My penchant for strategy games has been pretty well-documented here already, but the beauty of the genre is that there’s plenty of ways to reinvent the wheel. You have your turn-based classics like Panzer General, real-time base busting in the Command and Conquer franchise, relatively light fare like Dune, and more complex titles like Operation Europe. Well, that’s the direction we’re going in today, because today’s game, Earth 2150 by Strategic Simulations, Inc., may in fact be the deepest, most elaborate strategy game I have ever happened upon, and that’s exactly the double-edged sword that it sounds like.
Earth 2150 takes us to a semi-distant future where nuclear war has decimated the earth and done so much damage that it has actually, factually knocked Earth off of its orbit and is now launching it towards the sun. The three remaining factions, the Eurasian Dynasty, the United Civilized States, and the moon-based Lunar Corporation, are now in a frantic three-way race to harvest enough material from the crippled planet to start a new colony on Mars. Now, this ends up making for an interesting campaign mode, as you don’t necessarily go from one mission to the next, but rather, you engage in a number of missions with the overarching objective of trying to ferry as many resources back to your home base’s spaceport, and you kinda have to strike a balance between how much you’re spending on units and structures in the field and how much you’re sending back up the ladder. It’s a cool concept, but it does make for some tedious spots at the end of missions where there’s nothing really left to accomplish except milking resource fields completely dry and shuttle transports back and forth.
A quirky campaign mode doesn’t mean anything if the gameplay isn’t up to snuff, though, and sadly, this is where Earth 2150 starts to get bogged down in the muck of its own ambition. For one, you have to design your own combat units. ALL OF THEM. You pick a chassis, decide what weapons or other add-ons you want, and then roll it out. This would be fine if there were maybe a handful of different combinations, but no. Oh no. The tech tree here is substantial, to say the least, and having to re-equip the same tank chassis or the same helicopter or the same mech with umpteen different weapons every time you climb another rung up the ladder wears thin QUICK, not to mention having to scroll past your outdated models to find the one you’re actually looking to build. And you’ll have to vary up your loadouts for a number of different reasons, for example, tanks armed with cannons have no anti-air capacity, so they’ll need to be protected by units with machine guns. You’ll need to build units with laser cannons, because those are capable of punching through the shield generators that units will be equipped with later on, otherwise, attacking them with conventional weapons takes twice as long and you’ll burn off a lot of ammo in the process.
That’s not a typo, by the way, units have a finite supply of ammo in this game, and have to be resupplied by building supply depots and more units dedicated to running ammo out to your mainline troops, which again, is kind of an unnecessary layer of micromanagement, because it’s a real pain in the ass when you finally make that epic push into an enemy’s base and have to stop halfway through the mop-up process because your units need a re-up and end up getting scorched by enemy reinforcements in the meantime.
One cool feature worth pointing out here is that time does pass from day-to-night and back again, but sure enough, the novelty factor off that evaporates when you realize that you have to be in charge of whether or not buildings turn their outside lights on or not. You can leave them off at night, but that provides no advantage in stealth, or leave them on during the day for whatever reason, but it just makes you wonder who was clamoring for the light switch option in a strategy game. Even worse, if you’re playing as the Lunar Corporation, you’re base’s power comes from solar energy, which charges batteries that you run off of at night, so if you don’t harness enough solar energy by nightfall, you can’t really do diddly-dick until morning, while the other two factions are at no such disadvantage. On the flip side, the LC has buildings dropped into their base whole instead of having to marshal around builder units that can be picked off.
Another gimmick here is the camera. This is not a flat, 2D environment, you can pan and zoom liberally if you so choose, but even that doesn’t mean a whole hell of a lot, and gets messy if you’re in the middle of battle and you have to adjust the camera to order units around. You can open up a picture-in-picture setup to monitor other areas of the field, although the time it takes to set up properly is time that could be better spent elsewhere. You can flip back and forth between your home base and your current mission in campaign mode, but unless you’re trying to move units back and forth between bases, there’s not much reason to.
In fact, there’s a laundry list of things you can do be probably won’t have much reason to. You can build tunnels underground to move undetected by surface units, but if the enemy finds the exit tunnel, that negates any advantage that provides, and plowing that much ground is a lengthy process anyway. You can rotate buildings around before you build them, which is fine for making sure military units are facing the enemy’s direction of advance, but there’s no reason why you would matter which way a research lab faces.
You can dig trenches that makes terrain impassable, but there’s not a lot of reason why you would do that and handicap yourself at the same time. You can take the effort to build superweapons, but even they’re not the game changers you’d expect them to be, and the Eurasian Dynasty’s superweapon has to be dropped by an air unit that, ta-da, you have to design yourself. Hell, you can even arm certain buildings with defensive weapons, but you can already build dedicated defensive structures, and if you’re at the point you need your production buildings to fend off attacks, you’re probably already boned.
If, and that’s a big if, you can adjust to the learning curve, if you take the time to seriously acquaint yourself with what menu you need to go to to do something, how the mechanics of the game work, and how deep down the rabbit hole you need to go to get things accomplished, what you do have is a very good strategy game. The combat interface works very smoothly, it’s not hard to get your guys where they need to be, they generally are capable of pathfinding without any serious blunders, and they are capable of defending themselves with some degree of autonomy. You can sort units into teams, much like in Command and Conquer, so if you want to segregate your anti-air units from your big base busters or keep your repairer units out of harm’s way, you can do so without much fuss, and even activities like deciding what to research next or designing a unit aren’t terribly complicated once you get used to it, but again, this is a game where you’re almost assuredly always going to be doing SOMETHING.
There’s also a lot of nice little touches like cutscenes that laud your scientific breakthroughs and demonstrate your awesome new toys, and the option to select a different skin for the interface depending on which of the three factions you’re playing as. Also, just the inclusion of three different factions instead of just two definitely supplies it with some extra replay value, and although they don’t quite handle the same, there’s not so much difference that it feels like having to learn how to play all over again the next time.
All in all, Earth 2150 deserves a lot of credit for its ambition, but an equal helping of scorn for that very same reason. I understand the appeal of designing your own units, but I wish it wasn’t mandatory. I like the idea of day-night cycles, but I don’t like having to dictate whether or not the lights are on. I like the idea of a campaign mode with one grand, overarching objective, but I don’t like having to wait for ten minutes for harvesters to bleed a resource field dry when there’s no opposition left on the field. But as I said, if you can wade through all that, the meat of the game is still quite competently made and it definitely stands out from its competition. I should also point that I had a bit of a struggle getting it to run properly on my computer, but there are solutions for any problems you might run into. In the end, if you’re a hardcore strategy fan, I’d recommend giving it a try, but for most anyone else, the steep learning curve and level of micromanagement required might be a bit of a dealbreaker.
Unique campaign mode, deep enough for anyone who wants a bit more than the average build’n’rush fare.
Deep enough to scare 95% of gamers away, super-steep learning curve, may also be a bit finicky to get running.