Thursday, 25 July 2013

Review: Wargame: AirLand Battle (PC)

I'll be first in line to toss praise toward developer Eugen Systems for the technical prowess they've coded into Wargame: AirLand Battle. It's the only real-time strategy game that has really nailed the ability to zoom up to the clouds for a view that feels a lot like looking at a map on a table then fly to ground level to follow infantry units running through open fields.

It's all so technically brilliant and complex that I'd compare it to sitting in a cockpit of an F-14 with absolutely no knowledge of how the plane works or, hey, what does this button do? Or possibly more apt, suddenly finding yourself in the cockpit of an F-14 at 50,000 feet. What information you can glean from the cockpit is your sole source of not ploughing into the ground at Mach 2. This one's labelled "eject"; this one "chaff." Okay, no idea what the rest of this stuff does.

This is exactly what Wargames: AirLand Battle does for the average strategy player.

There's a complicated set of variables to each battle, besides the tank-tread layer of the military unit mix, and AirLand Battle will hit you in the face with it again and again.

Initially I chalked it up to getting acclimatized to the menu layouts and un-typical control and tactical considerations. I would lose battles for no discernible reason. Or battles would be over before I really understood that I was engaging the enemy. I wasn't complaining at this point, after all the tutorial would push me a long the correct path, right?

You'd be wrong on that score. With so many variables to consider the game does it's best to make sure the whole damn thing is shrouded in mystery. The tutorial isn't just bare bones; it's barely, well, it just isn't there aside from the very basic "click this then click there." Without examining the myriad of stats associated with each unit and trying to create a defensive/offensive balance, there's no step-by-step walkthrough to get the player knee deep into the action with the possibility of getting waist deep to get the player really interested. And forget the the idea that somehow a magical fairy will appear to show you the ropes in the form of a YouTube guide.

I tried, I really tried to watch tutorial videos created by some really ardent fans. Some put me to sleep (literally), some were in Russian or possibly Czech, which wasn't as helpful but much more interesting to watch, especially the larger multiplayer battles, but none of it provided a hands-on education of the game.

The online manual does fill in some blanks, but that's the same as saying I threw a rock into the Grand Canyon and expected it to dam the Colorado River.

The other knock against the single player campaign is that there's no option to save your progress.

No option to save your progress.

It bears repeating because this is 2013! What the hell?

When I finally got on a roll picking up pieces of territory as I inched my way across Scandinavia -- finally understanding the necessity of recon, air support and anti-air units -- I found no option to save my progress, even between missions, so I could pick up the action later. I understand that it might pop me out of the realism of the whole thing, but why the hell not?

Building "decks" for multiplayer games also manages to drop the ball when it comes to educating a newcomer to the series. None of it is adequately explained and really it comes down to pouring over unit stats -- stats for well over 700 units! I did like the fact that there wasn't any resource collection and that the focus is territorial control, but that hardly makes up for the lack of information about how to put together a proper deck.

Does this screenshot look intimidating? Trust your instincts and run the other way.
Overlapping some of my time with AirLand Battle, I've been playing Company of Heroes 2 (the first 4 - 5 hours of the campaign), and though the two games differ in scope and focus, the information and step-by-step education supplied to the player is far superior in Company of Heroes 2. There's still tactical planning and quick mouse work involved but each mission builds upon the last and helps educate the player in a way that's digestible.

You know, rather than jamming the player in an F-14.

- Aaron Simmer

The Good:
- Scope is huge
- Ability to jump around and zoom in on the battlefield is second-to-none
- Military chatter
- A lot of strategy and tactical considerations rather than a bunch of resource gathering

The Bad:
- Be prepared to put in many hours of looking at stats and just poking the game with a stick before any of it begins to sink in because the game is sorely lacking when it comes to educating a player
- No ability to save during the single player campaign

Score: 6.0 / 10