First, what I know: Wargame Airland Battle is a sequel to last year’s Wargame European Escalation, which is a Real-Time Strategy (RTS) title created by Eugen Systems.
Now, what I don’t know: how to be even remotely competitive in an online multiplayer RTS game. In fact, I am humiliatingly bad at it. This personal limitation is by no means a recent epiphany, mind you, but it most assuredly is a recently reinforced tidbit of knowledge.
This bold statement of fact naturally begs the question as to what recent occurrence would prompt me to confess such a weakness quite so publicly. Well, it has to do with the pending release of the aforementioned Wargame Airland Battle. You’ll note that I never said that I didn’t like RTS games, merely that I am not very competitive at them, especially when confronted by an experienced and capable player. The type of player that you might be matched up against when playing with a late-beta, multiplayer-only version of the game. A battle like that just might turn out to be so fraught with mayhem that the less experienced player finds himself so overwhelmed that he cannot even begin to take notice of his surroundings.
Why, should something like that occur, it may not come as much of a surprise to learn that the bulk of his ensuing experience with the game was garnered by playing with it offline.
So, yeah: don’t ask me how I know.
And at the end of the day, there are only two things that can be said about multiplayer anyway: that it’s there, and that it works. And that you had better bring your ‘A’ game. So there are three things that can be said.
Irrespective of single- or multiplayer, the mechanics of the game are identical. In the words of Eugen Systems (a group I believe must be located somewhere other than in the U.S. based on the beginning of the second sentence):
It is 1985. Tired of repeated provocations from the United States, the USSR strengthens its military capabilities and rises to the challenge of the confrontation. After several months of growing tension, an incident in the North Sea sparks an escalation. All over the world, Pact and NATO forces are mobilized and set the world on fire. As neither camp dominates the main front in Germany, fate hangs in the balance in Scandinavia...
The topology of the battlefield is a mix of small rural towns and open fields, with more than a few forests thrown in to keep things interesting. At the beginning of the battle, each player is granted a pool of credits from which to draw in order to field an army and air force. The players are members of either NATO (seven countries) or the Warsaw Pact (four countries). The weaponry available to each player is naturally dependent on the selected country. Each type of weapon, be it a vehicle or a firearm, is detailed to include a plethora of relative strengths and weaknesses. Vehicles are further categorized into utility groups such as support, recon, tank, and helicopters. There are also utility groups for things like logistics and infantry. The player will draw from as many of these disparate groups as necessary to create a well-rounded fighting force.
As each item is selected, it is placed into position on the battlefield. Naturally, the player is limited to placing units in an assigned limited area. This is all as easy as drag and drop. The player is not required to use all of the available credits in this initial outfitting, and would probably be well-served by holding some in reserve for later use in bringing in reinforcements if the battle is not going well. Because the outcome of the battles depends heavily on keeping the fighting units well supplied, it behooves the player to also retain some credits for use in replenishing supplies.
Once the battle has begun, the movement of units is fairly straightforward. Units can easily be rubber-banded into groups and commanded to move to a location on the map using the mouse. Various types of movement orders are available, such as ‘Attack’, which will cause the unit to attack any enemies encountered, and ‘Fast Move’, which will encourage units to stay on paved roads whenever possible. I was unable to determine if move orders can be chained to allow a ‘Fast Move’ to a certain point, followed by a slower ‘Attack’ move once a set position has been reached. I was, however, able to determine that it’s a good idea (or, more accurately, would have been a good idea) to send recon units ahead first.
Aerial assets like helicopters are treated very much like any of the ground-based units in that they are positioned on the map alongside the rest of the army, but airplanes are placed in squares on the screen. Once selected with a mouse click, they are instructed in the same way as the ground units, although there is no differentiation of travel speed. They are always fast!
There is a lot to pay attention to as the battle rages on and having to tell each and every unit obvious things like “find some cover, you’re being shot at!” would be tremendously burdensome. This is, after all, a strategy game; tactical decisions should be left to the troops. It is good, then, that the individual units did show some initiative when faced with enemy action. They needed some higher-level direction now and again, so it is not as if you can sit back and let them do everything on their own, but it is possible to ignore them long enough to manage other areas of the battle.
I have saved the best for last. With a simple spin of the mouse wheel, you can zoom right on down to the unit level and get a close-up view of the action. Guns firing, things exploding, and all of the stuff you normally only see in an FPS. This is cool in and of its own right, of course, but it is also helpful to be able to see the situation on the ground. Elevation changes and areas of dense cover are certainly good to know about in almost any decision-making or planning process. The ability to quickly move from one skirmish to another helps when trying to manage battles spread across multiple places on the map.
So while I didn’t cover myself in glory in the multiplayer mode, and worse, hid myself away in a locked game so I could get a feel for the workings of outfitting and moving an army, I came away impressed with the high degree of complexity and the well-designed control schemes. Coupled with the attractive and detailed battlescape, the entire package left me anxious for a chance to try my hand in the singleplayer mode that will be included in the release version. I will still lose most of my battles - that is just the nature of the beast - but at least I will do it more privately.