Monday, December 15, 2008

War Plan Pacific Review

War Plan Pacific, developed by KE Studios and published by Shrapnel Games.
The Good: Streamlined gameplay, easy unit organization, simple yet informative interface, multiple victory conditions beget varied winning strategies, brisk games
The Not So Good: No in-game tutorial, lacks Internet matchmaking, average AI
What say you? A straightforward grand strategy game designed for wide appeal and quick matches: 7/8

Ever wish that your favorite grand strategy game didn’t take months to complete a single game? Well wish no more! War Plan Pacific takes the usual tedium and comprehensive nature of “real” strategy games and filters them out in favor of easier controls, larger unit groupings, and faster contests. Grand strategy games are somewhat notorious for being difficult to learn, as they typically involve extreme complexity that deters all but the most dedicated strategy gamers. Is War Plan Pacific the game to turn the tide in favor of usability?

Wargames usually don’t have fantastic graphics, and War Plan Pacific is no exception to that generalization. The game takes place on a 2-D map using 2-D icons for all of the units, although there is some nice detail and variety in the top-down ship models. The map has a nice waving Japanese flag effect for the appropriate areas of the ocean, but it doesn’t really have any outstanding detail for the land areas. The one thing that War Plan Pacific has going for it is the fantastic interface: almost everything is given on the main screen using easily identifiable icons. The sound design, like the graphics, is very basic: just some period-specific music and generic sound effects for the battles. If you are looking for outstanding graphics and sound, War Plan Pacific is not the place to look, although if the gameplay is good, then who cares?

War Plan Pacific lets you (surprise!) take control of either the Allied or Japanese forces and fight for control of the seas. There is no in-game tutorial, as you must follow directions in the manual. While the tutorial that is printed in the manual does a good job teaching the basics of the game, it would have been better to just simply mirror the text inside the game, either superimposed on the map or in dialog boxes. The “normal” game starts with the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and ends when one side reaches a victory condition. There are also two alternative scenarios you can access by selecting “load game” from the main menu: removing the December 1941 attacks and starting in 1942, or having the U.S. better prepared for an initial Japanese attack. If you are insane, you can also edit the XML files for even more scenarios, but they are long and contain a whole lot of information. You can also play War Plan Pacific over a network, although the game lacks in-game matchmaking, so you need IP addresses in advanced to take advantage of this. Online play lacks in-game chat (although since you'll probably be playing in a window, you can just load up your favorite chat software) and a timer to keep people moving, but playing against human competition is always a better option.

Despite the game taking place in the large expanse of the Pacific Ocean, you are limited in your movements: bases are connected by pathways, filtering the action to a few key locations and concentrating the battles. This is similar to the Onslaught mode in Unreal Tournament 2004 and it works well, much better than more traditional Pacific Ocean wargames with a bunch of hexes that subsequently result in rarely running into enemy forces. Your bases can be upgraded over time by sending convoys or continuous patrols, turning a sleepy island into a major strategic roadblock. One of the best aspects of War Plan Pacific is the varied victory conditions. The most immediate victory condition is oil: Japan must capture three ports before their oil supplies expire (they start with six months worth), and the Allies can counteract their income by gaining control of three other ports themselves. While I applaud the developer for making a seemingly abstract concept concrete, it does make the early game very predictable: Japan’s going for Sumatra and it’s going for Sumatra now. The second condition is Japan cutting off Australia from the U.S.: if one or more of three ports in the south Pacific can be controlled for six months, Japan wins. The U.S. can win if they develop atomic weapons (after October 1943) and have control of a base close enough to Japan. Finally, Japan can win if they simply last long enough (chance of victory increases each turn past March 1944). The objectives put Japan on the offensive and the U.S. on the defensive early on in the war, and the roles reverse as time marches forward. While most games will follow a logical path to victory (oil, then sea lanes), there is more than one way to win the Pacific, and variety is always a good thing.

There were a lot of ships involved in the Pacific theater of World War II, so simulating the naval operations here can either be a daunting or an oversimplified task. I feel that War Plan Pacific strikes a good balance between these two extremes. War Plan Pacific features “light” and “heavy” versions of carriers, battleships, and cruisers (sorry, no destroyers), in addition to assault craft for invasions and convoys to grow newly captured bases. I don’t mind the simplification here and the ship classes left out, as it makes the game more approachable and the differences are really minor at best. War Plan Pacific takes the Forge of Freedom approach of putting multiple ships in the same container, here called task forces. This makes unit organization very straightforward, as the task force clearly shows how many ships of each type are present and assigning missions is a breeze: just pick a destination and the mission (patrol, raid, or invade) will be automatically chosen according to the ships in the task force and whether the target is friendly or not. You can even assign multiple task forces to the same target and they will attempt to arrive at the same time. In between missions, damaged ships can be kept in ports for repair and large carriers and battleships can only rest at a major base (although carriers can base their operations anywhere).

If the opposing sides target the same destination, it’s time for a battle. Like the map, the battles uses a well-designed interface intended to give you all the important information at one glance. During the battle, you can instruct your forces to attempt a close-range surface engagement, a longer-distance air engagement, or withdraw. The game shows the comparative strengths of each side (like a 2:1 Japanese air advantage) to make these decisions very straightforward. While all of your ships will automatically attack once they are within range (it takes a couple of days to reach the target), you can place aircraft squadrons into either CAP (intercept incoming enemy aircraft) or strike (attack enemy ships and bases) modes; the game does a good job of placing planes in roles automatically, but you can always do some minor tweaking. The battles are simple but a highly effective means of determining a winner.

War Plan Pacific has surprising variety because of the multiple victory conditions. As I mentioned earlier (you were paying attention, weren’t you?), the start is pretty much the same each game, but after then, different strategies can be employed. Harassing the enemy by raiding major bases (causing them to devote a large number of ships for four-month defensive operations), capturing key chokepoints, and fulfilling objectives makes playing War Plan Pacific a blast. In addition, games are very quick: a couple of hours at most, depending on how good you are. Because of the lack of matchmaking for multiplayer games, I suspect most people will take on the AI, which is too bad. I easily beat the AI in my first ever game and there isn’t a way of making it any tougher: there are obviously no bonuses for ship damage or supplies going on here. The one good aspect of the AI is that it does take into account the varied objectives the game offers, concentrating their attacks on different locations in subsequent games. Your computerized opposition does occasionally pull the sneaky move that can make single player games more interesting. The AI puts up more of a fight playing as the Japanese rather than the Americans. Super-aggressive players such as myself can easily eliminate the Allied AI by cutting off Australia before they have time to mount a counter-attack.

War Plan Pacific is a grand strategy game truly designed with the more casual user in mind. A lot of the tedium and frankly unnecessary complexity found in similar games is removed while still keeping a satisfying level of depth. War Plan Pacific is easy to manage, with great unit organization and simple mission assignment. The multiple victory conditions are fantastic and reduce the amount of repetition seen in subsequent matches. War Plan Pacific also doesn’t waste your time with drawn-out contests. For gamers on a time budget (or those easily distracted by other games or shiny objects), War Plan Pacific is a great way to taste strategy gaming without devoting too much time to the endeavor. Maybe I just review and play too many strategy games, but I found the AI to be disappointing and not that challenging of an opponent; the fact that you cannot add a handicap makes this shortcoming more problematic. Like most independent games, War Plan Pacific lacks some of the features required for true excellence: Internet matchmaking and an in-game tutorial. War Plan Pacific is better as a multiplayer game due to the elementary AI, so it’s a bit surprising that the game lacks a browser to search for matches. Still, War Plan Pacific offers up a great streamlined experience that should appeal to those looking for more straightforward gameplay without all of that extraneous fluff.