Galactic Assault - Prisoner of Power
I get to play a lot of games, sometimes they're titles I've been eagerly awaiting, other times they're ones I've been praying don't find their way into my in-tray. Then there are the games that have slipped completely under my radar up to the point where I open the packaging and raise a quizzical eyebrow at them while wondering if I'm about to unearth an almost missed classic or yet another shiny coaster. Galactic Assault fits nicely into that latter category; it's previously unknown title implying some kind of futuristic combat but little else. As an adult the simple joy of surprises gets forgotten, so rather than going straight to the internet for clues I decided to slip the disk into the drive and give it a whirl while still blind, so to speak.
What I found, somewhat surprisingly given their rarity these days, was a turn-based sci-fi war game based on a popular Russian science fiction novel called Inhabited Island written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. A little sneaky research soon found that Galactic Assault is actually the latest from the developers of the Massive Assault series (clearly 'massive' just wasn't big enough anymore) and marks something of a push towards the base building and unit production more normally found in RTS games. The plot of the game details the war between The Khonties, The Land of Fathers, Island Empire and The Southern barbarians (who each have their own playable campaign) as they battle for control of the planet Saraksh. It's not the most original plot in the world and considering the apparent popularity of the source material you have to wonder if a more in-depth plot could have been provided had the game stuck to just the one playable race. Alongside the four campaigns there's a selection of more immediate objective-based scenarios to play through and a number of multiplayer maps which can be played deathmatch style over either a LAN or online using the handy in game matchmaking service.
Anyone who has played a turn-based game like Panzer General or indeed Massive Assault will know the score once you're on the field of play, the game is broken down into turns and each turn contains both a combat and a recruitment phase. During the combat phase you're able to position your units based upon how far they can travel per turn and engage any enemies within firing range while the recruitment phase deals with training/repairing units and base building. Once you're happy you click the button to end your turn and then the enemy does the same thing before the whole cycle starts again. If it sounds slow moving that's because it is and anyone raised on real-time games like C&C will find the stilted nature of play confusing at first. Soon, however the advantages to this approach become clear, what it lacks in seat of the pants action it more than makes up for in well thought out strategy as battles become more like an elaborate game of chess. Despite the sci-fi setting Galactic Assault's units still come in the conventional infantry, vehicles, tanks, transports, air, and naval categories, each with their own unique strengths and weaknesses. With resources limited in each level it doesn't take long to notice that repairing damaged units is much cheaper than making new ones. This gives each one a far greater sense of value as you'd rather it limped home to be repaired than sat there for another turn to be destroyed. The current morale and health status are visible above each unit and it's that readily available morale information that gives the game one of its more interesting features. As a unit comes under attack its morale suffers, once its spirit has been well and truly broken it becomes ineffective and refuses to fire with enemy units often retreating at this stage. This means theoretically you can demoralise an enemy into submission without ever taking a single life it also stops you wasting precious firepower finishing off an enemy unit that's now effectively given up.
The battlefield is rendered in full 3D and looks better than you've perhaps come to expect from other hex based war games, even if it does lag someway behind the glitz of its more polished real-time relations. Pleasingly the world rendered by the engine actually effects gameplay too with units, for example, being able to move further each turn when travelling on roads, hide in woodland and be unable to climb steep hills. The time of day and weather conditions effect things too, the varying distance of the fog-of-war type visibility the most obvious attribute effected by the change in conditions. The camera, which for the most part moves around and in and out much as you'd expect, has a habit of jumping off and doing its own thing mid battle to try and highlight a particularly significant exchange. While this obvious attempt to add a certain degree of cinematic drama to proceedings sounds okay in theory, it soon becomes a pain particularly as it regularly picks bits of the battle that don't seem that significant. Other than that quirk the rest of the interface is fine and although it sometimes takes up far more of the screen than it really needs to once you've got a few levels down into things it rarely becomes confusing. Away from the field of battle however things take on a decidedly low budget feel with static maps and poorly narrated text your only guides from missions to mission. This jolting lack of atmosphere stops you ever feeling fully engaged in a grand war, instead it's like watching the highlights of a football game between two teams you don't know with no idea what the score is or what the game means for either team.
Traditional turn-based strategy war games may not be on the cutting edge of today's gaming market, and Galactic Assault doesn't claim to re-define or radically improve the genre in any way shape or form. Instead it simply gets on with the job in hand which it does surprisingly well. Although it never quite manages to throw off the vague sense of direct-to-video style low budget production that runs through it the actual gameplay underneath is often enough to keep you playing. If you're a turn-based strategy war game fan then this will no doubt already be on your must buy list, the rest of you who fancy something a little different will find there's fun to be had here if you're willing to learn its nuances. Much like those random late night films you know nothing about before you watch them and end up enjoying, Galactic Assault is more fun that you'd expect although it never really ever comes close to being great.