Tuesday, November 18, 2008

World War One: The Great War 1914-1918 Review

World War One: The Great War 1914-1918, developed by Luca Cammisa and published by AGEOD.
The Good: Detailed unit and leader properties, tactical battle planning, limited number of stacks decreases micromanagement, robust economy with research and unit production, accurate movement with weather and supply influences, logical diplomatic relations flow, novices can disable some advanced rules, very easy to modify
The Not So Good: Interface shortcomings, poor tutorial, long AI turn resolution, can’t adjust music volume, no Internet matchmaking, too many bugs
What say you? It’s quite unfriendly to new players and unpolished overall, but there is still some things to like about the first World War: 5/8

Ah, the 1910’s. The Mexican Revolution. The Titanic. Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Anything else I can copy from Wikipedia. Those were some good times. It was also the home of the first World War (also known as World War I), the original but not the best, according to the realm of computer gaming where its more recent derivative has proven to be supreme. It’s about time to make a game that centers on the first time nations from around the world came together and shot each other in the face. AGEOD, the company responsible for Napoleon's Campaigns, American Civil War, and Birth of America, has come out with their latest iteration entitled World War One: The Great War (or, using its much cooler French subtitle, La Grande Guerre).

Considering that AGEOD has a proud tradition of high-quality game maps, World War One comes up a bit short in terms of quality. There are some subtle details when you are zoomed in enough, but Europe during the 1910’s looks quite bland and World War One almost looks the same as Europa Universalis II (that’s not a compliment). The units are also not that detailed and lack animations of any kind during gameplay. Even with the lowered level of quality, World War One runs quite sluggishly. I’m not looking for high-end graphics in a grand strategy game, but World War One certainly falls behind the heavy hitters of the genre and even AGEOD’s past efforts. In addition, some people are complaining about Europe being turned on its side where East is up on the map, but I didn’t find it to be too disorienting. Plus, who’s to say that the 1910’s wasn’t in the middle of a magnetic pole reversal? I know I wasn’t alive back then to verify! The sound design is typical for the genre, with appropriate battle effects and period-specific background music. I did come across what I feel is a significant bug: you can’t adjust the music volume level. This means it is either blaringly loud or off, and you can only shut it off outside of the game. The music isn’t bad, it’s just too damn loud. This music issue is one of several reasons (I’ll touch on more later) that World War One feels quite unpolished and incomplete. For a team with such a strong pedigree, World War One comes up surprisingly short in terms of graphics and sound.

In World War One, you will lead one of the major European powers towards ultimate victory. The game comes with two grand campaigns that contain the meat of the title, one with two players and one with four. There are also four shorter scenarios covering a specific geographic area (Serbia, Prussia) for those desiring a smaller conflict. As with most games in this genre, World War One can be quite daunting for new players, so the game comes with three tutorials to ease you into the rules, at least theoretically. Unfortunately, the tutorials are poorly designed for several reasons. First, there is way too much reading involved; it’s the same as simply going to the manual as none of the instructions are voiced and the passages are quite long. In addition, the tutorial instructions box cannot be moved or resized and it commonly obscures important information or units that you are supposed to click on: not nice. While most people will probably play the game against the AI, there is the option to take World War One online, but you must know your opponent’s IP address in advance as there is no matchmaking. One excellent feature is the straightforward modification support: everything is contained in colored and labeled Microsoft Excel files that are very easy to edit and change pretty much any of the game values and variables. This is probably the easiest game to edit since Europa Universalis III, certainly in the grand strategy genre.

You’ll start out a new campaign by choosing a war plan. This is a very neat, unique feature of World War One that significantly adds to the replay value of the title. There are usually about five to choose from, typically rooted in history and offering different initial targets (Serbia, Russia, France) and strategies (offense, defense). You will also pick two bonuses applied to your country, usually a compliment to your strategy. The war plan feature not only gives specific regional objectives, but it serves to ease new players into the game and not make World War One seem as overwhelming at first. World War One also has random events that can alter the gameplay, making successive attempts at conquering Europe more varied. Before you start moving units around, there are several phases to each month-or-so-long turn. You can send ambassadors to neutral countries and activate a diplomatic mission. Successful trips will result in improved relationships and better treaties that are automatically agreed upon (it is the ambassador’s responsibility, not yours), ranging from economic or military aid, military access, and eventually alliances. This is a lot better than the typical strategy game where you say, “I just met you and this is the first turn but I need military access NOW.” It’s neat watching relationships grow over time and months of constant diplomacy flourish into an unstoppable partnership.

While World War One does not include any resource collection per se, you will do things with resources like undertake research projects. Basically, you will have a percentage chance of successfully gaining a new technology (such as chlorine gas or light tanks) based on how much money you have devoted to research in your budget slider (money is automatically collected based on the provinces you own). You will also have the chance to activate new policies that provide small bonuses or other effects, like attempting a coup in Greece or calling up conscripts. Your budget will also be used to produce new units and create reinforcements for existing ones. Most of this economic stuff is all automated, other than choosing specific troops and technologies, so it’s not that confusing to new players.

Most of your time will be spent in the military phase moving troops around. Like previous AGEOD titles, World War One puts all of the game’s units into organized HQ units that all move as a stack. Actually moving an army actually involves several steps. First, you have to activate the stack; I have no idea why, just seems like an extra button press to me. Only then can you move your unit and battles can result. You can coordinate two armies that are located in close proximity to each other for a timed operation, and nearby enemy units can be intercepted during their turn if the option is selected. When two opposing armies occupy the same province, it’s time for combat. Unlike most grand strategy games (including AGEOD’s previous titles), you will actually have a direct influence on planning each battle. You can assign each of your units in the HQ stack to a number of jobs: frontline battle commitment, regular deployment, rear backup, or reserve for future breakthroughs. It more satisfying to resolve combat in this manner rather than a bunch of dice rolls you have no control over and just watch. Sieging an enemy city works in essentially the same fashion, so even that usually mindless task is given some tactical depth.

Grand strategy games can commonly get crushed under their own weight, and World War One is no exception. The interface tries to make the game easy to access, but it fails in several key areas. First, as I mentioned before, you cannot move display boxes around. This is a big deal because they are typically large often obscure your view of the game map. Secondly, the map overlays for strategic or political maps are not labeled (like I know what climate each color stands for). Third, there are simply problems with either incorrect instructions in the tutorial or things just not working correctly when moving troops around. I had a heck of a time bringing in reinforcements (the directions on how to do this are vague at best) and moving units or combining stacks can be an exercise in futility. This unpolished nature of World War One is quite surprising considering AGEOD’s past titles; I feel that World War One was released a bit too early to coincide with November 11th. Further evidence for the unpolished nature of the title can be seen in the number of crashes and bugs encountered: the game freezing during an AI siege retreat, crashing when loading a new scenario. This is a level of quality that I am not accustomed to when playing an AGEOD title.

You have the ability to turn some of the advanced rules off, such as fog of war, the stacking limits, or supply rules. I would like the option to skip unit activation before movement, but I did not see that choice as being available. Like most good strategy games, outside influences such as weather can affect the outcome of key battles, so plan accordingly. The AI seems like a fine competitor in World War One, although turn resolution takes quite a long time and locks up the game; this seems to occur right when you are in the middle of doing something, as the WEGO format lets the AI plan at the same time as human players. Victory is attained by causing the opposition to surrender, usually due to war weariness.

While World War One certainly has the potential to be a great grand strategy offering, it falls short mainly because of a lack of polish and an unfriendly nature towards newcomers. There are certainly a number of unique or otherwise excellent features that I like: different starting strategies through war plans, the gradual improvement of diplomatic relations and subsequent increase in benefits, setting policies, and unit production and research. Setting up individual battle strategies is a feature you usually don't experience in a grand strategy game, as other titles in the genre typically just auto-resolve combat. World War One also has some very nice modification support, with easy to edit Microsoft Excel files with color-coded column labels. But, even though they might seem minor, the shortcomings of World War One tend to overshadow the better aspects of the game. The user interface tries to put a lot of information at your fingertips but ultimately proves to be confusing. The overlays just become a cacophony of unexplained colors and objective locations are not displayed clearly enough. The fact that you can't move windows around is a limitation that becomes quite a problem in the tutorials. Speaking of, the tutorials are more like reading a manual and less like actually interacting with the game. Multiplayer options are limited and there are also a host of bugs, from crashes during AI turns and loading new games to the inability to adjust the loud music. Personally, I would just rather go back and play Europa (and I did on several occasions). I feel that World War One will most likely improve in the future due to patches from the developer, but in its current state, this title is appropriate only for hardcore strategists.