Friday, August 26, 2005

Battles in Italy Review

Battles in Italy PC, developed by Strategic Studies Group and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Excellent battle system, scenario editor, complex but easy to learn, good music
The Not So Good: Only three scenarios, primitive sound effects, not worth it for owners of Korsun Pocket or Battles in Normandy
What say you? The pinnacle of hex-based wargames: 7/8

Wargames. The word strikes fear in the empty souls of console gamers everywhere. But for us real, PC players, the many strategic layers found in wargames satisfy even the most hardcore grognard. Recently, wargames have been making a combat, being published by smaller publishers who can attract the more sophisticated gamer. A while ago, a very well done wargame by the name of Korsun Pocket debuted, developed by SSG, an Australian company. They have released two follow-ups to the game, using the same Decisive Battles game engine but set in different theaters of battle during World War II. Today, we’ll examine Battles in Italy.

Battles in Italy has about the best graphics you could expect for a top-down 2-D wargame. The interface is cluttered without being cumbersome, and the icons are clean and understandable. You will be playing the game from a zoomed-out map perspective, so don’t expect any unit details; everything in Battles in Italy is handled using unit cards (square representations of each unit). Battles in Italy has better graphics than most of its competition, but obviously pales in comparison to most contemporary PC games. The sound effects are essentially the same as in all the Decisive Battles games, and that is to say very basic. You’ll have a unit movement sound (marching for troops, vehicles for tanks), and a generic battle sound. This is all the variety to expect, as the sound effects are extremely unadorned. The music, however, is very well done. It fits the time period of the game well, and is a welcome background distraction while you make your moves. I actually missed hearing the music once I left the game, and that’s a sign of a good job in that department.

Battles in Italy features the three main operations of the Allied invasion of Italy: Avalanche, Husky, and Shingle. There are only three scenarios included in the game, but all three are very long and very large, and you can spend half an hour (or more, depending on your skill level) on a single turn. You can also get involved in the map and scenario editor that is included with the game. Since the game concerns itself with World War II, all of the scenarios pit the Allied forces (US, UK, and France) vs. the Axis forces (Germany and Italy). In this game, each country is treated as a separate player on the same side, so replacements, supply, and some combat cannot be shared by members of different countries on the same side. This realistic approach makes things more complex. Each game can be customized according to weather conditions, hidden units, supply, replacements, combat model, and handicaps between players. You can play the AI (on any number of skill levels), by e-mail, or even on the same computer in a hot seat mode. To learn the game, there are nine tutorials to play through, which are usually one sided-matches against the opponent that teaches you 3-5 game concepts. There is a manual with instructions on what to do in each tutorial in electronic format, but no in-game instructions.

The object of Battles in Italy is to amass the most Victory Points. These are earned by occupying objective locations on the map and destroying enemy units. You will accomplish this by moving your units on a tactical map in a turn-based mode. During your turn, you can watch a replay of the previous turn, move units, engage in combat, move supplies around, reinforce units, and interdict the enemy.

During each turn, every unit is given a certain number of operation points based on what type of unit it is. Every unit in the game can move, and do one additional action. These additional actions can include attacking other units, moving a couple of extra spaces, or blowing up bridges. This is a very nice facet of the combat model, as you don’t have to remember to save six movement points in order to attack, as the game won’t let you move too far until you spend your reserve action points. To assist in moving across the large maps (the largest is the entire country of Italy), you can utilize several methods of transport: truck, naval, and rail. This makes moving reinforcements easier, as you don’t have to spend weeks getting a troop down the country to the battle lines. Combat in the game is also very interested in how it is handled. For each battle, odds are calculated, using the terrain, number of attackers, and other aspects. During each turn, you are allocated special bonuses you can use to improve the odds, but only during one battle; once you use your air bombardment, it’s gone for the rest of the turn. Based on the advantage level of the attacker (which can run from 10:1 to 2:1), there are six results, corresponding to the six sides of a die, that can occur. These vary from nothing (a draw) to either the defender or attacker suffering losses (and usually both). These odds are very verbose in the game, and make it simple to access how successful an attack may be.

Defense wins championships, and there are several ways of annoying the opposing army in Battles in Italy. First, you can provide interdiction by using airplanes, which will slow down the movement of any unit attempting to cross through that territory. This could also be used to slow down the retreat of a defeated foe. You can also lay minefields, construct strongpoints, and mess with bridges. There is a whole strategy in determining which bridges to keep open and which to destroy (this was the entire last act of Saving Private Ryan, after all). Engineers can destroy or repair bridges that connect the locations about the map. You can also entrench units to receive a defense bonus, and deploy small skirmish groups called detachments to slow down an advance.

Supply is an important concept in Battles in Italy. Each turn, all of your units are resupplied, provided they are within range of a supply truck. The range is displayed graphically on the map by selecting a truck, and it is extended along roads, where it’s easier to supply troops. Essentially, you supply troops by making sure a supply truck covers all of the territory your troops occupy. If you get too zealous and invade too far past the supply unit, your troops will be in deep trouble. Other than this, you don’t need to worry about supply, as it’s handled automatically. One of the best features of the game is the combat advisor. This neat little tool figures out the odds of every possible battle that could take place on the map, and displays it in the appropriate locations. If you click on an odds location, the game will highlight which troops need to be moved in order to accomplish those favorable odds. This is very cool, and a tool greatly appreciated by newer wargamers. This way, you can access where the most success could be found, and commit your troops in that direction, instead of aimlessly moving troops around, without really knowing which way is the best for your side. When you engage in combat, you can deselect troops and save them for other battles. All of this information is wonderful in making the game easier to play.

Despite being a complex game, Battles in Italy tries it hardest to make it easy on the player. The micromanagement is kept at a minimum, and the combat advisor makes overall strategy a piece of cake. Although the graphics and sound effects are sub-par, most gamers interested in wargames will be able to look past those shortcomings and see the creamy center of gaming goodness. If you have never played a Decisive Battles games and are looking to play a turn-based strategy wargame, look no further than Battles in Italy: it is the best tactical wargame I have seen. However, if you are a proud owner of either Korsun Pocket or Battles in Normandy, hardly anything has changed in Battles in Italy other than the new scenarios, and I cannot see spending $50 on three scenarios, when you could design them yourself. Fifty big ones is on the high-end of PC game prices these days, but those interested in the games like Battles in Italy will not be disappointed.