Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Theatre of War Review

Theatre of War, developed by 1C Company and published by
The Good: Great realistic gameplay, manageable force sizes, easy to find and select troops, self-sufficient AI, RPG-like character development, off-screen artillery and air support units are appropriately powerful, five campaigns for various countries with nice level design, mission editor, detailed graphics
The Not So Good: Vehicle pathfinding is atrocious, no multiplayer matchmaking, can be difficult for beginners
What say you? A mostly fantastic small-scale tactical World War II game: 7/8

Two of the most renowned titles in PC gaming are IL-2 Sturmovik and Combat Mission. IL-2 Sturmovik has been regarded as one of the best combat flight simulations, while Combat Mission used a WEGO format to create one of the best World War II tactical strategy games. Now, only if you could combine the minds behind these two great products. Well, that’s exactly what they’ve done in Theatre of War, another World War II real time strategy game that might be just another title if it weren’t for its strong pedigree. Combining IL-2 Sturmovik and Combat Mission…how could you go wrong? Will Theatre of War provide any new flavor to the RTS gameplay model, other than a European-spelled title?

Theatre of War uses a slightly modified version of the IL-2 Sturmovik engine, and the game looks very similar. The first thing you’ll notice about Theatre of War is the outstanding backgrounds. This is a direct result of using the IL-2 engine and it’s quite impressive to look out into the distance; the backgrounds do a very good job in making you think you’re playing in a real place rather than in an isolated level in a computer game. The details up close aren’t too shabby either and the effects rival those found in Company of Heroes. Most of the levels take place in small towns and the surrounding farmland, and the tall grass mixed with sporadic trees and hedgerows create a great setting for the battles. Animations for reloading guns and weapon hits are superbly modeled: watching artillery rounds fly overhead and impact the ground is outstanding fun. Also, witnessing rounds ricochet off tanks (a testament to the advanced ballistics in the game) is something I can’t remember seeing in any other game. The graphics of Theatre of War are top-notch and a joy to look at. The sound is fairly average for a strategy game. Despite having native speech for all of the sides in the game (the Poles actually speak Polish), the music isn’t that memorable or enjoyable and the level of chaos never approaches the likes of Company of Heroes. Maybe it’s because the pace of Theatre of War is slower than other RTS games, but the battles don’t seem as frantic as they should be. The weapons lack the punch they should have, except for the off-screen artillery and aircraft. The sound just doesn’t come together as well as in other games, but the production values of Theatre of War are still very high and the graphics are impressive.

In Theatre of War, you will engage the enemy from the perspective of all five major players during World War II: the Allies (United States and United Kingdom), France, Germany, Poland, and Russia. There are a total of 41 scenarios scattered across these five campaigns, in addition to five tutorial missions, seven stand-alone missions, and eight maps for multiplayer. This is a good amount of content and it gives you the opportunity to play will all of the wonderful toys available to the commanders back in the 40s. Units from missions in each of the game’s campaigns will carry over, gaining experience and raising their stat levels. If the included missions aren’t enough, there is a mission editor included in the game so that adventurous people can develop their own missions and entire campaigns. No doubt the community will latch onto these tools. There are a couple of things that sets the scenarios of Theatre of War apart from the typical conflicts present in all those other World War II strategy games. While most games are trying to simulate the largest possible conflict your computer is capable of, Theatre of War is happy giving you intimate control over a couple of small sets of units. You’ll typically get a couple of infantry companies and a few tanks and that’s it (or their equivalents). I like this refreshing change of pace, and it makes the scenarios of Theatre of War very easy to manage. Also, the maps the game takes place on are huge: you’ll be encountering the enemy at realistic distances instead of the close quarters battles present in pretty much any other game. Sighting units hundreds of meters away and engaging them is a common affair; in this sense, Theatre of War is like the RTS equivalent of ArmA where battles take place over large areas. Of course, the downside to this is that it takes a realistically long time for reinforcements to arrive. You can play Theatre of War on several difficulty levels, although you should choose the veteran’s level to experience all of the advanced rules of the game. While Theatre of War features multiplayer, the game is disappointing in the online aspect: there is no matchmaking service in the game, so you have to manually input servers to join (obviously prearranging a game through outside means). This is pretty disappointing as Theatre of War has the capabilities to be quite a fun online game with two sides duking it out, but finding opponents from inside the game is not possible.

Between each mission you get to spend points on acquiring new troops and reinforcing existing ones. Some of the scenarios lock you into picking certain arrangements and the selection possibilities are limited (in order to make a more balanced scenario, no doubt) so you don’t have the freedom of Combat Mission in selecting your forces. Captured equipment can be used, and obsolete equipment can be replaced for newer, shinier models. The complexity of the simulation engine becomes apparent once you look at the unit attributes. Each personal weapon and vehicle in the game is given a slew of ratings: gun range, rate of fire, reload time, bullet speed and penetration, vehicle speed, and armor values for the front, side, back, top, and bottom of both the hull and turret. All of this precise information isn’t just for looks: they are used in computing whether each individually tracked shell causes any damage to its target. This results in some effects that aren’t seen in other games (or aren’t as truthful), such as ricochets and disabling turrets and tracks. The amount of depth provided by Theatre of War in simulating each weapon in the game provides some very accurate battles at realistic distances. Each person in the game is also rated in different skill areas: leadership, driver, gunner, scouting, marksmanship, intelligence, health, and morale. These skill levels can influence spotting enemy units, weapon accuracy, and more. Units gain experience and increase their skills through combat, so it’s important to keep your most experienced units alive. The ratings have a couple of ramifications. People used to just assigning random troops to captured weapons will have to consider how effective your gunner or scout will be based on their ratings. It’s another layer of realism (and micromanagement) that’s nice but also manageable because of the small sizes of the battles.

The user interface is one of the highlights of Theatre of War. The game makes finding friendly and enemy units that are off-screen very simple, as they appear as icons on the edge of the screen; clicking on an icon will take you straight to them. Since the battles usually involve a small number of troops, you can easily switch around to your different lines and check on the status of each unit. The minimap is also well-done and provides useful information. Theatre of War does feature more limited commands than Combat Mission; this is good for beginners but bad for more experienced players. Other than the basic movement commands, you can order troops to stop, attack, provide area fire, assault, defend, retreat, rotate, attach, disembark, hold fire, and hold position. I prefer the command style of Combat Mission, giving more options for movement and engagement orders. The AI does a very competent job in choosing targets, but they will move out of defensive positions to get closer to the enemy if they are not specifically told to hold position. You can issue movement (standing, kneeling, crawling) and formation orders as well, choosing loose formations when under artillery attack, tight when breaking through enemy lines, free for custom formations, line for maximum firepower, wedge to protect flanks, and column for road travel.

Support craft, like aircraft and artillery, can be called in and they are pretty impressive in their firepower: they are as lethal as they should be, and watching shells fly overhead and pound enemy positions is very exhilarating. To round out the realistic weapon information is a line of sight model that uses the landscape’s features (topography, buildings, trees) and realistic ballistics. Whether a shell hits an object depends on the performance of the gun, the performance of the shell, distance to the target, whether the target is moving, whether you are moving, if you can see it, the point of aim, the gunner skill, and weapon scatter. Just to show the emphasis on realism present in Theatre of War, there are nine types of shells in the game, including everyone’s favorite APCNR (armor-piercing subcaliber composite non-rigid shell…duh!). All of this realism isn’t perfect though, and the problems result from the AI. Vehicle pathfinding is horrible: units will go through grass and run over trees (sadly reminiscent of Rush for Berlin) instead of using the roads. In addition, vehicles have a real problem traveling in groups, as the lead vehicle slows down a lot when turning (usually to go off the road into a tree), which causes massive backups down the line. Moving a column of armored units takes about three times longer than it should, and precious seconds are ticking away as your vehicles play bumper cars kilometers away from the front lines. Other than this, Theatre of War is a solid strategy game that features very realistic ballistics and rewards thoughtful planning. It will be terribly difficult for beginners as you need to plan your troop positioning well and you can’t just send a bunch of mixed forces into the breach without any preparation. I like what the game is trying to do with its emphasis on smaller battles, and it delivers a fun gaming experience with only a couple of deficiencies.

Theatre of War is a sound real time strategy game and its smaller focus and solid AI make it stand out against the wealth of competition. The graphics engine derived from IL-2 Sturmovik look very good in the game, especially when it comes to unit animations and the spectacular backgrounds. I really like the more intimate battles present in Theatre of War: this makes the game more accessible to new users while allowing micromanagers to individually control each unit if they choose. Of course, you can also let the AI target their own enemy units since the AI is smart enough to be generally left alone. Theatre of War is a difficult game, and those people who are accustomed to just throwing units at the enemy and hoping for the best will get quickly beaten. Theatre of War emphasizes good positioning and appropriate countering of enemy units: no longer are you able to use infantry units to take out a tank that are not equipped with anti-tank weaponry. The variety of scenarios and character development options, along with the mission and map editors, make Theatre of War a total package. If they fixed the vehicle pathfinding, then Theatre of War would be one of the most complete World War II strategy games available. There are many good things about the title, and as long as you’re willing to think while you play, Theatre of War provides a rewarding strategy experience.