Welcome back everyone! Today we’re covering an old favorite that I could have sworn I’d covered but I’m not seeing it anywhere on here… Must be one I wrote before I made the site! I’m replaying it for the 5th or 6th time so I may as well cover it now. Urban Assault is an Action-RTS brought to us by TerraTools and Microsoft back in 1998. So, you may be wondering, why am I covering a game that is approaching 20 years old? It’s not like I’m trying to drive sales, as if that were even possible at this stage.
It’s because it’s a good, albeit old game, and I want it to get the recognition I feel it deserves. That and Action-RTS isn’t a genre that gets much attention (Brutal Legend, Battlezone, and Dragon Commander are the only other entries that spring to mind). Now, I’m one that doesn’t mind lower end graphics so much, but I know not everyone is that way, so let me warn you now: This game is why.
(clip from a tutorial, the game itself looks like the top right image)
I mean, look at that. Good gravy, they had 320 x 240 as a resolution option. Anyway, if you’re willing to look past that, let’s continue.
The story concerns a distant future where Earth has been rendered virtually uninhabitable. The remaining humans are clustered in protective domes and are additionally splintered into warring factions. As if this wasn’t enough a race of aliens have come and embedded a device called the Parasite into the Earth’s core, putting all of humanity on the clock as the Earth’s protective magnetic field begins to falter. The player takes control of SDU7, the last of a line of cybernetically enhanced humans fused with floating warships/factories known as a Host Stations. SDU7 is tasked with battling his way his way across Europe, culminating in a confrontation against the Main Mykonian base. Along the way he’ll acquire blueprints for new vehicles and engage the other factions in combat as everyone seeks to whittle down opposing forces before the final battle.
The moment to moment gameplay is a tense balance of constructing and directing vehicles from the Host Station, and taking control of individual units during battle to use them to their fullest potential. Granted, the feeling of power granted by controlling a tank yourself is partially brought by the AI drones being complete goofs, but again, 20 year old game. If you ever think Blizzard did better, trying sending some Dragoons up a ramp in SC1.
You can switch off the map’s terrain features and vehicle health if you wish for less clutter, but that option made more sense when the game came out, if you ask me.
Unlike Battlezone or Brutal Legend, there’s no penalty for your own unit being destroyed because you’re only projecting your consciousness into a particular drone rather than taking to the field yourself, and this honestly is a liberating feeling. Rather than holding back out of fear of the entire match being ended by your untimely death, you can attempt daredevil maneuvers such as engaging a Host Station with a single attack chopper. And if you still want to be truly risky, you can try capturing a Station’s power supply, jumping your own Station in on top of it, and hoping you win the ensuing slugging match.
Frankly, the game is more fun that way. The AI drones, God bless them, try their hardest but die in droves, so unless you have a serious resource advantage over the enemy, your AI drones will take a very long time to win on their own. The good news is that the resource management is simplified compared to most games: your vehicles, your host station, your defensive emplacements, all are made from energy your Station absorbs from Power Stations dotting the map. At the same time, they’ve put in some interesting mechanics to keep it from being overly flat, such as being able to recover the residue of recently destroyed vehicles to recharge the one you’re currently controlling, letting you keep slow, big-ticket items like bombers or heavy tanks alive just a little bit longer. Anyway, this means you can spend most of your time piloting vehicles into battle, with the occasional jump back into the Host Station to build reinforcements or man the point-defense cannons. Thankfully the tactical map is available at all times for monitoring the big picture, though it really should give a way to identify units on the lower zoom settings.
You’re also encouraged to explore the map to conquer sectors (essential for Power Stations to work at full output) and locate tech upgrades, which can be anything from making a particular vehicle slightly stronger to entirely new blueprints, giving you new units and structures to work with. The steady unlocks provide the typical RTS progression: The enemies get new units which require new strategies, which the player can then employ with their own new units. I will say that there’s potential for frustration as the number of available vehicles increases, as combat between drones often comes down to who can get a hit in first. So if the enemy, say, catches your tank column off guard with a wing of bombers flying too high for them to hit, they’ll likely be dead before you can send reinforcements on all but the smallest of maps. Again though, resource management is simple, and building quick, so you’re out nothing but time as long as your base is secure enough to build up another set of vehicles.
I will say the difficulty can be inconsistent. Most of the missions around the halfway point involve Corridor Missions with no room for flanking, or grant the enemy new units that players don’t yet have a good counter for. In contrast, later missions are often too easy, as it becomes simple to dig in behind an impenetrable defense line and gradually grind down the enemy’s vehicles and structures with even the most inefficient of strategies thanks to half your units getting double-shot upgrades. Additionally, as stated prior, the graphics haven’t aged well and the sound effects are limited, with the “heli squad down” notification in particular being needlessly drawn out.
Now… this is usually the part where I’d say “if you like X, go check this game out on Steam” or something, but I can’t do that now. Unlike Blizzard, Microsoft doesn’t have any re-release or remasters in mind for this old dog, and while I understand why in a business sense, the world would be a slightly duller place if this had never been released. I will say Steam has a game with a very similar gameplay premise in Executive Assault, which… I think I’ll be covering next. Take care until next time.