d RTS' is emerging. Battlezone started the trend, and Dark Reign II is the latest in the series. 3D RTS' have however have not shared the same success as 2D RTS' have over the years. This is perhaps because they are so new and haven't had a chance to evolve yet. However the future does look bright, as Warcraft III, and other soon-to-be RTS hits are slowly beginning to cause a stir. Dark Reign II finds itself in grey grounds, stuck between the next generation of 3D RTS's and the old generation (battlezone, Earth 2150, etc.). So how has DRII taken advantage of this situation? Simple, it has not tried to reinvent the wheel, just make it more round (or however that phrase goes). The outcome is an average game, with average gameplay, AI, and strategy, and bit more than average graphics.
In Dark Reign 2's apocalyptic future, an ecologically unstable Earth has fallen under the rule of a repressive world police force, the Jovian Detention Authority. Charged by Earth's elite with protecting their exclusive 'dome' cities, the JDA is locked in an ongoing battle to pacify the masses of urban 'Sprawlers' who dwell in the toxic, irradiated world outside. It is not until the occurrence of a single, catastrophic event, however, that the Sprawlers unite their unconventional technologies and weaponry to engage the JDA in the violent drama of Earth's final chapter. The battle unfolds on land, sea and air, and gamers can take up the cause of either side, fighting through 20 challenging day and night missions.
The action is played out on a fully 3D landscape with a flying camera similar to Ground Control or Earth 2150. The difficulty in controlling the flying camera to let you get a good look at the action has a difficult learning curve. The ability to control your viewpoint is more than just a gimmick. The 3D world enables factors such as terrain, weather and daylight to affect your strategy: troops can use trees or darkness for cover, or hide in ravines, ambush from the valley sides, or even burn the forests where they suspect the enemy has secreted itself.
The resource of choice in this game is called Taelon, and it is collected from crystalline deposits on the landscape. Cash is used to buy buildings that in turn construct units. Buildings can be upgraded for still more cash to allow them to produce more advanced units. Both units and buildings are fairly expensive given the available quantity of Taelon so bases and forces are perhaps not as massive as in other RTS games. There is no research tree at all.
In theory, the JDA are the high tech people and the Sprawlers are low tech bruisers - or that is what you would be lead to believe looking at the campaign selection screen and the overall story - but in actuality the two sides feel more alike to play than unalike which is somewhat of a disappointment. Each side has only a few units that do not have almost exact analogs on the opposing side. The positive side in this is that the balance between the JDA and Sprawlers is nearly perfect - neither side having the clear ass-kicking advantage. Both sides have ground, air, and water units. Some unit types are unable to attack other unit types (i.e. some air units can only attack ground targets while others provide air-to-air coverage), or are far more/less effective attacking certain unit types, forcing you to used mixed unit forces. This isn't really anything dramatically new in the RTS domain, but I felt it perhaps more acutely in this game than in others, as the wrong collection of units in the wrong battle could lead to utter obliteration.
Graphics are above average, though instead of going for the realistic look of Ground Control, this game uses bright colors and vibrant explosions that are almost cartoonish. The cinematics are rich in color and detail but could have defined the plot a more.
By far the game's greatest fault is the unit pathfinding. Units spend a lot of time jostling one another when trying to move even across open ground or water. When set to guard a unit, they will sometimes kind of mill around it impeding its motion as well. You can set unit aggressiveness from stand in one spot and shoot to the death to run at the first sign of the enemy and everything in between, but due to the poor pathfinding almost any collection of units is unable to retreat because they spend all their time bumping into each other. Oddly, while the computer is quick to take advantage of an unguarded power generator or some other base defense flaw, it also gladly turns dozens of units into fodder sending them into a well defended valley of death. Since the supply of Taelon on any given game board is limited, holding some kind of defensive line until the computer simply runs out is unfortunately a workable strategy on many levels.