Thursday, March 29, 2007

Making History: The Calm & The Storm Review

Making History: The Calm & The Storm, developed by Muzzy Lane and published by Strategy First.
The Good: Fantastic global economy, conquering and releasing nations has real benefits, research options open up different strategies, combat strength rating is strategically useful, transporting units is easy, total military conquest unnecessary for victory, scenario editor
The Not So Good: Selecting and grouping units is a gigantic pain, only a handful of nations to play, AI nations reject a lot of proposals even with good relations (but then propose similar proposals next turn), peacetime is boring once you get your economy set, no central multiplayer server
What say you? A great trade and production model but poor military controls in this approachable grand strategy game: 6/8

Grand strategy games have a special place in my heart. There’s nothing more exhilarating than taking the helm of a country and completely screwing it up. There have been a number of quality titles published recently, including Forge of Freedom and the granddaddy of them all, Europa Universalis III. Taking a more educational approach to World War II grand strategy is Making History: The Calm & The Storm, an adaptation of a school-based program reworked for the masses. How will the game stack up against the other grand strategy games available on the market?

Making History: The Calm & The Storm features a 3-D version of a 2-D map, strongly reminiscent of Diplomacy. The map looks pretty good from the tilted perspective, and although the units have stiff animations, the central map of Making History: The Calm & The Storm does its duty (heh, I said “duty”). The sound is pretty typical for a grand strategy game: generic and sporadic sound effects and appropriate background music for the genre. There is nothing spectacular about the graphics and the sound of Making History: The Calm & The Storm, but they are adequate.

Making History: The Calm & The Storm lets you control one of eight countries starting at certain important dates during World War II (invasion of Poland, D-Day, Pearl). Even though the game the game features over eighty countries, you’re restricted to choosing one of the big players: the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, Italy, Japan, and China. It might not be as interesting to play as, say, Venezuela (although their part in the global oil economy is important), but giving the user the freedom to choose any country on the map should be included in the game. The game offers a tutorial to teach you the basics of the game, but it’s too short and leaves a lot of gaps, especially if you’re unaccustomed to grand strategy games. Making History: The Calm & The Storm does have a scenario editor that will be released as a future download. You can play any of the scenarios against the competent AI or online, although the game lacks a central matchmaking server.

One of the more important aspects of a grand strategy game is the user interface, and the one featured in Making History: The Calm & The Storm is adequate. Almost all of the information is shown on the data panel on the right, which doesn’t cover up the map. You can also access most information through multiple means, and the data is shown in a clean and clear representation. The interface closely mirrors that of Europa Universalis III, which is definitely a good thing. The best aspect of Making History is the robust economic options. The economy of the game is broken down into two parts: production and resources. Each city produces a number of production points that can be spent to produce goods, arms, military units, or research. Research is conducted to unlock better units, produce more resources, or develop the atomic bomb. Production rates can be increased with improved infrastructure if you spend the cash for them. Production points don’t carry over like resources do so you must spend all of them each turn. Typically, you’ll put most of your production into goods during peacetime (to make money) and shift your focus once war is declared. While cities are responsible for production, provinces contain structures that produce resources. You are shown clear numerical data on your current usage rates and any shortcomings can be made up for on the world market. Essentially, each country offers a portion of their resources to anyone to purchase; you would usually want to sell surplus goods to make up for shortcomings or make a cash profit in trade. It’s a really well executed and realistic system, and it’s clearly the highlight of the game. No other game shows the interconnected nature of the global economy, and how dependent other countries are on each other to supply needed goods.

Since Making History: The Calm & The Storm revolves around World War II, eventually people are going to start shooting, and forming alliances will become a key component. The diplomatic options of Making History are typical for a grand strategy game: declaring war, granting military access, seceding territory, embargoing (a powerful tool with the wonderful economics in the game), and making alliances. Alliances will follow the government types (fascist governments are more likely to align), so the war will typically play out the same each time, although there is some room for alternate histories. AI countries are hesitant to form alliances unless they really need the military backing, though, so most nations will remain independent until the fur starts to fly. Combat is straightforward: order troops to move to an enemy location, with air and naval support to your primary ground units. A combat strength rating is given for friendly and enemy divisions, which is very useful for planning an attack and looking for weaknesses in your enemy’s defenses. However, the enemy numbers are only accurate if you scout ahead of time with your air force. Battles typically last multiple turns (each turn is a week), and combat is resolved according to the composition and quality of your forces. Your military might consists of land units (infantry, tanks, artillery), the air force (bombers and fighters), and your navy (carriers, destroyers). Moving land units across bodies of water is very easy, as transport craft are automatic; you should still escort them with naval vessels, however. The military aspect of Making History is not without its problems, however. First, a unit stack icon gives no indication on how large the force is unless you select it. Secondly (and more importantly), combining troops is a real chore. You can’t “box” around a group of units to combine them: they must be selected individually. This take a long, long time when you have a large force, which will be the case since you’re limited to commanding an important country. Large empires like the United Kingdom have single military units in all of their colonies; this makes finding troops from the unit list difficult as you must scroll through a bunch of unconsolidated forces.

Victory is determined from the world power score. This is calculated from manpower, industrial power, resource production, and global economy. This means you don’t need to win an all-out war to achieve victory, just maintain a good economy. This, of course, can (must) be gained through military means, but it’s nice to see that total global military domination is not the bottom line. Plus, you can win if just your alliance has the best aggregate score, so making lots of friends has its benefits. The score tally in the lower right-hand corner is useful in determining which countries would make good allies, or which nations you should be wary of.

I find Making History: The Calm & The Storm to be far more approachable to new players than its direct competitor Hearts of Iron. Making History doesn’t have the longevity of Europa Universalis III, but it does have much wider appeal and a marvelous economic simulation. The game’s shortcomings are generally minor: I wish you were able to control every country in the game, and the military unit selection controls need some work. The economic aspects of the game are really strong, and a little bit more polish in the military side of the game would make this a very intriguing title. Making History comfortably slides in to a close third in the grand strategy game pecking order (behind #1 and close to #2), which is certainly a good place to be.