The world of alternate history can sometimes be a very scary place. Among the more mundane scenarios in which David Steel (Google him) becomes Prime Minister or Stu Sutcliffe (Google him too) survives, there are buried a lot of post-apocalyptic tales that very nearly became true.
Playing very fondly with this nuclear fire is Wargame – the series of real-time strategy games that explore the standard ‘what if the Cold War escalated’ story with a particular focus on Europe. In the first game, you had to contend with a Soviet incursion into Western Europe, which one would have thought culminated with the nuclear bombing of several major capitals until you were thrust into the final campaign, a tale of a warlord trying to assemble a rag-tag army of remnant forces and finish off the great powers once and for all. In Wargame: Airland Battle, the story’s much the same, only it’s set in Scandinavia and you can call in planes. INNOVATION IS NICE.
Well, perhaps I’m being unkind. After all, they’ve added a Risk-style campaign map now that lets you deploy extra units to sectors where they’re needed, and you can hit enemy forces with special attacks before ever engaging them in combat. It can be particularly satisfying to send in a commando raid, then stomp all over the remnants of the enemy with your assembled armies – it’s like melting your little brother’s sandcastle with a hose before you go and stomp on it.
Still, there’s not enough to the command map to really make the whole endeavour worthwhile, and it would have been just as satisfying (and much faster paced) to simply have a series of battles as in European Escalation. The special moves make it eerily simple to use nuclear weapons too, which I wouldn’t mind but it doesn’t seem to have any discernable impact on terrain – even all the houses stay intact – and ultimately feels a lot less weightless as an attack than one might expect from a giant missile that can turn sand to glass.
The real meat of the game is its combat and in that respect it’s fun, but glacial and complicated. Starting from a single zone of control, you have to guard your command vehicles while simultaneously capturing other areas while battling the enemy, destroying their command vehicles, diverting their forces away from areas you’re trying to attack and, in my case, constantly having your helicopters shot down by infantry sheltered in buildings who you couldn’t see because your pilot apparently lacks eyes.
In addition, the campaign fights only allot you twenty minutes to fulfill your stated goal of points gained from destroying enemy units. While this may be adequate in the early stages, it’s an incredibly unfair system later on, because storming around an area the size of the Gobi desert attempting to locate one command vehicle hidden inside a bush is an exercise in frustration unrivalled by any game in existence. No matter how decisively you route the opposition, if they have three infantrymen remaining by the time the whistle blows, that’s a draw for you. Momentum lost, day wasted, campaign failed.
That is an awful way of arranging your combat, particularly in arenas as large as this one. It’s well and good having satisfying combat when things do get heated, but it feels as though one may as well not bother when half the games end in draws simply because it was impossible to locate the enemy. Moreover, continuing the battle another day puts you right back where you started, regardless of progress made or sectors captured.
To rub rock salt into that particular weeping sore, the amount of points needed to win increases for each subsequent day and the number of points given for purchasing units declines, making it virtually impossible to succeed after too long. Perhaps I’m just terrible at the game, but it is not my fault that the developers seem to have made this as user-unfriendly as possible in order to appeal to the kind of tiresome bore who sees console gaming as some sort of hate crime and wishes everything in real life came with breast size sliders.
I tried playing a few of the skirmish matches against the AI, and had a much more fun time once I gave both sides a decent number of unit points and removed the time limit from the whole affair. It makes you feel like a masterful tactician when you pin down your enemy under artillery fire and helicopter rockets while your tanks swarm in from the flanks, just as it makes you feel like a chump when you fall prey to a devastating ambush.
In short, when you remove the endless faffing around, you can actually have a fun time, in huge maps that allow for plenty of emergent gameplay based on your own interpretations of the mechanics. It doesn’t hurt that the whole thing is bloody gorgeous, with sprawling scenery and realistic particle and lighting effects that make the whole thing look like a war movie if you shift the camera around right.
For those things Wargame: AirLand Battle gets right – its fun combat, its presentational style, its wide variety of units – there are two more, like its tedious map view or impenetrable interface, which detract from the experience altogether. Combining this game engine with a more arcade-style, combat focused brand of gameplay and letting up on the fog of war would be a must-have combination. As it is, it’s merely an encouraging sign of a game that needs work, but with good things yet to come. 73%