Sunday, October 26, 2008

Ironclads: American Civil War Review

Ironclads: American Civil War, developed and published by Totem Games.
The Good: Historical campaign, fairly intuitive interface, very realistic weapon accuracy and damage
The Not So Good: Realistic pace will bore most, lacks stand-alone scenarios and randomly generated battles, no multiplayer, fixed difficulty, needs a scenario editor, average graphics, no tutorial
What say you? An authentic simulation of Civil War-era naval combat, but with limited appeal and light on the features: 5/8

I think it's safe to say that most strategy games take place on land. I'm not sure why the naval ventures get the short end of the stick, but the oceanic battles certainly take a back seat to land-based encounters. There have been a handful of grand strategy games that take place at sea, like War in the Pacific and Carriers at War, but tactical strategy games have an even shorter list, most notably Distant Guns. Here comes Russian developer Totem Games with a game about the American Civil War with a focus on those ironclad ships that you read about on Wikipedia (so it must be true). It's certainly a unique setting that I don't think has been done before; will it make a good game?

Ironclads: American Civil War looks, well, like an independently-developed wargame. There is one highlight in the graphics: the ship models are very detailed, although there are no people running around the deck positioning guns (something I clearly remember from Age of Sail 2). The maritime environments have waves but opaque blue water that looks more like a thick soup than a true watery setting. The sun reflection on the water is nice, but you’ll find that in pretty much any game these days. While the land masses are geographically accurate, they lack any sort of detail (trees, buildings) and are very bland overall. The sound in Ironclads: American Civil War consists of repetitive effects (steam engines, cannons) and generic background music: par for the course in any wargame, I would say. Ironclads: American Civil War certainly won’t amaze you with its graphical prowess, but since awesome graphics is not the focus of this title, then I’ll give it a pass.

A Civil War-era naval game is certainly a unique setting and probably the most remarkable feature of Ironclads: American Civil War. The game comes with two campaigns: seven missions for the USA and eight missions for the CSA. While the missions are presented in a linear order, ships blown up in previous missions (either friendly or enemy) will not appear in later battles. This has both realistic and strategic value: not only does it make sense (the CSS Jamestown has magically risen from the dead!), but it also makes you preserve friendly ships more and also go out of your way to destroy enemy vessels. The objectives come in one of two flavors: destroy all enemy ships while preserving your own, or destroy some land building and destroy all enemy ships while preserving your own. The first battle in each campaign is the famous Battle of Hampton Roads between the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia (not called the Merrimack, you Northern jerks), and then it goes in from there in several locations along the east coast like Charleston. Unfortunately, the content stops here, and this is the real problem with Ironclads: American Civil War. There are no stand-alone scenarios to choose from (even ones straight out of the campaign). There are no randomly-generated battles where you could pick ships to battle against each other. There is no multiplayer; Ironclads: American Civil War being turn-based, it is quite surprising that there isn’t some sort of online, play by e-mail, or same-computer multiplayer component. You also cannot create your own scenarios as Ironclads: American Civil War lacks an editor; while the campaigns are XML files, the maps are more esoteric. Ironclads: American Civil War also lacks a tutorial (although there is a help screen that does a decent job explaining the interface) and the game can only be played at one difficulty setting. You can adjust the damage received or given by your ships to compensate for new players or experienced veterans. A lot of the features we have taken for granted are simply missing from Ironclads: American Civil War.

Once you get past all of the features limitation, the rest of Ironclads: American Civil War is fairly good. This is a turn-based game, where each turn consists of an indeterminable amount of time that each ship gets to move. Luckily, the game clearly shows which ships can still move (and you actually have to move everyone before ending the turn). The basic strategy of this (and pretty much any other) naval strategy game is to line up your ships alongside the enemy and fire all of your guns at once. The controls for your ships are more akin to real life controls: you are given a slider for turning and speed, much like a wheel and that thing they use to control the speed. It takes time to accelerate and decelerate and you cannot alter your speed while turning (I’m not sure how historically accurate that is). The game displays cones that are quite useful to determine your course. The interface makes it pretty easy to navigate through the game and puts all of the pertinent information on the main screen.

In addition to moving, you will spend a lot of time firing your guns at the enemy ships. Artillery comes in two flavors (smooth-bore and rifle) and three types (dalhgren, parrott, and brooke) with varied calibers. It’s just a matter of maneuvering the enemy ship on the correct side of your vessel, pausing the movement, selecting the gun, and clicking on the enemy. The game does a great job highlighting potential targets with a red circle, although it doesn’t specifically state which gun you can use (this is easy to figure out most of the time, though). The game puts a very specific percentage chance of hitting the enemy ships, something that contrasts the rest of the period-accurate vague information you are given during the battles. While you know how damaged your vessel is, you can only guess at how close to sinking the enemy ships are (the interface only says “lightly damaged” and “damaged”). It can be surprising when an enemy ship suddenly goes below the water level as it was flooding and you didn’t know it. More visually evident is fire, something that is usually a good indicator for enemy ship health.

The AI is OK: while they will occasionally do a neat move, some of their positioning is questionable at best and it is fairly easy to pummel them with shot after shot. I would still like to have the option to adjust how much damage I can give and receive in order for the game to be enjoyable for a wider audience. Since the key feature of Ironclads: American Civil War is realism, that battles are very long and drawn out, easily an hour or more in length. It is hard to sink a metal boat! Those people looking for an action-oriented game can completely ignore Ironclads: American Civil War. Other than using the cannons, the manual suggests simply ramming into the enemy ships, although the result was much less dramatic than I expected or desired.

Ironclads: American Civil War feels like the first game made by a developer. While the core gameplay is spot-on, the ancillary features are essentially non-existent. The campaign does have a couple of nice features: units carry over to the next mission (damaged craft can (and should) be evacuated off-map during a battle) and the historical accuracy of the battles seems to be plausible. This game is dripping with a genuine feel, so if you want a completely accurate simulation of Civil War-era naval combat, that’s what you will get here. Of course, all of this realism means that battles will take a realistic amount of time to finish and ships takes a realistic amount of damage in order to sink, so beware if you tend to enjoy more action in your strategy. The interface easily conveys useful information and I like how the ship controls mimic their real-life counterparts. Ironclads: American Civil War really falls short in the features department: no stand-alone scenarios or an editor to make some, no random or semi-random battles, a fixed difficulty, and no multiplayer means the two campaigns (with fifteen missions total) is all you get. Add in some oddities with saving games (some names just aren’t accepted) and minor translation errors (“curage” instead of courage) and we have an unpolished product that will only appeal to wargamers looking for a realistic experience and nothing more. It’s a unique setting to be sure, but the combat in Ironclads: American Civil War feels very reminiscent of Distant Guns and this product is less polished overall. Still, the future looks promising for the engine and the authentic tilt of the game, so hopefully future titles will come with more features to round out the product as a whole.