Thursday, July 06, 2006

Moscow to Berlin: Red Siege Review

Moscow to Berlin: Red Siege, developed by Monte Cristo and published by Cinemaware Marquee.
The Good: Soldier classes affect vehicles, occasionally good pathfinding, good environmental graphics, some small AI enhancements,
The Not So Good: Mostly bad pathfinding, unit clipping, difficult scenarios, no AI skirmish battles, no unique features, non-interactive tutorial
What say you? There are much better World War II tactical real time strategy games: 4/8

Despite the sheer number of World War II real time strategy games, there are few that get made into a series of titles. There are even fewer that reach four complete titles without anybody really knowing about it. Moscow to Berlin: Red Siege continues the heritage of Desert Rats vs. Afrika Korps, D-Day, and 1944: Battle of the Bulge, which were developed mostly by Digital Reality. This time, the war moves east to the appropriately named Eastern Front, where the Soviet Union and Germany duke it out for control of some really pretty farms. What will Moscow to Berlin: Red Siege do differently from all the other real time strategy games to stand out amongst the crowd?

The graphics of Moscow to Berlin: Red Siege are a strange combination. On the one hand, the environmental graphics are really good. The trees, water, roads, and terrain all have plenty of realistic detail and easily compete with the better-looking RTS games. The buildings show dynamic damage as well, resulting in a war-torn feel to the maps. The units on the maps, however, are rough and clash with the beautiful environments. The tanks are devoid of many details and look uninteresting, and the infantry units are difficult to differentiate between. Small icons represent different infantry unit classes, but they are almost too small to see. The animations make the infantry units look like they are moving in slow motion, which is a very strange effect. Like the graphics, the sound is also dichotomous. There are some good sound effects in the game, especially the sound of small rounds “pinging” against the side of tanks. The voice acting is generally poor (especially in the tutorial) and repetitive. The background music is overblown, even for a “dramatic” strategy game. Moscow to Berlin: Red Siege has both pretty good and very bad aspects of graphics and sound.

When starting to play the game, Moscow to Berlin: Red Siege kind of assumes you’ve played one of the previous titles (especially the manual), so if you’re unfamiliar with RTS games (of course, not many people are) there is a slight learning curve. The game’s tutorial is hardly interactive: you just sit and listen to the explanations given to you by the game and you don’t have any real tasks to perform to make sure you understand how to do things. You can skip sections of the tutorial by moving to the next location at any time, which is the only saving grace of the otherwise boring tutorial. Since the manual doesn’t explain how to do much of anything in the game, new players will most likely have to sit through a lecture before playing the game. Moscow to Berlin: Red Siege is a tactical real time strategy game, meaning that you are given a set of units at the beginning of the level and can’t produce any new units through resource collection; this is similar to Rush for Berlin (strategic RTS games involving resource collection include things like Rise of Legends). The only new units you may receive are sporadic reinforcements; the time reinforcement will arrive is never given nor do you know how many you’ll receive, which hinders your strategic options. Moscow to Berlin: Red Siege includes twenty scenarios over three campaigns about the Eastern Front, from the beginning of Operation Barbarossa in 1941 to the fall of the Reichstag in 1945. You play the first half as Germany and the second half as Russia, so you’re always attacking. The scenarios are very challenging because the odds are always stacked against you; Moscow to Berlin: Red Siege is not very friendly to beginning players. Even on “easy” difficulty, the game is pretty hard because the scenarios are really hard (bordering on unfair) by design. The game also features three modes of multiplayer action: conquer (domination), capture the flag, and deathmatch, all of which we’ve seen before. Disappointingly, there are no AI skirmish matches (nor adding AI players to online matches), so you’re stuck with either the campaigns or multiplayer with real people. Completed scenarios from the campaigns can be played one at a time if you so choose. The amount of content and replay value seen in Moscow to Berlin: Red Siege is below many of the competing real time strategy games. The multiplayer modes are unoriginal and there are no AI skirmish battles. The campaigns take a while to complete mainly because of how complex they are. We expect more out of a RTS game these days.

Being a tactical real time strategy game, you are ordered with moving units around and engaging enemy forces. The game features a pretty good array of units: various types of infantry (riflemen, machine guns, rocket launchers, anti-mine, medics, scouts, flamethrowers), tanks, guns, and trucks. The most interesting part about the units (and about the game) is that you can load infantry units onto vehicles to give them bonuses. For example, putting a scout on a tank increases the vision of the vehicle. Putting some medics in a truck turns it into a mobile hospital. This is pretty cool, but unfortunately is about the only thing about Moscow to Berlin: Red Siege that is pretty cool. Like a lot of other things in the game, pathfinding has some pretty good and really bad characteristics. Vehicles such as jeeps will follow roads to their destinations instead of plowing through the forest (a complaint of the lumberjack tanks in Rush for Berlin). They will also turn around using a three-point turn (instead of magically rotating): that’s something I don’t remember seeing in any other game (or at least done as well). The pathfinding of the infantry is generally horrible. Couple the slow movement (and poor animation) of the infantry units with the numerous clipping problems in the game, and Moscow to Berlin: Red Siege is a mess. Infantry will disappear into the sides of tanks, tanks to go into other tanks: it just looks bad. Units will constantly get blocked by other units, which only accentuates the problems.

Units can be issues the general move/attack/stop orders, in addition to some special orders for firing upon neutral buildings, healing nearby units, or laying mines. Moscow to Berlin: Red Siege has some aspects of location-specific damage: you can instruct your units to fire upon the tracks (the game calls them “caterpillar”) or guns of tanks to disable them, instead of going for the overall vehicle hit points. It’s much easier to disable one of those two parts than taking down the whole tank, and a tank is much less effective if it can’t fire or move. Airstirkes are sometimes available to bombard enemy locations, although since the action moves quickly in the game and the planes are very slow, they are almost useless except against heavily fortified locations. Each of your units can be instructed to move in the vicinity of a move command or to move freely. This looks good on paper, but doesn’t work as well in practice (due to the pathfinding issues). Move freely with support units works pretty well (sappers will automatically disable mines), but you generally don’t want other units wandering around the map. There are some new AI features noted in the manual: retreating and surrendering soldiers (stolen from wargames), infantry automatically jumping off tank transports if they are being fired upon, and automatic weapon changing. These are all superficial and you really won’t notice them. The AI is not a very good opponent, nor a good comrade in directing your units to behave “smart.” Because of this, you’ll need to micromanage the game a lot, instructing individual units to complete specific tasks at specific locations. This can be a problem due to the number of units on the maps, and how spread out they can become. Moscow to Berlin: Red Siege is just not that fun to play, and doesn’t offer any overwhelmingly new features to make the gameplay unique. We’ve seen all of this before (in better or more distinctive games), and it’s just getting tired by now.

So what sets Moscow to Berlin: Red Siege apart? Nothing really, and that’s the main problem. There is nothing unique or outstanding about this game, and even the better features have a few deficiencies. I like the pathfinding of the vehicles and the realism of jeeps not turning on a dime, but infantry has definite problems finding their way, and can even magically “enter” the side of a tank due to clipping problems. I don’t remember a game that had as many good and bad things in the same areas. Good and bad graphics. Good and bad sound. Good and bad pathfinding. Overly difficult scenarios. It’s pretty frustrating because Moscow to Berlin: Red Siege has potential to be a good game, it just doesn’t execute. The best feature of the game (infantry skill additions to vehicles) doesn’t add enough to the experience to make the game feel different from all the other RTS games out there. Plus, this version of the game is barely changed from any of the previous titles in the series except for the different setting, more German and Russian units, and some AI tweaks. Publishing essentially the same game four times in a row smacks of a sports title, and we will not tolerate that kind of thing in strategy games. Why don’t you do yourself a favor and pick up either Combat Mission or Rush for Berlin (or both), because they are both better than this RTS rehash.