Massive Assault Better Than MissionForce: Cyberstorm
Massive Assault offers a series of 31 scenarios, five (5) campaigns (three for the Free Nations Union and two for the Phantom League) composed of four or more "steps" (scenarios) for each campaign, and a World War mode where blitzkrieg is the name of the game and the secret allies dynamic (one of the twists which will be explained later) can often make or break you. Players take the role of either imperial commander or leader of the democratic consortium. The variety is amazing.
Sometimes, you must defend an objective when totally surrounded, while at other times, you are required to defend against a double envelopment of forces. You may be required to breakthrough an enemy defense or perform an end run via amphibious landing vessels. Some engagements are heavy on naval vessels. Other engagements require effective use of artillery bombardment (from land, sea, or both) or close air support. I played straight through the list of 31 scenarios and don't ever remember the same type of tactical challenge to be found in more than two scenarios in a row.
Each step of the massive machine caused dust to cloud around its lower extremities. To the LAVs, light assault vehicles, looking up at the robotic monstrosity, the Ostrich appeared to hover above a cloud of its own making. As the missiles rained down upon them, an explosive lightning that left charred debris and smoldering flesh in its wake, the gargantuan engine of destruction must have seemed like Baal, Rider of the Cloudsâ€”storm god of the ancients. But that was mythology, this was real.
The smaller units converged at the base of the Ostrich, tagging it repeatedly with their lasers in hopes that they could apply the mortal sting to its Achilles Heel. The larger machine turned one of its antlike attackers nearly to ash before an ally, a Smallfoot that was a virtual mirror of the LAVs, performed the laser surgical coup de grace on the blackened LAV. Still another LAV took the place of its annihilated compatriot. This time, the stings added up. An internal blaze signaled the demise of the machine and its structure imploded. Achilles' fall may have been mythology, but this was real.
This review begins with two paragraphs of story in an attempt to make a point. When speaking of space opera (in novel, film, or television format) or considering a thin fictional background story for anime, comic, graphic novel, or game, reality is relative. Yet, regardless of approach, such a universe requires certain conventions to have any sense of credibility. We only seem to be able to suspend our disbelief when we posit monolithic power structures fueled by centuries or millennia of hostility and/or suspicion in order to fund the building and deployment of these armored armies massed for futuristic Armageddon. Massive Assault neither spurns nor expands upon these conventions. The game merely offers a tedious slide-show and timeline in place of the typical cinematic introduction and then, moves to its strength--well-designed scenarios with a variety of explosive weaponry, ranges, and challenges.
Frankly, the thin background material is more than sufficient for Massive Assault. Since players are required to assume command of units on both sides of the meta-conflict during the scenarios (campaigns?), there is no need to have a high sense of loyalty to either cause. In the one case, one serves the noble cause of a consortium of free nations, and in the other, one serves the ambitious aggrandizing of a power-mad empire. In both cases, success depends on annihilating the enemy as efficiently as possible. Doesn't sound very innovative? Much of the game isn't, but the designers have found a few new tricks to confound and intrigue its players.
But first, a disclaimer...
To be honest, some of you won't understand my enthusiasm for this game if you don't know something of my preferences. During the midst of the so-called real-time revolution, the dark ages (for people like me) when "accelerated time" games took over the strategy market and sycophantic producers tried to turn every strategy game into an RTS (even those originally designed to be turn-based), many of us went into our gaming bunkers to play the Panzer General and Steel Panthers series of games (or adjusted our genre preferences to play Heroes of Might & Magic or, eventually, the Age of Wonders and Disciples series). My personal lethargy was broken by a much-maligned and overlooked game from Sierra/Dynamix (pre-Vivendi) called MissionForce: Cyberstorm (I have to confess playing the campaign through once again in 2005 of all things). Finally, it seemed, for a time, like the end of an era with a couple of valiant attempts from Accolade (pre-Ubisoft) called Deadlock and Deadlock II.
If none of the games mentioned in the aforementioned paragraph managed to bring at least a brief intent to play 'Insert Once Favorite Game Here' again sometime, you probably aren't going to be interested in Massive Assault. It builds upon the turn-based heritage of which I speak and adds a new wrinkle or two that you won't see in stunning animation or sophisticated voiceovers. To be sure, the animation isn't bad. It just isn't beyond what we've already seen. The voiceovers have a sensuous-sounding Eastern European female narrator. Sometimes they are delightful and clever. It is certainly entertaining to have an unseen female with an intoxicating accent pronounce that the other side has â€œcrossed the Rubicon;â€ urge one to kick the asses of the enemy; or offer some suggestive personal reward at a later time. At other times, as with most voiceovers in games with lots of playing hours, it becomes annoying.
Yet, the play balance between large, slow gargantuan units mixed with fast, lightly armored units, weak but long-ranged artillery, amphibious craft, air forces, and personnel carriers seems to be the most flexible that I can remember. Who can resist monstrous, robotic-looking missile launchers and armadillo-like, amphibious flame-throwers? Anyone interested in aircraft with a vague pterodactyl shape? They're here!
And now, the main event...
Massive Assault offers a series of 31 scenarios, five (5) campaigns (three for the Free Nations Union and two for the Phantom League) composed of four or more "steps" (scenarios) for each campaign, and a World War mode where blitzkrieg is the name of the game and the secret allies dynamic (one of the twists which will be explained later) can often make or break you. Players take the role of either imperial commander or leader of the democratic consortium. The variety is amazing. Sometimes, you must defend an objective when totally surrounded, while at other times, you are required to defend against a double envelopment of forces. You may be required to breakthrough an enemy defense or perform an end run via amphibious landing vessels. Some engagements are heavy on naval vessels. Other engagements require effective use of artillery bombardment (from land, sea, or both) or close air support. I played straight through the list of 31 scenarios and don't ever remember the same type of tactical challenge to be found in more than two scenarios in a row.
In many ways, the game is more reminiscent of The Perfect General (and The Perfect General II) in that it offers combined arms (a variety of units with varying ranges, purposes, and advantages) in a strict movement/fire sequence. That is to say, you em>always move and then, fire. Even with armor, you cannot move and fire. While it keeps things simple, it also removes one of the basic advantages of fast units.
In many ways, Massive Assault feels like a miniatures game. You are moving individual vehicles across interesting terrain, obstacles, and line-of-sight problems. Yet, miniatures usually have some model for armor penetration while every unit in Massive Assault can penetrate any other unit. Further, Massive Assault functions such that if your vehicles are in range of their targets, they automatically hit and perform their requisite damage. There are no shells bouncing off armor and no near misses. So, in a sense, the battles are logistical problems and do not rely on the dice rolls that some of us board wargamers are prone to lament.
Of course, those wargamers who are used to playing hexagon-based games (even when the on-screen hexagons are not drawn on the map), will find that the way post-combat movement is handled makes it exceedingly difficult to get units on all six hex-sides. In general, it was my experience that most melee attacks (where you are in immediate contact with the target as opposed to firing from a distance) end up with a maximum of four melee units surrounding as opposed to the optimum six.
In addition, the three settings for the artificial opponents provide for huge differences in competition. It is not so much that the AI changes the way it operates. It doesn't really. It is much better on the offensive than on the defensive. Instead, the artificial enemy merely gets more resources to work with as the difficulty level goes up. The great thing is that this enables you to familiarize yourself with each unit's capabilities at the Easy and Average levels, but lets you know that you'll have some serious competition on your hands when you ratchet it to the most difficult level.
Use of secret allies
But the most interesting addition to the familiar turn-based game play is the use of secret allies. This is most important in the World War competitions, but it has some play in the campaigns and scenarios. Within the game, there may be secret allies in various countries. These allies are not revealed until the player or the artificial opponents decides to do so. As a result, you may plan both tactics and strategy based on the assumption that you have neutral countries on your flanks. Then, all of a sudden, the carpet is pulled out from under you and you discover that one of those alleged neutrals is jam-packed full of hostile units. Wow! That changes things in a hurry.
You can take some slight consolation in the fact that the artificial opponent tends to reveal these very quickly--often on the first turn. That may not be the most optimal use of such an opportunity. I personally like to disclose my allies when the artificial opponent is stacking its units on another border. Then, I can bring about some panic by invading myself.
If placing surprise forces upon your enemy's borders were the only consequence of the secret allies mechanism, that might have been good enough to raise Massive Assault to another level. Yet, like most strategy games that offer a variety of scenarios and campaigns, there is an economic/military production component to each country on the map. Each country has a basic army level and a revenue level. Revenue is collected (and spent) each turn whenever the player completely controls a country. Any enemy presence in the country negates revenue. Note that the right-hand console lists both "Revenue Per Turn" and "Revenue Turns Remaining." The income is not indefinite.
The basic level works differently. When an ally is disclosed, there is a secret army fund to spend immediately in deploying the home forces. An undisclosed ally builds revenue in its "escrow" account until such time as it is disclosed. After disclosure, it provides revenue each turn (assuming the player still has complete control of the country). If an enemy conquers an ally's country that has been disclosed, the basic funding becomes an indemnity payment to the conqueror when said enemy has complete control.
If an army invades an undisclosed secret ally, the basic fund (listed as Secret Army fund on the right-hand console) is immediately used by the defender to build a guerrilla army to fight and stall the invader until reinforcements can be sent to the defender's aid. The bad news is that there is no revenue to buy reinforcements within that country until the defender can regain control by destroying all of the invaders. This puts a premium on being able to move units efficiently from one section of the map to another (as if there are many strategy games where that isn't true). In short, the existence of secret allies adds to the tactical and strategic challenges of the game..
Detriments in Design
In terms of minor quibbles, I personally find that the default perspective from which one views the map is far enough away that some units look the same as others. It can be pretty bad for a Phantom League player to move a Bio-T (essentially a tank unit that must be adjacent to its target to fire on it) into a position where he expects to use it as an Annihilator (long-range artillery with very low defense value) or vice-versa. Fortunately, this is truly minor because the designers created a "Rewind" feature that is invaluable (to be covered in the "Doxology of Design" section) for gamers who have trouble with these distinctions. More frustrating is the fact that the painting of the Bio-T as it shows up in a Turtle (naval transport vessel) or UPS (land transport vehicle) looks almost exactly like the Annihilator. On more than one occasion, I messed up my logistics chain by thinking I was sending one type of unit when I was sending another. By the time I realized my error, the error had cost me multiple turns.
Impatient as I sometimes may be, part of the last criticism must fall on my own head for not paying sufficient attention. Yet, I have another quibble tied to my impatience. While I appreciate the ability of the bombers to fly individual missions (they are invaluable for killing that last dot of defense on isolated enemy units), there are times when I'd like to be able to group those bombers for one three-dot strike on one target. I can find no way to speed up the game on this (even though the game does play at faster speeds if you desire). This isn't something that would stop my from playing, but it would be nice to see addressed.
Another minor problem had to do with AI switches. In Version 1.2.214 that I was playing, I had a problem when going from one scenario to the next whenever the scenario design called for me to command an FNU army as opposed to a PL army. It is very frustrating to get the briefing as the PL commander and then, have to move the FNU units. Usually, when going from one scenario to another, I found it better to back out to the main menu. Then, I could choose the next scenario without confusing the AI.
The most serious problem with the design, from my perspective, is the inability to move into cleared areas after destroying enemy units. Perhaps, there would be a fictional basis for this. After all, these are futuristic weapons and the debris remaining in the space might be radioactive hot. Of course, even using this fictional logic, one would think that the heat sinks and shields would allow units to enter the cleared spaces without suffering from that. The problem with this is that it means you can create choke points with very inexpensive units. As long as you keep LAVs or Smallfeet on every space of your border, you can keep your territory free of invaders. Even if the enemy destroys your cheap-o units right away, they cannot enter that space until next turn. By that time, you can replace the LAV or Smallfoot with another one and the process begins again.
In a similar vein, there are many times when the last unit in a country is defending the capitol. You need the capitol to gain control (as well as indemnity and revenue) but you have to wait a full turn to enter the capitol after you destroy the defending unit. This just doesn't seem appropriate to me, but it is the way the rules for Massive Assault work and the same rule applies both ways, so it isn't unfair--just annoying.
Doxology for Design
One of the best features of the Massive Assault interface is the Rewind feature. If you discover that you have moved a unit to the wrong place or fired on the wrong target, you can hit the Rewind button and cancel out the move. This is only relevant on the last unit given orders and it is expressly welcome when you aren't sure how far a unit can move or what it's potential range would be at the conclusion of that movement. Although the interface does feature circles showing each possible movement, it isn't always possible to see the circles because they often get camouflaged in rough terrain. The interface also provides a range circle showing current range, but it is much more efficient to try out potential targets by moving the units than mentally extrapolating the final range.
Naturally, allowing the retraction of moves and attacks means that it is possible to abuse the system, essentially reconnoitering by force. This would be a bigger problem in a game where the enemy had hidden strength points and units. In Massive Assault, however, the only hidden units are the secret armies in neutral territories (that form guerrilla forces against you) and within the countries of secret allies. The game does not allow you to see the results of an invasion and then, rewind. You must complete your full turn before you see the guerrilla army pop up. So, this potential to perform reconnaissance by force doesn't really offer an advantage like it would in games with limited intelligence with regard to specific units rather than aligned countries.
Massive Assault's main strength, however, is scenario and campaign design. Obviously, these are not dynamic campaigns where the next step (stage) is determined by your progress and your forces consist only of the units you have remaining and the few reinforcements you can purchase. Rather, the campaigns are put together as progressively more difficult scenarios. And, should you completely foul up one of the later scenarios, you don't have to begin from scratch.
The scenarios (and campaign steps) do a great job of encouraging, almost forcing, you to use different types of units. Some require judicious use of long-range artillery. Some require logistic maneuvers to get bombers into the right position (the artificial opponents are particularly good at this). Some require wave attacks by the smaller units. Others require alert use of logistics. Others require time sensitive disclosures of your secret allies. And, as noted earlier, some allow the player or the artificial opponent to use specific terrain features to special advantage or force an army to consider terrain conditions when planning logistic moves.
Finally, although the timeline/slideshow introduction to the game isn't very interesting, the game does a good job of providing color. The use of propaganda language in the pre-scenario briefings for the Phantom League is delightful. The Phantom League briefings read differently than those for the Free Nations Union. And, though one could wish the soundtrack had slightly more variety and was more context-sensitive to game conditions, the music is interesting throughout the first several play sessions. It certainly doesn't encourage playing the music beyond one complete campaign, however.
If you liked The Perfect General, any of the Panzer General series, or Missionforce: Cyberstorm, you would be making a great mistake in avoiding Massive Assault. In fact, if you liked playing BattleTech or Heavy Gear on the table-top, you will probably want this game. If your preference is for a solid, historical war game with lots of tactical and strategic nuance, you might pass on this one. It teaches no history and the lack of consideration for morale, flanking, armor penetration, and randomness will make Massive Assault seem more like chess than a war game to the â€œpurist.â€ For those who want great value and an intriguing, dependable strategic and tactical challenge, however, Massive Assault is a jewel--an award-winning jewel before we ever discovered it, but a jewel nonetheless.
Reviewer's Snapshot: 8 (on scale of 10)
Story/Creativity: 6 (older than the Cold War)
Scenario Design: 9 (near perfection)
Replayability: 9 (variety on a multitude of levels)
Artificial Opponent: 8 (credible, but unimaginative)
Reviewer's Bias 10 (expected much and enjoyed much)