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     " Damn I hope they fix this one… "

      Title: Desert Rats vs. Afrika Korps by Encore

      Format: WWII RTS

      Reviewing Monkey: Our Ape Masters

      The Hype: One of the most hotly anticipated RTS of all time, Desert Rats brings the WWII African conflict into sharp focus. A tactical game, that requires no resource gathering or unit building, Desert Rats wants to put you belly down on a hill directing your tanks against enemy forces.

      What This Monkey Thought...

      Graphics: I have never, ever, seen an RTS this pretty before. It is gorgeous and detailed on levels that honestly I wasn't expecting to get for another couple of years. Tanks roll beautifully along, leaving tread marks in the sand, and rock violently when main guns are fired. Buildings crumble and burn as they take damage. And, most impressively of all, models constantly update to reflect facing, firing, and occupancy. A sweeping and zooming camera lets you get in to almost FPS views while constantly pock marking environments give a real feel of a battle progressing. Really the only problem with the game is that it's so detailed that many of the units look a like at normal playing camera distances which can lead to units being accidentally lumped together and for a dangerous amount of searching for specific units. 4.5 out of 5

      Playability: Realism is at the heart of Desert Rats, from the unique specializations of each unit to the rather ingenious secondary actions capable with each soldier type. Tanks dig in and bunker down, infantry can go prone, artillery can be called in based on friendly line of site, and vehicles can be targeted for disabling, immobilizing, or destruction. The unit roles and functions are also very historically relevant and you'll need to ponder the utility of snipers, sappers, grenadiers, flame throwers, scouts, machine gunners, troop transports, light armored vehicles, and tanks as you spend allotted mission points to choose your fixed forces for the battle to come. And since each battle has different requirements and reinforcements are painfully lacking the majority of the time, you'd better choose well or expect to have to do it all again.
          Play itself is organized into a number of goal-defined missions that are almost depressingly devoid of simple open field combat. You will sneak, steal, and escort across the desert in an attempt to squash enemy forces. To do it you'll often need to overrun strongholds, defend friendly positions, escort convoys, and commandeer enemy vehicles. The latter of that list being one of the more interesting points of Desert Rats play, any empty vehicles, your own or your enemies, may be taken over by infantry and added to your forces. This adds a number of really cool game elements on both a tactical and a strategic level. First and fore most it means that for each vehicle you take you'll need to crew to operate them. The more units you place into a tank, for example, the more effective it becomes. It also means that you'll want to have some extra soldiers on hand to capture enemy vehicles. Being able to play both sides, Allied and German, also means that your methods and options will change and you'll quickly learn the terror of both facing, and wielding, some of the more impressive hardware the war had to offer.
          So you can guess that gameplay is justifiably intense and should bring you to the edge of your seat…and would if Encore could have spent a bit more time working the bugs out-since the problems come more from what the game doesn't do quite right rather than what is missing. Path finding, for example, can be down right horrible. When given a straight line path units will often veer dangerously off course to parade past enemy positions, when given a multi-point route they will stop at each point selected (thus turning your convoys into epileptic seizure-looking events), and crowded units are neither smart enough to get out of the way or take an alternate unblocked route so much micromanagement may be required to get your troops where you need them. Similarly, but infinitely more frustrating, is the lack of problem solving among the AI; which won't turn around when being shot from behind, won't take any kind of cover when under attack, and won't change positions to gain a firing line if their buddies or obstacles are stacked up in front of them. Added to that is the relative instability of the game itself; we experienced a number of freak events that affected our ability to play: loss of key acknowledgement (so the game wouldn't care if you gave it a keyboard order), crashes, and the occasional unresponsive unit.
          But far and away the most aggravating shortfall of the game is the almost total lack of unit cohesion. Though a "move in formation" option exists, it is poorly implemented and further there is no effective way to organize formations (aside from manually trying to position each unit in a squad) and so unless you have a lot of time to kill point-and-clicking each unit into place all of your attacks will occur in something of a grande-mall rush. Worse, because the AI is so inconsistent, you will often find units just staying there in the face of incoming fire, ignoring designated targets because they don't instantly have line of site on it, or simply ignoring your commands just because. I mean, really, tactical awareness has existed in the AI of these games for years…and there's no reason your units shouldn't be smart enough to jump into a trench on their own, take cover behind trees, or at least turn around if their ass is being turned into hamburger. It's a huge issue, and one that keeps this game from being an elite tactical simulator and relegates it to little more than a "best weapon wins" micromanaging frustration rush war. 3.5 out of 5

      Story and Drama: Rather than sticking to any kind of truly historical concept, Encore has created a fictional story of former friends torn apart by the war and ending up on different sides of the African conflict. It's supposed to add some kind of humanizing element to the whole affair but in truth just became annoying in a hurry. But while that's not a big deal, the personality elements they put into your units are. Accents, ackoweldgements, and general quips from your units are the epitome of confusion and bad acting and will desperately have you looking for a way to turn them off. Still, there are some very cool historical tidbits that are imparted through mission briefings and journal entries. 3.75 out of 5

      Multiplayer and Replayability: Once again we find that Desert Rats was off to a great start and seems to get flagged by what I can only imagine was lack of development time. There are effectively two single player modes; mission play and mission replay. What that means is that there is no random skirmish or quick combat option to keep the gameplay going after you've already competed the campaign…and as we noted earlier the campaign missions aren't really the type you want to replay again and again anyways. Worse, the limited to 4 player multiplayer is exclusively person to person adversarial conflicts and so lacks the classic RTS staple of hooking up with your buddies to trounce the computer. It's a dire showing and one that won't have you coming back to Desert Rats for long. 2.5 out of 5

      The Verdict:

       In the end Desert Rats becomes the little game that should've. It's a great idea, in a killer looking package, but one that just doesn't deliver enough of the tactical RTS experience. I have hopes that through patching some of the major issues can be resolved, but for now we've had our high hopes dashed by mediocre execution.

      The Good: Incredibly pretty, realistic units, and some very cool secondary unit options.

      The Bad: No real strategy control, shoddy AI, and horrible path finding.

      The Overall Ugly: Damn I hope they fix this one…

      What it's Worth: Save your money until they get the myriad of major issues fixed.

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