Few things can be truly credited with changing our world, but the things that do are generally agreed upon in consensus across the world. Language is probably the biggest one. Others would certainly mention the wheel, medicine and electricity as extremely significant. However, I also believe that one thing which may not be mentioned quite as often as other notables would be war. Wars have very significant effects on the participants themselves of course, but on a larger scale they can change the fates of nations, continents or even the globe itself. Lets take World War II for example. Have you ever wondered what the United States would be like if events had happened differently than whats recorded in the history books? Have you ever imagined how different our world might be if Adolf Hitler had been successful in his mad drive for power across Europe and the Nazis had been victorious? Most people today probably dont wonder about such things very often and simply take the events we know to have occurred for granted, but I believe that the status quo could have easily been radically different. Someone at Konami evidently agrees with me.
Ring Of Red is a turn-based strategy game recently released by Konami for the PlayStation 2. While most of the game is very comparable to other titles in the console strategy genre, Ring Of Red is fairly unique in that it is set during a revisionist version of post-WWII Japan complete with civil war, a nation divided in half and cultural identity issues from the aftermath of occupying forces. To enhance the "what if?" premise, the player is treated throughout the game to actual footage from war-time newsreels which have been doctored and recut to set an excellent tone for this alternate reality.
Players take on the role of Masami Weizegger—a half-German, half-Japanese soldier enrolled in the Armored Fighting Walker (AFW) corps of South Japan. The AFWs themselves are huge, ungainly, diesel-powered suits of armor which take the place of traditional tanks and artillery in the Japanese forces. AFWs compare to current conceptions of robotic suits of armor the way a Ford Model T compares to a Lamborghini Diablo. Its somewhat odd to see a huge mech that doesnt move like quicksilver, fly or even have a laser-sword or beam weapons, but the designs here make sense and work wonderfully in the given context to lend believability to an era that never existed.
The structure of the game itself consists of several menus and information screens in which the player has access to various game-related information such as weapon functions and troop types, as well as menus to manage the arrangement of the AFWs and their accompanying foot soldiers. Picking and placing your escort soldiers is vital since they directly affect the AFWs stats and can provide secondary attacks or abilities, which greatly increase your chances of success during battle when used properly.
After negotiating the various setup areas, the actual gameplay takes place on maps of various terrain divided up into squares. The player controls all members of their unit, starting with one AFW during training and eventually increasing to eight. Your forces move across the map one by one and encounter enemy troops, at which point the game goes to a fully 3-D battlefield. Opposing units face off like gunfighters outside of a saloon, and the player has the option to move their AFW closer or farther away from the opponent depending on what type of AFW they are currently controlling. Players also give instruction to the ground troops in order to effectively utilize their support during firefights. When actually engaging the enemy, you always have the option to attack using traditional projectiles such as cannons or machine guns, but certain AFWs are also equipped for powerful melee attacks.
Whether you are a strategy fan or not, any player is likely to be extremely impressed with the 3-D graphics on display. Depending on what particular part of the map you engage your enemy in, there are several different areas, including bombed-out remnants of towns, mountain passes or cliffs overlooking rivers. Each area is beautifully rendered and has a very high level of detail, from the burned wreckage of civilian vehicles in the urban centers to bomb craters and scorched earth of the wilderness. To add to the variety, there are also dusk and nighttime versions of the already plentiful selection of battlefields, as well as varying weather conditions which all have an effect on battle.
However, as gorgeous as the landscape is, the real stars of Ring Of Red are the AFWs. Imagine forty-foot-tall, diesel-powered WWII tanks trundling around on legs instead of treads, and you start to get the picture of what youll be piloting. The game relishes in the low-tech feel of these ungainly, lumbering hulks, and no detail is skipped in bringing them to life. Drive shafts are seen spinning, diesel smoke purrs thickly from exhaust pipes, and you can even count the rivets attaching metal plating. Even better, during combat, pieces of the AFWs will be destroyed or become noticeably damaged. Pulling no punches, when delivering the final assault on an enemy unit the crews bodies fly through the air like rag dolls and crumple upon impact. Simply put, the 3-D graphics are marvelous.
Building on top of the already strong visual appeal, the games style of combat is very unique in the strategy genre and adds an amazing sense of pressure usually completely absent in games of this type. During a fight, there are so many things happening visually that its almost overwhelming. From the dynamic camera angles youll see soldiers running back and forth, dodging bullets, carrying out your orders to lob grenades. Youll see rockets and tracers kicking up dirt on the ground in front of you, and to top it all off—the view through the crosshairs can be quite nerve-wracking. When your cannon is loaded and a bead is drawn on your enemy, instead of pushing a button and watching the damage being dealt you actually look through the cannons reticule. While still being able to see everything happening on the battlefield, an accuracy counter starts ticking, and when it reaches an acceptable probability of hitting the mark, you pull the trigger. Its very involving for the player, and between the rockets red glare and the bombs bursting in air, you almost want to find a foxhole and jump in while screaming for mommy.
Unfortunately, for every one thing the game does right there seems to be another thing that drags it down. I find it very odd that Konami would turn out a game that seems to drift off course as much as Ring Of Red does, and I wonder if some espionage forces might have intercepted the games plans on the way to the CD press and sabotaged it.
The thing that most people will notice right away is that a lot of the games menus and character pieces consist of low-tech, hand-drawn still pictures. Now, there is nothing wrong with hand-drawn art (Im a big fan of it, actually), so dont misunderstand me, but theres absolutely no animation anywhere, and all of the character portraits have exactly one picture to look at. There are no different facial expressions no matter what theyre saying, and theres so little variety in the backgrounds for menus and text that the game feels as though the art team didnt really bother putting much time into anything besides the amazing 3-D battles. While the art present is generally good, it isnt up to the high standards I expect from Konami, and theres just not enough emphasis on it to make the presentation feel polished and deliberate. As it is, it comes off like the developers ignored this facet if the game and only gave the absolute minimum effort required.
Some other things that help kill any feeling of "high-quality" in the character department are the complete lack of voices, the shoddy rush-job of a translation and the fairly boring central plot. Since all of the story and characterization are told through voice-free text, its staggering that there are this many examples of awkward sentences, simple grammatical errors and just plain BAD writing. Its never as bad as the now-infamous "All your base," but some of the dialogue makes no sense at all and really prevents the player from developing serious connections to the characters. One of the worst instances of this is when the player is asked a question like "What do you think Ryoko is worried about?" and the only options available are "Yes" or "No"! I find it intolerable when a respectable company like Konami skips over something as simple as this, since this type of cost cutting only serves to tarnish the overall package.
Disrespectful mistakes like the translation quality are bad enough, but when you take into account that almost all of the story revolves around convoluted political jockeying between states told through written text, its not very accessible or easy to get into, much less care about. None of the characters really seem to shine through at any point (although it does get slightly better towards the end), but trying to stay interested in the different diplomatic developments is about as fun as watching congress debate tax reform for peat moss growers on C-Span.
Last, and in this case certainly the most significant thing to mention is the overall pace of the game. While strategy games have not traditionally been known for fast action, Ring Of Red gives an all-new meaning to "long-term gameplay." The game moves at a snails pace due to the extremely long battle sequences that basically drag on for two reasons. The first is that you cant turn off or skip the various action animations, and the other is that each encounter must last for a specific amount of time. Since its pretty rare that one of your AFWs will destroy an enemy unit in one turn, youre effectively forced to watch a solid 90 seconds per encounter with the clock pausing during the animations, multiplied by at least two to three melees required to take out each enemy. Multiply that number by battles that can have up to 24 enemies to eliminate, and what you get are skirmishes that easily last between three to four hours apiece! Fortunately, the developers did include an in-battle save feature (contrary to what some other "major" sources have erroneously reported—read the manual, you amateurs), but the slow pace and extreme length of the battles is exhausting and somewhat demoralizing. The game started to seriously try my patience before I was even halfway through, which is never a good sign. It literally felt as though I was actually a soldier on the front lines of some hostile country and had no idea when the war would come to an end.
Without dwelling on the negatives any longer, Ring Of Red is one of those rare games that I end up being completely torn on. There are so many things to like about the game, such as the appealing setting as well as the original take on combat, but the game is prevented from fully delivering on its promise by some poor decisions which hold it back. The end result is that Ring Of Red becomes a better-than-middling game that by all rights should have been much, much more. Most gamers will find it quite exciting and appealing with the sharp graphics and chaotic battles during the first few hours, but there is an almost overwhelming amount of patience required to actually finish it, and Id be willing to bet that none but the hardcore strategy fan will have the endurance and willpower to see the war to its end.