Do you like Cold War-era military hardware? And when I say ‘like’, I don’t just mean ‘sure, I saw Rambo III and that was pretty cool’. It’s more like this: Can you name three different type of Warsaw Pact artillery pieces and their comparative merits? If you could travel through time just once, would you go back to the mid-seventies and do everything in your power to kick off an international incident? Have you read Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising all the way to the end?
Because if so? If this is you? Congratulations. You’ve just won at the world of videogames. Because Wargame: European Escalation is going to be a game you still play when you’re an old retired Brigadier-General. Skip the rest of this review. This is the game you’ve been waiting for your whole life.
Now, that leaves the rest of us. Those of us who like a good RTS from time to time, sure, but are maybe not so completely in love with the setting that we still refer to Eastern Europe as “The Bloc”. Well, first off let me tell you: That lack of obsession is actually going to prove to be a bit of hindrance, because this is one detailed game, obviously the product of a team of bewilderingly detail-focused designers. But the second thing you should know is that it doesn’t really matter that much if you’re not a Cold War nerd. This is still a top-class RTS.
Here’s the pitch: It’s the seventies. Conventional skirmishes have broken out along the Iron Curtain, and while the diplomats scramble to try to avoid Armageddon, the tank commanders get a chance to stretch their legs and try out all that shiny new ordinance that’s been gathering dust. I think I’ve made enough of a fuss about the level of detail in the military units available, but just let me add this: You’re looking at almost every imaginable model and variant of every type of military hardware you can think of, and when the Warsaw Pact are fond of naming their units with arcane strings of letters and numbers it’s as confusing and meaningless at first look as trying to buy a new graphics card. Also, the distinction between units is a little unclear sometimes to the uninitiated: How does a cavalry tank differ from a main battle tank?
The answer is trial and error, because Wargame’s not big on leading you gently by the hand. It’s best to just start mission one, and just get on with the process of having your backside handed shamefully to you by the competent AI while you frantically try to figure out how the heck this thing works. Only after you’ve been playing for a while will you notice that not only do your vehicles all have fuel levels, but that your tanks have all run out and are suddenly stranded in a swamp and surrounded by Spetznaz with rocket launchers. I found my first couple of run-throughs of any given mission were embarrassing failures where I just sort of worked out where my objectives were and how best to go about them while the enemy grinds my units into a thin paste.
Did I mention that it’s pretty? Not in the conventional way, though. The battlefields don’t all have amazing set-piece locations or even smooth hillsides (the hills are all just raised platforms, giving them a tabletop wargame feel), but they really do look very… well, realistic. It wasn’t until Wargame that I realized how unrealistic other RTS maps are. Wargame is like driving tanks around on a 3D version of Google Maps. And who hasn’t wanted to do THAT at some time or another? It all essentially looks the same, though - but then, perhaps much of the east-central European countryside does.
Multiplayer is convenient and easy to use, and frankly is what Wargame is made for. These are the guys who made RUSE and the heritage is evident, because Wargame works best when a carefully planned and executed ambush devastates your opponent’s best tanks. Certain terrain, such as dense forest, will limit your visibility but also camouflage you from approaching enemies, and by switching individual weapons off for your units you can stop them from firing until the time for a surprise attack is deliciously right.
Aside from planning ambushes, you also need to keep your units equipped, repaired and fueled through the use of Forward Operating Bases (which work as supply depots) and supply units. Just move a supply unit, typically a truck or a helicopter, to a FOB, wait for it to stock up on supplies, and move it to the units that need supply, and they’ll do the rest. It’s not a hugely complicated system but it is another thing to consider, and it can lead to supply line raids and tense moments when your besieged units need to hold out for JUST…ANOTHER...MINUTE… until the supply chopper arrives.
Despite this world of complexity and simulationist warfare, control of your units is deceptively simple. Just point and click like any other RTS, and that’s what you’ll spend the vast majority of your time doing. There’s a basic experience system for your units but it doesn’t require any micromanagement. Control points need to be captured by specialized command vehicles, but again it’s a pretty simple system that just allows a few tactical decisions – for example, if you take out the enemy’s command vehicles in border zones, they can no longer reinforce from that direction, which allows you to angle your defences away from the secure area.
There’s not a load of new stuff here, if I’m completely frank. Sure, there are supplies to get to the front line, and the usual indirect fire and anti-aircraft-helicopter-armour-infantry rock-paper-scissors hypen-laden-affair, but essentially it’s just a game of deploying, moving and engaging a multitude of different military units. The complete omission of fighter air support seems strange, although I’d not be surprised to see it added in a later DLC (presumably called ‘Top Guns’ or ‘European Escalation –Yeehah, Jester’s Dead’).
Wargame goes back to the basics of RTSes, its only gimmick being realism and detail. If you zoom right out you can see each of the units represented by those little symbols they use on military history maps, and zooming out even further shows the action on a massive screen in a bustling top secret war room, which is a cute touch. On our GD test machine (which I took to calling 'The ChurCHILL Tank' for the duration), Wargame autodetected maximum settings and played with no slowdown even during the messiest artillery exchange.
This is the kind of RTS I always wanted to play when Dune 2 first came out and kicked off the genre, before it lost its way with the introduction of too many bells, whistles and poorly-designed genre crossovers. The AI is unforgiving, though, so prepare for a tough ride on single player, but it’s worth persevering. Military historians will have a field (marshall) day, and even casual RTSers should enjoy. Conscientious objectors probably not so much.