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Act of War

A typical day in London. The American President's motorcade works its way along The Mall towards Buckingham Palace. The streets are paved with placard waving protesters and cheering tourists as the sleek limo pushes through.

Your squad is waiting up ahead in the Queen's courtyard, having swept the area for trouble. As the limo approaches, shots are fired. Terrorists, using the crowd as cover, are downing civilians with their AK-47s.

The motorcade speeds off, your squad mobilises to take on the terrorists, and the fight is on. Then the Royal Guards wake up and get involved.

In Act of War Direct Action, those fur-hatted statues in front of the palace finally move, fight and die for their cause. It's a small detail, but worthy of note as it captures the game's intentions perfectly.

Amid the huge battles, the scarred streets with tanks tearing up the asphalt, or the burning populace under bombardment from Stealth Bombers, you'll still be able to read the street signs.

I'll contextualise the violence. Act of War Direct Action is an impressive looking RTS. An energy consortium resorts to terrorism and violence in their bid to lock up the world's resources, namely oil.

Their Dr Evil plotting is proceeding well until a slip-up exposes it to the world. And the world decides to fight back. With guns.

It's typical techno-thriller stuff, with a strong whiff of Clancy as the US leads the fight on all fronts. The game begins with the world reeling from a series of attacks, before the Americans go on the offensive. Sound familiar?

Of course it does but there's more going on in Eugen System's game than the developers switching on Teletext, writing down what they see and forcing it all into a game.

Alexis le Dressay, director general of Eugen Systems, told us: "It's really the first attempt I see, not only in this genre but in general on PC, of such a 'full spectrum' game, where technology, graphics, story, cinematics, audio and above all, game mechanics have all been designed from the ground up with a single, coherent creative vision in mind.

"Most of the time an existing engine is adapted for a different game or a game design reused to work with a specific license, and the results of such noticeable patchworks are usually a little underwhelming or generic. In Act of War though it's just so noticeable that everything is tight and coherent, it just gives a warm fuzzy feeling that's actually very difficult to pinpoint," he continues.

Quite. Although how high vehicles rate on the warm and fuzzy scale when bursting into burning chunks of shrapnel is a question probably best left unanswered. But there's an impressive engine driving the vision: buildings crumble and pummel anything in their shadow, while video screens pop-up to show close-ups of the on-screen carnage.

But the special effects aren't just ornamental or incidental; the destruction has consequences.

Those flying shrapnel shards are deadly to dawdling bystanders, and anyone caught beneath tumbling masonry is a goner. And it's all handled in a sleek, speedy way.

The developers have managed to build a cityscape with hundreds of units crawling over it, all with an astonishing level of detail backed up with character and object lighting we've only previously witnessed in shooters.

Act of War's nearest RTS relation, Command & Conquer Generals, never quite managed the smaller picture. But though AoW takes inspiration from EA's classic, a lot of detail has been added in at street level and it makes a big difference.

People, shop fronts, car licence plates: tiny touches that super-saturate the atmosphere as the battle reaches fever pitch.

Take the London mission. It begins with my squad working its way through the streets to protect the President's motorcade from the crowds of protesters and the growing terrorist threat. It's a small-scale operation, still early in the game, so there's only one clear goal to begin with.

A series of checkpoints punctuate the city along the route to the Queen's house, where you await the motorcade.

Then it hits the fan: multi-cultural bad-guys move in. (The terrorists are drawn from all corners of the globe; the Consortium have no specific ideology, race or religion). Innocent civilians drop like sacks, and the President's limo shoots off like a frightened gazelle.

Then, as the action scales up, Act of War shows its mettle. You can see so much more than usual: the NPCs moving around; the frightened protesters; their placards; the handcuffed terrorists slumped forward.

Instead of units, you're working with people. It's an odd sight to see the baying crowd outside Buckingham Palace being mowed down with AK-47s, but that's the point. The wars of our generation will be fought on our doorstep.

The game takes us to famous settings including London and San Francisco, and Act of War's not afraid to have a battle on the streets of Washington DC, stepping on the grass of the White House lawn.

The globe-spanning storyline is a result of the Energy Consortium's tactics. They hire local mercs and get them to do their dirty work.