There's a wafer-thin dividing line between DLC and sequel sometimes. Dawn of War 2: Retribution, for example, is a pretty heavily-loaded affair for a DLC, whereas with some other games all you get are a few graphical morsels and maybe some new enemies to help cleanse the palate. Wargame: AirLand Battle, despite being perhaps the most straightforwardly descriptive name for a game of all time, is actually a little ambiguous as to its status here. Is it a DLC for Wargame: European Escalation, or is it a sequel?
Well, it's a standalone product, so I guess you don't need to have played the original in order to play it. And that would be fine. So long as you've served a thirty-year military career at SHAPE, or if you just really like losing at videogames. Don't get me wrong – I don't think that developers Eugen Systems have accidentally created a game that's too difficult. No, I'm sure that the decision was consciously made. After walking through the two-battle 'easy' campaign, I was handily dispatched in the 'medium' campaign time and again, before turning it down to easy and fighting tooth-and-nail for every square-inch of territory. Now, of course, this might just be me – I make no pretense of being a top-notch strategy gamer. But I have played my fair share of Wargame: European Escalation.
Actually, perhaps you might want to read my review of Wargame: European Escalation? It's just that, well, it all pretty much still applies to AirLand Battle. The AI is tough, it's a game best played in multiplayer, the unit names are all impenetrable to anyone not versed in Cold War-era military hardware... yadda yadda yadda. Oh, and it's an incredibly well-made game. But there are differences. Plenty of them, in fact, and they pretty much all improve on the original.
Well, some of the window-dressing I found sort of fun from the original has been traded in. Zooming all the way out on the map no longer gives you real-world military symbols for your units, instead using more gamey little icons that are, admittedly, a lot more accessible for those of us who haven't served in one of those war rooms where they push little soldiers around huge maps with long sticks. Also gone is the situation room that appears around the screen at maximum zoom-out... a little thing, but I did sort of like that. But what do we get in return? Plenty, my friends. Plenty.
The two things that are perhaps most immediately apparent are the inclusion of aeroplanes and the campaign map. Let's start with the jets. Now, I'm not going to make a massive fuss about the fact that I predicted the inclusion of air cover in a DLC pack when I wrote my European Escalation review – it's completely obvious that this would be the next step for the game. The trick is in how they're handled, of course. Some great RTSes have just shrugged and included airstrikes as sort of 'special powers' that can be clicked on and then targeted just like artillery or whatever, and others actually give you the planes as a selectable unit like your tanks. AirLand Battle takes a middle path – jets are 'bought' with deployment points just like tanks or infantry, but rather than being placed on the map like other units they're stored in an air command window at the bottom of the screen from where they can be deployed to the battlefield by clicking to select then right-clicking on a target, just like any other unit.
Once on-screen (approaching from air-corridors which correspond with the reinforcement pathways that lead into the map) the aircraft speed toward their targets, delivering their payloads as efficiently as they can, then zooming back to the off-screen airport to refuel and rearm. Naturally, there are a ton of things which can shoot the precious little beggars down, and it's usually a good idea to manually order evacuation of any air unit that strays into unknown territory too far. Selecting and re-ordering aeroplanes in-flight is perfectly okay as well.
If a plane does take a bit of a pasting before returning to the airbase, it'll take that much longer to prepare it for another attack run. During their refits, you can watch their 'cooldown' timer moving in the air command panel, which can lead to some pretty tense moments – can your recon infantry hold out in the old barn long enough for the air units to be ready to come and blast those advancing tanks?
These air units live outside of the traditional paper-scissors-tanks model. A F-117 Nighthawk stealth bomber can easily dispatch an anti-air battery without too much trouble due to the extreme long range of its ordinance.
So much for planes. They add a fascinating new dimension – indeed, an entirely new tactical avenue – to an already complex game. But what's this about a new campaign map? Well, yes. In Wargame: EE, each map in a campaign was delivered in series, and between battles you could use earned points to bring new types of units into your command. This really did require a fair amount of planning – checking out the differences between T-72A and T-72B tanks, for example – and once these choices were made you were kind of stuck with your own silly choices for the rest of the campaign. In AirLand Battle, each campaign consists of land-based battalions moving around a regional map, all under your control. New battalions can be brought into the fray by spending political points, which can also be used to order air strikes, naval bombardment, commando raids and the like in order to manage the theatre of operations and weaken your foes before the inevitable battles. Occasionally, you might be asked to make choices – the Pentagon wants to redeploy some of your naval cover to the Dardanelles, for example, to assist in another chapter of World War III. If you agree, there's a chance that this 'off-screen' campaign goes well and you cash-in in the form of a tidy sum of political points. Either way, there's a price to be paid. It's not only a nice gameplay touch; it's also a cool way of making the war as a whole seem bigger than just your map.
The fact that you buy battalions wholesale means no more mucking about with the ins and outs of individual unit power in order to spend your hard-earned experience points – just pick a style of battalion from those available, whether it's a British Commando group, a West German Tank force or the famous 101st Airborne, and drop it into the map. These purpose-built army units provide coherence of design that encourages varied play styles – the tactics and deployment of a predominantly airborne force, for example, might not have any tanks or artillery, but it has control-point capturing command choppers which can be rapidly designated and deployed, and infantry that travels by helicopter to allow them to lurk unexpectedly behind enemy lines.
To be honest, there wasn't a lot wrong with European Escalation. What there was, though, has been cleverly and imaginatively fixed. The maps are much more varied in appearance while retaining the realism that made the original stand out. Hills now look much better, too. While much of the learning curve is still trial-and-error, there is a thriving chatroom merrily scrolling up the menu screen that allows noobs to get answers to some of the more WTF intricacies of the game. Sometimes it can be hard to see if your units are resupplying properly as some of the icons don't always appear, but this will probably have already been patched by the time you read this review
It's a really tough game. You have been warned. But even when you're being decisively murdered by Czechoslovakian artillery, it's still always enjoyable. Yeah, this is a pretty fun way to fight a war.