Thursday, November 30, 2006

For Liberty! Review

For Liberty!, developed by Hussar Games and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Generally satisfactory gameplay, realistic troop recruitment and training, automated supply and naval operations, tactical battles add some variety, mostly excellent user interface
The Not So Good: Very cumbersome due to large scenario scope, high level of unit micromanagement, slow pace
What say you? A good foundation for a quality wargame that’s too overwhelming to be very fun: 5/8

Computer games are finally starting to branch out into major conflicts other than World War II: the Russo-Japanese War, the Middle East, and the Civil War have all made an appearance recently. Another increasingly popular conflict is the American Revolution, previously addressed in the excellent game Birth of America. Hussar Games brings classic wargaming conventions to this troubled time period, covering both the American and Hungarian revolutions.

For Liberty! is rendered entirely in 2-D against at 2-D hex-based map. In this sense, the game looks pretty decent: most of the units are detailed, the maps look realistic, and there are a number of small notes of detail, such as waiving flags. For a 2-D game, For Liberty! looks good and it’s generally easy to navigate. Almost all of the unit attributes and settings can be seen from the main screen, so there isn’t much navigation away from the map. The icons are clear and easy-to-read, and the game includes extensive tool tips if you aren’t quite sure what information you’re looking at. The game does need an indication of troops that have movement points left, however, as cycling through all of the available troops is awkward. The leader name is greyed out, but there needs to be some easily identifiable indication on the map that certain units have been moved. The sound is pretty much what you’d expect in a wargame: appropriate background music and generic unit movement and action effects. There are some good period pieces in the game, and the music fits the theme of well. For Liberty! offers up pretty much what you’d expect for a wargame, so as long as you’re not expecting cutting-edge 3-D graphics that will make your video card weep quietly, For Liberty! should not disappoint.

For Liberty! includes scenarios depicting the American Revolutionary War in addition to the Hungarian Rakoczi Independence War (1703-1711). The game also includes the previously-free game 1848, the basis for this title. You can play the game’s scenarios as single player or with real people in hot seat, network, or play-by-e-mail modes. For Liberty! allows for players of different levels of experience to play in the same game by granting morale boosts and allowing for simple or advanced rules (advanced rules involves settings stances and formations). All of the scenarios are very huge in scale, and there are no real good ones for beginning players like in Birth of America. The tutorial was hard to follow and sometimes did not advance correctly. Plus, information may have overflowed the text chat area and could be missed, adding to the confusion. You’re better off just reading the manual, although most of the game concepts are pretty familiar if you’ve played other wargames.

The maps in For Liberty! cover the eastern seaboard of North America or Hungary, depending on your chosen scenario. Each of the maps are divided into hexes, each of which contains a specific terrain (open, hilly, swamp, mountains) that affects troops movement and cover. Weather is also an important factor, as wintry conditions will severely limit operations. Although it is realistic, the maps need to be more streamlined and contained, as the large operational area contained in each of the maps is far too large and they have way too many cities in them. Towns are used to gain victory points and generate resources (recruits, weapons, cannons, gold, horses, and supplies), but towns are taken far too easily as most are undefended; a lot of the game involves running around in circles chasing enemy troops, capturing and losing villages every turn. It costs too much money to maintain a defending force in every town, so smaller burgs will just switch allegiances on a turn-by-turn basis. There are two ways to wrestle control of defended cities: bombarding and then assaulting a town, or starving the town by placing two armies on opposite sides of the city. If blocked, a city will no longer produce supplies and the defender will eventually run out of food, although it takes a long time. Taking over towns adds to your nation zeal, which is a global morale level, raised by capturing towns, winning battles, and some random events. This is a neat application of “momentum” during the war that rewards intelligent play. Controlling cities can also produce influence that can be used to get more recruits, raise taxes, spread bad news, or provide bonuses to certain weapons. Towns will also automatically supply nearby troops, and holding seaside ports will contribute to maintaining control of the seas. Naval operations are automated, and who controls the most ports, coupled with a historical weight of British naval superiority early in the war, will determine who can bombard coastal cities and transport troops more efficiently. In these two senses, For Liberty! reduces the amount of micromanagement the player needs to worry about, which is always a good thing. However, you’ll need to spend a lot of time tweaking your armies, as they are not automated at all.

For Liberty! includes the usual array of infantry and artillery that was present during the time period. You can issue movement orders and change their stance (rest, march, defend, retreat, siege, train) and tactics (cautious, balanced, bold). You can combine stance and tactics for interesting results, but this involves a lot of micromanagement that should really be up to the individual unit commanders. Do you think troops will just stay in march formation if attacked just because the supreme commander told them to? The style of combat in the late 18th century does not lend itself surprise attacks, so this level of unit interaction is really superfluous. You can set the game to use simple rules which eliminates the need to set stances and formations, however. Units can also be assigned to bombard or repair a fort, entrench, loot, or undergo sea transportation. There is a number of management tools available as well: you can set the pay, fill up the unit with reinforcements, upgrade the soldiers, or change their leader. With 20-50 troops walking around the map, you can imagine that this level of interaction can become tedious quite quickly. It’s strange to have a game with some parts automated (supply, navy) and others not. For Liberty! has a whole host of leaders available in the game, each with their own attack, defense, and morale levels. They are also granted up to three special abilities, such as grenadier (a morale bonus to infantry) or requisitioner (a supply bonus). Since abilities are usually for a specific type of unit, it would obviously be beneficial to have leaders command troops in their specialty. New units can be recruited at friendly cities and are recruited instantaneously, although you need to train them for several months to increase experience, readiness, and morale. This is a much more realistic way of doing things and shows the importance of veteran troops in major battles.

Speaking of battles, they can be played or resolved automatically. Troops will automatically help friendly units in neighboring hexes, which can result in some large battles and fewer multi-unit stacks on the map. Simulated battles still take a long time to resolve, as the game computes targets, morale, and rallying. It is best to set the battles to the quickest setting to quicken the pace of the game. Tactical battles are a little more interesting, as you get to individually command each individual unit in the armies involved in the battle. You can issue orders to them for movement, attacking, rotating, and assuming formations. The terrain is randomly generated, although it will generally be a similar assemblage of swamps, forests, hills, and buildings. The attacker wins if he routes 1/3 of the defending army, or the battle ends if one side has a 5:1 size advantage or time runs out. While initially different, tactical battles are too slow, tedious, and repetitive. The battles take a long time to resolve, mainly due to the large battlefields: you can spend a good half of the battle just issuing movement commands before you even see an enemy unit. While the tactical battles serve as a nice diversion from the main game, they aren’t too terribly interesting and you probably won’t bother with them unless you expect a close confrontation.

The enemy AI is pretty good, as it will exploit your weaknesses and not engage in combat unless it’s fairly certain it will win (or if there is some other strategic reason). Since games last a long time, I would imagine that most people will play against the AI instead of getting involved in a multiplayer match. For Liberty! would have worked better in smaller doses: the included scenarios are just too large and involve too many units with too many management issues. Plus, there isn't anything terribly innovative about the game that we haven't seen before in other titles. For Liberty! never had a “wow” factor that grabbed me into the game, instead throwing lots of units at you from the beginning and never really offering a good set of smaller tutorials for the less experienced players. I have more enjoyment commanding smaller numbers of troops than unwieldy large operations that require half an hour of preparation per turn. At least with equally deep games such as Dominions 3, the action is ramped up slowly over the course of the game. In For Liberty!, you’re thrown into the fire from the beginning, and this may be asking too much for most players, especially those without an extensive background in strategy games.

All of the options available to aspiring commanders should make for an enjoyable game, but I found that For Liberty! was more of a chore than an satisfying experience. I like wargames, but others have delivered a more pleasurable experience than this game. There are other games that offer just as much depth without all of the unnecessary bells and whistles present in For Liberty! A lot of the options present in the game, such as stance, should be more of a local leader decision rather than a concern of the commander-in-chief. For Liberty! tries to be both a grand strategic game and a tactical simulation, but it ends up being just too much for all but the most experienced veteran players. For Liberty! suffers from the same problem I had with Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday: the game's overall scope is too much for most people to handle. I can imagine that experienced wargamers with a passion for the American Revolution will find a lot to like here, assuming you can deal with the management of each individual troop on the map. For most people, Birth of America serves as a better introduction to the American Revolution, although the inclusion of three theaters of battles and the extensive (but gratuitous) unit options of For Liberty! can’t be ignored. Nevertheless, I just did not have more fun playing For Liberty! than other similar strategy games. The game made a valiant effort, but I can’t get past the high level of management required in areas that should be automated coupled with the large size of the scenarios.