I seem to have a thing for games that end in “ox”. We all know Exon is a vast tribute to Nox, and one of the other reasons I built my old XP computer was Safrosoft RoX… and then we have this RTS Atrox. Like Age of Empires II, Atrox suffers from having a 256 colour palette in a 65-million colour world and so needs to be played in the past.
History has likely forgotten it for more reasons than that, though. Atrox is a Korean Starcraft clone that is… Well, just how closely they managed to copy Starcraft with such a small core team is actually quite impressive. Three asymmetric factions. Two resources in convenient little semi-circles. The same cliff/plateau/ramp style of terrain.
Even so, it’s one of those games that’s been lodged in my psyche since the day I first set eyes on it, so let me tell you why it’s deserving of at least a little attention…
I got the demo for Atrox off an edition of PC Gamer. I remember the disc was a bit duff so I had to get my brother to copy the file onto his laptop and then transfer it over (I guess his laptop’s DVD drive was a bit less shit?)… And then I enjoyed the two Hominian campaign missions that it came with, at least up to the point in the 2nd mission where you are utterly obliterated by an unstoppable rush of enemies. Needless to say, this didn’t put teenage Robbie off and he got the full game… only to discover the true depths of its lore.
It starts with a scientist, the 20th direct descendant of Albert Einstein, attempting to separate the “good” and “evil” out of humanity through genetic engineering. He is successful (!) but can’t create a purely good human without also creating a purely bad one; shenanigans ensue and a few centuries later we end up with the game’s three civilisations. The organic monstrosities of the Createse came from the bad dude, while the good dude went into space and met/merged with/took over? the robotic Intellions, while the remaining humans became the Hominians.
Why does it matter that this scientist is a direct descendant of Albert Einstein? Specifically the 20th? Who knows! Who cares? The translation is clearly patchy, but the sheer, exuberant dedication to obscure detail shines through nonetheless — all of this story is solely a justification for why there are three factions that don’t like each other, but it gives the game this utterly beguiling extra dimension that its perfectly polished inspiration Starcraft can only dream of.
Needless to say, it’s not the best at presenting, well, any of that lore in-game. As was tradition, the three campaigns follow divergent paths to take whichever faction to their ultimate victory in eradicating the two others. Unlike the more vibrant talking head briefings of Starcraft, however, before each mission you are presented with a straight text scroll of framing narration and dialogue. They drag on too long. There is no voice acting. The text is riddled with errors.
The campaign structure doesn’t pay much mind to the story anyway. There is little continuity between missions, with the framing often implying jumps of many years between maps. You’ll frequently go from a description of an attack by one faction in the briefing to facing the other in the actual mission.
Then when you get into a mission… If you are lucky, some again unvoiced dialogue might pop up at the start, as the camera jumps over some objective or other, before it reverts to a standard RTS base-building format (or a barebones group-of-units dungeon crawl). Maybe you have a hero character who’s not allowed to die.
All in all, it’s incredibly muddled and a far cry from the glorious web of history unfolded in the manual.
Obviously, being a Korean Starcraft clone, many missions are in fact impossible without superhuman reflexes, intelligence and even literal foresight.
I actually managed to muddle through a lot futher than I expected before having to break out the cheats, but eventually I hit the wall: the missions where you have to respond to multiple simultaneous land and air attacks while continuing to build troops and probably even counter-attack. Your attention simply needs to be in too many places at once and while I can appreciate that’s a grand old time for a hyped-up eSports pro-gamer, that’s no fun at all for a more casual player.
(There is no difficulty level selector, so if you want to follow the story, it’s cheats or bust. Hilariously, invincibility cheat “cool atrox” isn’t actually foolproof and some attacks or abilities can get through it.)
On the other hand, unit build and tech research times are quite languid, so when the game is manageable, it’s composed of long periods of impotence. Yes, you can increase the game speed a notch above default, but then when the ferocity of attack-move battle finally arrives your units are all dead before you can even hope to respond.
Its population limits are at least extremely generous, so in missions where you can take your time, it’s very possible to just chill out behind your favourite chokepoint and build up an unstoppable army of your own (even if it takes four different command groups to get it moving anywhere). Units have their own experience point meters and can level up a few times, giving them attack bonuses that match or even beat the traditional bought upgrades, so keeping your units well fed behind that chokepoint until they’re gleaming powerhouses can be rather satisfying.
It is also… Well, I’d hesitate to call it a pretty game, but as with its bizarre lore, I do find its visuals compelling. The buildings and vehicles of the Hominians are well-rendered takes on sci-fi staples, while the ultra-advanced Intellions are all strange yellow curves, blue spires and glowing bits and… okay, fine, the organic Createse are all disgusting fleshy organs but their pulsating masses are imaginatively grotesque, if you’re into that sort of thing.
I really do want to shout out to its particle effects and projectiles though. Everything dies in huge, juicy explosions, and every unit has a unique projectile so even the smallest amount of unit variety creates a fantastic light-show during combat. I particularly love the triple-stacked beam of the Hominian Fortress Warship and the spiral rail-gun blast of the Intellion Copolymer, and just look at how the glorious beam of the aptly named Burn tower forms:
Finally, each campaign ends in an amusingly bleak way, regardless of which faction you’re playing. The victorious Hominians are soon set upon by previously undiscovered aliens and either wiped out or plunged back into war. The victorious Createse are completely eradicated by a virus of their own making when it escapes a research lab. The victorious Intellions decide to enhance themselves by absorbing some evil Createse DNA (because apparently they were Fucking Idiots all along) and predictably descend into civil war and annihilation. There’s probably a moral of the story in here somewhere. Winning is bad? Hmm, not a great message for an eSportsy RTS.
So, would I recommend you play Atrox? Hell no.
But would I recommend you read the manual? Admire the artwork and soak up the lore? Maybe do a skirmish or two to enjoy the fireworks? Hell to the power yes. Atrox is bizarre in all the best ways and I’d fork over for a sequel or reboot that made it a half-decent game any day of the week.