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Written by  :  Terrence Bosky (5463)
Written on  :  Oct 28, 2001
Rating  :  3.33 Stars3.33 Stars3.33 Stars3.33 Stars3.33 Stars

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What if they held a war and no one came?

The Good

No one would have believed that in the last years of the 20th century a computer game developer was working on a mediocre adaptation of concept album. Few even remembered the Jeff Wayne effort. Yet, across the ocean, British minds interpreted the record with dubious results, and slowly but surely, they coded a substandard real-time strategy game.

But enough homage. In 1898 H.G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds. Eighty years later, Jeff Wayne retold the story musically. Richard Burton narrated the events leading up to each musical segment; the most notable track being “Forever Autumn.” The story was the same as Wells’, but the musical cues including a stirring six-note refrain and a recurring Frampton-esque Martian war-cry of “Ulla!” combined with stunning album art lent Wayne’s adaptation its own identity and, in a way, credibility. Rage Software picked up on these admirable traits and then subsequently fumbled them.

The computer game version of Jeff Wayne's The War of the Worlds is a real-time strategy game set in the United Kingdom, 1898. Cylinders from Mars have landed in the UK and Martians are spilling out astride tripod walkers intending to remake Earth in the image of their dying world. The player has the option of either playing the Martian side or the human side.

While the Martians are trying to eradicate the humans—their goal being the destruction of London, the humans are trying to oust the Martian menace—while defending their territories. The UK is divided into counties and half the game plays out over this “war map,” an aerial view of England. Martian held counties are shown in red and everything else is human. In the turn-based “war map” mode, players can build factories or units, move units to other counties, move units into enemy counties, and conduct research.

At first humans have the entire map, except for those counties where the cylinders landed. However, Martian cylinders keep landing for the first handful of turns and Martian technology is initially far superior to humans’. Luckily, when humans encounter the Martian war machines, they learn enough about them to open up new lines of research. On the Martian side, Martian scientists also learn ways to kill humans more efficiently.

Since this is a strategy game, resource management does come into play. Humans need industrial fuel like oil and coal, while Martians need blood and other resources. Resources are culled from the occupied counties and players can build factories to harvest them. Some counties are richer in resources than others, so it helps to pay attention to the information available on the “war map.” The resources gathered can then be used to build other buildings and churn out units.

Martian tripods are able to storm across the countryside and even wade in shallow water. As Martian technology advances, stronger walkers with special abilities can be created, as can Martian flying machines. Humans are backed by artillery, track-layers (early tanks), lorries, and other military equipment. As human research progresses, naval units and balloons open up.

Combat takes place in the “battle map” mode when units enter a country held by the enemy. In real-time, humans and Martians engage each other, destroying units and beleaguering factories. During combat the Jeff Wayne license really comes together: the Martian units are inspired by the album artwork, the themes from the album have been remixed distancing them from the disco era, and the rendered units and combat animations really look (and sound) good. Combat ends when one side is completely destroyed (or withdraws) and the victorious side claims the county.

The Bad

Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds is initially injured by a trial-and-error run through the research tree. The manual shows the research tree and research options are shown on-screen, but what the units actually do isn’t spelled out. If you come to the game knowing that track-layers are what the earliest tanks were called, then you are a step ahead of this reviewer. Still, even if your knowledge of human warfare is first rate, you probably won’t be sure if it’s worth investing all that research time into a Martian Tempest. Speaking of investing time, even after a unit has been researched, there is still a load of construction time before you can have one on the field—and, for humans, upgrades tend to be small steps forward: Track-layer I yielding to Track-layer II.

The game is down-right crippled by lousy AI. Pathfinding is atrocious. As a human, I witnessed Martians stumble into their own defenses and plod onward through minefields. As a Martian, I watched a small group of humans gleefully engage a massive walker. Actually, at no level does the AI show any sense in combat. The AI never launches logical attacks and they never flee—leading me into...

The Naval Unit Flaw. If you are a Martian in a seaside town and are wiped out by naval units BUT still have buildings on the map, you have to destroy them for combat to end. If you are a human naval force attacking a seaside town and you kill all the Martians units BUT cannot shell their buildings, you have to withdraw for combat to end.

Finally, War of the Worlds features rendered models but does not have any 3D hardware support. This means, as the game progresses, combat slows down since more units are on-screen. Eventually major slowdowns occur, leading into occasional crashes, especially during endgame scenarios—which should rightfully be the most epic and exciting.

The Bottom Line

What does this leave us with? Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds is fun, but will surely be dissatisfying to most strategy fans. As a War of the Worlds fan, I enjoyed the WotW elements, but the overall clumsy design got to me. I imagine that this game would have really shined with a multiplayer focus, but the most fun you can have by yourself in the War of the Worlds milieu still involves the 1898 novel.