Friday, September 01, 2006

First Battalion Review

First Battalion, developed by ZootFly and published by DreamCatcher Games.
The Good: Situational teammate commands, simple controls, usually accompanied by allies, Battlefield-like multiplayer, unique visual style for the minimap, objective locations are clearly marked
The Not So Good: Combat is not exciting and the battles are too quick, tanks don’t sound powerful enough, “destructible terrain” limited mostly to trees, poor AI results in an easy and boring campaign, checkpoint-only saved games, historical tank combat strategies are useless, simplistic damage model
What say you? An arcade tank shooter that is not sufficiently unique or stimulating: 4/8

Ever since they were first employed during World War I, tanks have been an imposing force on the battlefield. There’s something about tons of metal with an extremely large gun on them that strikes fear in the hearts of infantry all over the world. Obviously, us civilians would like to experience some of the power associated with these beasts, so game developers have been more than willing to supply us with many tank simulations. Some of these games have strived for authenticity, while others just want you to blow stuff up. First Battalion is one of the latter games, “combining some of the best elements from first-person shooters, role-playing and strategy games” and featuring “totally destructible environments,” according to the official website. Will First Battalion (also known as Panzer Elite Action: Fields of Glory in Europe) live up to these lofty goals?

The graphics of First Battalion are quite average for a tank simulation. The tanks themselves are detailed, but the environments can be quite bland. The battlefields do look realistic, though, with dirt roads, houses, and trees, but it’s not very impressive. The explosions and fire effects are overdone and campy. The animations for the soldiers are not high-quality, as they are stuff and choppy. The “totally destructible environments” are nowhere to be found: the only things that can be destroyed are trees, fences, and objective buildings. Everything else is solid as a rock: fire into a house, and it still stands. My expectations were much higher for this (I mean, the website said “totally”), and the lacking environments are disappointing at best. The sound is not as powerful as it should be: the tank turrets sound wimpy, although artillery is suitably impressive. The music in the game is a generic mix of battlefield bravado. While “totally destructible environments” would have greatly improved the situation, the graphics and sound of First Battalion are quite average.

First Battalion features a single player campaign where you control each of the major powers in World War II, going out on missions of destroying stuff. For some reason, the game doesn’t allow you to save your progress wherever you’d like as it uses a checkpoint system. The checkpoints are numerous, but I like the option of playing the game the way I want to play it instead of having arbitrary restrictions. And besides, we’re on the mighty PC, it’s not like we have memory card issues to worry about. Once you complete the battles, you can play them as single missions, though there’s no real reason to do this. Multiplayer is available through the game’s browser, and it features a Battlefield-like spawn point mode, where you try to capture all of the control points on the map. You can choose between a number of tanks, which trade speed for armor, and each has a specific secondary weapon that may range from air strike to mines. Multiplayer is a nice addition, but it’s nothing we’ve not seen before (and now you’re restricted to tanks).

Being an arcade tank game, First Battalion has very simple tank controls. Tanks turn on a dime (and really rotate too quickly) and are very easy to operate. Aiming is also simple, as you don’t need to compensate for weapon drop, and the crosshair changes color to “green” when enemy units are in your sights. You can use a secondary machine gun to eliminate troops, but the primary shells are much more effective and reload times are minimal. There is no advanced damage model in First Battalion, as incoming shells cause a generic amount of damage that can be instantly repaired at any of the game’s numerous repair stations. Some missions allow you to call in airstrike to eliminate a large group of enemies, but the amount of damage the strike cause is almost the same as a squad of tanks. The best feature of the game (sadly) is the minimap, which shows troops as “front” symbols and uses historical-looking maps, which lends a sort of authenticity to them. Objective locations are also clearly displayed, so there is not much guessing about what to do next.

The RTS part of First Battalion consists of orders you can give your squads. The game provides two choices depending on the situation, and you can choose between an offensive choice (attack, flank, recon) or a defensive choice (stop, form up). Your partners in crime will follow your orders, so the AI is good in that aspect. The system works OK, but I’d like to have more advanced commands or control over the infantry in the game to feel like I’m having a real impact on the battle instead of just my three tanks. The gameplay itself is underwhelming. Most of the missions consist of destroying stationary anti-tank guns, enemy troops, or enemy tanks. All of the enemy locations are scripted and they will always fire on sight and won’t use any cover (unless they were placed there by the map designer). It seems like the health of your tanks greatly outweighs those of the enemy, as two hits are enough to take out an enemy tank but it can take 5-10 to die yourself. This makes the game way too easy to beat and consequently very boring. Each mission plays out the same: drive, shoot, drive, shoot, drive, shoot some more. The game tries to make you feel like a small part of a larger conflict and it succeeds some of the time: missions where hordes of other tanks and planes screaming overhead are memorable but far too infrequent. The simple physics of the game also eliminates needing skill to beat the AI, and First Battalion quickly becomes an effortless shooting gallery.

I don’t think there’s been a game I’ve been more disappointed in recently than First Battalion. The game had such potential, but it’s just another tank game. The “totally destructible environments” aren’t even there, the RTS elements are minimal, and role-playing consists of reading an introduction and playing as a character. The game would have worked much better if you had more control over friendly troops and the missions in the game were of larger scale. Nobody wants to play some insignificant skirmishes over a small town involving a tiny number of tanks: we want epic battles! There’s nothing here that hasn’t been done in other games, and, worst of all, First Battalion becomes quite boring. The multiplayer is not unique enough to save the game (essentially a rip-off of Battlefield, minus the infantry), and the game is way too easy to be enjoyable. First Battalion simply falls short of the expectations for a fun and original game.