Blitzkrieg: Rolling Thunder
is the latest stand-alone expansion to the WWII RTS, Blitzkrieg. The campaign consists of 6 three-mission mini-campaigns, chronicling the command of General Patton in the African and European theaters. Many of the famous battles are featured here, including the storming of the beaches of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. Since my grasp of WWII history is sorely lacking, I don’t know how accurate these various missions really are, but everything seems fairly true-to-life, at least within the bounds of the RTS framework.
Rolling Thunder chooses to focus on combat exclusively, completely doing away with any of the base and unit building found in many RTS games. Players begin each mission with a set number of units, and that’s it. Sometimes reinforcements are made available throughout the mission, sometimes not. While I can understand the historical reasons to forego the unit-building aspects in Rolling Thunder, I found I missed the ability to build up a base of operations and tailor my army to my liking. In an RPG-lite aspect, a core group of units are able to be ported from mission to mission, gaining experience and increasing abilities as they successfully engage the enemy. A great deal of care must be taken to ensure these units, and all the units for that matter, survive the battles.
Most units are easy to kill. Very easy. Most tanks can be taken out in one or two hits from enemy armor or artillery fire, and an entire squad of infantry can be mowed down in a matter of seconds. While this is quite realistic, it also makes Rolling Thunder a difficult game. A few seconds of diverted attention can mean an entire flank of armor is wiped out, and it’s time to reload or restart. Early rushing is highly inadvisable, and is generally completely suicidal. Careful advances, preceded by scouts, air recon if available, and suppressive artillery fire is often the best tactic. In fact, much of the game is spent juggling and micromanaging the various units. There is a fairly impressive array of units—infantry, snipers, and a wide variety of tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery. Most of these units require special attention. Infantry have several formation options to choose from, in addition to the ability to dive into trenches and turtle up. Each armor unit has a separate defense rating depending on facing, so great care needs to be taken to put the most defensible face toward enemy fire.
And it’s not just the combat units that take a great deal of micromanagement. Support units, such as engineers and troop transports, need to be set up carefully to plant or remove mines, build trenches, heal units, and keep everyone in ammo. Many of the maps contain supply points, spots that engineers and heavy trucks can go to reload on engineering, medical, and repair supplies. These supply points can be taken by the enemy, so maintaining and defending the supply lines is yet another worry during the battles.
Air support is called in to specific targets and is not directly controlled. Each mission has different air support available, and that support is often dependent on achieving certain goals during the mission. For instance, heavy bombers may not be able to move in until a nest of anti-aircraft guns are taken out. Scouts, fighter-bombers, heavy bombers, paratroopers, and anti-aircraft fighters are all available at different times throughout the campaigns. Of course, while a bomber run can be devastating to the enemy, they’re not without their own air units, so it’s vital to set up AA guns and units to keep friendly tanks from becoming burning husks.
Each mission starts with a briefing, and players are given a set of primary and optional objectives. While only the primary goals are needed to complete a mission, the optional goals are often rewarded with either tactical help on the current mission, such as disabling all enemy armor, or the granting of additional units in following missions. These optional goals are often not too difficult to achieve while tackling the main mission goals. The missions themselves were a mixed bag. Some were a lot of fun, some truly frustrating, and most were just typical RTS fare. Those frustrating missions were often marred by goal triggers that I just couldn’t seem to set off correctly, even when I met all the requirements. Still, the flaky goal triggers aren’t nearly as bad as the interface.
While the game looks and sounds good, the interface is really frustrating. In a game where split-seconds can mean the difference between pushing through the enemy line or watching ten friendly tanks go up in smoke, control is extremely important. I often found myself clicking several times on a unit to gain control. With larger units this can be annoying, but with the smaller units such as scouts or other infantry, this becomes hair-pullingly bad. Infantry are already annoying, since there’s no way I could tell at a glance which units belonged to which squad, and I couldn’t reform squads to my liking. Squads are formed at the beginning of the game, with no player control. As troops are killed, the squad becomes smaller and smaller, and there are often times where there are squads of one or two soldiers, but these poor soldiers have to remain on their own, control wise, throughout the mission.
The AI seems a bit lacking, as well. There’s already a great deal of micromanagement and babysitting of the units, but things become worse as battles spread out over long distances. Often I’d find my anti-tank guns and fortified tanks just letting the enemy waltz in unmolested. I’d also see some of my tanks get hung up on various terrains, and thus an entire squad of armor gets spread out across the map. Ordering a squad of tanks across a narrow bridge is a nightmare. Thankfully, the game can be paused at any time for issuing orders or taking stock of the situation, but units should be able to better take care of themselves.
Rolling Thunder is not an easy game, and it can be a bit overwhelming to try to jump right in. While many of the traditional RTS conventions are in place, the lack of reinforcements coupled with the relative fragility of each of the units makes for some very difficult play. While overcoming these difficulties mostly requires a change in play style, watching everything get wiped out in matter of seconds, repeatedly, can be disheartening for the casual RTS gamer.
It’s not all bad, though, and fans of the Blitzkrieg series will probably be pleased. There is a great deal of challenging RTS gameplay, and the WWII flavor is quite strong. Still, the more casual RTS gamer probably won’t be able to overlook the frustrating control and less-than-stellar AI.
Another ho-hum WWII RTS. Finicky controls and the less-than-stellar AI keep this from shining. Fans of the series or the genre will still find a bit of fun, though.