Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 160 / JANUARY 1994 / PAGE 110

Rules of Engagement. (computer simulation game) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Keith Ferrell

Can software re-create science-fiction experiences? This is a question that's been addressed by most of the major entertainment software publishers at one time or another. For some publishers, it's the question. Omnitrend, for example, has devoted most of its energies over the past decade to creating interactive interpretations of a particular type of science fiction, the space opera. its latest game, Rules of Engagement 2, may well be the finest science-fiction simulation ever developed.

Space opera is one of the grand traditions of literary science fiction. Like its antecedent, the horse opera, space opera works from several givens. Fleets of mighty starships substitute for the cavalry and the bad guys. Space operas often are set along frontiers, with colony worlds serving the roles played by prairie towns. Climactic battles are preceded by smaller confrontations, the stakes rising with each new conflict.

Of course, horse operas are pretty much restricted to rifles, pistols, and the occasional Gatling gun, while the space opera at its most ambitious can hurl whole solar systems into different continua. Crashing Suns, for instance, is the title of one of the earliest space operas.

At its best, space opera is more than just adventure fiction. Good space opera should be good science fiction as well, taking place in a carefully designed and delineated universe that is self-consistent within the bounds of the story that contains it.

Space opera - or what passes for it - has played a large part in the interactive entertainment explosion. And that's not surprising, as space opera has played perhaps the dominant role in all electronic media forms of science fiction. "Star Trek" is essentially a space opera, and the Star Wars saga is little more than that. Interactive space opera has tended to follow the Star Wars pattern: lots of arcade action, speed, bells and whistles, and little attention to or reflection upon what actual interstellar combat might be like.

That sort of reflection and attention is exactly what Omnitrend has brought to its science-fiction simulations. Its simulations follow three separate, though interlocked, tracks, all set within the same universe. One of the Omnitrend series, Universe, deals with interstellar exploration, trade, and settlement. Then there's the Breach series, which focuses on ground-combat troops. And third is the Rules of Engagement group, which puts players in charge of fleets of military starships.

All of the games take place in the same self-consistent universe, and a very strange and dangerous place that is. Like most good science-fiction universes, this one has a history. According to the Omnitrend scenario over the next century the human race develops faster-than-light travel and begin the colonization of planets in our local galactic area Humans being a fractious species, factional differences develop, and humanity splits in to two groups: the Federate Worlds (you) and the United Democratic Planets (them).

There are also aliens of various levels of malevolence and competence. And, in the best science-fiction tradition there are remnants of an ancient and very advanced species. This is a remarkably well thought out universe, full of details that lend just enough credibility to suspend disbelief. As illusions go, the Omnitrend universe is quite convincing.

Of the games set in this universe, Rules of Engagement 2 is by far the most ambitious It's a campaign-oriented game: You start out as a cadet and work your way up the ranks, facing larger challenges and commanding more powerful forces with each advancement. A beginner campaign is included, but you'll quickly find yourself facing large combat and command challenges.

Command, not incidentally, figures largely in the game. In the more advanced scenarios, you'll find yourself with whole fleets of ships at your disposal. It's your responsibility to select individual ship commanders from the roster of those available. All the characters have their own traits, competencies, and vulnerabilities - any one of which can affect how they respond to your orders.

Once you embark upon a campaign, you're in the center seat of the flagship, which can be a lowly transport traveling solo or a mighty dreadnought leading a fleet, depending upon the mission configuration. (Actual ship selection is up to you, but each scenario gives you only a certain number of configuration points to spend, which means that you can't get the best ship every time.)

The command interface is a marvel: Not only is it effective and sensible, but it also has a design that serves to enhance the game's illusion. This thing feels like a starship command center.

You're presented with a variety of ship systems: tactical, navigational, communications, damage control, and docking. Within each system are subsystems specific to tasks at hand, such as selecting missiles for combat or loading and unloading cargo.

Your monitor screen can be divided into command quadrants, with the quadrants displaying different systems or subsystems within a larger group. Tactical command, for example, gives you access to fire control, defensive shields, positioning relative to the enemy, and more. Included in communications are both transmission and reception. Navigation houses the helm, maps, and long-range sensors. You'll learn quickly which arrangements work best in different situations.

You'll also learn - with luck, rapidly - to coordinate the systems during combat. Often, your enemies are better armed and equipped than you. The simulation gives you the tools necessary to crack each scenario, but it requires you to learn as you go; of course, that further enhances the game's career advancement motif.

If you also play Omnitrend's Breach series, you can interlock the games, moving from Rules of Engagement 2's starship command to Breach's ground-force command as you board and seek to capture enemy installations. The next release of Universe will also interlock with Rules of Engagement and Breach.

Documentation is extensive, thorough, and refreshingly well written. You'll want to pay attention to the breakdown charts of ship and system capabilities; there's information there that will affect your weapons selection and possibly turn the tide of desperate battles.

And the battles do get desperate. Systems can be damaged or knocked out; capabilities can be diminished. Allies respond in realtime, and the clock is always running. You may need full power in three minutes, to borrow a cliche from another space opera, but if the simulation runs six minutes before full power is available, you may be out of luck. There are no TV space-opera miracle workers here.

Rules of Engagement 2 is a high-level simulation that demands good equipment. It will run on a slow 80386, but a faster machine makes it sing. (Actually, it talks, if you have sound support.)

Scenario design has become an important pastime for Omnitrend fans, and with Rules of Engagement 2, the company has gone so far as to prepare a special developer's kit, which you can purchase directly from Omnitrend. Additional scenarios for the game are already popping up on bulletin boards and online services.

Rules of Engagement 2 is a serious simulation and a masterpiece of interactive science fiction. Software space opera doesn't get any better than this. It's a game - and a vision of the space-operatic future - that would do Poul Anderson, Jack Williamson, or E. E. Smith proud.