Monday, June 22, 2009

Theatre of War 2: Africa 1943 Review

Theatre of War 2: Africa 1943, developed by 1C Company and published by
The Good: Realistic large battles, map editor included
The Not So Good: Horribly inadequate user interface, sub-par AI, only fifteen missions in nine unique locations, poor performance
What say you? A disappointing step backwards for this limited sequel: 5/8

Apparently, there was this war in the 1940s known as World War II (or, as it is more commonly called, The Really Big Civil War 2: War Harder). I know; I had never heard of it either. Good thing there are computer games to keep us informed. From Russia, glorious land of PC development, comes Theatre of War 2, sequel to (surprise!) Theatre of War, a good RTS from two years ago. Taking the action to the neglected theater (that's the correct spelling, people) of North Africa, how does Theatre of War 2 improve upon the original game?

Maybe it’s because it’s two years later, maybe it’s because of the setting, or maybe it’s because it’s using a different graphics engine, but Theatre of War 2 actually looks worse than the original game. The combination of bland desert environments, jaggy buildings, and poorly animated units makes Theatre of War 2 much less visually impressive than the original game when it came out. What has most likely happened is that other RTS games, such as Men of War, has left Theatre of War 2 behind. In addition, the setting here (the deserts of Northern Africa) are really not suited for the game’s engine; green is just as repetitive a color as yellow, but the maps of Theatre of War 1 featured a lot more variety in the form of roads, trees, and buildings. The well-done backgrounds of the original game also strikingly joined with the foregrounds, an effect lost in the monotonous deserts of Africa that are not very exciting to look at. The bland, washed-out textures make indistinguishable, poorly detailed terrain as well. In addition, the game engine doesn’t handle the large battles common in the game well, with frequent slow-downs and poor performance on machines that should easily handle the increased amount of action. The sound design is average for a strategy game: the voice acting is not as noticeably repetitive as in other Russian imports and the weapon and special effects do the job. While the sound design holds up, the graphics of Theatre of War 2 have clearly been left in the dust.

I’ve never understood how you can make a sequel that’s inferior to the original game, but Theatre of War 2 offers a crash course in this paradox. How so, you ask? Well, start out with a small amount of missions: fifteen scattered across three campaigns (one for each of the major sides blowing stuff up in North Africa). But it’s not fifteen unique missions: the missions repeat, as you will replay the same one from the other side. There are only eight unique missions in the entire game; I guess the developers are relying on some robust community work with the editor. Let’s compare to the original game, which had almost fifty missions in both campaign and stand-alone varieties (all of the missions in Theatre of War 2 are campaign-only, although you can play them singly after you have beaten them). That’s three to four times less content. Seriously? There’s not any incentive to play them again, either: the difficulty levels simply tweak the amount of damage you give and receive, rather than introducing a different, more complex scenario. Before each mission, you can customize the order of battle and choose (to an extent) which troops to bring into battle. The battles are large where you normally control only a fraction of the total units, an increasingly more common approach to realistic RTS games. Theatre of War 2 also has multiplayer features on ten maps, although the servers are not populated and the browser didn’t even work until I patched the game. Nice.

Theatre of War 2 has gotten an interface overhaul, and it’s an epic fail. This is thanks to a couple of limitations, the first being the mini-map. It has decreased in size so much that you can’t see anything but a chaotic arrangement of dots. The hand-drawn minimap used previously worked fine and dandy, but now you can’t usually see objective locations, leading to a lot of confusion. You essentially must use the tactical map, which (of course) takes up the entire screen, obscuring your view of the battlefield. You will get journal entries (really just event messages) about your units, but you cannot click on them to focus on that particular unit. So why even have them? Like I know where “Bob Smith” is located. Speaking of names, Theatre of War 2 will automatically pause every time a unit dies. Considering that most missions have hundreds of units, this insane “feature” gets highly annoying. I have no idea what the developers were thinking. You can turn off the “feature” if you patch the game, but its inclusion is still completely idiotic. Units can be issued common RTS orders: area fire, assault, ambush, scout, defend, smoke, stance, and behavior, just to name a few. Formations in the game are also highly useless: you can choose from a single column where everyone is in one giant line, or a line consisting of one row. Genius! Even the wedge formation is just a single line with a ninety-degree angle in the middle. This means lassoing a bunch of units and issuing a move order is pointless, since they will arrange themselves in some idiotic configuration.

Theatre of War 2 contains the same core gameplay that was present before, and a lot of it is fun realism. Containing realistic ballistics, damage, morale, ammunition counts, and powerful backup like air support, fighting in the game is quite fun if the auxiliary features didn’t get in the way. Of course, all of this was available two years ago and it’s also present in many other World War II strategy games. Theatre of War 2 contains accurate units from the time period with stats for health, armor, and weapon penetration (sounds dirty!). Each infantryman is rated in four areas (accuracy, scouting, driving, gunner), and their skills can be increased between missions as they gain more experience. There is nothing terribly innovative here, though, now that pretty much every decent realistic strategy game has the same features.

The AI is not as polished as I would have expected in a sequel. The game does not suffer from the foolhardy pathfinding of the original game, but it is still hit-or-miss sometimes, especially for enemy units and when you factor in the horrible formations. Enemy troops have problems traversing large distances, so any mission where they are attacking is typically very poorly organized with a constant trickle of troops not significant enough to penetrate your defenses. Friendly units behave intelligently enough, automatically engaging the enemy under most (but certainly not all) circumstances. Using good tactics will typically keep most of your troops alive. Troops will scout for cover and fire automatically on the enemy (unless explicitly told not to do so), which makes controlling a large number of units a more manageable situation. Unfortunately, the setting for Theatre of War 2 makes for some less-than-interesting battles: except for the urban areas, most maps have plentiful open spaces devoid of any amount of cover, eliminating a lot of the tactics seen in more diverse locations.

Theatre of War 2 is a game that improves nothing from the original and actually turns out worse. Both of the quality aspects of the game, the core gameplay and the map editor, were present the first time around. While the heart of Theatre of War 2 features some nice tactical gaming, all of the ancillary materials stink. First is the unusable interface, from the futile tiny minimap to the constant pausing whenever a soldier dies. Before the first patch, you couldn't even turn off this “feature.” How annoying it is, considering the large-sized battles Theatre of War 2 offers. Your AI opponent can’t handle large-scale attacks, providing only a small dribble of enemies that will easily be defeated. Not that you’ll be playing Theatre of War 2 for long, since the game comes with only a fraction (namely 1/3) of the content the original game had, and it even repeats a lot of the same missions over again for each side. Multiplayer is not a popular venture, either, so the life span of Theatre of War 2 is quite short, a death sentence for a game in a genre where replay value reigns supreme. Finally, the bland textures, repetitive environments, and underwhelming animations don’t even run smoothly during large battles. North Africa may be an ignored theatre of war, and it should continue to be so.