Monday, February 27, 2012

Wargame: European Escalation Review

Wargame: European Escalation, developed by Eugen Systems and published by Focus Home Interactive.
The Good: Tons of units with detailed attributes give many strategic options, supply and reconnaissance vital to success, large maps give room to maneuver, resource zones captured with fragile command units, quick games, nice graphics
The Not So Good: Unrealistic plateau-heavy terrain, unlocking gives experienced players access to more units, no difficulty settings for repetitive and poorly designed campaign with static enemy positions, interface lacks a comprehensive list of all your units, no formation options, limited skirmish features, maps don’t scale to player count
What say you? Tactical flexibility using supply, recon, and lots of different units gives this real-time strategy game a unique and welcome tilt: 7/8

An intriguing strategy title was released by DRM master fiend Ubisoft (thus, no review from this site: you can take your “always on” copy protection and shove it up your French derrière) in 2010 entitled R.U.S.E. The game used fakery on top of traditional real-time strategy elements: phony troops and invasions meant you were not really completely sure of what the enemy was up to. The developer of that game, Eugen Systems, is back with a new strategy game and different publisher (yay!). Wargame: European Escalation is a game about war (spoiler alert!). More specifically, it’s the middle of the Cold War (when the United States and Soviet Union fought over precious resources of glacial ice) and it’s fightin’ time! Eschewing the novel stealth of the previous title, Wargame: European Escalation takes a more traditional approach where strategists must consider supply lines, morale, reconnaissance, and cover while engaging the enemy from the flanks for maximum damage.

Wargame: European Escalation uses an enhanced version of the game engine used in R.U.S.E. and the results are pretty. The game is impressive up close, with nicely animated tanks, infantry, helicopters, and other assorted military hardware. The texture detail is also realistic, and the combat effects (like artillery explosions and the resulting craters) are engrossing. You can smoothly zoom from right next to the action all the way up to a wide view of the battle, with units represented by NATO icons. The map terrain is amazingly hokey, with usually flat farmland separated by plateaus that is totally unrealistic. Still, the level of detail on the terrain is impressive, with amber waves of grain (that are depressed by tanks rolling over it) and other forms of foliage dominating the green landscapes. The interface is quite distinctive, with a faux-computerized theme: full unit names are displayed, along with boxy fonts and large digital displays. The building menu is easily accessible (once you enable it to always stay open from the options menu), and you can quickly transition to the satellite view and get an overview of the action using the minimap (although I wish objective locations were displayed there). The game’s indication of destroyed units should last longer: the sound is useful but the red minimap flash passes too quickly. Wargame: European Escalation does not have a comprehensive list of all your units, so you can easily forget about units away from your current view. As for the sound design, the game features generally solid effects and subtle-so-not-annoying voice acknowledgments from your forces. I found some battle effects to be questionable in their authenticity and not quite as powerful as I suspect they are in real life (machine gun fire, specifically). The music is forgettable and not specific to the setting. But, the high fidelity of the graphics and characteristic interface give Wargame: European Escalation a unique visual feel.

Wargame: European Escalation features a twenty-two-mission campaign, divided into four chapters that alternate the two sides (NATO and the Warsaw Pact) of the Cold War. You must progress through each chapter in a linear order, one scenario after another. There is no difficulty setting to adjust the number of computer units you’ll face (something that, I think, would be easy to add); you can, however, log some time online to unlock more units to bring into the mission. You also cannot skip past missions, so if the developer has placed too many enemy units for your skill level, you’re essentially done playing the campaign. Each mission has a specific table of equipment that determines what you can use during that game (appropriate for the time of the battle and the forces involved); you can then choose anything in that list that you’ve unlocked. The campaign isn’t ground breaking by any means: missions are simply “attack this” or “defend here for 20 minutes”, and your opponent heavily outnumbers you every single time out. The game substitutes clever design and smart AI with sheer clout and magically spawning enemy reinforcements. The designers just scattered random enemy units on the map, without any thought towards balanced, exciting matches. There are secondary objectives that award bonus experience points, but these are either along the path to the main objective (so you'll do them anyway) or too much of a risk to divert some of your main force (and you can even be too good and lose out on precious command points, as you can see here). There is also no replay value, since the AI opponent gets those fixed units at set locations and will do the same exact thing with them each time (namely, sit there until you show up). Once you fail a scenario, you can simply go around the enemies the next attempt, since they will appear in the same place. Alternatively, because of how inert the AI plays, in some missions you can simply let the game run for a while and accumulate enough points to recruit a superior army. The large maps could have been used to vary the gameplay with some alternative objectives (the structure of Supreme Commander’s campaign comes to mind), but instead linear and predictable gameplay is found. The campaign design is really grating, as the game throws wave after mindless wave of enemies at you until you run out of tanks and have wasted half an hour of your time. However, the campaign is a way to earn a lot of command stars and unlock more stuff for online play. Still, this small carrot doesn't replace tired and annoying design issues.

Beyond the campaign, you can play skirmish games against one computer opponent, an arbitrary limitation. During the campaign, the computer’s starting positions are scripted and your opponent will occasionally attack your positions using their numerically superior forces. As for skirmish battles, the AI likes to attack undefended objectives and use a mix of forces, although it’s not as smart (attacking anti-air units with helicopters) or as aggressive (using only two or three units in each attack wave) as I would like to see; maybe that’s why you can only play against one AI at a time. The computer seems to be without purpose more often than not, halfheartedly attacking objectives with piecemeal forces. Online play is much better: you must register for Eugen’s online matchmaking system, which works quite efficiently at listing and finding matches. There isn’t an indication of ping in the server listing so you can end up playing against people with really terrible connections, though. I like the fast match times: a single game usually takes right around twenty to thirty minutes, perfect for getting in a quick game. Online games slow down time when you’re playing against people with bad pings (which happens often enough to be noticable), which can turn a twenty-minute match into a forty-minute contest, but I guess it’s better than not playing at all. There are only two game modes: destruction (where you must destroy an specific amount of enemy troops) and a time limited contest. The eleven maps are large, giving you ample room to flank your enemy and sneak around to their undefended base. Of course, most maps are too large for small games (2-4 players), and the objectives don’t scale down. There are plentiful forests and towns for cover, but the terrain is atrociously flat: unrealistic plateaus and maybe one hill. I first mistakenly took the dark greet plateau transitions as rivers until I zoomed in closer. I suppose it's done to simplify line-of-sight calculations, but seeing the same flat farmland in every map gets tiresome quickly. Because of that, Wargame: European Escalation lacks distinctive maps (you know, the one with the fields?) and each one looks the same as the one before. It’s odd that the components of the maps look so good and the terrain looks so bad: the map design is easily my least favorite part of the game.

Wargame: European Escalation has a lot (over 350!) of units helpfully divided into several categories. You start with the pleasingly important logistics units that deliver supply or capture objectives. Infantry units come with their own vehicles (cutting down on tedious micromanagement) and can take on enemy tanks, helicopters, and infantry when unloaded. Support units include artillery, multiple rocket launchers, and anti-air artillery. Tanks come in light and main battle varieties, recon units include helicopters and jeeps, and helicopters can attack the enemy or transport units across the expansive terrain. While a Russian and a French main battle tank might not have huge differences between them, the subtle changes in attributes and use of historical names and likenesses means you’ll still want to obsessively unlock all of them. Those attributes include range, accuracy, high explosive attack, armor piercing attack, speed, armor rating, optics value, and fuel capacity; the game color-codes (from bad red to awesome green) these attributes in the unit detail card so you can assess your alternatives at a quick glance. You can (in multiplayer) recruit more experienced units from the get-go, which improves their accuracy and morale for a modest cost increase. There are always several options to counter any enemy threat, and that level of flexibility makes Wargame: European Escalation an intriguing strategy title.

Much like any recent first person shooter, Wargame: European Escalation makes you unlock new units with game experience (either online or offline in the campaign). My feelings on unlocked content are well established: you shouldn’t restrict new users from important features, putting them at an instant disadvantage. However, Wargame: European Escalation tries to balance this out by limiting every player to only five units in each category and twenty-five units overall (plus variants), making better units much more expensive to recruit, and letting basic units take out expensive ones (like guided-missile infantry in cover against a high-level enemy tank) when appropriate. It doesn’t take too long to unlock things (I could usually unlock new units after every couple of online games), you can unlock things in any order (except for variants, which need to be unlocked sequentially), and you start out with a basic assortment of units that are effective when used properly, but I think I’d still rather unlock all of the basic units for everyone and leave only the improved variants to be unlocked with experience. Although having “better” units doesn’t guarantee victory, experienced players will have access to units (supply helicopters, powerful tanks, anti-air missiles, MLRS, special forces, armored recon, et cetera) that beginners simply do not. Units are organized into decks, since you are restricted to bringing only five units of each type into battle. Conceivably, once you have enough things unlocked, you could have a deck of units for different strategies. I would like to see an automated deck feature that includes the last five units you unlocked of each type to cut down on deck management, but overall the system works well enough.

Everybody starts out with the same number of recruitment points to call in units, but more points can be earned by capturing clearly marked zones around each map. You must capture zones using a fragile command unit that must remain stationary (preferably hidden in trees). This is a good dynamic that eliminates the enemy sneaking in and capturing your bases with a single unit (unless it’s a commander, of course), while forcing players to be more cautious when attacking new targets. Some objective locations around the perimeter of the map also come with large arrows; these places can spawn new units that travel onto the map using the indicated path (a sneaky tactic is to hide infantry in the trees along an enemy recruitment path, taking out newly ordered units as soon as they arrive). While capturing bases won’t earn enough points to replace all of your starting units, it will accentuate your forces and tip the battle towards the side that controls more territory.

Wargame: European Escalation comes with very basic orders: move, attack move, fast move (which uses roads: very helpful), and fire on a position. There are no options to place multiple groups units into a formation, which can lead to some unorganized battles and increased micromanagement. Wargame: European Escalation utilizes a couple of mechanics that elevates the game far beyond your typical real-time strategy game. First, the importance of supply cannot be understated: fuel and ammunition run out quickly, leaving even the best units stranded and useless. You must shuttle supplies using trucks or helicopters from your base to the frontlines or an assault will stall. In addition, scouting where the enemy is in advance of your attacks using recon should be a priority: usually, a unit’s weapons range is beyond its visual range, so the use of recon units is important for spotting potential targets. Recon can also tell you what type of units the enemy is using (so you can see if you need to spent points on tanks or anti-air units, for example), and it will improve the accuracy of artillery units that fire nearby. I really like how infantry units are automatically given transport, which makes getting them into defensive positions within cover (where they excel) a lot easier. Artillery units that attack air or ground targets are also an important part of your military, as are helicopters that are deadly to tanks but susceptible to those air artillery units. Matches can suffer from artillery spam, with players fielding only artillery units that fire pot shots from their base across the map, but this can be countered with reconnaissance and precise counter-artillery strikes of your own (among other viable strategies), and recent patch-based adjustments to increase have balanced things out appropriately. In fact, all units are very deadly when used properly: a cheap anti-air artillery unit can take down an expensive helicopter in one well-placed shot. Of course, you can’t afford to have all of the tactical possibilities covered, so choosing the right units can determine the ultimate victor.

Each unit has a morale rating impacted by combat, related to the amount of damage incurred. Artillery can cause units to become worried without actually hitting them directly, which could then pave the way for a more direct attack. Units will rout if possible, allowing you to then bring in a supply truck to repair and refuel your forces. You must also maintain line of sight and line of fire to the target, allowing you to retreat behind trees or up one of those hackneyed plateaus if the action gets too chaotic. Wargame: European Escalation is pretty free of micromanagement, as units will engage any enemies within range automatically and there are no special abilities to worry about. Units will not move to attack nearby (but out of range) enemies unless ordered to do so, which is good even though it requires more management, as your forces won’t be lured into an enemy trap without your consent.

I can't remember a fast-paced real-time strategy game that emphasized realistic aspects warfare, such as reconnaissance and supply, quite like this. Usually, high-fidelity simulation is reserved for slow turn-based wargames where you push lots of square chits across a 2-D map, but the mixture of a modern presentation and strategic depth Wargame: European Escalation provides is quite refreshing. Most importantly, you must resupply your units as they will run out of ammunition and/or fuel, adding a significant strategic aspect to the game. In addition, you must scout the enemy forces in order to determine which units to produce and where to attack, and then place those units in cover to spring the trap at the right moment. These aspects of warfare are generally ignored by real-time strategy games that reward whoever pressed the most keys per minute, but they definitely play important roles here. By capturing resource zones with vulnerable commander units, you can call in a bunch of different units that offer a wide range of strategic possibilities. Wargame: European Escalation offers good unit balance, as every unit always has a counter, no matter how powerful. Micromanagement is reduced by not having tedious special abilities and giving infantry teams their own transport vehicles, but lacking formations for grouped units is a small misstep. All of these varied units are not initially available, however, and must be unlocked by playing through the single player campaign or online matches. This obviously gives benefits to veteran players who have unlocked more stuff, but players are limited to only five types of unit per class, while better units are significantly more expensive and cheaper counterparts can destroy them. This helps to offset the veteran advantage a bit. The map design is repetitive and features unrealistic terrain, and objectives are not removed when fewer players are present. The linear campaign is only vaguely interesting (although it is an easy way to unlock units) and suffers from lazy design with repetitive objectives against unfairly superior numbers. The limited skirmish matches (with only one-on-one games) highlight the shortcomings of the AI that likes to attack with few units at random times. However, joining a match online is easy, although bad connections slow down the game time. The short game times work quite well with the accelerated pace of the game, and it means you won’t have to suffer through imbalanced matches against superior opponents for too long. The 3-D graphics make Wargame: European Escalation feel a lot more realistic than an abstract wargame, and the game also looks great up close with lots of unit detail, although most of the time you’ll be playing from a distant perspective. The interface is distinctive, and I would only add a unit list to make navigating the game even more efficient. In short, Wargame: European Escalation provides the tactical depth and variety needed for a compelling real-time strategy game.