Thursday, September 22, 2005

Blitzkrieg Anthology Review

Blitzkrieg Anthology, developed by Nival Interactive and published by CDV.
The Good: Full featured campaigns with explicit objectives, tons of units with specific uses, requires realistic strategies
The Not So Good: Overwhelming micromanagement, no AI skirmish, very difficult
What say you? If you can stand all the micromanagement, a fine strategy collection: 6/8

Boy, PC gamers sure love some real time strategy. Seems like most games that come down the pipe these days are an MMO, shooter, or RTS game. Hoping to cash on the eminent release of Blitzkrieg 2, CDV has released Blitzkrieg Anthology, a collection of the original Blitzkrieg and its two standalone expansions: Burning Horizon and Rolling Thunder. These two sets (the original and the expansions) are treated as separate installs to separate directories, and together clock in a around 3 ½ GB. Some of the same resources are used in both games, and I wish, to conserve disk space and the number of CDs the game comes on, they consolidated the material a bit. But I guess it’s easier to slap a new label on a CD and package it up. Well, let’s see how this two year old game stacks up.

Blitzkrieg was released all the way back in 2003 (although both expansions were released last year), and the game shows some of its age in the graphics department. Blitzkrieg Anthology uses the Rise of Nations model of 3-D units projected on a 2-D background. I don’t mind this technique, as it can lead to some impressive visuals if done correctly, but Blitzkrieg doesn’t really use enough detail in the backgrounds to make it completely believable. Personally, I’d rather have awesome 2-D graphics than crappy 3-D graphics, and Blitzkrieg is neither. It has passable effects on a lackluster landscape, although seeing the aftermath of a good artillery bombardment is appealing. In addition, some of the units can get lost in the scenery, especially tiny infantry. You can’t zoom in (or out) at all in the game, so you are forced to squint at your riflemen throughout the game. In terms of the sound department, the game is quite average. It has the overstated background music and requisite arrangement of battle sounds, including quips from individual soldiers that can get old after you play the game for a while. Overall, quite unremarkable sound is to be found in Blitzkrieg Anthology.

Blitzkrieg Anthology has five campaigns detailing the trials and tribulations of World War II for the Germans, Allies, Russians, Rommel, and Patton. There are also some additional chapters as a bonus in additon to the material that was from the original Blitzkrieg and the two expansions. Each scenario is comprised of several chapters, each covering a portion of the war. For each chapter, you can select to play from several different missions, usually three for each level of difficulty. The game keeps track of your progress through each mission, giving skill ratings in several areas, and compiling unit upgrades and bonuses you can use in the field. Most games have a “campaign” that is a series of loosely connected missions, with no real flow or relation between each individual contest. Blitzkrieg Anthology provides a sense that you are contributing to the overall goal of your respective side in the war, and the fact that the game keeps tabs on your progress is an added bonus. It is clear that the single player campaign was the focus of the game, especially since there is no skirmish mode against AI opponents. There are custom missions aspiring level designers can develop using the game’s utilities, but you can’t play any of the multiplayer modes against the AI. You have basic deathmatch and capture the flag modes against other human opponents online, and the game has support for GameSpy Arcade, which is nice for matchmaking purposes. The game’s focus is clearly on the campaign mode, as any other options of play are not fully developed or missing entirely.

Blitzkrieg Anthology is a game of pure tactical skill; there is no resource management anywhere to be seen in the game, so the units you start with are the only units you can use to complete each mission. Blitzkrieg Anthology does a very good job in relaying clear, explicit objectives to the player; each objective location is clearly marked on the mini-map and is usually not vague. Too many times I have come across RTS games where the objective locations were apparently a secret the developers wanted to keep, and only supplied archaic instructions (such as “destroy all enemy units”) to the user.

The user interface has some good and bad points. I really like how the commands for each unit correlate with the layout of a keyboard. For example, any order that appears in the lower left of the screen is always Z, no matter which unit it is. It’s much easier to remember this rather than strange combinations of control, alternate, and Pig Up (all this computer hacking is making me thirsty; I think I’ll order a Tab). This is offset by the fact that the user interface’s commands are very small, and you can easily click on the wrong order and instruct your units to certain death. The game could also use some more pop-up help, as you can commonly forget which unit does which task; Rise of Nations was very good at dispatching useful information to the player. You can also adjust the game speed, which is something that is missing from most RTS games. This is especially nice when your units must march long distances with no expected enemy resistance.

Blitzkrieg Anthology has a ton of units, which are broken down into specific categories: infantry, tanks, transport, supply, engineers, artillery, anti-air, anti-tank, and air support. Unlike most RTS games, units in Blitzkrieg Anthology are super-specific, and are usually only good at one task. In other games, you can send a mixed group of units and, as long as you outnumbered the opposition, would usually win. In Blitzkrieg Anthology, you MUST have an assortment of units in each of your battles, as each unit has a powerful counter that will make quick work of you. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game where thinking in advance and planning your strategies was this important, and resulted in instantaneous failure if not executed properly. Capturing a location in each mission has the same general flow: send out scout planes and/or fighers, bombard the enemy with artillery, send in tanks, infantry, and their counters, and resupply. You will lose the mission if you forget to bring one specific unit along for the ride, as the AI seems to have a slight advantage in anticipating and scouting your moves. For example, I almost had a mission won, but I forgot to tow anti-aircraft weapons with my trucks to the city I was occupying. In came the enemy aircraft and eliminated all my infantry in about 10-15 seconds. Since you are never given reinforcements, I had to reload the mission in anger. You cannot forget to do anything in any mission, or the AI will take advantage and destroy you, even on easy difficulty.

Blitzkrieg Anthology is a very difficult game, and this is amplified by the extreme micromanagement and poor unit AI in the game. Your units are not very smart, and need to be guided through each mission. This would not be a big deal if you were commanding ten units, but Blitzkrieg Anthology often features hundreds of units under your command at a time, so the game can get hectic and confusing quickly. Each of the units is given multiple attacks and abilities, but since you must manually switch attack modes and behaviors for each unit, this can get tiresome quickly. I don’t like losing a battle because I forgot to switch one artillery unit from smoke bombs to armor-piercing rounds, but it can happen in Blitzkrieg Anthology. The pathfinding is somewhat suspect as well; units will sometimes take long, winding routes to their destination. Plus, grouped units will not stick together in a cohesive unit, and mixed arms cannot be given formation orders, so a group of tanks and infantry will quickly devolve into the tanks way out ahead, being attack with no support as the infantry tries to close the gap. Units can sometimes get stuck on each other; this is really evident when trying to load and unload. If two pieces of anti-air artillery are next to each other and you wish to attach them to trucks, the trucks tend to run into each other, drive in circles, and take far too long to complete their order. The game is hard enough as it is without adding layers of complication.

Blitzkrieg Anthology, like most games, has some things it does well, and some things it does horribly. The campaign mode is the highlight of the game, offering a complete single-player experience. Other game modes are lacking, and the multiplayer aspect of the game could have been developed more. I do like the realistic approach of the game, as each unit has a singular function that it can fulfill, and successful completion of each mission requires using each unit for its intended purpose. However, the insane micromanagement, handholding, and poor unit AI bogs the game down and makes the large battles that are present in some missions completely overwhelming. The game does gradually increase the amount of units you control, but some better grouping must be done. It isn’t much of a problem in other games where the counter system is less developed, but in Blitzkrieg Anthology, not accounting for a specific enemy unit results in failure. Those gamers who can keep track of the location and given orders of hundreds of units at a time will find Blitzkrieg Anthology fulfilling, but most of us will probably want to wait to see the improvements that Blitzkrieg II brings to the table.