Friday, April 30, 2010

Scourge of War: Gettysburg Review

Scourge of War: Gettysburg, developed and published by NorbSoftDev.
The Good: Online play with multiple human commanders per side, compelling tactical gameplay, impressive historical accuracy, mostly intelligent AI provides challenging competition, comprehensive suite of orders
The Not So Good: Can’t finish a scenario early, no dedicated servers for multiplayer, some AI pathfinding issues, eerily similar to TC2M, outdated graphics
What say you? The addition of multiplayer highlights this evolution of the Take Command series of realistically detailed military tactical simulations: 7/8

The Take Command series was one of those underappreciated gems of the strategy genre. Allowing you to command forces during the American Civil War in the battles of the day, both the original game, the pleasingly long-named The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861, and its sequel Take Command: 2nd Manassas provided satisfying tactical combat with a realistic tilt. A couple of the developers from those two titles have resurfaced and brought Scourge of War: Gettysburg with them for our approval. This new game takes the foundation laid by the Take Command titles and adds multiplayer, moving the action to the pivotal battle of the Civil War. Is this a must-have game for seasoned veterans and green recruits alike?

Not surprisingly, if you are familiar with the Take Command games (and if you are not, shame on you!), Scourge of War: Gettysburg features 2-D sprites on a 3-D battlefield, much like the first Total War games. This has the advantage of allowing for lots and lots of units on-screen at one time, but it has the disadvantage of looking archaic. The 2-D sprites could be animated much better, as they do not move fluidly at all. You can increase the detail level of the troops, which does add in some uniforms and make them appear crisper up close, but 3-D units would be better. From a distance, though, the soldiers look fine, and this low-resolution concession does allow the game to run on a wider range of systems. The terrain remains populated with low-resolution textures that don’t mesh well. Trees and walls look decent, though, and the topography is convincing, but the textures could be improved. The maps are historically accurate with lots of detail that adds to the realism of the game. The smoke emanated from recently fired weapons looks good and serves as a great visual indicator of whether units are engaged in combat. However, the artillery explosions are sad little puffs that are completely underwhelming. The sound design mostly consists of unit movement and weapon effects, though the occasional environmental ambiance is heard (those birds love to chirp). There is no voice acting in the game, so you’ll have to read all of the incoming instructions from your superiors (which I guess is realistic). Units tend to yell and scream rather than give witty repartee during battle. The background music is fitting for the setting. While the graphics of Scourge of War: Gettysburg are definitely improved over its predecessor, offering better terrain detail and slightly sharper soldiers, they still doesn’t compare to the Total War games with some poor effects and animations, but they don’t have to.

Scourge of War: Gettysburg is all about Gettysburg (it is in the title, after all). The game features twenty scenarios depicting the battle, from strictly historical premises to more flexible variants. Each typically has a victory location you must hold and defend, and the missions take place in various locations around the sleepy town. There are some historical scripted events that take place, but most of the time you have complete freedom to achieve your objectives. Some scenarios require you to finish earlier scenarios first, as the units carry over. This is a neat, immersive feature, but the game doesn’t clearly indicate which scenarios these are (it will simply not allow you to proceed, stating which scenario must be completed first); I prefer the verbose linked list of Take Command 2nd Manassas over the stylish map of Scourge of War: Gettysburg. Disappointing is the static mission time: it’s over when it’s over, no sooner and no later, even if you have dominated the map with twenty minutes left or the objective is closely contested when time runs out. Specific example: an hour-long scenario required 2,000 points for a major victory, and I had 14,000 with thirty minutes left. I had to just sit there until time ran out even though I had exceeded the standards far in advance. This affects multiplayer more, when you can’t accelerate time to speed things up to a finish. Also included is a very flexible sandbox mode with four Gettysburg maps (and one of Kansas for a more balanced battle); you can customize the order of battle, commander, size, battle type (attack, defend, line of sight (an engagement), hunt them down (can’t see the enemy at start)), score limit, time limit and starting time. You can also import user-crafted scenarios for your killing enjoyment. The game’s five tutorials are actually exciting, challenging exercises instead of the tedium we usually experience while learning the game. Overall, Scourge of War: Gettysburg offers a lot of content and large replay value thanks to the sandbox modes and extensive, difficult scenarios.

Scourge of War: Gettysburg offers a wide range of realism options to please everyone from hardened veterans of Civil War-era combat to new players. The seven preset levels of difficult determine AI regiment strength, how much is shown on the map, where you can move the camera, and whether orders must be physically carried by horseback. If you want a truly immersive experience, historical difficulty is the way to go: it puts you on an even playing field with the strong AI, makes you rely on the unpredictable and delayed courier system for orders, and ties the camera to your avatar, so you never really know what’s going on. That type of uncertainty was key in the Civil War, and in that aspect Scourge of War: Gettysburg is very engaging. While I really like the idea of restricting the camera view, in practice it makes clicking on the correct place and issuing an appropriate facing direction very difficult since your view is so close to the ground. I personally choose a custom setting, picking the historical options except for a more forgiving camera to make placing exact orders actually possible.

The big addition that Scourge of War: Gettysburg brings is multiplayer. You can find matches through the in-game browser or specify a direct IP address for pre-arranged carnage. The game lets you use any of the scenario maps or create a sandbox battle. Each human competitor picks a commander, allowing Scourge of War: Gettysburg to be played both competitively and cooperatively using the real order of battle. It’s a fantastic system that makes the game feel like true, (somewhat) organized war instead of simply throwing a couple of people on the same team and splitting up the units. You can even team up against the AI, or add a handicap to put experienced players at a disadvantage. If you play at one the historical difficulty level, you’ll only be able to access and directly command your units and orders must be transmitted through couriers, which makes the upper level commanders important through their ability to coordinate strategies. Otherwise, there is no real point to playing an army or corps commander that has no direct units. It should also be noted that multiplayer games cannot be accelerated (meaning you have to stick around for the entire battle) and there are no dedicated servers, as all connections are peer-to-peer. Still, the realistic ramifications of multiplayer in Scourge of War: Gettysburg should make any strategy gamer salivate.

Scourge of War: Gettysburg gives you a ton of commands to issue to your willing troops. The simplest is movement: double-click on the ground to send a single unit, or select a commander, double-click, and then select a formation to send him and all his subordinate units on their way. Other orders are given through the command box by clicking on the appropriate icon. These include wheel (change facing), flank (side-step…very useful for lining things up properly), stop, run, lie down or stand up, about face, use roads, mount or dismount, and limber or unlimber. You can also instruct units to use cover by using the “7” and “8” keys; why there isn’t an icon for this I have no idea. Moreover, you can give a stance to a unit (all-out attack, attack, probe, defend, hold, or hold to the last) and a behavior (charge, advance, fall back, retreat, hold fire, shot type) to further customize your strategies. Units can be placed in a number of formations: column, line, line with reserves, double line, column by divisions, skirmish, column of regiments in lines or sections, and road column. The game’s units are organized, as they were historically, in an order of battle: regiment, brigade, division, corps, and finally army. Searching through the order of battle can move you to a specific unit, or you can also use the arrow keys to move up, down, and across the OOB: very handy. Unfortunately, there are still some hiccups: you can’t select a destination flag to see which unit is headed there, and the game still doesn’t display the current level of time acceleration. Nevertheless, Scourge of War: Gettysburg gives you plenty of options for placing your troops in the best possible situation.

If you opt for one of the more realistic difficulty levels, messages to superior and subordinate entities must be sent by courier. These automated horseback units have two effects: they delay the execution of your orders, and they can be intercepted by the enemy, resulting in realistically inconsistent communication between officers. There is a whole suite of orders you can issue, from simple movement commands to requesting (or giving) support or information on spotted enemy units. You can also impose a delay on your orders to coordinate attacks better. While this procedure is certainly quite realistic, it has some issues. First, each order sends out a different courier: issuing a movement, facing, and formation command requires three riders. You also cannot see the facing direction when issuing an order. The AI will adjust accordingly once enemy units are spotted, but I would rather have more control through a better interface indication. The couriers also have very poor pathfinding, routinely going in the line of fire and getting shot as a result. Finally, you can issue orders to any subordinate unit, not just those one level below in the order of battle, which leads to mixed and multiple conflicting orders for infantry regiments, especially in multiplayer. While I certainly like the idea of the courier system, it needs some additional development to work well.

Troops during the American Civil War (or, as Southerners called it, “Get off my lawn!”) came in three flavors: infantry, cavalry, and artillery. These units are organized in the aforementioned order of battle, making things generally easy to find. It is still too difficult to spot the currently selected unit, as the subtle blue highlight surrounding the selected unit’s flag is, well, too subtle. Each unit in the game has a historic weapon range, level of experience, turning speed, skirmish ability, firearms skill, horsemanship, and surgery ability, all of which determine their overall effectiveness on the field of battle. It is important to pay attention to a unit’s morale and fatigue, both of which are clearly displayed on the interface: being tired makes you fight less effectively, and units will rout when distressed. Commanders for each unit are rated in terms of experience, command ability, leadership, and style. Most impressive is the historical accuracy of Scourge of War: Gettysburg: all of the units, leaders, and scenarios have been extensively researched, but the AI and scenarios still offer some variety to add replay value to the title. The game also features an impressive sense of scale, with lots of units doing battle over the large maps.

Battles in Scourge of War: Gettysburg take place in real-time (as in life). While you can accelerate time, the game never displays how fast it’s currently advancing and the option is disabled in multiplayer. Success in the game depends on the proper usage of terrain, support, and angles. Unit combat bonuses are earned by being close to a commanding officer, other units, defensive terrain (like fencing or walls), high ground, or by resting those weary feet. Scourge of War: Gettysburg is all about flanking the enemy: placing one regiment head-on and then moving another to the side, allowing the full force of your weapons to fire on the end of the enemy formation. Units will engage the enemy automatically when in range (usually 160 yards) and face towards the target on their own. Subordinate commanders are pretty good about following orders given to an entire brigade, and will automatically change formation and facing based on your commands. However, there is the occasional stupid AI decision involving pathfinding (tring to use roads when not appropriate) and unit facing (changes too often). Luckily, you can take direct control of any subordinate unit and make them behave. Cavalry units are useful for disrupting lines of infantry quickly, and artillery is very deadly and punishes enemy morale. Stalemates can be resolved by resulting to melee fighting, and defeated troops can be rallied (automatically) by closely placed officers. The enemy AI is fairly smart, altering its strategy during a battle and during repeats of the same engagement, increasing the replay value of the title as a whole. It sometimes has trouble achieveing objectives, especially in sandbox matches (occasionally ignoring them altogether), but overall it provides decent competition. There is, of course, no substitute for real human opponents, but I feel the AI in Scourge of War: Gettysburg serves as a good substitute if you can’t find any online matches. The game is certainly challenging across the board, especially the more scripted scenarios in the campaign. I found the combat of Scourge of War: Gettysburg, much like Take Command: 2nd Manassas, to be quite compelling and interesting from a tactical and strategic perspective, far more interesting than modern combat with powerful weapons engaging at large ranges. There’s a more personal feel to this game, and the result is some very engaging military combat.

Those looking for an accurate depiction of Civil War era tactical combat need to look no further: Scourge of War: Gettysburg is your game. The game excels at historical immersion, placing you in the saddle of the greatest (and not so greatest) generals of the era and giving you the partial information and confusion they had to deal with. Historical difficulty pits you against the strong AI in a battle for combat supremacy, restricting your view to a third person perspective and requiring the use of couriers for genuinely delayed orders. Of course, if you want a less constrained experience, more relaxed settings are also available. The game is ripe with extensively researched historical accuracy, from the orders of battle for the twenty scenarios to the maps they take place on. The AI provides a different enough experience each time you play, adjusting to your strategies, that you can enjoy the same scenario multiple times with diverse results. Of course, playing in the sandbox mode really opens things up, extending the longevity of the title. Multiplayer is also handled quite well, with each human player choosing a different general and working cooperatively with his (or her, I suppose) team against the opposing side. Scourge of War: Gettysburg is the most realistically implemented multiplayer strategy game I can recall. There are lots of orders available to specify movement and behavior of your subordinates, although the AI leaders do adjust to incoming threats well on their own. The AI does make some curious decisions involving using roads when not appropriate and changing their facing far too often, but overall it handles things admirably. The interface remains the same, so the poor flag highlight system and double-click-to-move oddities are still present. For owners of Take Command, Scourge of War: Gettysburg gets you multiplayer in addition to improved graphics and more orders (flank and oblique being quite useful) and formations. The game still features the very compelling tactical combat the series has always offered, improved with only a couple of subtle issues. Is it worth $45? Certainly overall it is, and I feel that the addition of multiplayer and the new commands and historically accurate setting are enough to justify a purchase for existing Take Command players as well.