Thursday, April 13, 2006

Take Command: 2nd Manassas Review

Take Command: 2nd Manassas, developed by Mad Minute Games and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: An exhaustive simulation of this battle, can command few or many troops, realistic and engrossing sound, good AI on both operational and individual levels, fun tactical combat
The Not So Good: Annoying scenario time concerns, most players won’t notice any differences from the original game, no multiplayer
What say you? Still one of the best tactical strategy games available, but not many changes from the first game to warrant a doubled price tag: 7/8

If at first you do succeed, make an endless string of sequels. This is the motto of movies and computer games alike; the Madden football franchise can add one or two new features each year and continue to top sales charts, mainly because people are stupid and will buy anything with John Madden’s sexy visage on it. Take Command: 2nd Manassas is the sequel to the long-winded The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861. Not only have they shortened the name, but they’ve also made some additions to the game and headed into the future to the second battle at the famed location in northern Virginia. Featuring some famous names of the Civil War, the second battle pitted John Pope versus Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in a steel cage battle to the death (although the steel cage may be a historical inaccuracy). The first game featured great tactical combat at a budget price. The newest version is twice as much (now $40), so does it have twice the features to call for such a hike?

The graphics in Take Command: 2nd Manassas are largely the same as in the original game: pixilated up close but not too bad far away. This means the game can handle large numbers of units on the screen at once and look fairly good, and most of the time you’ll be pretty zoomed out anyway. These aren’t cutting edge RTS graphics and the game looks behind a lot of the big budget titles, but they serve their job. You can enable some new high-resolution soldiers and flags and they look good, but you need a monster machine to run it. I’ve found that the game looks the same from afar and runs much smoother (and has greatly reduced load times) using medium-quality graphics. Make sure you enable keeping all the dead bodies on the ground, however: death is funny. Still, you’ll not notice much change from the first game in the graphics department. The sound is still well done, complete with authentic battle sounds and realistic environmental effects. Take Command: 2nd Manassas doesn’t have many sounds in the sounds directory (only 86 files for 38 MB), but the developers have combined these relatively simple sounds into an effective and believable mix. Although you can spot instances of sound looping, the overall effect is still exhilarating. Take Command: 2nd Manassas is one of the better sounding real time strategy games out there.

Players who are familiar with the original game (The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861) probably want to know what additions the developers have added since the original. All of the addendums are minor but welcome: linked scenarios, double canister artillery, non-obstructive trees, high-resolution uniforms (which require a top of the line computer to run), new weapons, new commands, prone positions, and new terrain types. Most players won’t even really notice them during gameplay, as they are really small tweaks to the original formula. This game does cover a new battle with new commanders (although it happens at the same general location as the first game), but overall Take Command: 2nd Manassas feels a lot like Take Command: 1st Manassas. This version doesn't have double the features but it's definately worth $40 (the first version was, in my opinion, underpriced: a rare feat in computer gaming), and most veteran players who have any sense will end up buying it anyway.

Take Command: 2nd Manassas features everything you’d ever want to simulate from the second battle of Manassas. There is a number of different battles, where you are given charge of a predetermined commander, issued orders from your superiors (if you have any), and left to complete your objectives. Some of the scenarios are linked with later battles, and you carry your forces from one skirmish to the next. This is a nice feature: it feels like you’re fighting a real battle instead of a series of disjointed scenarios. You can also use Open Play, where you pick a battlefield, order of battle, leader, type of engagement, size, and length and have at it. This gives the flexibility to play pretty much anywhere with anyone, discarding the limits imposed by the scenario designers. You can also design your own scenarios and play them, if you want a more scripted affair. There is a series of tutorials that teach you the basics of the game. The first tutorial is good (which deals with issuing orders and troop movement), but rest are really just a series of small battles where you have to figure out what to do from the generally vague instructions. You can also edit scenarios and order of battles through a text editor so you can partially recreate your favorite battle.

Like most tactical strategy games, you are in charge of ordering units around the battlefield that fall under your command. Each of your units (which mostly consist of infantry regiments, although you may get the occasional artillery or cavalry unit) has a quality (experience level), strength (number of men), morale, fatigue, and grade (their overall score). More experienced units can be left out on the flanks of your lines, as you want to keep the morale of the n00bs up. The smallest group of units in the game is the brigade. Brigades are grouped into divisions, divisions into corps, and corps into the whole army. Better, more powerful leaders will be in charge of more troops, and it’s better to start small and work your way up to commanding larger amounts of forces. The different brigades are arranged in the order of battle, basically a family tree of who commands what. One of the shortcomings Take Command: 2nd Manassas has is that it’s difficult to determine which troops are “yours,” especially in the heat of battle commanding many different regiments. Troops are ordered to move by selecting their commanding officer, double clicking on a destination, and choosing a formation. Formations include columns (for quick movement), lines (for battle), and skirmish (to minimize damage from incoming cannon fire). You can also wheel (or turn) your troops around to face the enemy; this is important because severe damages to morale are encountered when attacked from the side or from behind, which will eventually cause your troops to run like little babies. You can also instruct your troops to use available roads (which results in quicker movement), halt, advance, fall back, move double quick, charge, or retreat. There is also a set of commands available to individual units if you take command of them. You can take command from the AI of any unit or leader under your jurisdiction if you want to tailor their actions or force them to move where you want them. The AI in the game does a good job of reflecting realistic behaviors, which sometimes results in subordinate officers disobeying your orders. Orders are delivered by couriers on horseback that can be shot.

Combat is conducted when opposing units are within range and in a line formation. They will automatically face the enemy and stay in formation, a lifesaver not found in other RTS games when your carefully placed troops just devolve into a mass of humanity. Troops will automatically engage enemy units, so you’re really there for overall strategy and troop placement; the reduced micromanagement found in Take Command: 2nd Manassas is greatly appreciated. This includes artillery units that will fire on any enemy unit within range, so they serve as an automatic demoralizer. Take Command: 2nd Manassas runs in real time, although you can use time acceleration. The problem is that the game never displays what the time acceleration level is (you just have to guess by staring at the clock) and it resets to real time whenever your troops fire or are fired upon. This is amplified by the fact that each scenario has a set length, and it doesn’t end until time expires, no matter how good (or bad) you’re doing. This gets really annoying; if you just want to advance to the end of the scenario, you’ll constantly have to press the time acceleration button, as it keeps resetting. I don’t like sitting there 30 minutes waiting for a battle to end that I’ve already won. A slider would have worked much better to keep time going at a faster rate. This is by far the biggest complaint I have about a game that's generally very polished. While you're waiting for the scenario to end, you’ll need to supply your troops with additional ammunition from supply wagons, but usually just for long, heated battles. The varied (and realistic…they base it off historical maps of the period) terrain found in Manassas has a distinct effect on troop movement and visibility. For example, troops move very slowly through the woods, and are exposed in open fields. The weather and time of day can also affect troop movement and visibility: dusk and dawn makes it more difficult to spot enemy units. At the end of each scenario you are rated according to how well your troops did (earning points for causing an enemy unit to retreat and killing enemy officers, among others) and how long you held objectives.

Is Take Command: 2nd Manassas worth the increase in money? If you already own the first game, I’d say no: there really isn’t that much new content or expanded features (other than a new battle and the progressive scenarios) to purchase this new version. There’s still no multiplayer and essentially the same graphics. Take Command: 2nd Manassas is worth $40 by itself for the amount of content it provides, but it’s still hard to ignore that basically the same game was available for half the amount not too long ago. Your score will probably depend on whether you own the first version of Take Command; Take Command: 2nd Manassas is a great game on its own, but too similar to the original title. Still, Take Command: 2nd Manassas should be in the library of any self-respecting strategy gamer, especially those with a fondness of the Civil War (thank goodness this is not another World War II game….we’re all sick of that time period by now). The ability to play any leader in any skirmish gives Take Command: 2nd Manassas the flexibility and longevity to make it worth the money, just as long as you didn’t plunk down cash for the first title. People who really, really enjoy the first game will probably end up getting this version anyway, so more power to them. I am interested in seeing how this series progresses into the future; the next installment, Shiloh, has already been announced, featuring some of the more western battles of the Civil War (because back then, Tennessee was western). Hopefully they’ll upgrade the graphics engine and add some multiplayer by then (wink wink). Shortcomings notwithstanding, Take Command: 2nd Manassas is a wonderful strategy title full of compelling gameplay and fleshed-out features.