I got this old game because it was on sale, because I hadn't seen the concept of an RTS closely involved with time travel anywhere else but Achron, and because of its positive reviews. I was wrong - this game is nothing like Achron, and that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Last night, I stayed up until 6 AM trying to beat the first two USA missions in a way I could be proud of, and spent more than an hour on the third mission besides! I've only played one other RTS which directly applies how well I performed on one level to how well I start on the next level and to the degree that it is possible to get an unworkable start if you really mess up. The best part is? The game doesn't tell me that. It lets me explore, lets me find that out. It lets me find out that level 2 is much easier if I keep level 1's wounded soldier alive, lets me discover that Sabre-tooth tigers attack my troops as a matter of course (New policy: Pre-emptive extermination), makes me find out the little things that divide a Lieutenant from a quartermaster.
The tutorial's unobtrusive, taking the form of hints which pop up along a small, out of the way bar at the bottom of the screen. Easy to ignore if you've seen it before, and easy to miss if you aren't paying attention. Just the way I like it.
The graphics are, to be honest, not good by today's standards. But I am a firm believer in "Graphics matter only to the point where they help the consumer suspend disbelief", and they are good enough for me to suspend disbelief. If you've played the original Starcraft, it's around that level of quality.
Unlike in Starcraft, however, terrain is hugely important in Original War. Long grass conceals soldiers who are crawling, but is temporarily flattened if a vehicle or walking human crosses it. Harder and softer terrains have different effects on the movement of vehicles depending on their propulsion (Tracks seem to be slower than wheels on harder ground and faster on softer ground) and the movement of infantry.
The variety of units we have access to is honestly extremely well done - a basic human can fulfill any infantry role, but the skills they've acquired (In four areas, which transfer from mission to mission as the character does) determine how effective they are. Whether they're effective or not, just performing in the role will increase their ability in it. The four roles I've been exposed to - Soldier, Engineer, Mechanic, Scientist - are each so useful choosing between them is actively painful, and I count that in the game's favor. I've only seen three vehicles so far - two wheeled and one tracked - but being exposed to the vehicle construction menu informs me that eventually I will have the option to deploy vehicles of multiple chassis types, controlled directly by humans or remote guided, armed with distinct weapons, and so far I've seen both gasoline and solar power represented in the game.
Now, the gameplay itself. Original War features RTS gameplay, but it honestly spends most of its time telling a story of people trapped two million years ago which is reflected by the gameplay. Most RTS games accept one basic conceit - that if you click a button in the barracks, you get another man or woman with a rifle. Original War rejects that conceit, and as a result you get a game more about using up, salvaging, resource allocation, and making do than it is about build orders, micro timing, or army composition. The result neatly becomes a sort of hybrid between an RTS and an RPG, with the large battlefields and unit management of an RTS and the detailed statistics and many, many options of an RPG.
In terms of what I as a player can do, Original War impresses me. Do I want the resources that captured vehicle represents more than I want the vehicle itself? I can have it taken apart for a bit of a refund. Do I think it's time for my top soldier to learn how to repair vehicles? I can make her put on overalls and carry repair tools. Do I need to build a bunch of buildings fast? Turn everybody into engineers! Frustrated at the Engineer's slow speed while carrying resources? Vehicles with cargo bays can gather that for them. Am I considering mounting a final, do-or-die assault? Why am I considering that? I can pick the enemy's irreplacable unit count down with a small group of soldiers if I move carefully. Do I want my vehicle to be built quickly or just eventually? Do I want that tech researched NOW or eventually? And this is not counting the in-mission choices - I've received at least one dialogue choice per mission and this is without mentioning the implied choices.
All in all, if you like RTS games, if you like RPG games, and most of all if you like HARD, uncompromising games which ask you as a player to think, learn, and make choices I think there is a very good chance you will enjoy this game as I am.
EDIT: Having completed the final mission of the USA campaign (One of them, anyway...) I have more to say.
In terms of Original War's ethics, I am impressed again. Original War is from the 2000s and it would have been easy for the game to fall into the standard American action hero characterization for the protagonists in the fashion that ruined so many other innovative RTS' for me, yet it doesn't. This is most notable in the portrayal of Joan Fergusson, a scientist who was never meant to go back in time but did anyway. In the majority of video games she would be doubly hampered as both a civilian and the love interest of the USA campaign's main character which would result in Fergusson simply being a useless character in both a statistical sense and a storyline sense. Instead, the exploits of this individual are believable given who she is, where & when she is, and what her limitations are. Specifically, if you keep Joan alive she holds bases on two occasions and brings a squadron of AI tank reinforcements to the final battle that you know she built by herself. The same can be said for nearly every other character I have encountered so far (I'm finding it difficult to grasp Major - Comrade Major Platonov - but I haven't completed the Russian campaign so...) which I view as support for the theory that Original War is more of a cross between an RTS and an RPG than really either.
I enjoy Original War's dedication to continuity of choice - most choices made in early levels (Yes, losing units is a choice) will come back to haunt you by the final stages of a campaign. For instance, in USA 2 I chose to spare a captured enemy Mechanic. In a later level, that choice directly affected how I went about that mission. Even small choices like rotating the Scientist and Engineer roles so that everybody gains skill points becomes a major tactical factor by the tenth level.
If I have one major criticism of Original War, it is that some units seem completely pointless. Apeman Engineers are amazing, Apeman Soldiers are...not. Double Gun Vehicles are always useful, Double Laser Vehicles are an utter waste of time and resources. Original War is hardly unique among RTS games in this sense, and I do appreciate having the options even if they are largely pointless. A point that mitigates this criticism in my eyes is the potential for the player to make useless units - for instance, the abomination that is the Morphling Machinegun or the utter incompetence of the Hovercraft...anything. That some units are useless means less when allowing inexperienced players to make stupid mistakes is such a big part of why I like this game.
All in all, I still really like this game. There's a better than even chance I will buy it for most of my friends since it is on sale, and I will return to 200 Million years before the modern world after my Age of Empires phase has petered out.