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9th Company: Roots of Terror: The Root of It All

Company: Strategy First

In December, 1988, a company consisting of 45 Russian troops held a hilltop against an estimated 400 Mujahideen and Pakistani mercenaries for two days. Six men were killed and 28 wounded by the time hostilities ceased. Now, Strategy First is recreating this epic battle and the events leading up to it in the upcoming Real-Time Strategy (RTS) game 9th Company: Roots of Terror. The game begins with the player taking command of a new group of ragged recruits that are thrown together and put through the basic military training exercises. As the game proceeds, the player will lead the company on many of the actual missions that took place prior to the battle at Hill 3234.

From a gaming standpoint, this is fairly unexplored territory, especially in the United States (more on that below). Though based on actual events, the gameplay is similar to many other RTS games currently available. Start with a group of untested and raw assets, proceed through missions, slowly building up their experience and equipment, experimenting with various tactics until you find something that works, rinse, repeat. The knowledge that these events actually occurred quickly became a "casualty of war."

Graphically, the game is beautiful. Of course, Afghanistan provides a harsh environmental backdrop, and 9th Company does a nice job of capturing this look and feel. The sounds of gunfire, incoming artillery and numerous explosions intensify the gaming experience. Though I did not find the cut scenes as compelling as advertised, they do serve to progress the story nonetheless. The physics system allows for the destruction of any building, vehicles or landscapes object, which I must admit is quite satisfying. Basic controls are simple and fairly consistent with similar games on the market. Drag-over unit selections, point-and-click movement and a simple but mostly intuitive user interface will cause most fans of the genre to quickly feel at home during gameplay.

However, I found one major flaw in 9th Company, and it is a deal-breaker. The single most important aspect, at least in my opinion, for a player in an RTS to have control over is the camera. I did not find the camera control at all intuitive or easy to use. I was never able to rotate the camera, although there is supposed to be a way using a three-button mouse (I use a common two-button and wheel configuration). Without the ability to rotate, I often could not get the exact view I wanted when deploying my troops or calling in artillery or airstrikes. This quickly frustrated me to the point of not wanting to play, and frankly, had I not been required to play through a good portion of the game for the sake of this preview, I would have quickly left Afghanistan and the Russian soldiers to their fate.

Adding to the frustration was the extremely limited (in some cases, non-existent) help in the game options area. Though the initial mission gives you the basics of control, should you happen to forget something gone over in the play-through, it is often difficult to find the appropriate controls or proper buttons to use in order to do even the simplest tasks. In short, the documentation needs a lot of work.

As interesting as the story is, I must confess that I am not sure an American audience is going to jump at the chance of playing as a group of Russians in a game that takes place during the Cold War era. Being a historian myself, I understand that history is relative to the teller and that every story has three sides (mine, yours and the truth), but I clearly recall the media covering the Russian "invasion" of Afghanistan during the 1980s and the sentiment at the time was the that Afghan people were the real losers in the conflict. I have little doubt that these brave Russian soldiers were anything less than heroic, but, unlike games based on World War II events, which allow the American audience to connect via personal relationships with past generations that experienced those horrific occurrences, there is very little here to evoke a similar emotional connection. Some interest may arise due to the current military situation in the region, but I personally feel that Strategy First may be better served to play down the historic roots of the game, at least in their promotion in the US.

Despite the political connotations, the game does show some promise. It is graphically appealing and, while offering nothing ground-breaking in the RTS genre, the battles are fun and the various elements and strategies that can be deployed entice the player to try different ways to accomplish objectives. However, as mentioned above, unless the camera issues are resolved and the help documentation expanded, the frustration level will quickly push all but the most devoted players in another direction.

-The Mung Bard, GameVortex Communications
AKA Buddy Ethridge

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