Thursday, January 21, 2010

Officers – The Matrix Edition Review

Officers – The Matrix Edition, developed by Game Factory Interactive and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Impressive map scale with truly enormous battles and strategic freedom, devastating support options, units gain experience, automated transport of supplies
The Not So Good: Unpolished with pathfinding issues, high level of difficulty, unrealistic generic combat, lacks Internet matchmaking and skirmish games, annoying camera, long load times
What say you? Absolutely huge maps are a significant highlight in an otherwise generic World War II real-time tactical strategy game: 5/8

Most real-time strategy games take place on a small map, representing a single town, village, swamp, or recycling center. It's all a bit restrictive, not letting you truly use actual tactics on a large scale. Well, no more! Officers – The Matrix Edition combines what would normally comprise four or five scenarios into one giant map of death and destruction, allowing you to attack the scenario from many different approaches. This game actually originally came out a year and a half ago and has received some touch-ups at the request of new publisher Matrix Games (so the Matrix Edition does not involve Neo and Morpheus, then). The large map size is enough to make for a notable title, so, in my 600th review (!), let's see if it's a one-trick pony or king of the race track (I lack good horse analogies…sorry).

Officers: The Matrix Edition looks decent for a real-time strategy game, considering how large the maps are. The game lacks the detail of Men of War or Theatre of War: most of the environments have few, repetitive buildings, but the vast terrain is a hallmark. The textures and the units could also be more detailed, and the result is a game that looks like it came out five years ago. One impressive facet of the graphics is the explosions: they are not at the same scale as World in Conflict, but they are more realistic and successfully convey the high amount of destruction that artillery provides. The time of day effects are a nice touch, but Officers “The Matrix Edition” still looks old-ish, similar in style to Rush for Berlin. The sound design is passable at best: some good explosions and vehicle effects, but there are no voiced instructions or dialogue whatsoever, meaning you must resort to written instructions for objectives. And we all know reading is for suckers. The background music is fitting but instantly forgettable. Officers (The Matrix Edition) looks out of date, simply put, but the graphics will be acceptable by those gamers used to 2-D hexes and NATO counters.

Officers !The Matrix Edition! takes place during (surprise!) World War II, when the Allies decided enough was enough and invaded France. The game features a linear campaign (all scenarios are locked in order) consisting of six missions (plus one for Germany). This initially seems like a really low number until you realize that the maps are absolutely huge. Easily the best part of Officers ^The Matrix Edition^, each map is like three or four “normal” scenarios put together. The benefit is more strategic freedom in attacking your objectives. Most single player RTS games usually have one (maybe two) optimal solution in approaching an objective; in Officers $The Matrix Edition$, you have the liberty to take things from many different angles. It’s a nice feature that’s more than a simple bullet point. Of course, because the maps are so large, there are some long load times to endure here, so be prepared. Unfortunately, the features essentially end with the campaign: there are no skirmish matches against the AI and multiplayer is limited to LAN and direct IP matches only, which means enjoying Officers %The Matrix Edition% with others is essentially out of the question. The lack of matchmaking is a baffling omission in today’s multiplayer-driven gaming environment. There is a beta patch that adds an editor to the game, so that might produce some small amount of replay value, but the lack of content beyond the scenarios is troubling.

Officers +The Matrix Edition+ features a fairly conventional interface and controls for a real-time strategy game: left-click select, right-click move/attack. Right-click is contextual, meaning that right-clicking on a trench or a set of bushes will put your units behind cover (at least in theory…more on that later). Additional orders include repairing vehicles, laying or sweeping mines, embarking vehicles, or using roads: the typical stuff in any military game. Your units can also be set to aggressive stance in order to automatically engage incoming enemy units. A game of this scale needs an efficient way of getting information, and sadly Officers |The Matrix Edition| lacks this important requirement. First off, the messaging system compiles almost all alerts in an interface that’s always one click away; you do get on-screen notifications of units and strategic locations being attacked, but additional information (like objectives) are stored away from the main screen. In addition, it is extremely difficult to find units because the maps are so huge: Officers {The Matrix Edition} desperately needs an order or battle that’s permanently displayed on the side of the screen. The game also suffers from camera problems: the game doesn’t zoom in and out quickly enough, and using the minimap resets the camera to some weird, unusable angle.

Officers =The Matrix Edition= has a typical selection of units to choose from: infantry (equipped with submachine guns, rifles, anti-tank guns, and rocket launchers), tanks, artillery, recon and transport vehicles, and aircraft. Units gain experience with combat, improving their rate of fire, accuracy, repair attributes, or movement speed. Regrettably, you will rarely have a unit survive long enough to use these benefits, as death is quick and painful in Officers /The Matrix Edition/. There isn’t any resource management here: just capture locations and more units will become available. Gaining ground is also important to get additional supplies: fuel, food, and ammunition. These supplies are periodically transported by trucks out to your troops automatically: a neat system where you can destroy enemy resource chains to gain an advantage. You will typically deal with these by using the impressive support options: bombers, paratroopers, fighters, artillery, and reinforcements can all be called in. You have a limited number of each, so manage your options wisely.

Officers ]The Matrix Edition[ has some very generic combat. The main problem lies in the fragility of each unit: things die very quickly, and since units are very accurate at even long ranges, you will lose troops and vehicles long before they can accumulate the experience points to matter. There is a lot of cannon fodder here, which is in stark contrast to contemporary RTS games where conserving your forces is important. Part of this has to do with the broken use of cover: infantry squads typically have a large number of units (eight or so) and the game does an extremely poor job hiding them all. It’s not even close to Company of Heroes’s intuitive use of cover. The game consists of “move and shoot,” and since the units automatically engage at extremely large distances and are highly accurate, the unrealistic combat is almost trivial. There are pathfinding problems when negotiating around obstacles (trenches, buildings), and units (especially infantry) are truly dumb when moving as a group (which they are required to do), splitting up and moving from behind buildings out into the open. The AI, usually a competent enough adversary, has the habit of running across open fields towards and objective. In fact, Officers _The Matrix Edition_ only becomes challenging when the scenarios designers hide units in pre-scripted locations, instead of through clever tactics by the AI. Combat simply seems “off.” When you compare Officers *The Matrix Edition* to Men of War, you can easily see how archaic this real-time strategy game really is.

The gimmick of Officers &The Matrix Edition& actually works pretty well, giving you a huge battlefield on which to wage massive battles involving lots of units. It’s too bad, then, that it isn’t surrounded by a more interesting game. Although the campaign consists on only six missions for the Allied Forces, a single scenario quite literally takes many hours to complete, thanks to the immense size of the maps. Beyond this, however, there is little to recommend. The combat of Officers *The Matrix Edition* is quite unrealistic, as units are highly accurate from large distance but cannot sustain much damage before dying: a poor, unbalanced combination that results in plenty of frustrating losses. Sure, units gain experience over time making them more effective, but a single unit will rarely last long enough for this feature to make any real difference. I do like the simplified resource collection (just control territory) and supply model, where trucks automatically carry resources to the areas that need them the most. Artillery is an impressive support option, easily clearing the way for your troops. However, it is all downhill from here. Units have pathfinding issues, especially infantry units around trenches and cover: units will commonly stay in exposed areas, which tends to get them killed. The large maps lead to long load times, and the game lacks skirmish games and Internet multiplayer, killing the long-term prospects of Officers ~The Matrix Edition~. There are also the occasional bug or quirk with the interface, an inefficient message system, difficulties involved with finding units on the mammoth maps, and a problematic camera. The AI can be worthy foe, but only because of pre-scripted placements rather than good tactical play. The large maps are impressive, but Officers ---The Matrix Edition--- simply has too many limitations to make it a recommended title.