Thursday, March 17, 2011

Theatre of War 3: Korea Review

Theatre of War 3: Korea, developed by 1C Company and published by
The Good: Dynamic strategic campaign, unique setting, detailed weapon characteristics, comprehensive tools for user modifications
The Not So Good: Terrible formation choices lead to outrageously unorganized units, questionable tactical AI may or may not engage the enemy, no use of cover, outdated interface, only nine maps for all game modes, lacks scripted standalone missions, poor game performance, substandard sound design
What say you? This once-notable real time strategy series has been clearly surpassed by better rivals: 5/8

While World War II has obviously received a large amount of coverage in the realm of computer gaming, the Korean War has been largely ignored. The first major divide between American democracy and Soviet communism, this conflict erupted as North Korean forces invaded the South. I direct you towards this animated GIF for a complete historical summary of the entire conflict. Anyway, somebody has to tackle this notable event, and that honor has fallen to the Theatre of War series. This tactical military game started with a fine first edition followed by a disappointing second iteration where the interface, AI, and brevity all significantly hindered enjoyment. The level of detail and control that defined the early series has been replaced by quality alternatives (interestingly published by the developer of this game), so it’s time see whether Theatre of War 3: Korea can regain some of the luster.

The graphics of Theatre of War 3 are largely the same as Theatre of War 2 from almost two years ago. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, though, as the game features striking landscapes with rolling hills, entrenched positions, and sporadic urban areas. The explosions are OK: not overstated but able to be noticed. The infantry units are small when viewed from the most utilized perspectives, and the tank models are recognizable without being overly detailed. Tracers and bullets scream across the landscape, but Theatre of War 3 offers nothing that we haven't seen before. It's a bit surprising, then, that game performance is so poor: I routinely experienced game freezing for seconds at a time during combat using the same general quality settings as with comparable RTS titles. Load times are also lengthy enough to make me think the game crashed. The sound design is generally disappointing: the battle effects are repetitive and not detailed and the voice acting is sparsely used. There isn't even any music: there is a music slider in the options menu, but it's disabled, which is both funny and sad (the manual invites you to import the music of your choice!). In all, Theatre of War 3 has progressed very little from previous iterations.

Theatre of War 3: Korea takes place in the theater of war known as Korea. This is a different setting that allows for World War II-era American and Soviet hardware (plus helicopters!) to duke it out. The game starts with a very bare tutorial that teaches only the very basics of combat, movement, and planting mines. Theatre of War 3 features two campaigns, one for North Korea’s initial assault, and one for South Korea’s (well, really those meddling Americans) counterattack. Instead of offering pre-canned missions in a linear order, Theatre of War 3 gives you a dynamic campaign where you order battlegroups around and then play out the battles whenever paths intersect. New groups can be called in at a home province, and groups can move one province per turn. Since only one group can occupy a province at a time, this keeps the strategic mode manageable. Before each battle, you can choose the difficulty level (toning it down when outmanned) and pick units to represent your righteous side. While not the deepest strategic mode on the planet, I prefer it to a static series of simple scripted missions. Of course, it would be nice if Theatre of War 3 actually featured at least a couple of standalone, scripted missions for those who like a more structured single player experience.

Unfortunately, the campaign battles take place across only nine maps; not even the same map is used for the same location, as the game does not preserve damage from previous battles in the same province. I guess nine is the magic number, as it’s exactly the same number of maps used in the previous game. At least Theatre of War 3 has a nice set of tools: the game includes quick campaign and mission builders, where you can customize such things as the forces involved and weather conditions, and mission and map editors for more detailed creations. Finally, multiplayer is available for four to eight (supported on one map) humans through LAN play or the server browser. Despite the nice scenario generation options and dynamic campaigns, the features of Theatre of War 3 are limited in other areas.

You can pick your units before each battle within strict guidelines based on the regiment or division type of the group (for example, infantry divisions contain mostly infantry units). Theatre of War 3 features the usual arrangement of forces available during the appropriate time period: infantry, trucks, armored cars, tanks, self-propelled guns, heavy machine guns, artillery, howitzers, mortars, anti-air guns, and helicopters (which is the only unit that really differentiates this game from a World War II title). Like many comtemporary military RTS games, Theatre of War 3 treats an infantry squad as one unit, although individual attributes are tracked for each soldier. There are detailed weapon stats, from rate of fire and armor thicknesses to ammunition levels and morale. Theatre of War 3 does a good job creating realistic roster of units with which to shoot other people.

The interface of Theatre of War 3 is becoming archaic. While in general it is pretty typical for the genre (minimap, mouse commands), there are some areas that could definitely use some improvements. The orders are typical: stop, attack, attack ground, assault, ambush, retreat, defend, hook/unhook, smoke, disembark, movement (free, crouch, sneak, hold), firing mode (free, turret, chassis, suppress, hold fire), and plant or remove mines. The first area of concern is formations: when a group of units is selected, they will arrange themselves in an organized pattern at a specified destination. While this is great in theory, in practice it fails horribly. The problem is that you are only given three choices: one long line, one long column, and one huge “V”. If you have, say, your entire army selected, they will make one gigantic line instead of automatically going into, say, two or three rows. Units will also fail to travel in their assigned formation, becoming an incoherent mess on the way towards their destination. This shortcoming is inexcusable (especially since the same problem happened last time); Rise of Nations got formations right eight years ago. Theatre of War 3 also lacks a unit list for easy access, a must-have feature in my book. The tactical map is useful: an overhead view of the battlefield that works as a gigantic minimap you can issue orders from. Messages can be double-clicked to move to the area of concern, and time acceleration options are available. It can be difficult to choose the direction a tank faces when not selected as part of a group, and visible units cannot always be attacked: the game never says why the “attack” order icon is crossed out, giving no useful feedback to the user. As you can see, the interface of Theatre of War 3 needs significant work.

Destroying enemy units during battle earns victory points, which can then be spent on reinforcements or bombardments (or saved for a better mission score). Sadly, the combat of Theatre of War 3 is unrealistic because of the lack of cover and terrible unit cohesion the idiotic “formations” bring about. Units will attack on their own (good), but it’s hard to tell if they are actually doing anything by watching them (bad); Men of War flashed the ammunition icon during reloading and Combat Mission used color-coded lines, but such useful feedback is not available here. In fact, sometimes your units will simply sit there getting shot at, or drive backwards or in circles while failing to rotate their turrets and engage the enemy. The enemy AI rarely puts up a challenge, exhibiting random movement and dubious tactics. The game also features some poor pathfinding (tanks routinely charge directly through ditches, getting stuck in the process) that makes dealing with the limited formation options even more difficult. Theatre of War 3 is also not very challenging: I was able to win some missions by simply issuing one move order to the objective location, leaving the room and coming back to a victory screen. Theatre of War 3 would have been a decent game five years ago, but it’s antiquated and limited features do not compare favorably to recent strategy titles.

Theatre of War 3 is stuck in the past, a game that’s essentially the same as two and four years ago, which is an eternity in the realm of computer gaming. The problems are varied and numerous. First, the formations are dreadful: you can place your units in one giant line, one giant column, or one giant “V”, with no possibility of making any of these selections take up more than one row, spacing your units so far apart that they are eliminated quickly by the opposition. It’s completely unrealistic and laughably incompetent. Secondly, Theatre of War 3 doesn’t use cover, making infantry movement entrenched in fantasy. You are also given insufficient access to your roster of units, with no single list of all your units. Finally, the subpar friendly and enemy AI makes fighting frustrating and trivial. It’s not all bad news, however, as the units have detailed attributes, the dynamic campaign mode holds promise, and online multiplayer is available. Of course, there are only nine maps for all game modes (a seemingly arbitrary number eerily identical to last time) and the campaign recycles the same handful of maps over and over, not even preserving the same map for future encounters in the same location. Theatre of War 3 features a nice assortment of quick and detailed mission and campaign editors, but does not support scripted missions for single player action. The saddest thing is that Theatre of War 3 has almost the same exact list of complaints as before. I hoped that 1C had learned from their previous shortcomings, but apparently they have not, and the strategy world has moved on.