Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Battlefront Review

Battlefront, developed by SSG and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Solid gameplay, game editors
The Not So Good: No introductory scenarios, only four missions, still has cumbersome unit stack controls, only subtle differences from previous games
What say you? The Decisive Battles series moves to the battalion level, and it’s a lot of the same: 5/8

As we’ve seen with Paradox’s Europa Universalis series, if you have a good engine, exploit it for all its worth. SSG as done this with their Decisive Battles series, bringing us hot wargaming action in Russia, Normandy, and Italy. Now, their engine has been brought to the battalion level to give you more individual control over units in the generically-named Battlefront. Has SSG made enough changes in the engine and gameplay to merit another purchase?

Battlefront looks and sounds eerily similar to Battles in Italy; in fact, you probably couldn’t tell the two games apart by looking at them. The game’s maps are more detailed than most 2-D wargames, but the graphics are starting to look dated when compared to the more contemporary 3-D offerings available on the market. The engine is essentially unchanged since Korsun Pocket (released almost four years ago), and it wasn’t exactly cutting-edge then. You would think some enhancements could be made in the two years since the last game, but apparently not. The same goes for the sound: other than the new background music, the rest of the effects are present from earlier games. I’m not expecting a huge improvement in the graphics and sound, but some additional embellishments would be nice.

Like SSG’s other games, Battlefront includes a paltry four scenarios covering major conflicts of World War II (Gazala, Market Garden, Novorossisk, Saipan). Each scenario can take a while to complete, however, because of the large number of units involved. However, this still pales in comparison to games like Conquest of the Aegean. There is a silver lining, though: Battlefront comes with full-featured editors, where you can create your own maps, units, and orders of battle. This is the real highlight of the game, and I’m hoping the community comes out with some quality scenarios to extend the life of the game. Battlefront is tough for new players to get in to, since the game lacks a tutorial or even a small introductory scenario. The game is really intended for those who have played previous SSG games, and this is exemplified through the lack of in-game help. Battlefront isn’t the most complicated wargame in the world, but novices will most likely be scared off too soon.

The object of a scenario is to accumulate the most victory points by the end, either by holding victory locations or dominating your opponent. Each game can be customized like previous games: weather, supply, fog of war, reinforcements, and combat advisor options can be changed for handicapping purposes. You can also play the game against the much-improved AI, by e-mail, or on the same computer, since turns are not simultaneous. For the most part, Battlefront has the same gameplay as Battles in Italy, so go back and read that review to get a handle on the basics. The changes from the previous games are really under the hood: dice rolls, the AI, unit attributes. Most people who aren’t greatly familiar with the series won’t even notice the differences, other than the new scenarios. Battlefront does move to a smaller scale, giving you more control over individual units, which alters the gameplay slightly. The game focuses more on specialized units with specific roles (support, amphibious, naval bombardment) than previous games that put all of them together as one unit. The downside is that you now have a whole bunch of units to control now, and you need to micromanage them in order to utilize their special abilities. Some of the scenarios are quite huge and overwhelming, especially for beginning players. The excellent core gameplay from previous games is intact, however, featuring air and land interdiction through bombing and minefields, transport by truck and rail, the advanced but mostly automated supply model, blowing and repairing bridges, and replacements. The wonderful combat advisor is still around, showing odds for every possible conflict on the map. This is an extremely useful tool to access which fights are worth the effort, and it’s one of the best features of the series. Also new are the combat tables, which show how terrain and weather affect the odds of winning a battle. If you use the combat advisor, it rendered the tables a bit useless, but they are still helpful for overall strategy planning. The user interface is also unchanged, and the game still has an awkward method of selecting and deselecting units. Battlefront feels a bit too familiar to appeal to anyone other than people obsessed with the series.

Most people won’t notice a difference between Battlefront and earlier SSG games. Sure, the game plays out a little bit differently, but the similarities are still too many. You need to have more changes other than new scenarios in new settings and some minor AI tweaks to have a completely successful game; Battlefront’s changes just seem to be too minor for anyone other than the developers and fans to notice. The graphics are the same, the sound is the same, the interface is the same, and the game has actually grown more complex with more individual units and more special abilities. Though I like the series, it’s time for SSG to take Decisive Battles and move it in a different direction, possibly with a graphics overhaul or a new setting (World War II is getting tiresome). Only hardcore fans of the Decisive Battles series will find the subtle differences between Battlefront and earlier games to be enough to invest in this new title.