Saturday, July 07, 2007

John Tiller’s Campaign Series Review

John Tiller’s Campaign Series, developed by Talonsoft and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Huge amount of content with 400 scenarios and 25 campaigns, random battle generator, ability to simulate small to gigantic battles, good AI
The Not So Good:Antiquated user interface makes playing a chore, tedious gameplay with a slow pace, outdated graphics
What say you? Plentiful scenarios aside, there are more recent, user friendly wargames available: 5/8

Ah, Talonsoft: bastion of the wargaming community during the 1990’s. The Battleground series. The Operational Art of War series. And the Campaign series: East Front, West Front, and Rising Sun. All of these titles bring back memories of strategic bliss. It’s ten years later and Matrix Games is bringing them all back in their pixilated glory. Today’s we’ll be covering the Campaign series of World War II, featuring land battles in each of the three major theatres of combat. Has time been kind to John Tiller’s Campaign Series?

In terms of graphics, the answer would be a solid “no.” Now, I’m not one to slam a game for having poor graphics, especially if they are unchanged from ten years ago (when they weren’t exactly cutting edge), but when the user interface comes into the picture, then I start to get concerned. A user interface is supposed to be intuitive and help you ascertain the battlefield situation, but the interface here is stuck in the olden days when computers ran on Chiclets. Playing from the 3-D view, while it looks better than the 2-D view, is nearly impossible since must watch every single slow movement of every single slow unit on the map. When you are controlling over 200 units in one scenario, this gets old really quickly. You can’t do anything while you are watching each individual unit move. Because of this, I play almost exclusively from the 2-D view, because there movement is instantaneous. Unit feedback is also difficult to determine, as the game can only display the morale, action points, or strength one at a time; otherwise, you need to select each of your hundreds of units. The minimap is pretty useless at it doesn’t show victory locations. The overlays for movement limits are difficult to ascertain at large zoom levels. There are just a bunch of small problems with the user interface that results in a game that’s awkward compared to more recent wargames. The sound in John Tiller’s Campaign Series is generic; when a game uses the default Windows sound, you know you’re in trouble. Each unit does have movement and combat sounds and the background music is OK, but we’ve seen all of this before and there is nothing too spectacular about the sound.

John Tiller’s Campaign Series covers pretty much every aspect of World War II land combat, from the Western Front all the way to the Pacific. This game gives you control over every individual unit in a scenario; whether that’s good or bad depends on how much micromanagement you want to handle. John Tiller’s Campaign Series ships with an impressive amount of content: 400 scenarios and 25 campaigns! And I thought 200 scenarios was a lot. Plus, new scenarios, new units, and new countries have been added since the original games were released ten years ago. The game features a good range of scenarios that are ordered according to complexity: the number of units from 20 to over 750 per scenario. The campaigns come in both linked and dynamic varieties: dynamic campaigns feature randomly generated scenarios, while linked campaigns are pre-designed. One of my favorite features in any wargame, randomly generated battles, is found here; you can set the year, month, area, weather, size, nations, engagement type, and map type, and the game will produce a pleasingly realistic product. There is also a scenario and map editor, and multiplayer: play by e-mail, hotseat, and over the Internet using known IP addresses. The game treats each of the three original games (West Front, East Front, and Rising Sun) as separate games; this isn’t a big deal until you try to remember which of the three you were playing last when you want to resume a saved game. Still, John Tiller’s Campaign Series provides a ton of fun for people who enjoy the game mechanics.

As with most wargames, the purpose of John Tiller’s Campaign Series is to occupy the objective locations and kill everything you see. The game is turn-based, using an action point system that roughly corresponds to six minutes of real time. The game is played by giving orders to your units (move, load or unload, dig-in, double time, damage a wall or bridge); nothing we’ve not seen before. Issuing orders is fairly straightforward as most of the commands are done by right-clicking or pressing an icon, as opposed to wading through menus. Since you are budgeted to your action points, the game shows you how far you can move and still have enough points to fire or unload (although, as I mentioned, it could be a lot clearer). There are some oddities in the game: for example, please explain to me why units move faster on snow than on a road in a forest. And the action points required for firing weapons doesn’t seem to make sense: most units fire twice in six minutes. Those are some large reload times! Movement (except for the forest thing) makes more sense. Unfortunately, though, you can’t issue movement orders beyond the action points available for this turn, so traversing large expanses of land will require moving every unit every single turn instead of setting a single waypoint and letting the game take care of it automatically. The game has a button to cycle to the next available unit to make life a little bit easier.

John Tiller’s Campaign Series has a lot of units: from infantry to anti-tank to tanks to motorcycles, pretty much any unit that was involved in World War II is included here. There is also air support that can be called in from off-screen; artillery units are located on-map. One unique thing John Tiller’s Campaign Series features is assault: you can storm an enemy position with infantry units. In most other games, you need to destroy the enemy unit, or at least cause it to retreat, to advance to the occupied hex, but John Tiller’s Campaign Series gives you a bit more flexibility. Each unit is given morale and strength ratings. If a unit is attacked enough, their morale will suffer and they might become disrupted and retreat. Disrupted units can’t advance towards the enemy, so careful tactics are required instead of just sending units straight for the enemy. John Tiller’s Campaign Series also features paradrops, gliders, amphibious assaults, indirect artillery fire, minefields, and bridges to worry about. Again, if it was in World War II, it’s likely it’s in John Tiller’s Campaign Series. Supply is somewhat simplified, as a unit just needs to be a certain number of hexes away from their headquarters.

John Tiller’s Campaign Series features some quality AI that uses good pathfinding. The computer opponent in the game is quite good: they use cover, artillery, and appropriate units in realistic fashions. The enemy AI is not passive, either, as it will initiate an attack just as often as you will. Unfortunately, the lack of any automation in the game makes playing John Tiller’s Campaign Series very tedious. You need to issue orders to every unit every turn. Apparently, they forgot they were firing at a particular unit six minutes ago. Both movement and combat are chores, and since these form the core of any wargame, this does not bode well. The game would benefit greatly from carrying over orders from the previous turn, instead of starting anew and having to individually guide each of your 400 units scattered across the map. This is more reasonable in smaller scenarios, but it’s almost impossible to enjoy large-scale conflicts because of the level of management required. Your units should be smart enough to continue to fire against enemy units without having you explicitly tell them every six minutes. This is one of those games that makes my head hurt while playing: the amount of micromanagement required in John Tiller’s Campaign Series is just more than I want to handle.

There is no doubt there is an audience for John Tiller’s Campaign Series, but the game is too tedious and too old for mass enjoyment. The game has a lot to enjoy: tons of scenarios, campaigns, and random battles, lots of units, challenging AI, and fundamentally good strategic gameplay. There are just some annoyances that will prevent John Tiller’s Campaign Series from being completely enjoyable. The game moves at a snail’s pace, unless you play from the 2-D view, and the user interface needs an update, as finding information is more difficult than it should be. The degree of micromanagement is high, and playing large scenarios takes a long, long time as none of your units are self-sufficient and you can’t set waypoints beyond the current turn’s movement limits. John Tiller’s Campaign Series was a quality game ten years ago, but the series is definitely showing its age. People who really like the Campaign series games won’t be disappointed with this release, but those who aren’t passionate about the series will just find an outdated and complex wargame that’s too unwieldy for its own good.