Released in the latter half of 1999, Force 21 is a tactical real-time strategy game for the PC both developed and published by Red Storm Entertainment. It is set in the year 2015, and depicts a scenario in which the United States and the People's Republic of China are drawn into military conflict with one another after China decides to invade Kazakhstan for resources. After choosing to align with either the U.S. or China, the player assumes the role of battlefield commander, directing upwards of sixteen individual platoons, usually consisting of some combination of tanks, wheeled vehicles, and helicopters, during a variety of different combat operations. Missions can have between one and three objectives, and while the player's initial forces for each scenario are always predetermined, each platoon can be assigned a unique platoon commander with specific strengths, and units can furthermore be transferred between platoons as necessary during missions. Force 21 also features a multiplayer component allowing up to four players to compete in scenarios either individually or as teams. In late 2000, a port of Force 21, developed by Code Monkeys, was released for the Game Boy Color. This port differed significantly from the original game, most noticeably by replacing the original's third-person perspective and three-dimensional graphics with a top-down, strictly two-dimensional viewpoint.
By the year 2015, advances in technology have all but eliminated the threat of global nuclear warfare, ushering in an age in which more conventional ground wars between powerful nations are an increasingly practical option. In more recent years, a shift in power has taken place within the Asian continent. As Russia slides slowly toward irrelevance, crippled both socially and economically, China expands and prospers, increasing its influence through the sheer force of its economy while also keeping a firm handle on any political dissidents. Realizing that their country cannot sustain its current growth rate over the long term without additional resources, China begins sizing up neighboring Kazakhstan and the weaken Russia, whose raw materials would help to further stoke the Chinese economy. Noticing a significant buildup of troops along the western border of China, the U.S. quickly sends a military force to Kazakhstan, hoping their presence there alone will be enough to dissuade the Chinese from attacking. Unfortunately, not even the added complication of U.S. involvement is enough to turn China away from its bid to claim oil-rich Kazakhstan for itself. Not long thereafter, the People's Liberation Army crosses the Sino-Kazhak border, and World War III officially begins.
The trajectory of Force 21's campaign mode changes significantly based on the player's chosen allegiance. As an American commander, the player must push back against the Chinese advance into Kazakhstan and Mongolia before eventually advancing on China itself, buoyed by the support of oppressed rebel groups within the country who welcome them as liberators. As a Chinese official, the player is entrusted with the success of the initial Kazakh invasion as well as that of the subsequent invasions of Mongolia and Russia, allowing China to not only fully realize their goals but also force the American and Russian coalition to surrender.
Force 21 is a real-time tactical wargame in which the player directs groups of units from the third-person, moving them and assigning them various tasks in order to overcome enemy platoons and accomplish mission objectives. Missions in Force 21 are separated into two distinct phases: the Preparation Phase and the Action Phase. During the Preparation Phase, players are familiarized with the details of the mission to come and given the opportunity to select individual commanders for each of the platoons that will be under their control. Commanders are rated from one to five in the areas of movement, combat, and detection, which determines their overall strength in these areas. Additionally, each commander is specialized in either Armor, Recon, Air Cavalry, or Engineering, giving units additional movement, accuracy, and detection bonuses when their chosen commanding officer is specialized toward their use. Apart from selecting platoon commanders, the Preparation Phase is mostly informational, giving the player access to three displays that fill them in on their mission's parameters. The Mission Briefing screen contains information on the player's objectives, the Mission Setup interface details units and commanders available for the coming mission, and the Intelligence pane allows the player to examine a 3D map of the projected area of engagement. Each subsection of the Preparation Phase interface is accompanied by a voice-over from an allied officer with advice for the coming mission.
Once the player feels they are sufficiently prepared to take on the mission proper, they may initiate the Action Phase, which starts the mission and gives the player full control of their platoons' actions in real time. Platoons can consist of up to five units each, and orders given to a platoon are carried out by all units within it. Orders cannot be given to individual units, however units can be transferred between platoons. Unlike many similar strategy games that allow players to freely scroll their viewpoint around the battlefield, the player's point of view in Force 21 is restricted to only what the currently-selected platoon's leader can see. This is accomplished by binding the game's camera to the lead unit of the selected platoon; the player can change the angle and orientation of the camera, but cannot detach it from the platoon. This restricted visibility in effect simulates the fog of war phenomenon, as platoons can only detect enemies within a short distance of themselves, and in turn can only be ordered to attack once the player has ascertained the enemy's location, thus placing a significant gameplay emphasis on situational awareness and effective reconnaissance. Players that are able to detect enemy platoons before they themselves are detected are at an advantage. Players also have both a minimap and a larger 3D Strategic Map to consult while in missions, with allied platoons appearing either as blue blips or letters corresponding to their platoon, and enemies represented as red blips.
Aside from reconnaissance, many other factors come into play when completing objectives and confronting enemies in Force 21. The game's environments can play a crucial role in successful encounters, as players can take advantage of beneficial defensive terrain features such as trees or use natural line-of-sight obstructions like hills to cover their advance. Platoons can be placed into one of four different formations (Line, Column, Wedge, or Reverse Wedge), which can have a noticeable impact on factors such as movement speed and weapon coverage. Choosing which units to engage the enemy with is also very important, as vehicles generally fall into specific categories, with some being more well-equipped to handle certain threats than others. Helicopters, for instance, are easily torn apart by anti-aircraft vehicles, while tanks similarly must watch out for fast MCVs with anti-tank weaponry. A number of specialty vehicles also exist that can perform tasks such as clearing minefields or laying bridges, and even general-purpose units may have additional command options that may benefit them in certain scenarios. A tank may be able to fortify its position against enemy fire, for one, and a recon vehicle might camouflage itself in order to reduce the chances of detection. Since missions are objective-based, defeating all foes within a map is not always necessary in order to proceed to the next mission, and failure conditions can also vary depending on the imperatives of the operation at hand.
The Platoon Orders Menu is located at the bottom right of the player's in-game HUD, just below the platoon and formation selection interface, allowing easy access to common unit commands. Actions that can be taken by the currently-selected platoon will be highlighted, indicating that they can be performed, while orders that said platoon cannot be issued will be grayed out and unselectable. Issuing an order is typically done by left-clicking the appropriate button and, when necessary, left-clicking again within the 3D world view. Generally speaking, an order in the process of being issued can be cancelled simply by right-clicking the mouse.
Normally issued simply by right-clicking the ground while the desired platoon is selected, the Move command orders a platoon to travel to a specified point on the map. Traversal over long distances can be ordered more easily by way of the Strategic Map; waypoints can also be set while issuing a Move order by simply holding down the Shift key while clicking.
Being a sort of specialized Move command, a Patrol order allows the player to specify that the current allied platoon is to patrol along a set of given coordinates until told to do otherwise; this is perhaps most useful for reconnaissance or defensive purposes. The direction in which the platoon patrols after the order is given is not specifiable by the player.
The Rally order is issued in much the same way that other movement orders are, though it is a command uniquely intended for use when units are taking enemy fire. When the Rally order is issued to a platoon, the player must select a point on the map, which directs that platoon to disengage from all enemy units before moving immediately to that point.
Issuing a Hold order causes the selected unit or units to drop whatever they may have been previously ordered to do. Arguably the most obvious use for this command is in situations where an ally unexpectedly discovers an enemy platoon. Ordering this platoon to immediately Hold may prevent the enemy from noticing and targeting them in many cases.
Certain vehicles (like LWVs) have the ability to stop and deploy camouflage, reducing their overall detectability. Normally consisting of netting and assorted bits of cover, camouflage causes a unit's detection signature to be reduced by fifty percent. Camouflage cannot be deployed while moving, so Deploy Camouflage causes any moving platoon to stop.
Larger combat vehicles, namely tanks and MFVs, can be issued the Fortify Position order at any time. This causes the unit to dig into its current position, erecting fortifications that offer a degree of additional protection against enemy attacks. Much like Deploy Camouflage, a unit can only erect and receive benefits from a fortification while stationary.
When the Artillery Attack order is activated, left-clicking the map will cause that point to be targeted for artillery bombardment. This order is unique in that it can be used by platoons that do not actually contain artillery units. In this case, the player's artillery units will fire upon the designated zone from wherever they may be, relying on other units for spotting.
Set Helicopter Height
Platoons that contain helicopters are able to toggle the height at which these units fly. Choppers are either considered to be flying high or low, with the Set Helicopter Height button being illuminated in the case of the former. High-flying helicopters are able to avoid fire from some weapons, while low-flying helicopters are better able to avoid detection.
Switch EW Mode
Vehicles outfitted with electronic warfare options are able to toggle between different EW modes as necessary. The default radar mode extends the normal range of the unit's sensors, boosting detection capability by fifty percent. Pressing the button will switch to jamming mode, making the unit much easier to detect while reducing nearby units' detectability.
Bridge layer units have the unique ability to lay down a bridge over certain obstacles that would otherwise be impassable. When deploying a bridge, the mouse cursor will turn green if the player hovers over an area that can support a bridge. After crossing this bridge successfully, the bridge layer can be ordered to retrieve the bridge for possible use at a later time.
A select few vehicles have the ability to both place and clear out minefields. Pressing the Deploy Minefield button will allow the player to designate a point on the map for the platoon to deploy their payload. In the event that the player selects an area of the map that already possesses mines, the minelayer will instead clear all mines from the targeted zone.
Launch Air Strike
The Launch Air Strike command calls in a bombing run over the specified target. Unlike other orders, the Air Strike is not carried out by units within the player's platoon, but rather temporarily calls in an aircraft, which departs after completing the strike. In missions where it is available, the number of available Air Strikes is shown in the game's HUD.
Force 21 features several different unit classes, with units being assigned to a particular class based on their primary role on the battlefield. More often than not, the default platoon composition will group units of the same or similar classes together, though it is always possible to reassign units to other platoons once the missions starts. Though the player cannot control units on an individual level, it is possible to reassign the lead unit on the fly. Since a unit's ability to detect is tied to its facing, the player is able to specify what direction the platoon is to face by holding down the left mouse button while issuing a move order or by clicking and dragging the pointer within the Battlefield Compass. Individual unit integrity is displayed by way of a color-changing bar above the unit's portrait in the game's Platoon Control Panel; a green bar indicates that the unit in question is not damaged at all, yellow signifies that the unit has sustained some damage, but is otherwise operational, while a unit that has dropped to red status has been completely incapacitated.
Main Battle Tanks
Main Battle Tanks, or MBTs, represent the player's primary firepower throughout Force 21. They are well-armored, fast, and, most importantly, very deadly. They are a go-to unit in many situations, capable of making short work of other vehicles, especially those that might be less durable and less offensively-focused. When stationary, MBTs have the ability to erect earthen fortifications, making them even tougher to overcome.
T-72 Main Battle Tank
The T-72 is the first MBT available to players upon choosing the U.S. portion of Force 21's single-player campaign, and it is one of the weaker tanks in the game overall. Because of this, it is even more important for T-72s to tip the odds in their favor, either by flanking or other means, as in a fair fight they will oftentimes lose to other, more advanced tank platoons.
T-90 Command Tank
The T-90 Command Tank is a step above the T-72 in terms of strength, being roughly on par with the PLA's Type 90-II. China's Type 90-IIs will often outnumber the player's T-90s, however, so it is usually prudent for the player to stack the odds in their favor in whatever way they can, such as by grouping a platoon of T-90s with anti-tanks support vehicles.
M1A3 Abrams Main Battle Tank
Appearing at about the midway point of the U.S. campaign, the M1A3 Abrams MBT is clearly superior to earlier tanks available to the Americans as well as their Chinese counterpart, the Type 90-II. It is a particularly powerful unit when its long range capability is exploited. Unfortunately, Abrams tanks are not usually received in extremely large quantities.
XM 2015 Future Combat System
Representing the cutting edge in American military hardware, the XM 2015 FCS only begins to appear very late in the campaign, however their rapid-fire rail gun technology ensures that they are invaluable units once deployed. It is not uncommon for players to have only a handful of them at their command, making intelligent usage extremely important.
Type 90-II Main Battle Tank
The Type 90-II is a workhorse MBT used in large numbers by the PLA during its invasion of Kazakhstan. It is more powerful than Russian tanks, though not quite on par with the Americans' M1A3. Being somewhat middle-of-the-road in terms of strength, Type 90-II's benefit greatly from being grouped with other support platoons that boost their firepower.
XT-22 Experimental Tank
The PLA's ultimate MBT, the XT-22 Experimental Tank is second in strength only to the United States' XM 2015. With both a powerful main gun and an additional anti-air, anti-armor missile launcher, XT-22s are well-equipped to handle just about any threat that comes their way. They become available to players about halfway through the Chinese campaign.
Mechanized Fighting Vehicles
Mechanized Fighting Vehicles, also called MFVs or Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFVs), are much lighter on armor and firepower than MBTs, though they enjoy a noticeable boost in speed and maneuverability as a result. They are primarily fire support vehicles, offering backup for the tougher MBTs that can tip the scales against their enemies. By themselves, MFVs are not quite as intimidating, though they respond quicker than tanks.
BMP-3 Infantry Combat Vehicle
The Russian BMP-3 is available to players primarily during the Kazakh portion of the U.S. single-player campaign. It has enough firepower to go toe-to-toe with enemy tanks, however its lack of durability as an MFV means that this is best done when the enemy is caught unawares. It similarly can do very well when used against LWVs and other units in its class.
M2A3 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle
The M2A3 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle is one of the toughest units outside the MBT classification, having almost as much firepower as a standard tank. It is comparable in strength to the PLA's Type 91-III APC, and can engage a wide range of targets effectively. Like other MFVs, its main handicap is its lack of armor when compared to MBTs.
M2A3-AD Bradley Stinger Fighting Vehicle
Commonly known as the Linebacker, the M2A3-AD trades the standard M2A3's anti-tank capability for TOW missile racks, making it a credible threat to enemy aircraft. The Linebacker still has some capacity to attack hostiles on the ground, however, unlike the Bradley IFV, it is only truly effective in this case against lightly armored targets.
Type 91-II Armored Personnel Carrier
As the PLA's basic armored personnel carrier, the Type 91-II is equipped to take on lighter threats, but doesn't fare as well against heavier, more specialized fighting vehicles. Type 91-IIs are generally only safe when attacking LWVs, as they are somewhat underwhelming when compared to other MFVs, and they are completely outclassed by enemy MBTs.
Type 91-III Armored Personnel Carrier
Unlike the Type 91-II, the Type 91-III is well-equipped to serve as fire support for allied tanks, being perhaps the PLA's most notable unit for this purpose. In terms of strength, the Type 91-III is on par with the M2A3 Bradley IFV, being potent enough to dispense with vehicles in several different classes, provided they can successfully avoid taking return fire.
Twin 37mm SPAAG Self-Propelled Anti-Aircraft Gun System
Much like the M2A3-AD Bradley, China's SPAAG is focused on anti-aircraft duties, though it is equipped with a pair of flak cannons for this purpose as opposed to the Bradley's anti-air missile system. The results are largely the same, giving it a great deal of lethality against enemy helicpoters, but significantly less when countering other vehicle types.
Light Wheeled Vehicles
Light Wheeled Vehicles, also abbreviated as LWVs, are essentially armored cars, and as such they are less durable than the average MFV. Since they are limited in the number of armaments they can carry, LWVs intended for combat are usually specialized toward fighting a particular type of vehicle. In many cases, LWVs are designed for reconnaissance rather than combat, with the capability to detect enemies from long range.
BRDM-2 Scout Vehicle
As the name implies, the BRDM-2 is suitable for scouting, and not much else. Armed only with machine guns, the BRDM-2 well make barely a dent in the armor plating of heavier attack vehicles. For this reason, they are best used in order to seek out an enemy's location before allowing slower, more well-armed units to take advantage of this knowledge.
BRDM-3 Reconnaissance Vehicle
The BRDM-3 is very similar to its direct predecessor, the BRDM-2, though it does come with some teeth that the earlier variant lacks, namely a rack of anti-tank guided missiles. This allows the BRDM-3 to cause some significant damage to enemy armor. It should not be mistaken for a proper fighting vehicle, however, as it will easily crumble under heavy fire.
M1026 HMMWV-MG Long Range Scout Surveillance Vehicle
The standard Humvee, equipped with a single 50 caliber machine gun, is essentially the American equivalent of the BRDM-2. Like its Russian counterpart, it is more a liability than an asset in combat engagements. As a reconnaissance vehicle, the Humvee is harder for enemies to detect than other units, especially when it is ordered to deploy camouflage.
M966 HMMWV-TOW-2 Anti-Tank Vehicle
Mounted with a TOW-2 system rather than a 50 caliber machine gun, the TOW Humvee is, unlike the recon variant, fully capable of taking out armored enemy vehicles. Additionally, it enjoys the same low detection profile that other Humvees do, making it a perfect candidate for ambushes, striking at an enemy before they detect it, then falling back to do so again.
M998 HMMWV-ADA Avenger FAADS SAM System
The third Humvee variant in Force 21 sees the vehicle equipped with air defense missiles, allowing it to shoot down enemy aircraft such as helicopters. It is also equipped with a 50 caliber machine gun for use against ground targets, but, as with the Scout Humvee, this has little effect on most units. It is best kept in the company of other protective units.
WZ 550 Lop Nor 4x4 Multi-Purpose Carrier
The WZ 550 is a bog standard scouting vehicle, with almost no offensive capability to speak of. Like other units in its class, the WZ 550's main asset is its wide detection radius and slight detection signature, allowing it to see without being seen. If noticed and targeted, its only practical means of survival is to simply retreat and allow other units to do the fighting.
WZ 551-AT 6x6 Armored Personnel Carrier
The WZ 551-AT is most akin to the BRDM-3: a recon vehicle with a little firepower to back it up. Due to the lack of armor inherent to LWVs, fighting other vehicles, especially larger ones, with the WZ 551-AT should be done with care. In order to avoid being destroyed, they should usually attack from an opponent's blind side before retreating to repeat the attack.
WZ 551-ADA 6x6 Mobile Air Defense System
The WZ 551-ADA is one of China's main anti-aircraft vehicles, and one of the most prevalent during the Chinese campaign. As both an LWV and a dedicated anti-air vehicle, it is extremely vulnerable to any hostile ground units, and should therefore be accompanied at all times by more traditional ground units in order to avoid being picked off easily.
Electronic Warfare Vehicles
Consisting of units with specialized detection and jamming equipment, Electronic Warfare (or EW) Vehicles are unique reconnaissance units that use advanced electronic equipment to not only boost detection but also dampen the enemy's ability to detect allied units. While in some cases an EW Vehicle might possess weaponry, their utility in either obtaining or denying information far outstrips their ability to cause physical damage.
Engineering Vehicles are units designed to serve very specific needs that may arise in battle. The first type of Engineering Vehicle is designed either to lay mines or sweep them from an area. The second type is able to deploy and retrieve temporary bridges that other units may pass over. In either case, Engineering Vehicles have very little use outside these areas, and are best kept clear of combat situations whenever possible.
IMR-2 Combat Engineering Vehicle
The IMR-2 is a Russian-made minelaying vehicle with the capacity to both place and clear minefields. While it has a few weapons to its name, the IMR-2 is in almost all situations defenseless against enemy attackers. Even when laying mines, the IMR-2 should not be left alone, and ideally it should be placed in a platoon with more offensive vehicles.
M1 "Grizzly" Engineering Vehicle
The Americans' "Grizzly" Engineering Vehicle is all but identical in its utility to the IMR-2, functioning solely to deploy and recover mines wherever it is directed to do so. Like its East Asian counterparts, the Grizzly will be quickly decimated if caught in a combat situation, so players should take care to make sure that it does not venture far without escort.
M1 "Wolverine" Heavy Assault Bridging Vehicle
Known as the Wolverine, the M1 Heavy Assault Bridging Vehicle carries with it a deployable bridge that can be used to bypass certain obstacles, such as rivers, that might otherwise prevent passage. Once placed, units may cross over to the other side of the obstacle, at which point the Wolverine may recover the bridge in order to use it again, if necessary.
MTK-3 LeClerc Engineering Vehicle
Like the Russians' IMR-2 and the Americans' Grizzly, the Chinese MTK-3 carries a payload of mines that can be deployed wherever their commander sees fit, and can recover mines that have already been laid. While the MTK-3 does have weaponry, it is not designed to partake in a firefight by any stretch, and should be protect against such an occurrence.
MTU-72 Armored Vehicle Launched Bridge
The MTU-72 AVLB does for the Chinese what the M1 Wolverine does for the U.S., hauling a bridge with it wherever it goes that can be placed over otherwise impassable types of terrain. This bridge can be recovered afterwards and reused if needed, however the MTU-72 has no utility when it comes to an actual firefight, and ideally should avoid enemies.
On occasion players may be given command of self-propelled Artillery Vehicles, which can move and attack at extremely long range. Artillery Vehicles may fire upon enemies within their field of view, as any other offensive vehicle can, however they can also fire on opponents well outside their visual range. This can be accomplished by using the Artillery Attack command, which calls a strike at a locale designated by the player.
2S19 Self-Propelled Artillery System
The 2S19 is a Russian self-propelled Artillery Vehicle, being increasingly lethal the further it is from its target. At close range, the 2S19 has very little way to defend itself, especially against helicopters, so even though they typically remain well behind the front lines, it is not a bad idea to include escorts in their squad in the event that enemies do encounter them.
XM 2001 Crusader Self-Propelled 155mm Howitzer
Able to fire more rounds per minute over greater distances than the 2S19, the XM 2001 Crusader is clearly superior to its Russian counterpart, though it differs little in its basic functionality. Like any artillery platoon, the Crusader should have a position in the rear, where it can cause extreme damage with as little chance of enemy contact as possible.
XN-203 Self-Propelled Gun
The XN-203 is China's one and only option for self-propelled artillery fire, and to this end it fulfills its duties quite well. In terms of overall strengths and weaknesses, it does not differ overmuch from the 2S19 or the XM 2001. Defense against enemy ground and aerial forces is a necessity if they are to be kept operational, as their close range performance is poor.
Helicopters are the only directly controllable aerial units in Force 21, and as such they have a number of properties unique to themselves. The most obvious is their ability to adjust height, which allows them alternately to avoid detection and avoid light weapons fire. They are very strong against most ground units, including heavily-armored tanks, but must be wary of enemy anti-air units with the ability to quickly shoot them down.
Mi24F Hind-F Heavy Attack Helicopter
The Russian Hind-F is the first Helicopter available to the player in the U.S. single-player campaign. They possess an extremely potent weapon array, however they are of the more fragile helicopter types in the game. Due to their lack of durability, it is oftentimes prudent to use them in conjunction with ground forces in order to ensure they are not easily targeted.
Apache AH-64D Longbow Attack Helicopter
Apache helicopters are powerful enough to consider using without the support of other units, though one should still be wary of leaving them open to attack. Anti-air units, as is always the case with helicopters, are the Achilles' heel of the Longbow, so players should constantly be on the lookout for these vehicles if they send out an Apache platoon on its own.
RAH-66 Comanche Light Attack / Reconnaissance Helicopter
The Comanche Helicopter is an impressive unit both in terms of attack power and information gathering. Though their lethality is to be expected given their weapons payload, the real surprise comes in their spectacular reconnaissance potential. Not only are Comanches hard to detect, they have the ability to see fully twice as far as their own detection radius.
Cheetah Heavy Attack Helicopter
The Cheetah exists somewhere between the Hind-F and the Apache in terms of overall strength, making them more useful in the early game, but less so once later choppers begin to appear. They do not have quite enough armor to make brazen attacks against their enemies, so their best bet is to attack from outside their foes' firing radii, taking them off guard.
Z-9 Daulphin Light Attack Helicopter
Like the Cheetah, the Z-9 Daulphin rests squarely between two U.S. units in terms of potency, in this case the Apache and the Comanche. While not quite as impressive as the RAH-66, the Daulphin does have many of the same capabilities. Most notably, it is a stellar reconnaissance unit that can transition seamlessly from recon to attack mode when needed.
Critical response to Force 21 upon its release ran the gamut, with the aggregate opinion judging it to be of passable quality rather than exceptional. Reviewer Michael E. Ryan of GameSpot gave it a 6.7 out of 10, saying that, while it was "not a bad game," it was ultimately a frustrating experience. Among the flaws cited by Ryan were lackluster unit pathfinding, vague or misleading mission objectives, and an unintuitive interface for changing unit facing. Perhaps the most positive review of Force 21 came from PC Gamer, which gave the game a 90% and an Editors' Choice award. PC Gamer's Stephen Poole was also critical of the game's pathfinding, but did not seem to take issue with the game's interface or single-player missions, instead praising both the single-player and multiplayer components of the game.