Friday, April 07, 2006

Strategic Command 2: Blitzkrieg Review

Strategic Command 2: Blitzkrieg, developed by Fury Software and published by
The Good: Streamlined but varied gameplay, broad unit classes reduces some micromanagement, diplomacy and actions can affect country alignments, campaign and map editor, event script editor
The Not So Good: Could have more scenarios (especially alternative history), less than spectacular graphics, no interactive tutorial, no Internet matchmaking, below average AI
What say you? A very accessible and customizable World War II grand strategy game: 7/8

I’m starting to run out of things to say about World War II in my introductions. This is by far the most popular historical time period to make a game about and I’ve used up pretty much all of my material. So, go back and read some of my previous reviews to experience the thrill and excitement of my mind-numbing jokes here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here. Ready to continue? OK. So, now we have Strategic Command 2: Blitzkrieg, a large-scale grand strategic game that’s the sequel to…let’s see…uh…ah yes: Barbie Horse Adventures. Strategic Command 2 (with or without the Blitzkrieg) features the allies versus the axis in a struggle for domination of Europe. Who will win? Did you click on all the links so far in this review? I’m checking, you know.

Strategic Command 2 has some bland 2-D graphics on a bland map that is reminicient of a straight game board port. There are no unit animations (and just a small explosion) that make the game feel like anything more than a board game. However, the detailed models of the individual pieces do look good, assuming you don’t choose to use the NATO symbols while you play. This is pretty much par for the course in small developer wargames: the graphics are just meant to serve as a world for the gameplay to reside in. The map does look like Europe and the simple map detail does allow for custom map creation, but nobody will be wowed by the graphical prowess of Strategic Command 2. Of course, if you compare the graphics to those in the original, they look pretty sweet. There is just the basic assortment of sound effects as well, typically one sound for each kind of unit action (troops marching, artillery firing). I do like that when you click on one of the major power’s capitals it plays a snippet of the national anthem (this is the highlight of the sound). We’re not looking for great sound and graphics in wargames (the grognards are a forgiving bunch), so we get what we expect in Strategic Command 2.

Strategic Command 2 is a turn-based grand strategy game where you control either the allied or axis countries and try to capture the important objective cities of Europe. This game is primarily military based, although there are some other aspects that flesh out the game. Strategic Command 2 lies somewhere between Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday (many different aspects of running a government) and Birth of America (military only). One interesting aspect of the game is that the turn length is not fixed: turns represent a longer period of time during winter when troop movement was slower. The game features six full length, open-ended scenarios that alters the date you enter the action (1939 through 1944). There are also five mini-campaigns that cover important engagements in larger detail, such as North Africa, D-Day, and the Battle of the Bulge. I don’t like the smaller campaigns as much: they involve a lot of troops and become overwhelming and repetitious. This game was designed for large-scale, continent-sized combat with small numbers of large units rather than minor engagements. I would like to see more variety in the scenarios, especially historical variants. However, there is a scenario and map editor bundled with the game that is very easy to use: the developers could have created some original scenarios to show off its power instead of leaving that up to the community. There is also an event editor in-game that allows you to control the historical events that occurred during World War II in Europe. This means you can randomize the U.S. entry into the war instead of having it follow the attack on Pearl Harbor, among around 50 other things. This gives the user the power to completely change the makeup of the game and really tailor the action to his or her liking. There are a number of other things the user can customize in their game, from minor things such as unit icons to major things like weather.

You can also adjust the difficulty of the game, which essentially gives bonuses (positive or negative) to the AI. The AI in the game is slightly disappointing, mainly because it’s not aggressive enough and seems to only respond to a pre-determined script or the human player’s actions. The AI doesn’t become “smarter” at more difficult levels and was not overly concerned about stopping me when I invaded England: it made only feeble attempts to destroy my transport boats (a couple of bombing runs) instead of sending the brunt of its navy after me. There is a tutorial in the game, sort of. It requires playing one of the included scenarios and reading instructions printed in the manual. Since some of the game is random dice rolls, the results described in the tutorial and what happens may be different. At one point, the tutorial tells you to spend almost all of your production points but then wants you to spend some more production points (that you don’t have) later in another action! Luckily, learning the game is pretty easy for anyone that’s played one of these grand strategy games before (and most of the people interested in Strategic Command 2 have).

Unlike most games that pointlessly have hundreds of “unique” units that are really the game, Strategic Command 2 smoothes the process and only has a handful of unit classes that can be customized through research upgrades. This is one of the highlights of the game: Strategic Command 2 eliminates most of the micromanagement of running a large empire by keeping the unit count low, but having each unit represent large quantities of troops. This is part of the reason why I don’t like the smaller scenarios: there are too many units. The game is at its best when you are maneuvering 15 or so units, trying to occupy all of the area you’ve conquered. The main map scales to this representation; for example, the entire country of Belgium can only hold 10 units, and units can’t be stacked (one of the problems of games such as Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday: crazy large stacks). I’d much rather have a playable game than excruciating historical detail on every unit type. The units in the game are: HQ (gives unit bonuses), corps (small infantry unit), army (large infantry unit), tank group, engineers, paratroopers, rockets, air fleet, bombers, battleships, cruisers, carriers, and subs. And that’s it: simple, short, and sweet. Each of these units can be moved simply from one square to another or they can employ an advanced movement type, such as an airborne drop. Units that are ordered to move to a square containing an enemy unit engage in mortal kombat (insert theme music).

The combat of Strategic Command 2 is computed automatically through dice rolls. Before you attack, the game shows probable combat losses for both sides, so that you can plan your attacks accordingly and minimize your losses. Land units can attack then move or move then attack. Units that attack before moving receive a 25% bonus, encouraging smart planning and delaying combat for later turns. Air units can conduct interdiction (combat against land units), bombing (combat against land structures), interception (which is automatically done against enemy air units that come within a certain range) and escort duty (also automatic). Naval units can also conduct shore bombardment, in addition to attacking fellow naval units. I really like that the game does not hide useful information concerning possible losses during combat; this is a lot like the combat advisor of Battles in Italy (although it’s not a map-wide overlay).

Strategic Command 2 uses a simplified production model. Points are earned at the end of each turn, totaled from the number of cities, capitals, mines, and oil your borders contain, and convoys received from other countries. There’s no arrangement of 8 different resources that have to be balanced and used for different purposes, which greatly shortens the process. These points can be spent on new units (which take a number of months to complete), reinforcing existing units, upgrading units with newly researched attributes, coercing other nations to join your cause, or conducting more research.

You can purchase “chits” that can be assigned to a particular area of research. Each “chit” adds 1-5% to the chance that a new upgrade is researched in that area (large percentages for lower level research). Research is also very concrete: there is no mystery which units it’s designed to upgrade. Research areas include heavy tanks, long-range aircraft, anti-submarine warfare, and more. There’s no crazy tech tree to worry about, just attribute bonuses for your units (and some improved production or movement).

Diplomacy is also very straightforward. You can spend some production points to influence countries to join the war on your side (or prevent them from joining the other) instead of just taking everyone over. The other countries may also base their decisions on your actions: invading a neighboring country may sway their opinion. The major countries are hard-coded in as either Allied or Axis, and although not all of them start the war as active warmongers (like the U.S., Canada, and Russia), it’s really just a matter of time until they enter the fray. I’d be nice to see some flexibility with the major nations that weren’t so black and white (imagine the U.S. joining the Axis), but that’s really beyond the scope of the game.

Strategic Command 2 is a much more accessible game to the general masses than other grand strategy games like Hearts of Iron. This is a great game for beginning strategy players, as the game eliminates many of the ennui of most wargames that turns a lot of players off. Some might say the game is too simple, but those people are masochists that enjoy games they have to spend years learning and complete overly complex tasks. Strategic Command 2 is all about streamlined gameplay: units, combat, production, research, and diplomacy are all easy to handle and simple to promote your overall strategy. I would like to see more varied scenarios using the grand scale, but I bet the community will come out with some good scenarios using the game’s editors. Strategic Command 2 allows the user to customize the inner workings of the game without having to delve into some confusing scripting language. Strategic Command 2 may not have the flashy graphics of some bigger releases, but the gameplay and features are there, and that’s what really matters. If you’ve been on the fence about playing some wargames, this is one of the most user-friendly creations I’ve seen and includes the minimalism new users need and depth that should satisfy veteran players.