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Wargame: European Escalation Review

 

When it comes to RTS games on PC, there’s this disparity between games that try to reinvent older ideas (Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War II, Men of War, Dungeon Defenders, DotA, etc.) and games that are something different unto themselves. Eugen Systems’ last RTS game, RUSE, was an example of a game that tried to create a feel all of its own. It was praised for its unique engine and presentation, but criticized heavily for its boring single-player campaign and its faulty matchmaking system. I can attest to the bad campaign – I have yet to finish it even after 2 years; the last level is just a fake-difficult holdout against ridiculously powerful Russian attacks and it just became too boring to bother retrying.

However, Wargame shies away from what flaws its predecessor had, while keeping what made RUSE such a fun experience. The result is an refreshing take on the traditional RTS that’s surprisingly addictive and quite fun.

 

Gameplay

 

Zoom out and you get a satellite map of the area, zoom in and you see your army rolling into battle.

Wargame is about as realistic an RTS as they come. Each unit the player deploys has its own condition, its own ammo and fuel count, its own morale. Every round of ammunition fired is a round lost, and a unit can run out of ammo and be defenceless until resupplied. If a vehicle runs out of fuel, it’s a sitting duck and cannot move until a supply truck gets in range to refuel it (though if it has ammo, it can still shoot). At the beginning of each game during the deployment phase, the player can place up to 4 Forward Operating Bases in their DZ, which contain a huge amount of supply but are costly to build and can’t be built after the game starts. You’ll have to make runs back and forth with supply trucks or helicopters to ferry fuel and ammo to your forces, and the enemy can raid your trucks and even seize them with infantry.

Every weapon has a different effect in this game, and units can be fitted with more than one. The more advanced units have 3 different weapons that can be used for different circumstances, each with their own ammo count. You can switch them off and on tactically to force the unit to conserve ammo, too. It’s a bit much to take in, but the game does a good job of letting you learn as you go, and somehow it keeps from being overwhelming.

Each unit is treated as an individual, even when in a squad. If a squad of 4 tanks rolls through a swamp, and one of the tanks gets stuck, the other three will continue on course while the other rights itself and resumes its mission.

The good old-fashioned zone-control mechanic features heavily. Control of a zone can be taken with a command vehicle, and every zone can be held to gain deployment points which can be used to call in more units. Some zones are more valuable than others, as per the usual. There’s a twist, though: the zones on the edge of the map contain supply routes that you need in order to deploy units. Otherwise, they’ve no way of entering the game. This means if you lose your last supply route, you’re screwed, no matter how many points you have. Each game, you’re faced with the choice of taking control of a high-value zone in the center of the map, or taking a less valuable zone with a supply route to get your units into the fight faster.

Stitched-together screenshot of a small part of the deck system. There are over 300 unlockable units to choose from (though you can only take 25 different types into battle with you at a time).

The amount of variety amongst the units available is surprising. There are dozens of different vehicles for each role in the army, and each vehicle has up to 3 variants which have better armor and weapons, but have a higher cost. Units of the same type can be ordered to group together or split up, and unlike in RUSE, every vehicle, not just infantry, can hide in woods, towns and swamps. Of course, the bigger the unit, the easier it is to see through cover, and vehicles will have much more trouble moving through marshland and forests. Vehicles can become detracked or stuck in mud, especially on difficult terrain, and moving through a forest is always a risky proposition because you can never be sure the enemy isn’t waiting in ambush.

This game lets the player custom-tailor their army, not only by using a “deck” system that lets the player unlock specific units one at a time and choose up to 25 to deploy in a game, but with each deployment, the player chooses how many of a certain type get deployed, whether to deploy a full squad of 4 units, a single unit, or anything in between, and even which transports their infantry will ride into battle. For infantry, their transports and the men themselves can be given seperate orders, and special forces infantry can even use helicopter transport. Good stuff.

 

Presentation

 

Wargame’s engine is a later generation of the IRISZOOM engine used in RUSE. This engine allows for a very cool look to the game. Zoom all the way in on your units and you can see them reload and fire, watch them roll into battle and engage in individual combat with enemy units. Zoom all the way out and the map becomes a satellite image with your units represented by NATO symbols. It creates a very cinematic experience, while maintaining a practical interface for the game itself.

There are certain flaws in the interface that should be weeded out, however. Clicking on the minimap should pan the camera over to the appropriate spot, but the game puts this weird blur on everything and it feels like the map got smeared on some nacho cheese or something until it clears up and you’re where you want to be on the map. It’s really disorienting and can confuse the living hell out of you if you’re seeing it for the first time. Frankly, just snapping the camera to that position on the map would look better.

Mother of God. There's an AT crew buried somewhere under there that I would just LOVE to click on.

The controls can be awkward when selecting units. If they’re too close together, their names appear overlapping each other so you have to zoom way in to pick the unit you want.

Also, the game can be frustrating when it comes to spotting enemy units. If a unit is inside a town, and you fly a recon helicopter nearby to spot them, you have to be PERFECT and place the helicopter at EXACTLY the right angle to keep the enemy on screen. Ordering units into cover can be equally arduous – you can use hedges for cover for your tanks or infantry, but damned if you can find exactly the right pixel to click on to send them there. Miss and they’ll just mill about the hedge, completely visible to the enemy. Good gravy, they need to fix that.

Overall, however, the game looks spectacular. Your units wear decals and speak the language from whatever nation they hail from. Every vehicle is rendered in great detail. Following your artillery’s shells as they soar through the air and come crashing down amongst enemy infantry is pleasing to the eye, to say the least. The maps are enormous, and I’ve played a number of games where there have been nearly a thousand units in the game at once. Despite the interface flaws, you can really get invested in the battles. They all feel epic, engrossing and rewarding, even when you lose.

 

Single-player

 

The campaign for Wargame is a huge step up from RUSE’s campaign. The story is told through relatively brief maps showing advances and retreats, and montages of war footage while a narrator explains the situation. Gone is the hokey acting and lame dialogue of RUSE, replaced with a very simplistic, straightforward approach.

"I say, Joe, let's hide in the woods and shoot our guns at them, eh wot?" Fortunately, the lame cutscenes are gone in Wargame.

The story itself covers border tension in Germany during the 70’s, then extends through a subsequent upheaval in Poland to a full-scale war in the late 80’s. It’s a plausible story and it doesn’t try to go for visceral impact, preferring instead to stick to what the Cold War may well have looked like had hostilities broken out. Every mission has a believable political backstory that explains it. There’s one where you have to hold out long enough for a peace treaty to be signed so that the Soviets can’t use the territory for leverage, another where you have to put down a riot arising after the state executes a political dissident, and so forth.

Your army stays with you through the whole campaign – you get a certain number of different types of units, and as they battle, they gain experience that in turn improves their combat ability, bolstering their morale, their ability to spot enemy units at a distance, and their accuracy. This makes every unit valuable in its own right, since if you take care of them, they’ll fight better and make your life that much easier.

Completing objectives earns you command stars which you can use to unlock units in both single- and multi-player, which is both a neat addition and a huge pain in the ass. Sure, it encourages you to play the campaign to unlock a better army in multiplayer, but for most of the campaign, many of the more powerful units aren’t available until later, while they’re always available in multiplayer. That means if you unlock a powerful unit for multiplayer, you won’t be able to use it right away in the campaign, so you’re pressured to instead spend your unlocks on cheaper, weaker units just so you can use them right away in the single player. I don’t mind this enough to make me hate it, but it really shouldn’t come down to “Do you want to do better online, or would you like the campaign not to be impossible?”

Another problem I have with the single-player is that your army never gets replenished if you lose units. That means if you take heavy losses during a mission, that stays with you for the rest of the game. If you have 12 Leopard tanks, and you lose 8 in a mission, now you’ve only got 4 and the rest of the campaign is still ahead of you. Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of a persistent battalion; it’s one of the reasons I played EndWar until years after its release. But if every unit you buy deprives you of a unit in multi-player, then every loss is like a slap in the face. Pissing you off is something that should be reserved for the game’s AI, not the mechanics of the game itself. It just frustrates the living hell out of me that I have to be nearly perfect in every mission to have a chance of saving my unlocks for the online portion.

Overall, I actually like the campaign quite a bit. Unlike RUSE, it doesn’t insult the player by making almost every mission into a tutorial for a certain unit – it lets you do your own thing, with whatever units you care to unlock, to accomplish the objective. You could shell the enemy position with artillery, or send over gunships, or make a slow push with an armored column; it’s almost no-holds-barred in terms of the strategies you can try in each mission. Every victory feels like a true accomplishment because the game lets you do pretty much whatever you want in order to get it. More games need to follow this example.

Other than the aforementioned problem with unlockable units, this campaign is actually really cool. I don’t know about you, but I am blown away by the fact that the game actually lets you pick whatever units you want to get the job done. Getting through the campaign is something you did with your own blood, sweat and tears, and the game does very little to hold your hand, without seeming too difficult to grasp. It’s been a while since beating an RTS campaign actually made me feel smart.

 

Multi-player

 

It’s clear that Wargame was made first and foremost for the multiplayer experience. Without the campaign setting up starting conditions for each match, every game still manages to feel pretty structured and sensible, even when you’re doing something crazy like sending two dozen helicopters straight to the enemy deployment zone at the start. This is mostly since every army, no matter how lop-sided or silly, feels real and stable. That, plus AA units tend to shred helicopters no matter how stacked the numbers are.

Early game cheese doesn't work so well in Wargame. This guy sent about two dozen gunships which got killed easily by 3 AA units. (Off to the right you can see more death and destruction)

The unlock system in the multi-player portion is more in-depth and expansive than the single-player, since you have access to all the units available to a certain side, rather than just the units available to a single nation. That means if you use a PACT deck, you can use the whole gamut of East German, Polish, Soviet or Austrian units, and of course NATO has access to British, American, French and West German units. You’ll spend a lot of time devising a strategy to build around, and unlocking units that bolster that strategy. It creates a really deep and engaging metagame for a player who likes to tinker with his army.

Rather than the campaign’s system of levelling up units with experience and carrying it over to the next deployment on the following missions, the multi-player has units of all levels of veterancy available to you. The more experienced units cost more deployment points, so that veteran players can’t just roll over the opposition. Some units come in very limited numbers, such as heavy tanks which are usually limited to 4 per match, so buying a higher rank for them is a better idea. Of course, units will rank up as the battle progresses, so even a recruit unit of tanks can become veterans if you use them intelligently and keep them alive long enough.

The games themselves are pretty versatile. Anything from a 1v1 to a 4v4 is available, and the game supports lopsided engagements as ridiculous as 7v1, with the one player on one side getting an entire team’s worth of deployment points, so his single army would be as large as the combined army of the seven players opposing him. The only disadvantage he has is not being able to keep his eye on absolutely everything as well as a team of five could. In most team games, however, teams either each start at a single zone and have to spread out to meet the enemy, or teams are split up across multiple zones, and have to advance in a single front. The map layouts are nicely balanced and provide for many surprises and tactics, and some good opportunities for teams to work together in interesting ways.

Something tells me benpronin just did a spit-take. At least he gets 6000 deployment points and everyone else gets their 6000 divided between them.

The matchmaking system in RUSE was pretty shoddy and got a lot of heat for taking too long to find a game. Wargame does away with this by introducing a server list and lobby system, sort of like the old battle.net. You can host or join a match of your choosing from a list, which shows the name of the host, the number of points available to each side, and other details, but what I find pretty cool is it’ll show you the level of the person you’d be across from on the game map, assuming nobody changes seats in the lobby. Since players normally end up advancing straight across the map, this is probably the person you’ll end up doing most of your fighting with in-game.

There is a matchmaking system for “ranked” matches, which put you in a ladder and give you a grade, but you don’t miss out on anything for not taking part in it. Joining a game from the list gets you unlocks and experience just the same, so it seems the ranked matches are just there for players who want to ladder. There are usually so few players using the ranked matches that chances are low you’ll end up paired to someone who has a similar level to you, but either way it is nice to have the option of laddering, or even just throwing caution to the wind and going up against a random player.

Compared to the campaign, command stars in multi-player are hard to come by. You’ll have to play several games, and do well, to level up, and each level only nets you 6 stars, as opposed to a single mission from the campaign which generally gets you 12-15 stars depending on how many objectives you complete. Still, there are far more levels you can attain than there are campaign mission to complete, and you gain experience more quickly once you start playing against higher-ranking players.

Rather than ask Habeas if he wants to play, I can now tell he's in a game and can be forever alone from the get-go rather than getting my hopes up.

The online portion also utilizes a Blizzard LiveID-like friends list that you can access at any point during gameplay. You can form teams with other players and invite friends to matches, and despite some minor bugs, the system works pretty well. Of course people playing on Steam won’t have much use for it, but having the game keep track of what exactly your friends are doing in-game is useful when you’re trying to get a match together, since it’ll let you know if someone is in the menus, in a lobby or in-game.

 

All in all, the multi-player is polished, well-refined and easy to hooked on. It’s a much more social experience than RUSE provided, and the community is (for the most part) newbie-friendly and helpful. Aside from a few glitches with the friend system and the rather unnecessary league system, I can’t really complain.

 

Overall

 

Eugen Systems took what made RUSE memorable and enormously improved it. The additions they made to the game are well-implemented, and the things they removed would only have bogged the game down. With the exception of the questionable unlock system and some glitches with sending messages and friend invites, I don’t have much reason to complain aside from nitpicks such as how the recon units behave or how the hills look weird or something (which, they do, to be fair – they look weirdly conical, but at least you get a clear sense of where to hide your units behind ridges and such).

This game presents a nice challenge. Multiplayer games require careful thinking, good tactics and a fair bit of trickery if you hope to succeed (and unlike RUSE, you don’t get a “deceive the enemy now” button; you have to think for yourself). The campaign is fun and does away with the boring storytelling, sticking with a simple, believable plot and large, sprawling missions that can be completed in just about any way you see fit.

Wargame shifted the focus to where it needed to be – on the huge maps and enormous battles that made RUSE so cool, and added a feeling of true realism that I haven’t previously seen in an RTS since Hearts of Iron.

If you’re a fan of strategy games, even if you’re new to the genre, this game is definitely worth owning.

 

Score: 8.5/10

5 Comments

Leave A Reply
  1. Bertie says
    March 7, 2012, 4:04 AM

    Woah wait what, Austria a Warsaw Pact member? You propably meant to say Czechoslovakia 😉

    Reply
  2. Tharn says
    February 25, 2012, 11:26 AM

    Very good review. Thanks for the many details.

    Reply
  3. Lobben says
    February 25, 2012, 3:04 AM

    This was a great review! Really informative, described the game very good 🙂

    Reply
    • Brian F says
      February 27, 2012, 4:17 PM

      You thought so? I was worried I was leaving too much out: the game’s plot actually pretty suddenly goes from normal war story to pretty bonkers near the end, but I didn’t want to spoil it.
      Thanks for reading!

      Reply
      • Hob says
        February 29, 2012, 5:07 AM

        No one cares about the plot. It’s World War 3, what other plot do you need? Go read Red Storm Rising if you want a good plot.

        Good review with honest pros and cons. One thing, though:

        ” If a unit is inside a town, and you fly a recon helicopter nearby to spot them, you have to be PERFECT and place the helicopter at EXACTLY the right angle to keep the enemy on screen.”

        This might be intentional, given that people inside houses are pretty damn hard to spot from air. 🙂

        Reply

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