Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861 Review

The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861 PC, developed by Mad Minute Games and published by Activision Value.
The Good: Complete representation of Bull Run, fantastic AI, realistic unit control, accurate sound effects
The Not So Good: Outdated graphics with long load times, no multiplayer, alarmingly long name
What say you? An excellent command-level Civil War strategy game at a budget price: 6/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Real-time strategy games have always revolved around war. Whether it’s World War II, futuristic locations, or fictitious fantasy settings, most locations and time periods have been covered by the RTS genre. One period of history that has been neglected for quite a long time is the American Civil War. The last well-known game that covered this time period was Sid Meier’s Gettysburg (which came out in 1997, for goodness sakes). Thankfully, we have a new game with an extremely long name: The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861. All those colons! Just a note to developers and publishers: enough with subtitle after subtitle. If another game has the same name, come up with a better one. I fondly remember the days when games had one name (Warcraft) instead of at minimum a main title and subtitle. Nevertheless, I still will refer to this game using the same, non-abbreviated title throughout the entire review. Cut and paste is wonderful fun! Anyway, The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861 lets you be the commander (Take Command) of troops (Civil War) during the Battle of Bull Run (Battle of Bull Run) in 1861 (1861) as seen on The History Channel (The History Channel).

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics in The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861 are optimized for having a lot of units on the screen at once, which is one way of saying they look pretty bad up close. In fact, they look quite similar to the graphics found in Sid Meier’s Gettysburg, although at higher resolution. Zoomed far out, however, and they don’t look too terrible. Strangely, even with the relatively low-quality graphics, load time are extremely long, on-par with Battlefield 2. The units themselves have some good animations, although there is not much variety in each subset. The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861 does have some good sound effects. The ambient noise is very well done; it reminds me of many a camping trip during the summer months with the various insects buzzing around you. No doubt the developers went out with a microphone and recorded some real outdoor sounds, which not many games do. During the battles themselves, the sound turns into a cacophony of firing guns and passionate screams, as you would expect. I feel that this game (The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861) does a very good job in delivering a realistic sound environment, especially when so many other games include sound as an afterthought.

GAME MODES
The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861 simulates the Battle of Bull Run (shocking!). There are several ways of playing the game, and they are:
1st Bull Run
You can play the entire battle as a number of historically important military leaders. There are three levels of command found in The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861: brigade, division, and army. Each successive level is responsible for controlling more men. If you’re interested in controlling fewer men, the brigade modes include a tutorial in both infantry and artillery, and the ability of controlling CSA’s Evans or (Stonewall) Jackson and USA’s Burnside or Sherman. Division-level control includes yet another tutorial, and Beauregard, Longstreet, Hunter, and Tyler. Army-level control includes Beauregard or McDowell.
Custom Scenario
If you want to expand the available commanders, custom scenarios are available. Here, you can choose whoever you want and control their troops for the entire battle, from the entire army to one brigade.
Open Play
Open Play is similar to a custom scenario, but you can change the battlefield, the size of battle, the length, and even have the game choose a random leader for you. Sadly, there is no multiplayer in The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861. I could see some awesome battles if, say, eight players per side each controlled one brigade. Maybe next time.

UNIT ATTRIBUTES AND COMMANDS
As the commander, you are responsible for controlling your men by issuing orders. You are provided with information about their characteristics: quality, strength, morale, fatigue, grade (how good the unit is) and current terrain location. The morale can be improved by being positioned near their commander, and units fatigue if they are pressed into marching over long distances. The main crux of the game is issuing orders to your troops. This is fairly easy to do, and The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861 does a very good job in organizing your men so the game doesn’t devolve into a mass of humanity. The easiest way of issuing orders to your entire brigade is to select the leader (you), double click on a destination, and then select a formation. Your troops then will automatically be given appropriate destinations around you depending on the formation you chose. You can also instruct them to use available roads to expedite their travel. There are several formations you can arrange your troops in: battle line (ready to fight), double line (to boost morale), and column (for movement). You can also instruct individual battalions to run, which fatigues them quickly, but may be needed if you’re currently being flanked. It is important in this style of fighting to make sure our troops are facing the correct way, and this can be done by wheeling left or right. A very convenient addition to the game is that your troops will automatically wheel during combat to face the enemy they are current engaging. This takes out a whole bunch of unneeded micromanagement, and is one of the highlights of the game. During the time they are engaged, they can be order to advance or fall back while firing, charge, or retreat. You can also resupply your troops if they are in need of ammo and near an ammo wagon. It is also possible to set the general behavior of your troops, and how close the enemy must come in order for them to engage.

ET AL.
There are different types of terrain that your units will encounter, each with their own traits. For instance, grass has moderate movement speed, but makes troops vulnerable to fire. Conversely, forests provide good cover, but hinder advancement. Realistic line of sight is simulated, and having an elevation advantage results in a bonus given to your troops. During each scenario, you will be issued orders from your superiors, either to hold a specific location (objective) or move to a place on the map. A courier on horseback, whom takes some time to arrive, delivers these orders. Sometimes the game can drag along, especially if you are being held in reserve or scouting an area with no enemy units. You can accelerate time, but only if there is no fighting in your vicinity, and the current level of time acceleration is not displayed on the screen. The main objective of battle is to flank the enemy. Attacking from the side reduces the morale of your enemy, and can also result in high losses. You can capture artillery and individual units that are unable to retreat. Overall, The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861 features some realistic yet exciting strategy in a genuine setting.

IN CLOSING
I was fairly impressed by The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861. This game does not skimp on the features, allowing you to control every single battalion that was engaged in the Civil War’s first real battle. Some of the aspects of the game are designed to make playing the game easier, such as wonderful and pleasingly difficult AI, units that actually stay in formation, and an easy to use interface. The tutorials serve as a good introduction to the game, and the on-disk manual can fit any gaps. Although the graphics are sketchy and cause long load times, the sound is quite well done, and the overall game is of high quality. Oh, did I mention this game is $20? At that price, The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861 is definitely worth the money. There’s a better strategic simulation here than most games twice the price. If you are interested in strategy games, the Civil War, or both, The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861 is a excellent choice. Just make sure you ask for it by name.