Friday, July 24, 2009

World War II: General Commander Review

World War II: General Commander, developed by Games GI and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Well organized and accessible order of battle, great emphasis on roads, large map with detailed terrain, fantastic intuitive editor, varied scenario sizes
The Not So Good: No tutorial, no online matchmaking, inconsistent overaggressive AI, fixed screen resolution
What say you? A battalion-level real-time wargame perfectly suitable for novice strategy gamers: 7/8

Wargames have a dedicated following on the PC, gamers who enjoy starting at tiny counters on virtual battlefields. This subgenre has been notoriously difficult to get in to, thanks to less-than-useful interfaces and large unit counts spread out over huge maps. There have been beacons of light, though, with more user-friendly offerings like Advanced Tactics that have attempted to streamline the process for those of us that are easily confused and terrified of complexity. From wargame-friendly publisher Matrix Games comes World War II: General Commander, shortened from its original moniker (deep breath!) World War II: General Commander: Operation: Watch on the Rhine. So many words hurts my brain! This game was on my radar a while back when it was originally released, and with an additional coat of polish applied by the new publisher (namely a better manual and much less intrusive DRM), it is ours to review. Well, mine, really, you can't have it unless you pony up.

You can come at the graphics from one of two perspectives: real-time strategy games, or wargames. For a wargame, the use of 3-D graphics is much appreciated in a land populated by 2-D maps with hexes. The tactical advantage of seeing the actual elevations in a very useful feature. If you are used to games such as Demigod or Men of War, then World War II: General Commander looks pretty ugly. The first strike against it is the resolution: it's fixed at a lowly 1024 by 768 and can't be changed. This makes the game look rather ragged on large displays. In addition, while the terrain looks fine, the textures are a washed out, poorly detailed mess. Some of the unit models look OK, but the animations are sporadic. Of course, real grognards will be playing with NATO counters anyway, so they won't even notice. Battle effects are also underwhelming: most of the time you'll see floating damage numbers rather than spectacular carnage on the battlefield. The sound isn't any better, with very subdued effects that are too soft to hear when zoomed out. The usually chaotic battlefield is quite quiet in this game. While traditional wargamers might tolerate the presentation, those wanting a more polished experience are left wanting.

The first thing you'll notice about World War II: General Commander is that it loads really fast: a one-second splash screen and you're at the main menu. Frankly, I am getting sick of having to skip through five intro movies just to play a game, so I am glad that World War II: General Commander carries a more minimalist approach. The game concerns the last-ditch German attack known as the Battle of the Bulge (or, by its Canadian name, “We fought too, eh!”). You get fourteen scenarios ranging from small engagements between a couple of regiments to the full battle across the huge game map that spans the entire region. The map itself is continuous and impressive in the amount of elevation detail. You gain points for holding cities and causing enemy casualties; the offensive side needs to accumulate points before time runs out. Before each skirmish, you can set up your troops anywhere in your third of the map, in addition to placing paratroopers and garrisons in cities. Fourteen scenarios not enough? World War II: General Commander has a marvelous editor that is both powerful and easy to use. Everything is done from the main screen and placing units is point-and-click. Once you add a division, you can include subordinate regiments and battalions by adding them to the unit hierarchy. It's easy to make small or large battles in a matter of minutes. The editor even names all of the units for you and automatically adds cities as objectives within your boundaries, and calculates potential victory points from casualties. Very nice. It actually surprises me that the Internet isn't inundated with scenarios since it's so easy to make them. The features are not all wine and roses, however: the game lacks a tutorial (although the manual admittedly does a good enough job explaining the basics) and online play requires you to know IP address in advance since World War II: General Commander lacks a game browser.

One of the most important aspects of any strategy game is the interface: you must be able to access your units with one click. Most wargames fail dramatically in this aspect (leaving you to scour the map for tiny squares representing units), but I am glad to report that World War II: General Commander does not. The most important feature of the interface is the unit list, displayed in the order of battle with an icon for each unit and selectable icon for every regiment and division. While these icons do not display unit information (health, stance, under fire), it makes it oh so easy to find every unit on the map. You can only select a single unit or group at a time, so this means you can't box select a bunch of units and give them identical orders simultaneously; this is only a minor inconvenience since ordering around regiments and battalions doesn't require that much in the way of micromanagement. You can give a number of different orders to your units: move, long range attack, short range assault, defend, retreat. Units seems to fortify rather quickly (or maybe just the icon displays fast) and the defending side will remain in this position for most of the battle. These options don't give the deep flexibility veteran players are used to, but you have to keep in mind that you can controlling a battalion rather than individual companies or squads, so those small-scale strategies are being done automatically. The game takes place in real time, and you can change the game speed from real time all the way up to 200x. There seems to be a sweet spot right around 25x that provides a good balance between not waiting and not missing anything. World War II: General Commander also comes with a number of alternative display modes, such as shaded contours, supplies, and NATO icons for the true grognard in all of us.

World War II: General Commander features the usual assortment of military units from the time period, although since we are talking battalion level, you won't have to worry about specific tank or rifle types. You get several types of infantry (motorized, assault, paratroopers) and tank (light, medium, heavy) battalions, in addition to more specialized troops like artillery and engineers. Every battalion unit is rated in terms of efficiency (morale), resistance (armor), speed, and weapons. Each regiment is composed of up to four of these battalions, and four regiments makes up a division: it's all so symmetrical! Each regiment can be given a formation (square, vanguard (for offensive action), support, column) and more attacks are automated: if you are in range you will fire. This removes a lot of the micromanagement that could have been insurmountable in a real-time game. You are also given a suite of airplanes that can bomb enemy positions, bring supplies to cut-off troops, or transport paratroopers for sneaky operations. You must have nice weather in order to use your air assets, and World War II: General Commander uses the actual weather conditions experienced during the conflict.

World War II: General Commander makes roads a more significant feature of the battlefield than almost all other wargames. These are the true chokepoints since supplies must travel down roads, instead of having a simple radius from each supply source. It never really made sense to me that tons of supplies could be carried through a deep forest, and I'm glad the developers shared my concern. Supply is automated (thank goodness) and all you need to do is keep the roads under your control. Most of the battles will take place in cities or important intersections because of this reason, instead of them simply being objectives. Roads are also very important for moving units, especially motorized ones. Normally, you could just move that mechanized division through a forest and don't worry about it, but not here. About the only other game to pay attention to roads as much was Conquest of the Aegean. The maps come with a large variety of terrain, from urban areas to dense forests. Weather is also a concern: not only do clouds and rain prohibit planes from taking off, but they make combat much less fun. In addition, engaging the enemy during night is not recommended.

The AI in World War II: General Commander is a mixed bag. Its very aggressive nature is a two-edged sword, providing a challenging foe that's always on the attack, but one that attacks for too long. It's very aggressive even when supposedly defending. The AI is very good at encircling your position and cutting off supply lines, and thus puts up a better match when the computer is on offense. The difficulty of the AI cannot be adjusted, so players of every skill level will content with the same foe. I suppose difficulty could be manually tweaked by creating custom scenarios with imbalanced forces, but this seems to be a convoluted solution. The game is not terribly sophisticated because all you are doing is ordering units around (not that a lot of tactical games are very different), but it's great for beginning players. The interface and relatively simple control scheme makes it much easier to handle than most (if not all) traditional wargames.

World War II: General Commander does what it set out to do: provide a nice introduction to wargaming for beginning players. This is due in large part to the interface: listing all available units in their hierarchy on the main screen at all times makes handling large numbers of units in real time possible. One of the things keeping new players from entering the world of wargaming is being intimidated by so many units at once (like this...yeesh), and World War II: General Commander does a wonderful job making the game accessible to all skill and experience levels. The game comes with plenty of scenarios of varying sizes on the huge continuous map that spans about 400 by 400 kilometers in Western Europe. In addition, the game comes with a very easy to use editor that lets you create your own custom scenarios literally in minutes: it takes the same approach as the game interface, using simple point-and-click mechanics and containing all of the information on the main screen. While the game overall lacks the depth veteran strategy gamers would like, since you are playing at a battalion level and most actions are automated, I do like the use of roads in the supply network. The graphics could use some higher resolutions and crisper textures and the lack of a multiplayer browser limits online gaming as you must coordinate matches ahead of time. The computer is much better an an attacker than a defender, since it plays both roles the same way: overly aggressive. Still, the AI will provide some good competition when given superior numbers, cutting off supply lines and making life more difficult. Hopefully these minor issues will be rectified by the developer in the future (they seem to be quite active on the game's forums). Simply put, gamers looking for a more straightforward strategic wargame should immediately direct their attention towards World War II: General Commander.