Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Battle Group Commander: Episode One Review

Battle Group Commander: Episode One, developed by ProSim Company and published by Shrapnel Games.
The Good: Accurate simulation with realistic commands and topography, varied units, challenging AI opponent, multiplayer, low price
The Not So Good: Contour maps and NATO symbols not for the beginner, generally terrible pathfinding, archaic interface, poor performance, only five scenarios, no editors, lacks noticeable enhancements from previous efforts
What say you? An attractive price, but this limited expansion-like wargame will appeal mostly to fans of the series: 5/8

There’s strategy games, and then there’s wargames, and then there’s extreme hardcore wargames. This is one of the latter, as exemplified by being developed by the same people responsible for the final linked game (you do click on every link in my reviews, yes?). The unstoppable force behind Air Assault Task Force and The Star and the Crescent brings their engine back with Battle Group Commander: Episode One, the first (I would assume) in a series of games that simulates training operations pitting the British against those wacky Russians. Episodic games are all the rage these days, providing less content at a lower price instead of waiting longer for a more complete (but full-priced) game. Does Battle Group Commander: Episode One offer significant improvements and content over its predecessor Air Assault Task Force?

Not much has changed in the past two years in terms of presentation, as Battle Group Commander: Episode One is indistinguishable from Air Assault Task Force. The game still features the same NATO symbols or poorly-detailed unit icons on a contour map with optional geographic overlay. This feature set is sure to scare off potential new customers, as it isn’t exactly the most user friendly presentation around: an understanding of contour map symbols and usage is paramount. The game has very limited visual effects: lines represent weapons, and a one-frame explosion effect accompanies defeated units. The sound is much the same: just some very basic damage effects that are meant as alerts more than presenting a plausible battlefield environment. One thing I was surprised about was the poor performance of Battle Group Commander: Episode One: even playing the game in real-time, seconds would be skipped during simulation when many units were present in the scenario. I think I did not encounter this situation in Air Assault Task Force because the unit counts were generally lower, but it is a significant enough issue in Battle Group Commander: Episode One, even on systems that can run more visually impressive games with ease. There’s obviously a lot of calculations going on “under the hood,” but I would expect the process to be more optimized and faster than what it is.

Battle Group Commander: Episode One is very light on the features, as indicated by its $15 price point. The game ships with only four scenarios; while they individually take about an hour each to complete, that’s still quite a short gaming experience. There is a small amount of replay value, but since the forces will remain the same in subsequent games, variety is kept at a minimum. All of the scenarios take place on the same map: a portion of the English training ground in (surprise!) England. While there is only one map, it is a bit impressive that all of the aspects of the actual contour map (elevation, roads, terrain, et cetera) are simulation in the game: no corners were cut here. Battle Group Commander: Episode One features the same multiplayer game browser that was in Air Assault Task Force, so it is easy to battle other humans online (although everyone on there was playing Air Assault Task Force missions). While the game does not come with an in-game tutorial, it does ship with interactive flash tutorials that can be viewed in your favorite browser that do a decent job of teaching the very basics. In addition, Battle Group Commander: Episode One comes with the same manual as Air Assault Task Force (which tells you how similar the games are) to fill in the gaps. One significant cut made during the transition to Battle Group Commander: Episode One is the removal of the editors: unless you have Air Assault Task Force, you cannot expand the game beyond the four missions the designers made for you.

Battle Group Commander: Episode One is eerily similar to Air Assault Task Force, and by “similar” I mean “identical.” This time around, there is more of a focus on unit variety: instead of just focusing on helicopters, you get ground units to play around with as well. Other than that, Battle Group Commander: Episode One is really just a stand-alone expansion to Air Assault Task Force, so you should go read that review for the gist of the game. I’ll cover the basics again for those people too lazy to click on the aforementioned link. While the game’s interface might have been decent enough two years ago, no improvements have been made in this area since then and the age is starting to show. Icons are too small and there is a lot of wasted space on the right side of the screen, and there could have been more effort made in making the game easier to use for beginners while still maintaining the depth for veteran players. While the “move” and “suppress” commands are nice, ordering units to fire upon the enemy won’t make them move closer to put them in range; an attack-move order would solve this sticky situation. Having both commands (move, suppress, target, fire mission, mount) and missions (assault, attack by fire, screen, breach) is honestly confusing, especially when you consider that you can have both active at the same time and the game does a poor job showing a unit’s current orders. On top of this, units can also be issued orders for behaviors (sprint, defilade, engage on contact, creep, detach). These options do give you a lot of alternatives for customizing unit behaviors, but it also is unnecessarily duplicated.

One thing that can’t be argued is the accuracy of Battle Group Commander: Episode One: the game features some very pleasing tactical gameplay. The game strikes a great balance between aggressiveness and defensiveness, with stealth and proper positioning being quite important. The four missions do offer a variety of mission types, from assaults to defense operations. The AI opponents are quite good and one of the highlights of the game, providing good competition and challenge. There are some issues with pathfinding, though: units will typically go off-road too often, getting stuck on ridges and in areas that might not even be on the way to the next waypoint. I clearly remember games three years ago offering better movement, utilizing the fastest path instead of the most direct. Because of this, you have to use lots of movement orders, and your forces will get separated far too often, as that one pesky company keeps getting stuck in the forest.

In short (too late!), Battle Group Commander: Episode One will appeal to gamers who enjoyed and are familiar with ProSim’s previous efforts, and that’s about it. The low price makes it more appealing to new players, but little effort has been made to simplify the game or provide enough content and variety to satisfy newcomers. The hardcore nature of Battle Group Commander: Episode One will scare off new players, as the NATO symbols and contour maps are not for the faint of heart. The quality of the core gameplay cannot be ignored, but the age of the features is starting to catch up to the series. Frankly, I would have expected at least some noticeable tweaks to the game (interface, pathfinding, visual) in two years. The new setting is very detailed and quite large, and you do get to play with a larger variety of units, so in this aspect a small investment is worth your while. But, you get what you pay for, and that means four scenarios and no editor. I guess you can consider this a stand-alone expansion for owners of Air Assault Task Force, since the feature list is greatly expanded if you have ProSim’s previous title (namely unlocking the editors). It’s only $15, which is $4 a mission, so if you liked Air Assault Task Force, then this will probably appeal to you, despite the game’s limitation. For everyone else, however, the impenetrable and rough nature of Battle Group Commander: Episode One is a bit too much to recommend.