Machines at War 3 isn't the most graphically impressive RTS to ever come along, but it packs a lot of gameplay into its retro stylings.
I started playing Machines at War 3 by trying out the campaign, and this was a mistake. The first several missions of the campaign are a slog, and include the most painfully slow escort I can remember in a while. Admittedly, the escort was alleviated considerably by liberal use of the time compression key. There's another big problem with the campaign in that it teaches you to play the game incorrectly more so than most RTS campaigns. There's a lot more fun to be had by doing the tutorial and then jumping straight into a few skirmishes, while leaving the campaign off to the side for awhile.
The game shines in a skirmish against the AI or straight-up multiplayer. The high unit cap won't ever realistically result in massive piles of units crammed onto the screen at a single point, but games can certainly reach massive scales across the entire map and there are certainly still a lot of units involved whenever combat gets going; it's pretty easy to see how expansive the game can get just from screenshots, without the game even being in motion. The soundtrack is surprisingly epic and makes every battle feel just a little bit more awesome, too. Even when fights get large it's never really hard to keep track of what's going on. The poor, tiny infantrymen are the only units that are easy to lose track of. Since units are divided into air, land and sea, there's a lot to keep track of while keeping one's army organized, and the map is functional enough to make this relatively easy.
The tech tree in Machines at War 3 progresses quick enough that any given game will get exciting before it becomes boring, and the randomized maps ensure a good level of variety, especially considering that units are terrain-dependent. If that's not enough, there are also plenty of different win conditions and mutators with a variety of effects, although I don't see the appeal of playing with a variable like "ground units only" when it really just removes a large amount of that variety. Weirdly, perhaps owing to its budget-friendly fifteen dollar price tag, the game can feel small even while uncountable units are going at each other. The normal view only has one zoom level, many units are relatively static aside from their movement, and even the endgame units feel a little small on-screen.
Machines at War 3 has a couple of nagging problems, however. One is a straight-up gameplay issue, and it's pathfinding. The pathfinding is generally good, but more often than not, you'll find one or two units in your large groups getting caught on something as the group passes by, usually a wall. The trapped unit will then comically spend forever trying to shoot down the wall instead of even attempting to go around, maybe one day catching up with the group. Fortunately, units get so numerous as the game continues that missing one or two won't really be an issue even if you never noticed that one poor, stranded tank. On the whole, the pathfinding is generally excellent and is simply prone to the occasional but noticeable error.
The other problem I had is a presentation issue that was incredibly annoying; the unit chatter is awful. Every single click nets you a line that sounds like it's spoken by the Marines from the original Half-Life if they had bronchitis. It's painful to listen to and half the time you can't even make out what they're saying through their radio-induced mushmouth. This gets tiring before the tutorial is over and is easily my biggest complaint. As for the nitpicks category, the minimap is in a really uncomfortable position.
The units themselves have a decent amount of variety and the stronger ones, especially the vaunted "mega units," do a good job dwarfing everything else on the field no matter how small they may look overall. Their weaponry is very convincing when it levels that field in various destructive ways. The buildings themselves are rather boring, especially the air-oriented buildings, which all boil down to blimps of some kind or another. The floating power generator gets bonus points for being a blimp that also spins. Also boring and more distracting is the same white-line bullet being used as the projectile for more than actual bullets; having tanks fire what looks like the same thing as infantry or turrets can make it harder to tell what's being shot at by what.
Fortunately, it doesn't take long to get units that start hurling missiles and torpedoes that blow up in nice explosions when they hit. This includes the air units, which are much more interesting than the floating buildings. Watching the pilot of a doomed aircraft parachute out and become an infantry unit under your control is also a really nice touch.
The biggest problem Machines at War 3 has is being relatively small, despite its scale of battle. The things it does well have already been done well by the big names in the genre. Still, it's very well-polished and plays just fine despite some small problems. It's a good buy for any RTS junky, or anyone who needs a break from Starcraft. It's even a good choice if you just want to see huge piles of tanks, helicopters and boats blasting the crap out of each other before sending a nuke downrange into the enemy base. I just wish one of those ground units could distribute some lozenges to the rest of my army so they could stop talking like their throats are being torn out.
Alan S. is a writer for Front Towards Gamer, the brain child of site founder Steve "Shanghai Six" Machuga, created with the intent of carving out a small place on the internet to call home.