Act of Aggression is all about reviving the “golden era” of RTS. In the last part, we met Eugen systems co-founder Alexis Le Dressay, as he looked back over their 15-year history. Now, we’re taking a closer look at their current project.
Act of Aggression is inspired by the best-of-the-best, and tries to keep everything that’s great about those genre-defining classics, while modernising enough to ensure a fresh experience.
CLASSIC RTS[divider type=”thin”]
“The “golden era” was with StarCraft, Total Annihilation, Age of Empires and, of course, Command and Conquer,” says Alexis Le Dressay, Eugen Systems chief executive. “All of these games have the same three pillars,” he continues.
“A lot of small changes were made to try and put an emphasis on a different part, maybe tactical combat, or something that was macro. Going back to the “golden era” is going back to those three pillars, where base building, resource gathering, and unit building are at the core of the game.”
Le Dressay and Eugen aren’t satisfied with simply aping the source material, however. They’re actively trying to build on those games, delivering something that has nostalgic overtones for seasoned RTS veterans, but enough new ideas not to be derivative.
“You have to gather resources within networks, you can’t share between them,” says Le Dressay. “Normally in an RTS, you have a ‘magic pocket’, so if you collect a resource in one part of the map you can use it everywhere. But not here.”
“Also, in terms of weaponry, it’s richer,” he adds. “I’ll give you an example, it’s possible to shoot down incoming missiles to give you more protection. We also modernise in the way that you deal with the neutral buildings that you see on the map, using them, getting into buildings, and destroying them.
“It’s also in terms of how big the game is; unit building, tech trees, and right now, a lot of great tools that stop you from having to do boring micro-management. I think what you do in the game is more rewarding because you’re doing interesting things, that are complex, and doing them easily because the game allows it.”
SEND IN THE TANKS[divider type=”thin”]
The core gameplay of Act of Aggression will be familiar to real-time strategy fans, but Eugen’s enduring focus on developing progressive mechanics means that there is plenty to learn. Players can use stored currency anywhere on the map, but must build up reserves of aluminium and “earth elements” where they’re needed on the battlefield.
“What you do moment-to-moment is build up supply lines for a base, based on what kind of units you want it to produce,” Le Dressay says. “I think these ‘micro-decisions’ that you have to make when you’re building bases and managing resources are more interesting, maybe a little bit more complex, but better than systems where there’s just one resource that you can use anywhere on the map.
“[Gameplay] has to be something that’s new, challenging and requires skill, otherwise it’s just something that you’ve played before and it gets boring really quickly,” he says. “As a hardcore RTS gamer, I like when a game has something new to offer me. I love the ‘golden era’, but if it’s too much of the same, I get the feeling that ‘I’ve played this game before’. I think we’ve got something that will have a lot of players saying, ‘it’s the same game style that I love, but it’s something different.’”
Not everything from the “golden era” is exactly the same, with each title having its own flow and feel. A “Zerg” rush in StarCraft feels different than playing “The Core” in Total Annihilation. Act of Aggression airs on the side of the latter, with less focus on actions-per-minute, but it’s not going to drag along like a tank in the mud.
“It has to be fast enough, it’s not as fast as StarCraft, which in my opinion is the fastest one,” Le Dressay says. “But it has to be an action-strategy game where you have to make quick decisions and interact with things in a very quick way.
“It also has to, depending on what you see on the map, feel possible to develop your strategy,” he continues. “Sometimes with bad RTS games, I know exactly what I want to do, because it’s too simplistic, but I can’t do it because the controls are too awkward. I think that RTS players love when things are deep and complex, it has to speak to the brain as well as the reflexes.”
FUTURE WARFARE [divider type=”thin”]
Act of Aggression is set in 2025, and asks what would happen if the current global economic climate never recovered, leading to geo-political power struggles and military action around the world.
“We thought that with the economic crisis getting worse and worse, it might change how The States behave,” says Le Dressay.
“We’re based in Paris, so we like to play the US army, but I think it’s great when you have a game with some European flavour. There’re three factions in the game, and one is more European, with fighters coming from all different members of the UN. This is so you don’t always have the feeling of playing as ‘The US vs. The Bad Guys’.
“There’s only one ‘bad guy’ named ‘The Cartel’. A shadowy organisation that’s trying to seize power and be a puppet-master in world politics.”
He continues: “There’re two campaigns, you can play as the good guys and the bad guys. When you play the ‘good’ campaign, it’s a techno-thriller scenario, like a James Bond-ish scenario. At the beginning you don’t really know that there’s this Cartel faction that’s acting behind the scenes. You have to discover it, chase it, and travel through lots of countries, fight them, and discover clues.
Act of Aggression has a reasonably sized campaign, bolstered by a deep multi-player component, if you’re that way inclined.
“There’re 15 different missions in the game,” Le Dressay says. “I think that’s the best length, because the pace can’t leave anyone waiting too long. It’s something like 15-20 hours of gameplay. “The later missions are much more difficult and much longer. You can also play against AIs on skirmish maps, and there’s a rich multiplayer aspect of the game.
“Creating a solo campaign is always touchy, because you need to keep changing and doing different things over, let’s say, 15-20 hours,” Le Dressay explains. “If you want players to be entertained, they need to have both short and long term objectives, so they always feel like they’re progressing.”
Eugen Systems’ games have visited a variety of locations, ranging from Second World War Europe in 2010’s R.U.S.E. to Sci-Fi fantasy world Edhear in their first release, Times of Conflict. In Act of Aggression, the globetrotting adventure takes players through domestic locales and far-flung war zones.
“Having lots of maps in the game is really cool,” says Le Dressay. “You can fight in the US, like California. What you’ve seen in the trailers, is lots of houses, and you can move troops inside all of them, more depending on the size of the house. It’s really interesting to use infantry with buildings because it gives them a lot more defensive options.
“We also have Europe, Mexico, and South-eastern parts of Russia,” he adds.
LOOKING THE PART[divider type=”thin”]
Eugen are balancing this near-future setting with a degree of realism, but they’re not getting bogged down with modelling every switch and buckle.
“I think it’s great to recognise what you see in the game,” explains Le Dressay. “For example, we’ve got Apache helicopters. It makes the game feel well-crafted when it looks authentic.
“It has to look like the real thing, even if we’re creating upgraded ones with more armour and such. It’s not a simulation, but we think that an Abrams tank should feel like an Abrams, or a helicopter should feel like a helicopter in the way that they move.”
Act of Aggression does have some more fantastical elements, however; injecting some fun into proceedings without making the whole thing too “gamey”. There are laser weapons that can’t be blocked and “super weapons” promising an explosive advantage to those who reach the top of the tech tree.
“Super weapons are very RTS-ish,” he laughs. Each faction has their own super weapons and anti-super weapons. You develop your base, and as you explore resource deposits and harvest them, this is really RTS-ish too, you build up these weapons.”
[pullquote align=”right”]”An Abrams tank should feel like an Abrams“[/pullquote]
Eugen are working hard to thread this concept of progression throughout the whole structure of the game, taking technology past its contemporary counterpart using military prototypes for inspiration. The result is an upgrade system that feels grounded, but interesting; believable, but unmistakably futuristic.
“There’s the Abrams M1A1, the A2, and an A3 version with a tusk on the turret,” says Le Dressay. “This is a real-life upgrade for the tank, but you can build on this with a different tusk, more turrets, machine guns, and really upgrade your armour. You can even add reactive armour and things like that to go beyond what exists in reality.
“What’s great about the upgrades is that you can configure the army you want,” he continues. “For example, with the US faction, there’s something like 22, 23, 24 different units, and you have something like 70 upgrades across all three factions, about 25 each. It’d be difficult to build-up enough resources to buy all of the upgrades in one play session, so you have to make decisions about which kind of technology you want to develop. It really gives you a feeling of freedom when you’re building your army. You can pick what units you like, develop them, and make them even stronger.”
Class based games need to be finely balanced. With all the thought that goes into designing fun upgrade mechanics and deep resource management, an overpowered class or unit can break years of hard work. Eugen Systems are determined not to let this happen with Act of Aggression, and have devoted a lot of energy to keeping everything fair.
“Everything is like Rock, Paper, Scissors,” says Le Dressay. “You feel like every unit is built for something. The game’s tuned in a way where you really understand the strengths and weaknesses of a unit.
“We wanted to have three very different factions, so that when you’ve learnt one and come to play with another, it’ll be a fresh experience. It gives the game a lot more depth and richness. If you like learning a lot of deep mechanics, then this game is great value.”
“But on the other side of this,” he explains. “You have to make sure that no one faction has an unfair advantage. It takes a long time and a lot of multiplayer matches to test, but it’s fun too.
“I’m playing the US the best. Mostly because I’ve played with them a lot more than other factions. I don’t know if it’ll always be my favourite, but the US are pretty straightforward, you can really specialise with them.”
Act of Aggression is expected to come to Steam this spring/summer, but doesn’t have an official release date yet.
“We want to release in May, but that might be a bit soon,” Le Dressay says. “We’re starting to see the end, but there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done. It’s really important at the end of the development cycle to stay focussed on quality and avoid the temptation to rush.”