Description of M.A.X. 2: Mechanized Assault & Exploration
MAXimum Expectations It’s my theory that every game reviewer wants to write glowing game reviews. Every reviewer wants to have his or her expectations wildly exceeded, and to gush on endlessly about feverish all-night gaming sessions or revolutionary gameplay. Every game reviewer is like a prospector that wants to sift through the clones and the bug-ridden releases and find the proverbial nugget of gold. If that golden game is under-hyped and under-anticipated, so much the better. The original MAX was just such a game for me. Though I lost less sleep with it than I did with the original X-Com, I found it to be an extremely pleasant surprise both in terms of game design and strategic depth (see Tim Chown’s original GDR Gold medal review.) MAX was the sort of game that made me want to write game reviews, and since the first rumours of a sequel I’ve been plotting and scheming in hopes I could be in the position to give that sequel the glowing review and Gold medal I hoped it would deserve. Real-time, Turn-based, or . . . Both? On the surface, both MAX games appear to have a lot in common with conventional real-time strategy. There is a background story that involves humanity’s involvement with the Concord, an intergalactic association of powerful alien races. In the first game mankind is struggling to become a fully-fledged member of the Concord, and in the sequel the human race, as part of the Concord, is turning to meet a new alien threat called the Sheevat. Your arsenal in prosecuting a war against the Sheevat will include a large variety of tanks, planes, ships, and infantry. With the exception of the new Sheevat units, all of the weapons of war in MAX 2 are holdovers from the original game. You can fight as the Sheevat in multiplayer mode and they do have some intriguing differences, but many of the Sheevat units are also analogous to what you’ll be fighting with on the human side of the conflict. What makes the MAX games different, however, is that with each battle you have a choice of “time modes”. The original MAX included two modes, “turn-based” and “simultaneous turn-based”. I have heard more than one person describe turn-based play in the MAX universe as being like “chess with tanks”, and that’s essentially what it is. Every unit is rated very differently in a number of categories that include firepower, armor, attack range, speed, number of shots, and scan range. Some units like fighters can expend all of their movement points and fire all of their “shots” in a given turn, while some types of units can only move or shoot. Some other types of units such as tanks and assault guns can fire more shots the less they move, and vice-versa. The second time mode, “simultaneous turn-based”, is my favorite by far. Though some people objected to the use of the phrase “real-time” on the back of the original MAX box, all movement in “simultaneous turn-based” mode within a given turn does take place purely in “real-time”. The catch, though, is that each unit is limited to the actions it could take in one turn of turn-based play. Once a unit has fired all of its shots and expended all of its movement points, it can spot enemy units but it is frozen in place until a new turn begins. As a result of this limitation, simultaneous turn-based mode provides a lot of the strategy of a turn-based mode while retaining some of the excitement you might find in a real-time game. This excellent compromise also means that you don’t have to wait for two or three other players to finish their turns in multiplayer mode like you would in a strictly turn-based game. Both “turn-based” modes also feature “opportunity fire” in that any unit that has shots remaining and can fire at your unit will generally do so whenever your unit is visible and moves within range. Into the Real-Time Arena MAX 2 attempts to build upon this already flexible game system by adding a third method of play which is – you guessed it – “pure” real-time. When I first heard about the decision to include real-time I couldn’t help but be a little skeptical. Was this a decision made by the game’s designers, or was it a market-driven move meant to catapult MAX 2 into the ranks of games like Total Annihilation, Age of Empires, and Starcraft? Would the addition of this real-time mode ruin the things that I loved most about the original MAX? What I hoped would save MAX 2 from becoming “typical real-time fare” was the fact that, as I mentioned earlier, each unit has a wide variety of capabilities in terms of things like speed, scan range, attack power, and attack range. What this means is that many units can “see” further than they can “shoot” and vice-versa. There is no “super-unit” on the battlefield, or even any real hierarchy of units; each unit has its place in a balanced strategy. To make matters even more interesting, you can research upgrades for your units and build a strategy around a combination of custom units such as a “super scout” with excellent spotting capabilities and an upgraded missile-crawler with an unmatched attack range. In many games of MAX 2 you might also begin play as a member of a Concord “clan” that gets bonuses for some of its units right from the start. First Impressions So how “stunning” are the “stunning” 16-bit color graphics that MAX 2 boasts about on the back of the box? To be honest, my very first thought in playing MAX 2 was “Wow, the graphics look kind of grainy.” As I played more and more, I began thinking that the graphics in MAX 2 actually weren’t even as sharp as they were in the original game. In disbelief, I checked out the screenshots included with Tim Chown’s review of the original and found that my memory wasn’t deceiving me. MAX 2’s graphics are definitely a bit behind what we might now consider to be the “state of the art”. Though the terrain is pre-rendered and offers elevation with true line-of-sight, an analog zoom, and a 30-degree “tilt” in two directions, it doesn’t deform and it doesn’t look anywhere near as gorgeous as what you might find in Total Annihilation. The units also have lost a lot of the high-resolution detail I appreciated so much in the first game, and both units and terrain look just a little too “fuzzy” when you zoom the view in as far as it can go. Overall, though, the graphics aren’t “ugly” by any means and wouldn’t detract at all if the game performed well in other areas. My first few games in simultaneous turn-based mode did succeed in reminding me of what I liked about the original MAX. The addition of new “autofire” and “automove” commands for each unit also meant that I wouldn’t have to worry as much about frantically looking for sneak attacks and about playing against a computer that could always respond instantly to any perceived threat. Real-Time Woes After enjoying some simultaneous turn-based play in single-player mode, I decided to give the next campaign scenario a try in pure real-time. My first thoughts were that the gameplay felt “alien” in that I found it extremely awkward to effectively control a large group of units. Thinking that this might be attributed to some originality in the design of MAX 2 and that it might even be a good thing, I attempted to rid myself of my pre-conceived notions of what real-time strategy is all about. It quickly became clear, though, that even though MAX 2 plays “differently” in real-time mode, it doesn”t always play very well. If you click-and-drag to select a group of aircraft, for example, you will experience slightly unpredictable results when you tell your new group to attack an enemy airplane. Your fighters will most certainly respond, but any other planes will attempt to stay in formation with the leader. If the leader (the first unit you encountered in the click-and-drag) happens to be a fighter, all of your airplanes will move towards the target. If the “leader” is not a fighter, any planes that can’t attack another plane will stay put. If your AWACs radar plane “stays put”, you lose your radar visibility and thus will probably be sending your fighters into a situation in which they can be easily ambushed. The fact that the defender always gets first shot makes matters even worse. A number of game elements from the original MAX have been simplified, most likely to facilitate this new real-time mode. The whole concept of “connectors” in building bases has been eliminated, for example, as well as the notion of “surveying” for resources. Fuel has been eliminated as a resource that you extract from the ground, and the complexity of base-building, power management, and research have been greatly reduced. Though these aren”t necessarily bad things even in one of the turn-based modes, I found that the real-time mode was so awkward that these simplifications didn’t really help much. Differences in the units in MAX 2 mean that the standard RTS technique of mindlessly throwing a horde of units at the enemy will almost always result in total failure, but I felt as if this strategic depth was undermined by a lack of fluidity in real-time mode and by some quirks in the interface. In retrospect, I still feel that it was a mistake for MAX 2 to offer a real-time mode. Though the extra flexibility isn”t inherently bad, there are so many real-time releases out there that I feel that the lackof a real-time mode could actually be a selling point. And in including a real-time mode, MAX 2 is offering itself up for comparison against some extremely polished competition. Unfortunately, it quickly became clear to me that in comparison against titles like Starcraft and Total Annihilation, real-time MAX 2 doesn”t fare very well at all. After spending a little bit of time with the real-time mode, I convinced some friends to join me for a multiplayer game in simultaneous turn-based mode. That had to be at least as fun as the original, right? Multiplayer Assault and eXploration The original MAX drew a lot of criticism for its multiplayer mode. Though I had pretty decent luck over a high-speed LAN, the original MAX wasn”t playable over the internet even after patching. A lot of very vocal MAX fans and critics said that they wouldn”t buy MAX 2 because it would be like paying for a multiplayer patch for the original game. And what if MAX 2 didn”t work in multiplayer, they asked . . . would they be forced to wait and spend even more money for MAX 3? Though at the time I thought the whining got a little out of hand, I have to admit that the cynics were more correct than I could have ever thought possible. Even though the game heavily favored the defense and didn’t even support basic features like alliances, I thought that multiplayer gaming in the original MAX was a lot of fun. The truly sad news, though, is that while MAX 2 claims to be playable over the internet, multiplayer in the sequel is broken in ways that are apparently even worse than the original. In each of six multiplayer games in simultaneous turn-based mode we discovered amazing situations where players were unable to see enemy attackers even when LOS and radar coverage clearly indicated that they should be perfectly visible. Almost every conflict we engaged in featured these incredibly frustrating “cloaked” attackers which completely undermined any sense of strategy or play balance. Why did we play six times, you might ask? We played the second time in sheer disbelief, the third in hopes that it was a freak occurrence, the fourth in hopes that the problem might somehow be limited in scope and the fifth and sixth I can only attribute to sheer masochism. In the end, I managed to capture this state in some save files which I’ve sent off to Interplay. I don’t know for sure if this multiplayer glitch exists in other time modes, but I can’t convince anyone I know to play it ever it again. My guess would be that it probably exists in real-time mode because it must be at least as stressful in terms of multiplayer synchronization, if not more so. Mechanized Assault and Aggravation My multiplayer experiences have convinced me that there’s no doubt that MAX 2 was tragically and unbelievably rushed to market. The fact that a patch arrived within the first week makes it fairly obvious that Interplay knew that they were pushing it out early and that it still had a lot of bugs. In my boxed copy there were a sizeable number of problems: autosave didn’t work, there were a fair number of “crashing” glitches, and I have experienced a number of problems with group assignment using the “CTRL-#” features. More and more problems are being discovered each day – in addition to the critical visibility bug I found in multiplayer mode, another player recently found that victory in a certain single-player campaign scenario isn’t even possible in turn-based mode. What kind of quality assurance didn’t even include a complete run-through of the campaigns in all three time modes? More incredibly, what kind of quality assurance didn’t include a single thorough multi-player game in simultaneous turn-based mode? Most of the bugs I encountered were even found after the 1.2 patch was installed. With Descent to Undermountain and now MAX 2, I can’t help but wonder if Interplay is establishing a dangerous trend. The “By Gamers” portion of Interplay’sslogan might still be true, but I’m not sure I can take the “For Gamers” part so seriously anymore. It isn’t just coincidence that a large number of MAX 2 beta-testers received an official “new beta release” message on the very same day that MAX 2 appeared in stores. I might not have believed such a thing happened, but I received it myself. The game is not without some redeeming qualites, and there are definitely some neat small touches like the way the “progress bar” used while the game is loading reveals an image of the map. The spycam is also an interesting feature, and it’s great to be able to select units inside the spycam image and order them around. But while there’s no doubt that MAX 2 is a very ambitious and well thought-out title, the bottom line is that I’d gladly have sacrificed the vast majority of MAX 2’s new “features” for just a few enhancements in the original. A few improvements in a working game are definitely worth a hundred “improvements” in a game that’s tragically broken. If you’re interested in multiplayer and real-time strategy games, do yourself a favor and pick up Starcraft or TA. If you’re interested in single-player turn-based games, you’ll get a lot more value by picking up the original MAX in a bargain bin. MAXimum Disappointment The whole MAX 2 experience has accomplished the incredible: it has transformed me from a die-hard fan of the series into an angry and disappointed game buyer who wants to hold someone at Interplay personally responsible for what appears to be a complete fiasco. To put it in perspective, I’d have to say that the beta version of Age of Empires that I played three months prior to its release was far more stable in many ways than the retail version of MAX 2 that I purchased from Electronics Boutique. Though the MAX 2 developers have been very responsive in the newsgroups and though one patch has already been released, it’s pretty clear to me that MAX 2 will never be the game it could have been with another two or three months’ worth of beta-testing and bug-fixing. MAX 2 is that most tragic of game releases, a game with great design that falls so far short of its potential that I’m completely stupefied. How could Interplay let this happen almost simultaneously with an (i)nitial (p)ublic (o)ffering of stock? Heaven forbid that it should ever make good business sense to release a game in this condition. I can’t quite bring myself to recommend this game for the GDR “Junk” award because it does have some great elements even though they are for the most part hopelessly crippled by some critical bugs and problems. To be fair, the bugs in single-player turn-based modes don’t completely spoil the fun, and the problems in the sequel don’t completely obscure all the elements I liked in the original. There is the slightest possibility that with enough patches it could one day be a decent game to play. But in a market crowded with some excellent games, very few will take the time to find out and quite honestly, I don’t think that Interplay deserves that chance. MAX 2, sadly enough, is the sort of game that really makes you appreciate the time you spent waiting for Starcraft. The tragedy lies in the fact that with an extensive multi-player beta test like the one Blizzard hosted for Starcraft, MAX 2 most definitely would have been worth the wait. As it is, it’s a disappointing beta in a pretty box. When I think about the amount of effort it must have taken to get the game this far, it all seems like a terrible waste.
Review By GamesDomain
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