Saturday, June 17, 2006

Conquest of the Aegean Review

Conquest of the Aegean, developed by Panther Games and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Command structure and competent tactical AI reduce micromanagement as much as you prefer, excellent user interface, realistic non-hex maps with superb pathfinding, thorough documentation, map and scenario editors, unique setting, live multiplayer
The Not So Good: Narrow focus, enemy strategic AI not agressive enough
What say you? The Airborne Assault series returns with a title that will appeal to any real strategist: 8/8

You would think that by now every battle that took place during World War II has been simulated in at least one computer game. It seems that a World War II title comes out every week or two; it’s by far the most popular war to simulate (second place goes to the Agacher Strip War). However, one of the places of battle during World War II that has almost been completely ignored, especially in a region-centric title, is the Aegean Sea. Luckily, Panther Games has “Greeced” up their Airborne Assault engine (get it? HA!) for Conquest of the Aegean, an operational-level real time wargame devoid of hexes.

As I mentioned earlier (it was the last past of the last sentence of the introduction), Conquest of the Aegean doesn’t have hex-based maps. Such blasphemy in wargames shall not be tolerated! Instead, the battles in Conquest of the Aegean take place on a stylized topographical map, much like in The Star and the Crescent, but better looking. The maps clearly show the locations of towns, bridges, roads, and terrain, so that people unfamiliar with topographical maps will have no problem deciphering the landscape of the game. The units are depicted as classic NATO symbols, so wargame aficionados will feel right at home. In terms of sound, Conquest of the Aegean is pretty average. Each of the battles queue appropriate effects for the types of units involved, and there is no background music (which is probably a good thing).

Conquest of the Aegean is a large game, and subsequently there is an insane amount of documentation: a 90-page “Getting Started” Manual, a 71-page “Advanced Tutorial” Manual, a 207-page “Reference” Manual, and 135 pages dedicated to the map and scenario editors. Now that’s what I’m talking about! Each of the manuals is well written and easy to understand, even for people not familiar with wargames. Although I will say getting used to the naming conventions for military units takes some getting used to (finding II/82nd Gk Inf Bn can be difficult). Conquest of the Aegean includes 32 scenarios that cover the Aegean theater of World War II; the scenarios are rated in order of complexity in the Reference Manual, and range from small skirmishes to large scale, multi-day battles. The scenarios can be played against the computer or online against human opponents. Since Conquest of the Aegean is a real time game, multiplayer is also real time: all you need is the IP address of your opponent and you’re good to go. Typically, opponents are found through the official forums or places such as The Wargamer.

The battles take place on maps representing regions of Greece and Crete, using historical or seasonal weather that can have a great impact on the battle. These maps are two dimensional, though there are color-coded contours used to represent height. The game offers some tools to determine line of sight from any location to any other location, and also indicates what ridge is blocking your view. Roads are of upmost importance in Conquest of the Aegean, even more so than most wargames. Typically, you can just send tanks and stuff through the woods and just have the units move slightly slower. In Conquest of the Aegean, you need to keep the motorized units stuck to the roads or bring your entire army to a screeching halt. Obviously, this increases the importance of holding strategic intersections, and removes the possibility of enemy units coming from a completely unexpected direction. Conquest of the Aegean does an excellent job of pathfinding, and probably has the best pathfinding of any game in recent memory, especially wargames. You can instruct your units to take the shortest, quickest, most covered, or safest path, and the game will automatically figure out what that path is, without you having to make 50 different waypoints. This is awesome, and it’s infinitely better than moving hundreds of units one hex at a time. Not only does the pathfinding make life extremely easy on the player, but there are a host of filters to make finding specific units simple as well. Ever try to scour the battlefield to try and find that one artillery unit you need? Well, scour no more! Conquest of the Aegean can show all units, HQ units (great for reasons that will become apparent soon), line units, support units, armor units, mechanized infantry units, soft units, gun units, engineer units, bridge units, and unit with no orders. The game can also display the task, route status, strength, combat power (good for choosing an artillery target), morale, and ammunition status of each unit as a small icon on the square symbol. Conquest of the Aegean also has filters for showing more recent intelligence contacts (because enemy unit positions from an hour ago are probably unreliable), supply lines, and range of weapons. Conquest of the Aegean does an excellent job of giving the player numerous tools to make their commanding job that much easier.

Like in real military operations, your units are divided into groups (called brigades) and supervised by a commanding officer (that’s you) and your subordinate officers. In games such as The Operational Art of War III, you must issue orders to every single freakin’ unit on the map. Why should I have to do this when I have subordinate commanders to do it for me? Conquest of the Aegean says: “Damn right!” If you give an order to a brigade HQ, it gives that order through the chain of command to all of its units. Brilliant! For all those obsessive-compulsive people out there, you can give orders to every single unit on the map, but you don’t have to. Allowing the user the flexibility to command 4 HQ units or 40 individual units is a wonderful aspect of Conquest of the Aegean. Unlike some wargames (such as The Star and the Crescent), all of the orders you can issue to units are straightforward (such as attack, defend, move, probe, rest). Each order has a collection of settings to fine-tune your desires: formation, speed, route, aggression, rate of fire, facing direction, and loss tolerance. No matter which kind of order was given, the settings all default to the same values; I’d like attack to be more aggressive by default than move (then again, maybe it is and all the settings are relative). If the default order of battle is not to your liking, or you want to attach an engineer brigade to an attacking force, so can do so. In fact, most specialized units aren’t attached to any subordinate commanders at the beginning of the game, so that you can play around with them for a bit. Conquest of the Aegean incorporates order delays, than can span from no delay to average to “painfully realistic.” This simulates the time it takes from when you issue an order to when the subordinate officers actually execute the order. This makes you plan ahead more (at least if you’re a good player).

The goal of Conquest of the Aegean is to accumulate the most victory points by occupying objective locations and, to a lesser extent, killing the enemy. Points may be earned at each objective location all at once or over a period of time indicated in the game. Not all objective locations are “active” at all times, so you really need to plan ahead of where your troops are supposed to be at certain times. New to Conquest of the Aegean is the addition of exit objectives. In a lot of “defender” scenarios, your goal is to slow down the overwhelming attacking force and to exit the scenario with a certain amount of troops, and this is what the exit objectives simulate. These objectives are located where a major road goes off the map area; this makes playing as the defender more exciting, instead of just issuing “defend” orders and seeing what happens.

Combat is automatically done by your inferiors, executing your orders to the best of their abilities. The tactical AI that executes the orders is very good and realistic, and does an excellent job on both sides. However, the strategic enemy AI, that issues the orders for the computer player, is too easy to defeat. I’ve found that, in a lot of games, the enemy AI will just sit there and not actively try to occupy their objective locations for some reason, even though they could have easily defeated me with the amount of force at their disposal. They say the AI is improved, but the computer opponent just isn’t aggressive enough to provide a worthy challenge in some of the scenarios. In short, the enemy strategic AI is not aggressive enough at taking objectives, and makes beating the game a little easier than it should be. Really, the strategic AI works better as a defender than an attacker since defending involves less movement.

Conquest of the Aegean features automatic supply, where ammunition and rations are distributed from a factory to your troops, as long as there is an open road. This means controlling the road network from your supply depot to your troops is of utmost importance, and surrounding the enemy units and cutting off their supply lines is a key for victory.

Conquest of the Aegean has wider appeal than other, more traditional wargames such as The Operational Art of War III. It features real maps, superb tactical AI, and a ton of features to help the player. Conquest of the Aegean is the easiest wargame I’ve played to maneuver around, and it does this without eliminating strategic depth. However, it’s not without some small issues. The AI doesn’t seem to be aggressive enough as an attacker in a lot of the scenarios, and thus winning (especially with the less complicated scenarios) comes a bit too easy. Still, the game is strong enough to be quite fun, and the more difficult scenarios can compensate for the lack of truly excellent AI. The developers have already announced the next theater of operation (Battle of the Bulge); I’d like to see the Airborne Assault engine used in other wars in a larger context, much like the flexibility seen in The Operational Art of War III. The subsequent games in the Airborne Assault series are more like scenario expansions than full-price standalone games (although they do add some minor features), but who’s to argue when the game is this satisfying (it has been three years since Highway to the Reich, so it’s not like a sports game with minimal changes that comes out annually)? Most important of all, Conquest of the Aegean is fun without being a chore, unlike a lot of other wargames where you have to individually move hundreds of units across the map: obsessive-compulsive people might enjoy that, but not me. In the end, Conquest of the Aegean truly is a fantastic gaming achievement.