Friday, September 30, 2005

Squad Assault: Second Wave Review

Squad Assault: Second Wave, developed by DAS Entertainment and published by Got Game Entertainment.
The Good: Good pathfinding and unit AI, effortless unit management, tons of battles with abundant difficulty options, scenario editor
The Not So Good: Exasperating camera control with arbitrary default angles, slightly outdated graphics, only direct IP multiplayer
What say you? A user-friendly RTS for experienced players with some issues: 6/8

Apparently, there was this war. It was so large, that it involved most of the major nations of the world. And it was so fun the first time, the world decided to do it again! There are a lot of computer games that simulate almost every aspect of World War II: flying planes, shooting enemies, moving troops, and manufacturing coffee at a profit. The latest entry into the ring is Squad Assault: Second Wave, which is actually not a very new game. It’s a slightly updated version of Squad Assault: West Front, which was a slightly updated version of G.I. Combat, which was a slightly updated version of Close Combat. So, the developers have had several attempts at perfecting the formula. Let’s see how they did.

Squad Assault: Second Wave does not feature top of the line graphics. In fact, it’s essentially the same as G.I. Combat, which is several years old. Comparing this game to, say, Battlefield 2 reveals that Squad Assault: Second Wave is world behind the top PC competition. However, compare Squad Assault: Second Wave to recent wargames, and it performs more pleasantly. Since I would tend to classify Squad Assault: Second Wave more as a wargame than a classic RTS, I’m willing to give some leeway in the graphics department that others are not so willing to grant. If it weren’t for the large icons indicating where the units are located, it would be very hard to spot friendly infantry amongst the foliage, but I guess that’s the point of camouflage. Most of the environments are bland, with scattered buildings and some variety of trees. Explosions are less than satisfying, and most death sequences consist of a soldier instantly falling to the ground and being surrounded by blood. The graphics are very reminiscent of a very similar game, Combat Mission, but that game was released a while back.

Probably the worst aspect of the graphics is the truly horrendous camera. Since Squad Assault: Second Wave is in 3-D, you can move around the screen and see all your little units running around shooting things. This is fine as long as it’s implemented well; in Squad Assault: Second Wave, it is not. First, the camera is a little more difficult to control than it should be, and is more cumbersome than the controls seen in other 3-D games. Secondly, the camera zooms too close to the selected units at a completely useless angle. If you select a unit twice, the camera defaults to an angle that is above and behind your troops, almost directly over them. You always need to move the camera in order to do anything in the game. This just should not be, and make the game needlessly difficult. I cannot relay how truly horrible the camera control is in Squad Assault: Second Wave. I would have been quite satisfied if the game used 3-D graphics shown only from an isometric prospective (like Rise of Nations) and gave the user the ability to rotate. You wouldn’t have been able to zoom in to see the units, but the graphics are low quality, so you wouldn’t really want to do this anyway.

As for the sounds, Squad Assault: Second Wave comes off somewhat bare in this respect. The sounds are realistic, but not varied: you’ll hear the same gun noises for the same class of troops along with identical death sequences, which get annoying after a while. The armies do speak in their native languages, which is a nice touch. The background music is underwhelming.

Squad Assault: Second Wave does have a good assortment of play modes. There are 54 battles, 26 operations (2-3 battles), six campaigns (more than three battles), and three tutorials. Some of the battles are repeated in the operations and campaigns, but the larger scenarios have the added benefit of carrying over veteran units. These battles cover the Allied invasion of France; personally, I wish people would get off this overdone theater and move onto other areas (like Combat Mission has done with Africa and Russia). Each of the games can be customized with numerous difficulty options. The difficulty level itself controls the multiplier bonus for holding an objective for the overall score. You can choose whether individual soldiers can modify your orders, have individual skill ratings, and if enemy units are revealed on the map. You can also change the lethality of the weapons in the game, which is a very neat addition. You can change the accuracy of arms from WW2-era levels to modern-day destruction. There is also an auto pause function, where the game automatically pauses every 60 seconds (or whatever the user chooses). This is much like the Combat Mission and Flashpoint Germany WEGO method, although the difference in Squad Assault: Second Wave is that you can issue orders while time is running. It would be nice if you could disallow issuing orders when the game is not paused, so that you could play Squad Assault: Second Wave using that style (this could introduce some play by e-mail ability). Speaking of multiplayer, you can play over a LAN or through direct IP, but there is no matchmaking service. Aspiring level designers can make custom levels using the scenario editor.

In Squad Assault: Second Wave, you are given some points at the beginning of each scenario to purchase units, and you enter the game with only these units and no reinforcements. Each unit is made of several different soldiers, each with their own morale, experience, skill, and ammunition values. The Squad Assault/Close Combat series is known for its morale simulations, and the same heritage continues in the newest version. All of your units are listed in graphical format in the bottom of the screen, and the information for each squad is clearly represented and easily accessible. I really like how all the squads’ information is shown in Squad Assault: Second Wave; it is much better than most RTS games where you must group units manually and large battles can get confusing quickly (Blitzkrieg Anthology is a perfect example of this). You can get information on all your units at a glance from the main screen; if only all RTS games made data this accessible. The only addition I would like is routed or destroyed units were moved to the bottom or completely off the list.

The game displays messages showing important information about each of your squads as the game progresses. Unfortunately, none of the information is clickable, so if your Patton tank is in trouble, you can’t click on the message and select that particular unit. Since multiple units are given the same name, this can make it hard to determine which particular Grenadiere MG42 is out of ammo. The game is played by issuing orders to each of your units. Orders include assault (moving quickly without engaging the enemy), march (moving slowly engaging enemy units), caution (crawling to conceal), defend, ambush, hide, and fire. Using the correct command at the correct time is key in keeping your units alive. You can also call in artillery, air, and naval strikes against concentrated enemy units. The units in Squad Assault: Second Wave cover much of the fighting forces involved in World War II: infantry (regular, engineers, snipers, recon, anti-tank), mortars, machine guns, flamethrowers, anti-tank guns, and vehicles (halftracks, armored cars, tanks). The units generally engage appropriate targets, but sometimes they will waste the ammunition on targets that are quite a distance away. Since units run out of ammo quickly and cannot be resupplied, this can be a problem later during the mission. The game does feature some good unit AI, as the units behave smartly and realistically. Keeping the units covered is of paramount importance, as being fired upon constantly tends to bring down the morale of the group. The units also have some pretty advanced pathfinding. Units will use cover on the way to their objective, even if the user did not order them to. In most game, you would have to manually set waypoints in order to keep the units concealed; this is not the case in Squad Assault: Second Wave, as infantry units will hug walls and stay out of cleared areas as much as they can, even if they are issued a command far across the map. It shows that the AI has some polish in the game, and the units behave very well.

Squad Assault: Second Wave is a good wargame for those players with a wargaming or RTS background. Although the graphics are not the best, the user interface and unit AI keeps Squad Assault: Second Wave above most games in the genre. I enjoyed how easy the game made controlling the units, especially when compared against other tactical strategy games. This is a game that is not obsessed with micromanagement, but rather with effective positing of troops before a battle begins. If it weren’t for the camera issues, Squad Assault: Second Wave would be a highly recommended game. Sometimes, too much freedom in controlling the views is not a good thing, and Squad Assault: Second Wave definitely suffers because of the camera controls. Nevertheless, there is an intriguing strategy game under the surface. It’s not really that much different from either West Front or G.I. Combat, but for players new to the series, this would be the place to start.