One of the most underrated strategy games ever made, Interplay’s M.A.X. (short for Mechanized Assault & Exploration) is an incredibly addictive game that offers a novel and excellent combination of real-time and turn-based modes that will please gamers from both camps. Ali Atabek, Mindcraft’s founder and designer of the acclaimed Magic Candle RPG series, displayed true mastery of his craft in this wonderful gem that unfortunately did not achieve the level of commercial success to match its critical praise. |
Like all other great strategy games in our Hall of Belated Fame, M.A.X. is both accessible to newbies and challenging to veterans. Simply put, it is a top-down space combat game similar to Red Alert, but with many differences that in my opinion make it a superior game to Westwood’s blockbuster. But first, the cliché plot: as Mission Commander, your brain is wired directly into a sophisticated command and control center. Your mission: to colonize and defend a new world.
So why would I say that M.A.X. is a better game than Red Alert? In simplest terms, M.A.X. offers many more options, better AI, and requires much more intensive strategic planning to succeed at. Other highlights are one of the best user interface I have ever seen, an incredible degree of customization, and most importantly, the very addictive “simultaneous turn-based play” which combines the best of real-time and turn-based worlds.
So, the U.I. has an amazing degree of customizability. For a start, the game offers a FULL zoom feature. In other words, not only does this game give you multiple resolution levels, but you can literally zoom a fraction at a time from a total zoom in, showing just a couple of units (with great details) to a full zoom out, showing the entire map in one screen. This feature alone is an amazing feat that it’s a wonder why nobody has done it earlier. I found myself adjusting the zoom several times throughout each game to match my level of focus and paranoia. Also, familiar commands like "help", "previous unit", "next unit", "reports", etc. are all available as buttons on the border of the screen. There is an in-depth report system that gives you several different reports in order to manage your resources better. There is a progress chart that monitors the status of your colonies, and not only compares your position relative to the computer's up until the present time, but also makes predictions into the future. Furthermore, there is a unit report that lets you toggle displaying of armed units, air/sea/land units, buildings, etc. So if I want to see how my offensive and defensive buildings are doing, I just push the "structure" and "attack" buttons, and all others will disappear from the screen. In addition, I can choose other toggles, such as showing only units that need repairing or ammo, and the status of upgrades across my fleets. In short, M.A.X. is literally overwhelming with the extent of customization it offers, and everything is very intuitive.
One of the best features in M.A.X. is the novel “simultaneous real-time play”. This is very similar to real-time games, where both players are frantically moving units at the same time. However, it is still turn-based since each unit has a certain amount of movement or number of shots each turn. That way, you can't simply dance a missile carrier in range, launch, and dance right out. Many units require a certain amount of time to fire, thus putting more realistic constraints on them. Any of your units that have movement points left at the end of your turn will also have the ability to react to enemy fire during your opponent’s turn, much like X-COM. You can also choose to play the game in pure real-time mode, although it not nearly as fun or challenging as simultaneous turn-based. This very enjoyable gameplay strikes a delicate balance between the hectic tactical action of Z and the calculated scheming usually found only in historical wargames such as Panzer General, which means it will appeal to both wargamers and strategy fans.
Another way in which M.A.X. manages to break the mold is that brute force alone is not enough for victory. In order to survive in M.A.X., scouting, surveying, combining disparate forces, positioning, and research are each just as important, if not more so, than the "ogre/tank/huge army rush" tactic that has made other games somewhat one-dimensional. You can create refineries and research centers, which allow you to upgrade and enhance units, thus creating a customized army. The game has eight different clans to choose from, each with its own specific advantages and specialties. For instance, one clan specializes in espionage, with a further view range of improved scouts and radar units, while another has stronger air units. This makes for an incredibly wide range of playing styles, and quite frankly, I have yet to see any "universal strategy" that can beat every opponent.
M.A.X. also introduces an element of gaming that is usually only found in hardcore wargames: supply chains. Each unit has a limited amount of ammunition and strength, and so it is essential to send out supply trucks, barges, and repair units to keep an army going. This makes it so that a simple supply truck or repair bot can be a much more valuable kill than a tank, fighter or escort. Also, various units must be combined to prevent a dangerous Achilles' heel. There are no superior units, and true to real-life wars, combined forces are the key to success.
Although it has some quirks, the AI is both clever and unpredictable. It also uses logical tactics. For example, if you bring a flotilla of gunships with air cover to keep bombers away, the computer will fly in a transport plane and drop anti-aircraft guns within range, even if it means losing his transport in the process. The latest patch (1.04) makes the AI even stronger and enhances multiplayer options, making the game even more fun against your friends. Multiplayer games support up to four players, and the turn-based time limit will provide a compromise between hectic commandos and slow deliberators.
Last but not least, the tutorial missions deserve mention here, as they are some of the best-designed tutorials I have ever seen. These tutorial missions take you through one concept or unit type at a time, without being condescending. In a systematic way, you will learn about the interface, units, features, and other concepts necessary to play the game. The on-line help is also excellent, as you can get short descriptions for most icons with a mouse click.
With an incredible array of innovations and addictive gameplay, M.A.X. is definitely the very few games of its kind that actually deserves to have the word "strategy" in its title. With dozens of levels and virtually endless customization, the game provides many hours of entertainment for anyone that enjoys either turn-based or real-time strategy, or even wargames. And with the price tag of less than $8 Interplay is now charging, there is really no reason not to buy this underdog. “Phenomenal” is an understatement: it's a must-have, without a doubt. Too bad the sequel M.A.X. 2 is very disappointing – no doubt mostly because Atabek was not lead designer.
Reviewed by: Underdogs