Thursday, July 01, 2010

Making History II: The War of the World Review

Making History II: The War of the World, developed and published by Muzzy Lane Software.
The Good: Straightforward economy, fairly extensive research tree, competent AI, multiplayer, good graphics for the genre
The Not So Good: Terribly inconsistent interface, limited international trade, weak diplomacy options, boring peacetime, tedious military organization, automated stockpiles work horribly
What say you? An economic grand strategy sequel with a lot of the same, plus an additional lack of polish: 5/8

Making History attempted to bring a more educational approach to the World War II grand strategy game by promoting the economic aspects of global warfare. This is due in no small part to the game’s partnership with some guy from Harvard. Games trying to make us learn? What’s next, gimmicky add-ons for idiotic consoles? The original game was a nice effort but incomplete: a limited number of countries, poor military controls, and questionable AI. Offering hot grand strategy action from 1933 through World War II, Making History II: The War of the World hopes to rectify the mistakes of the past and offer a more user friendly approach to the grand strategy genre, unlike some other games where I avoided reviewing an expansion due to (a) my distaste for most (but not all) expansions and higher complexity of said series. Let the blitzkrieg commence!

The most obvious improvement made in Making History II is in the graphical department. The 3-D map looks quite nice, offering up detailed terrain that easily bests the competition. The cities and resource locations that populate the global map can also indicate what type of production and goods can be expected. Unit models are recycled for each country, leaving only a base counter for nationality identification purposes. Different units looks, well, different, but an American infantryman looks just like a German infantryman (there must have been significant confusion during the war!). The unit animations are also very slow-motion and repetitive. While the map looks good, the units that walk on the map could use a lot more variety. The sound design is acceptable: while Making History II lacks notifications for in-game events, the effects during battles and the background music are appropriate and functional. For a grand strategy game, Making History II looks better than most.

Making History II: The War of the World is about the Martian invasion of Earth and how Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning stop it. Oh, wait, wrong war. Ah, yes, this particular conflict is World War II, the one where everyone fought over who got the last cupcake (turns out Stalin ate it while nobody was looking, the greedy bastard). The game features three scenarios (though more will likely be developed using the eventual editor), starting in 1933, 1936, or 1939, the latter of which gives you no real time to build up your infrastructure since construction takes months. The game is turn-based, simulating a week each time you press the magic green button. The game processes all of the 70-something AI turns immediately after, although you can still attempt move the display or do things despite the game being essentially locked up. Victory is not only gained through military domination, but also economic means. AI difficulty can be tweaked before each scenario, or you can take the war online against thirty-one other humans through the game’s multiplayer matchmaking capabilities. My build has a bare manual and no tutorial (one is planned soon, if not already available), though the mechanics are simple enough that well-versed grand strategy players will pick things up in thirty minutes or so.

The interface for Making History II gets an equal amount of things right and wrong, which is detrimental for a grand strategy game where you are controlling a large, sprawling nation. The game does give one-click access to most everything though a bottom-of-the-screen menu system, from military units to diplomacy to city and regional improvements. However, most of these systems suffer from flaws of varying degrees. How shall I count the ways? The interface doesn't preserve sorting settings when you switch back and forth between displays. Diplomatic relations (strong, stable) are sorted in alphabetical order instead of “good” to “bad.” In fact, some windows (like the world market) can’t be numerically sorted at all. You still can’t box select military units, resorting to long menu list and a multi-step process to merge forces. A one-unit infantry army looks the same as a ten-unit army; you must click on it to see how large it is. The game does not display the results of a project, just the initial costs (you must use the encyclopedia that covers up most of the screen). You must resort to tool-tips when determining resource production and usage during a turn (only stockpile levels are displayed on the main screen). As you can tell, there is significant improvements that could be made in this area.

Resources drive the game, as they are required to produce troops you use to shoot others in the face. The default production order (“goods”) produces money used in trades and maintenance. Producing units and buildings also requires manpower, industrial production, research points, arms, metal, coal (why is it required for troops?), oil, food, and nukes. Regional projects can construct buildings to increase how fast certain resources are collected; while all regions can produce food, only a select few have coal, metal, or oil. Cities (which are separate from regions) can house factories, to produce particular units, and research institutes, to expand your knowledge in various fields (land, air, naval, tactics, industrial, and advanced). Making History II can suffer from building spam in large countries with plentiful manpower, further widening the gap between those nations and their lesser neighbors. Units that can be produced fall into three broad categories (land, air, sea) although there are more specific categories, like medium tanks, mountain infantry, bombers, and the like. You can set up units on a repeating (but not cycling) queue, continuously producing the same item over and over. The costs are all up-front, and the game will preserve a queue order until the resources are available. Units will be automatically incorporated into an existing group if one is present in their region. The large provinces means Making History II generally uses large groups of units (not historically arranged): a front will usually only consist of five or so provinces and units, so that reduces micromanagement a bit.

You’ll probably have to interact with other nations right before you take them over by force. Making History II features surprisingly limited diplomatic options: military access, trade agreements (or embargoes), espionage (stealing research or surveillance), and declaring war are your only choices. Peace treaties also provide little variety: annexation, puppetry, or forcing an alliance. There is also no indication of whether a treaty will likely become accepted, leading you to throw treaty after treaty until something sticks. In yet other knock against the game’s interface, Making History II shows weather on the game map but not relations level, making you scour down the long list of all nations (that you can’t properly sort by current relation level) for a proper trading partner. The use of ideologies means most games will line up as they did historically, which offers little in the way of variation.

Another area that leaves a lot to be desired is trade, which is shocking considering its large focus in the game mechanics. Goods are stored in stockpiles, and you can set the desired level and let the AI conduct trade on your behalf. This sounds great, but imagine my surprise when I amassed six billion dollars in debt in one turn. The flipside is also possible: you can sell massive amounts of goods on the world market and accumulate unrealistic sums of money, as there will always be a buyer. It’s also much easier to do it this way, since trading with a specific country invites all sorts of problems, from agreements that go unfulfilled due to a lack of supplies to having to wade your way through the columns of market data that cannot be sorted. Goods are always traded for money, rather than other goods, in another oversimplification. For a game with a Harvard pedigree, the economic options are disturbingly limited.

Making History II is very boring when war is not erupting around the globe. Once you get your city and regional projects set, it’s simply end turn, end turn, end turn. There are no intermediate objectives or missions to fulfill, and there’s really no reason to start the game earlier than 1939 due to the uninteresting and repetitive escalation towards conflict. There’s certainly a lot to do the first turn of a game, but very little afterwards. Ordering around units is easy: a simple right-click. Air and naval units get more varied options, like patrolling or bombing enemy units. The AI is good, though: they react to invasions, holds forces in reserve, counter attack, plans appropriate projects, and proposes treaties. It’s not as dynamic or interesting since the results are fairly predictable, but it’s a proficient opponent.

Making History II is a decent game that suffers from the same type of shortcomings as its predecessor, although this time around they are more inexcusable. As with most strategy games, the problems start with the interface: there’s too much switching screens, unhelpful displays, and static information to wade through; this drastically reduces the efficiency with which you can manage your empire. For a game that has a lot of information that can be accessed, it sure tries its best to make it inaccessible. For a game about international relations, the diplomatic and trading options come up well short: only a few treaties and a poorly balanced world market ensure repetitive and lopsided play. Peace is a dull time of clicking “end turn” while you wait for a farm to complete; once you establish your repeating queues, there’s nothing interesting to do: no missions or short-term objectives to focus on. On the bright side (I am fair and balanced), Making History II features a nice, streamlined, and easy to comprehend economic and production model. The AI is very competent, and large (32-player) multiplayer matches are possible using the game’s matchmaking service for those who prefer human confrontation. The ability to control any country, no matter how dull or uninteresting it may be, and the expected future editor sweeten the pot, but we’re still left with too many little problems that add up to one big headache. There are simply better grand strategy games, and Making History II fails to deliver on its potential.