Sunday, July 01, 2007

Commander: Europe at War Review

Commander: Europe at War, developed by Slitherine Strategies and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Very streamlined gameplay with the right balance between automation and control, neat convoy-sub dynamic, painless naval transports, manageable unit count, simplified supply and research, generally decent AI, intuitive user interface
The Not So Good: Can only play all allied or all axis nations, predictable history
What say you? A grand strategy game without all that annoying minutiae: 7/8

Oh boy, another World War II strategy game! That’s right: your prayers have been answered! There has been numerous grand strategy games involving World War II released recently, including Making History, Hearts of Iron 2, and the eerily similar Strategic Command 2, and we can now add Commander: Europe at War to the list. Brought to you by the people responsible for Legion Arena and Chariots of War, Commander: Europe at War puts you in the shoes of the world’s greatest leaders during the largest conflict. Will Commander: Europe at War distinguish itself from the hordes of similar titles?

Compared to other wargames, Commander: Europe at War looks about average. Most of the game takes place on the main map, which is fairly detailed with terrain and rivers scattered about Europe. The unit icons could be clearer when you are at the intermediate zoom level (it’s hard to tell which side they are on and whether they have moved), but in general the game looks good enough. One of the stronger points of Commander: Europe at War is the fantastic user interface. Every action in the game is put on the main screen in the form of large icons that makes the game very easy to handle. You won’t be wading through layer upon layer of stat screens or small buttons to do simple actions. Commander: Europe at War was designed with the user in mind, and the straightforward user interface makes learning and playing the game simple. Commander: Europe at War features typical sounds for a grand strategy game in terms of both the background music and sound effects. While the overall quality of the graphics and the sound are common in the wargame hierarchy, the user interface puts Commander: Europe at War slightly above average.

In Commander: Europe at War, you will either command the axis or allied forces in Europe during World War II. The game makes you play all of the nations for a particular side, so if you play as the allied forces, you will need to control the US, UK, and USSR. This is a strange decision, since resources are separate for each nation, so it would seem as though you could control one and have the AI play the others. This also means that multiplayer games are limited to just two players instead of allowing for team play that could have been quite interesting. Other than single player action against the AI, you can play against other people in hot seat, play by e-mail, or Internet (using known IP addresses, no matchmaking) multiplayer modes. You can pick from any starting year between 1939 and 1944 and set handicaps to grant increased resources for one player. There is a handful of game rule options to choose from: ending date, more random research, and requiring oil consumption for movement. Commander: Europe at War is turn based and each turn lasts about three weeks that makes for a fairly fast pace, much preferred over other strategy games that just drag along, especially near the end of the game. Victory is earned by controlling the most enemy capitals at the end of the game.

Resource management in Commander: Europe at War is a far cry from the 57 resources in Hearts of Iron 2 (this is hyperbole, or exaggeration for comedic effect; there are actually 72 resources), as you only really have to worry about production points, a catch-all resource for doing almost everything in the game. Production points are earned from cities and, for the allies, convoys. I really like the automated convoy model in the game: resources travel across the ocean from the U.S. to England and Russia, and German U-boats can intercept and sink them. This is the only game I can remember that represents this relationship this well. These production points can be used for recruiting new units, upgrading and repairing existing units, and building additional research labs. You are limited in the amount of troops you can recruit by the manpower: if you purchase too many troops, the quality of the new units suffers. There are some minor resources in the game: oil for movement and attack, instantaneous railroad movement to any core city, and war effort that increases as time goes on to increase production rates.

The politics of Commander: Europe at War are simple at best: you can declare war. There’s no preventing enemy nations from eventually declaring war on you, and all of the real world events will occur when they did in real life. So, you know when Russia will enter the war and you know when the United States will enter the war and there is nothing you can do about it. This removes any uncertainty that can make for good replay value and it is disappointing. When you do start fighting, the types of units in Commander: Europe at War are streamlined. You control large numbers of units, so it’s assumed that an infantry corps includes anti-tank units and anti-air units with them, so it greatly reduces potential headaches in the game. There are only eleven units in the game: garrison, infantry corps, motorized corps, armor, fighter, tactical bomber, strategic bomber, sub, destroyer, battleship, and carrier. I like this reduction in complexity and it makes handling the game a lot easier. Notice there are no transport units: all you have to do is move a land unit into a port square and it automatically turns into a transport. Fantastic! This is great, as it makes it simple but also rewards patrolling the sea lanes since transports can be easily destroyed. I last saw this mechanic in Rise of Nations: I liked it then and I like it now. Fighters are also automated: incoming and outgoing attacks will be accompanied by fighters if they are within range. While some people might complain that a lot of the tactics are removed, I like it. Personally, I don’t care whether an attack happens at 8:30 AM or 9:00 AM, just that it happens. If units have not moved or attacked, they can be repaired or upgraded with spare production points.

Research is conducted over five areas: infantry, armor, air, navy, and general. To conduct research, you spend research points on a lab and then that lab conducts research in three topics in their particular area. Once completed, bonuses can be given to existing units by upgrading them. You can focus on a particular area as well, and turning on random research results in a much more interesting game, as you can play towards your strengths. Supply is very simple: as long as you have a connection to any friendly city, you are good to go. Because of this, it is a good idea to invade coastal cities first, because those cities can then provide supply. Personally, advanced supply modes with trucks and the like never really interested me, and I’m a commander, darn it, not a quartermaster: let someone else worry about it.

Since Commander: Europe at War is a game about war (it’s in the title, after all), eventually you are going to shoot stuff. Commander: Europe at War has clearly displayed odds, just like Battles in Italy, and the game uses unit stats and terrain to determine the winner. Unit effectiveness, which can be reduced by being bombed or attacked by superior units, is a lot like morale in other games. This makes tactical bombing an important aspect of the game and infantry units more than just place holders, as they can eliminate armored units under the right conditions. Units can also gain experience through combat, increasing its quality. The AI in the game is pretty good, although they don’t seem to produce the same volume of units as a human player does. Speaking of unit volumes, the sheer number of units in Commander: Europe at War is very reasonable. Since units can’t be stacked, you don’t really need tons of units to hold a line and this helps the game appeal to players of all management skill levels. You aren’t as screwed by surprise attacks in Commander: Europe at War, since railroad movement can move units quickly across the map to any core city where they are needed. The strategies in Commander: Europe at War are truthful, even though a lot of the game is abstracted. Using subs to destroy convoys is great, and you can cause a lot of damage by doing strategic bombing on enemy resources and cities, decreasing their production points. Hey, it’s like the real strategies used during the war! I do wish the course of the war was a bit more uncertain; playing as Germany, you know Russia is eventually going to declare war on you, so you better keep some units on the Eastern Front even if you have no intention of being the aggressor. Still, the mechanics of the game are perfected, and if it weren’t for a couple of minor shortcomings, Commander: Europe at War would be a complete grand strategy game.

Commander: Europe at War makes you feel, well, like a commander, directing the overall strategy of the war instead of worrying about how many pairs of underwear troops near Kiev have. The game strikes the right balance between direct user control and automating the more boring aspects of the game. I mean, does anyone really want to move convoys around and produce transport craft? No, of course not, and Commander: Europe at War does it for you. The unit volume is manageable, research is simplified, and supply is a non-issue as long as you don’t venture behind enemy lines. But you can still cut off enemy units from their supply: it’s abstracted but not missing. The user interface makes it easy to control the game as well, making the game appeal to both advanced and novice players. Commander: Europe at War involves realistic strategies, which is something that is commonly missing among strategy games. Some people will note the numerous similarities between this title and Strategic Command 2, and yes, there are a lot of them, but overall I enjoy Commander: Europe at War more. This is a very polished game, and if the game let you control a single nation and randomized the history a bit, Commander: Europe at War would be very near the top of the grand strategy list.