Friday, November 09, 2007

Advanced Tactics: World War II Review

Advanced Tactics: World War II, developed by VR Designs and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Reduced micromanagement, very easy to transfer and group forces, straightforward production with infinite building queues, streamlined research, random map generator and comprehensive editor, fantastic AI, adaptable engine not entrenched in World War II, play by e-mail
The Not So Good: Insufficient tutorial, not many included scenarios, lengthy turn resolution
What say you? Very flexible and user-friendly, this is one of the best wargames: 8/8

You would think by now that World War II has run its course, but new games keep cropping up, like an undead zombie hungry for more brains (feel free to create your own similie). This trend has permeated through the first person shooter and strategy genres the most, and Advanced Tactics: World War II is yet another wargame that takes place in World War II. Or does it? In reality, Advanced Tactics is a varied engine that can simulate pretty much any period of modern and historical combat, so the World War II tie-in is actually unnecessary. While it does mostly feature scenarios that take place using World War II equipment in World War II locations, the developers have not pigeon-holed themselves in the time period, so let’s find out if Advanced Tactics expands beyond the simple World War II wargame.

Wargames are not known for their cutting-edge graphics and sound design, and Advanced Tactics is no exception. The game is played from the classic 2-D overhead view that’s prominent in many wargames. The graphics don’t look bad necessarily, as they are clean and easy to understand; the icons are large enough to see on the map and relay basic information at a glance. The interface is well designed, as everything is accessible from the main screen and organized decently enough. So as wargames go, the graphics of Advanced Tactics are good, they just are not up to the 3-D standard that many strategy games achieve these days. The sound is very basic, with only the occasional combat effect and brief background music. Overall, the presentation of Advanced Tactics is quite typical for a wargame, although its forthcoming interface does put it a step ahead of more jumbled titles.

Advanced Tactics is a slightly more advanced tactical strategy game: instead of getting a set roster of troops, you do have some decisions in their production. The game comes with thirty scenarios, which may sound like a lot but they are divided among several categories (multiplayer, tutorial, fictional) and Advanced Tactics: World War II only contains ten World War II scenarios (and four are for human players only). While the number may not be as huge as some other wargames, some of the scenarios are very unique: take for example Random Towns, in which a town appears somewhere on the map each turn. I don't think I've ever seen that in a strategy game before. Advanced Tactics also comes with an excellent random mission generator and an editor to make your own scenarios. The engine is flexible enough to allow for large continent-wide wars and small intimate battles, perfect for satisfying a large audience. Personally, I prefer smaller battles, as a large quantity of units tends to confuse my simple brain. For a random map, you can customize the size, geography (land/sea ratio, rivers, forests, mountains, roads, towns), research speed, and even create a mirrored map for balanced multiplayer matches. The random maps are well designed and use a good algorithm to produce some realistic and interesting locales. Games can support from two to ten players as well, and support for play by e-mail games is present. There are a couple of small features I would like to see added to random maps: team games and the ability to easily import units from custom scenarios. Unlike games such as Commander: Europe at War that are locked into one map, Advanced Tactics lets you create the scenario that’s right for you. The game allows for different time periods other than World War II as well; downloads of alternative scenarios are already available, including scenarios set during the American Civil War, World War I, colonial times, and a place eerily similar to The Lord of the Rings. Advanced Tactics also allows for a whole range of custom rules and scripts, from reinforcements to automatic supplies and more; the included scenarios just scratch the surface of the potential of the game. This amount of flexibility is great and it shows how powerful the underlying engine is.

While Advanced Tactics is easy to learn compared to other wargames, the tutorial is woefully inadequate. It only teaches the basics and leaves a lot up to the manual, and we all know reading is for suckers. Advanced Tactics strikes a happy medium between the unit production of real time strategy games and the military maneuvering of tactical games; the game gives the user a lot of freedom without bogging them down with too much stuff. One of the highlights of the game is how production is handled. Units are produced in friendly cities located within your borders. You can queue up to four units at once and set a percentage to determine how much effort is dedicated to that particular unit. This is a great system that eliminates the need to “check up” on your unit-producing structures: once you set the queue, you can leave it alone for the rest of the game. Units that are produced will automatically be sent to a headquarters unit of your choice; this is another wonderful decision to removes a lot of the micromanagement typical in strategy games. Once present in the HQ, you can then instantly transfer units to any subordinate company; units may be able to be transferred on their own, but most infantry units will need a fleet of trucks present in your HQ to expedite their travel. Long-distance transport will require more trucks in your HQ unit, so you have to plan your reinforcements well. This also keeps units together: instead of having insane stacks of individual units (a single tank or infantry unit), they are grouped into divisions, which act like the containers in Forge of Freedom. Initially empty, new divisions can be placed anywhere within your borders and are filled with units you transfer from your HQ. Advanced Tactics features a fantastic system for getting units to the frontlines and it is very easy to handle realistic quantities of units without having hundreds of square icons you need to deal with each turn.

There are a number of units you can queue at your cities. HQ units need staff units for more effective subordinates and supplies to distribute to the troops. Most of the units in the game are differentiated by their ratings, and each unit can usually engage one specific enemy unit most effectively. Infantry units include troops equipped with rifles, sub-machine guns, machine guns, mortars, bazookas, horses, plus scouts and engineers. Vehicles include trucks (used for transporting units between containers), tanks, armored cars, half-tracks, and anti-tank guns. You are also given artillery units, various planes, and ships. The unit list is generic enough where it could fit a wide range of time periods and Advanced Tactics doesn’t cement itself too much in the World War II setting. Each unit is given a number of attributes: action points (used for movement and attacks), readiness (which determines the action points through supply levels), experience, morale, entrenchment, and more. More advanced units can be earned by spending political points produced at towns (political points are also used to make new containers). There are a number of activities that units can undergo other than moving: paradrops, air supplies, air recon missions, and blowing and repair bridges are all available for your strategic enjoyment. Obviously, a wargame wouldn’t be a wargame without combat. Using a system similar to the Decisive Battles series, Advanced Tactics lets you attack with multiple units and the combat is completely automated using all of the stats I alluded to earlier. Units can become casualties or retreat, and each battle can result in a victory for either side or a stalemate.

The result of all this stuff is a very fun game and one of the better experiences I’ve had playing a wargame in quite a while. The level of customization goes a long way in making Advanced Tactics an appealing title that can be tailored to each individual user’s liking. The AI opponents are very good: they will cut off supply, flank your armies, and prove to be quite a good foe. Advanced Tactics is also easy to manage thanks to some great streamlining of production and the ability to have large grouped units instead of unmanageable stacks. The end of games can get a bit drawn out with small units running around the map, but at least you know where the cities are so that you can shut down production. Advanced Tactics can also get bogged down due to stalled battles; good strategy can usually overcome this, however. The pace of the game can be anywhere from quick to slow, depending on how many units you have to control. The turn resolution can be long for large games involving lots of AI opponents, but I suppose it results in better AI so that can be forgiven.

Advanced Tactics takes the wargame and simplifies it into an entertaining package featuring enough freedom and randomization to keep people of all experience levels interested for a long time. Compared to other wargames, Advanced Tactics is much friendlier to new players as the interface is generally intuitive and there is less to keep track of. I really enjoy the superb production mechanics: units are automatically produced in a queue you set and transported to HQ units and then manually transported to your companies under their command. It’s also appreciated that Advanced Tactics allows for large single units of mixed types instead of stacks of single infantry groups that must be moved individually. The engine is also flexible: this allows for future (and current) expansions into different time periods without much trouble at all. I'm quite excited in seeing where the modders take Advanced Tactics; the realm of possibilities matches that of The Operational Art of War; with the random map generator, Advanced Tactics actually has more longevity. The random map generator produces some nice battlefields and the editing options allow for great customization. While the game doesn’t ship with a lot of scenarios, we should see (and already do) new, varied maps soon. The gameplay of Advanced Tactics is a lot like The Operational Art of War, but a lot easier to handle. I prefer the varied scale of Advanced Tactics to the larger, fixed battles of The Operational Art of War and the Decisive Battles series; since I gave both of those games 7/8, that means Advanced Tactics gets the rare and highly-coveted (sure it is!) 8/8. My issues with the game are so minor (essentially just the turn resolution length) that I don't feel at all hesitant giving out a perfect score. Advanced Tactics gives the player the freedom to play his (or her…yeah, right) way in a streamlined model and it is a highly recommended title for strategy fans. You can have huge battles reminiscient of The Operational Art of War and you can have small skirmishes involving a handful of units: Advanced Tactics allows for both ends of the spectrum. This highly addictive wargame is an absolute bargain at $40 and Advanced Tactics should be a part of any strategy gamer's collection.