Friday, May 05, 2006

The Star and the Crescent Review

The Star and the Crescent, developed by ProSim Company and published by Shrapnel Games.
The Good: Novel subject area, convincing simulation of modern warfare, scenario editor, can run ATF engine scenarios
The Not So Good: Steep initial learning curve, less than intuitive orders, “realistic” graphics (meaning NATO symbols on a topo map), read-along tutorial, game doesn’t give hints on when or why to do something
What say you? A low frills but accurate simulation of a unique conflict that’s not very straightforward: 5/8

Throughout the ages, wars have been fought for various reasons: religion, idealism, Jennifer Aniston. This is ripe territory for video games, as you can fight the good fight without worrying about death and dismemberment. Recently, games have started to branch out from World War II and cover other conflicts around the world, such as Vietnam, the American Revolution, or Civil War. A truly untapped resource is the Arab/Israeli conflicts of recent memory, most notably the Yom Kippur War in 1973 (I remember it like it was 33 years ago). The Star and the Crescent uses the Armored Task Force tactical engine and applies it to this unique setting. This game takes the approach from a commander level, where you give orders to various groups of units to achieve an overall objective.

The Star and the Crescent uses a genuine approach to the graphics, meaning that you’ll be staring at NATO square icons on a topographical map just like real commanders do. This is realistic, but not very exciting to watch. There are some small explosions and the like, but not being able to see your troops in a real world setting detracts from some of the joy. As long as you know how to read a topographical map, you can envision what the map looks like in real life, but that’s still too much imagination left up to the user. We’ve come to the point that wargames might be expected to offer some sort of graphical goodness, or at the very least detailed static units. The Star and the Crescent takes the more realistic NATO approach and the results are underwhelming. The sound is worse off: there are only a few, annoying effects in the game that quickly become quite bothersome. It’s relatively silent until the battle begins, but then the sharply loud sound being: rocket, machine gun, explosion, tank turret, explosion, machine gun, machine gun, explosion. Although there are 37 total sounds in the game, it seems like a lot less, since the loudest effects dominate the landscape. The sound is pretty disappointing, especially since it could have taken some of the slack left from the graphics.

The Star and the Crescent is a real time tactical strategy game, but you can (and should) pause time frequently. There are 15 missions that span conflicts in the Middle East from 1956 all the way to the year 2009 (the future, Conan?). Most of the scenarios take place during the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, but there are some other skirmishes, including some speculative future events. The game features multiplayer and there is a sort of matchmaking service: a website where you can contact other players to set up a match. Considering that the number of people who’ll probably play The Star and the Crescent is relatively low (compared to GameSpy Arcade offerings), this is an adequate way of doing things. Each scenario is supplemented with a history lesson and general strategy. The game overlays the topo map with areas of interest and a broad guide to what you’re supposed to do, but you can place your troops and move anywhere you’d wish: freedom that’s both welcome and strange for such a seemingly realistic and historically accurate game. The game is designed to be played by giving commands to companies, but you can instruct individual units on what to do. The game boils down to issuing movement commands and giving missions. Moving units requires right clicking, choosing “path,” then moving or creating waypoints on the map. As you’ll see, The Star and the Crescent takes an easy task and makes it much more difficult to accomplish, in the interest of allowing the user more flexibility and control. You can put your troops in different formations, but neither the game nor the manual ever says why you’d want them in formation, or which formations to use. I suppose all gamers automatically know when to employ an “echelon right” formation. Giving a mission, like movement, is also overly complex. In most games, attacking means clicking on the enemy. In The Star and the Crescent, attacking involves specifying an objective area, the mode of travel, the route, the formation they should assume when they reach the destination, when they should attack, when to abort, the formation to assume when aborting, the assaulting formation, the initial movement formation, the consolidation formation, and the assault mode. Sure, this gives hardcore gamers the flexibility to make their troops to exactly as they say, but most people won’t care. How do I know what the consolidation formation should be? The manual doesn’t offer any suggestions, so I guess it’s up to trial and error. The game is also vague in other areas; for example, the game assumes you know what a “fire mission” does and why it’s different from an attack order. The maps are also devoid of scales, so it’s difficult to determine the distances involved when moving your troops. The game does give you most the options that are available to real commanders, such as placing and breaching obstacles, deploying mines, using smoke, and calling in air support. You can also accelerate time to get past those boring parts of the scenario.

The Star and the Crescent is probably one of the hardest games to get a handle on that I’ve played. It tries to find a happy medium between realistic play and easy play, but it doesn’t accomplish this. For every part of the game that is streamlined and simple to do, there’s an underlying layer of complexity that ramps up the difficulty. It seems there should be an easier way to control forces realistically without having all the unnecessary instructions found here. In addition, you can’t attack specific targets, so it feels like the game is playing itself once the action starts, especially if you don’t understand what all the commands mean. The graphics and sound won’t attract those gamers intimidated by wargames either. As long as you know enough about modern warfare (such as appropriate formations and what orders mean in real life), you will probably find a semi-interesting game that covers a unique conflict. However, most gamers will probably be turned off by the odd combination of simplicity and complexity.