There's definitely a little irony in that were seeing a game based on the Desert Storm conflict in the Middle East just as our nation is on the verge of revisiting our old "the guy you love to hate" nemesis Saddam Hussein. Maybe this is some sort of government conspiracy to spread American war propaganda to impressionable youth (well, probably not). There tends to be a disproportionately small amount of art and media based upon Americas relatively smaller conflicts (Vietnam, Korea, etc.) when juxtaposed with the onslaught of art and media based on World War II, so as ironic as it is and as strangely surprising as it is to see a game based on a relatively recent event it is also somewhat refreshing and, most coincidentally, appropriate given the tumultuous events occurring in Washington.
Conflict: Desert Storm is a tactical action game, played from a third-person perspective, in which you command a squad of four soldiers as they make their way through a series of surgical strikes against hostile Iraqi forces. It takes a middle-of-road approach with realism (somewhere between SOCOM and, say, Unreal Tournament), allowing downed soldiers to be healed by "medpacks" (even after taking a shot to the face with a tank shell) but making it relatively easy to be wounded, and requiring quite a bit of thoughtful strategy during play. There is an impressive amount of depth to commanding the four soldiers, which is done via a very well designed controller setup. Your commandos will not follow you unless ordered to; they can be ordered to fire at will, duck for cover, and follow you individually or as a group; they can be positioned strategically to provide cover for one another, and will notify you when they've spotted hostiles. Each soldier has different skills that will affect accuracy and rate of fire with certain weapons, time spent planting explosives, and their ability to take damage and use medpacks effectively. For example, its possible to give C4 charges to your sniper, but he will be slower to plant the charges than your dedicated explosives expert. As you progress through the game, your soldiers will gain rank and improve their skills.
The excellent control and execution of the friendly artificial intelligence (AI) is Conflicts greatest success and easily the most compelling reason to play the game. The mission designs range from very straight forward to fairly complex and challenging, and they can often be approached in a non-linear fashion. While it is sometimes possible to move through major sections of a mission while issuing only a handful of commands to your squad, the missions will always go more smoothly if you think you way through them and use each commandos abilities to your advantage.
Your Iraqi enemies, on the other hand, leave something to be desired. Perhaps the only truly historically accurate portrayal here is that the enemy soldiers often seem disorganized and confused. They do often seem impulsive, but do not seem to be intimidated when they are obviously outgunned and display little in the way of convincing squad intelligence. They will charge into a deadly crossfire like lemmings wading into the sea, and don't try very hard to avoid fire. Perhaps some of it is accurate, as the Iraqi army was poorly organized and lacked effective training, but sometimes a lack of seemingly common sense makes for a less challenging game.
And although the games pseudo-realism makes for faster, more flowing gameplay, it kills some of the suspense by allowing team members to be revived so easily. Each team member has a health bar; when it runs out, they are down, but not dead. A second, darker bar slowly depletes, and the downed soldier must be healed before it runs out or he will be KIA. When a soldier is not revived, an inexperienced rookie will replace him when the next mission begins. From a gamers perspective, this logic is too easy to circumvent. The game can be saved at any time, so why would a player bother to finish the mission if it means losing a valuable team member who has been gaining skill over multiple missions? Medpacks are plentiful so losing a team member is an unlikely prospect, but it makes far more sense for the player to simply retry a botched mission than to drag a rookie through the more challenging levels later in the game. Placing more logical limits on the use of medpacks would make the game more suspenseful and make more use of rookies, and opting for a more realistic approach (e.g., not allowing a commando who has been shot in the head with a sniper rifle to be revived in a few seconds with the press of a button) would place more pressure on the player to use the commandos cautiously and strategically.
Also disappointing is that the commandos do not seem to level up in accordance with the skills they have used. For example, I decided that I wanted my men to be well trained with small arms, so I equipped them with pistols throughout most of the missions. When their skill levels increased, however, they would increase with their standard weapons (the sniper increasing his skill with rifles, for example). Such a logical vacuum detracts from the role-playing elements that are present.
Conflict is not the most eye-catching game on the planet, but it is surprisingly polished for a relatively low-profile title. It runs at a silky-smooth frame rate and features great lighting and texture work despite the relatively bland desert environments. The animations of your commandos are excellent, even taking on a cel-shaded appearance at times, but the same cannot be said of the Iraqi troops, who look boringly similar to one another and are sparsely detailed. Sound is used to good effect, however, from the shouting of Iraqi troops to the spur-of-the-moment commands such as "hit the dirt!" and the loud punch of weapon fire.
Although its not quite up to its potential, Conflict: Desert Storm is still a unique game with strong squad AI and excellent level design. Only a handful of questionable design decisions and unpolished enemy AI bog down the otherwise fast-paced, challenging gameplay. A well-done cooperative multiplayer mode is included, but unfortunately there is no competitive multiplayer which, given the great execution of the squad AI, would be very exciting. With America on the verge of reviving its feud with Saddam Hussein, this game is even worth playing just for the timely novelty. If our nation ends up creating source material for a sequel, perhaps Pivotal Games can iron out the kinks in a mostly solid armor.
Disclaimer:This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.