Saturday, March 31, 2012

Gettysburg: Armored Warfare Review

Gettysburg: Armored Warfare, developed by Radioactive Software and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Lots of units you can directly control, usually constant chaotic action, $10
The Not So Good: Severely crippled interface, no RTS controls or unit purchase in deathmatch mode, only one weapon per infantry unit drastically reduces tactical flexibility, can't reconfigure controls, can't host your own game, throwaway single player content
What say you? Very rough around the edges, this online third-person shooter and real-time strategy mix is full of partially realized potential: 4/8

As everyone knows, the American Civil War (or, as people, like myself, from the South call it, “VryheidsoorloĆ«”) was handily won by the French and Indians at the Treaty of Versailles. But what if irate Southerners went back in time, bringing machine guns, tanks, and zeppelins (because they are way better than stealth bombers) to bring the Confederacy to victory? This is the scientifically accurate basis of Gettysburg: Armored Warfare, which combines third person shooting with real time strategy, pitting sixty-four players and thousands of controllable units on the battlefield simultaneously. Is this madness, or brilliance?

Gettysburg: Armored Warfare is a $10 game, so some shortcomings in the graphics and sound design are to be expected. That said, there are some nice areas to be seen in the game. Some of the unit models, such as the dual-chaingun-wielding heavy and the APC, have nice textures and a high level of detail. However, the animations can be stiff, or completely missing (in the case of some infantry units that eerily float across the battlefield), when movement is required. The maps are OK, complete with hilly landscapes, muddy ground textures, trees, and fencing that evoke the historic setting. Tracers and cannonballs screaming across the battlefield show the chaos of war well. Units do clip into and through each other, though, which hurts the immersion. The worst effect in the game is fire, which frankly looks terrible. Still, the graphics are passable as a whole. The sound effects are decent enough as well, with appropriate battle effects, funny (if repetitive) sayings spouted by the combatants, and fitting music for the period. Overall, Gettysburg: Armored Warfare looks like you would expect a $10 to look like.

Oh, those wacky physicists: they opened up a wormhole in 2065 to the past, and an enterprising Southerner sent tanks back in time to turn the tide of the Civil War. Gettysburg: Armored Warfare takes place across four maps from the Civil War (Gettysburg, Antietam, Seven Pines, and Shiloh), although there is no campaign that links the scenarios together. There is an offline practice mode where you can customize unit types (using 1860 designs, 2060 units, or both) and set unit points limits, which actually do nothing as you can recruit twelve units no matter what the limit is in army skirmish mode. Joining an online game is easy thanks to the in-game server browser, but you can’t host your own matches. Gettysburg: Armored Warfare also lacks a tutorial for those who like learning how to play.

The interface of Gettysburg: Armored Warfare makes playing the game a constant wrestling match (which is bad, since this is not a wrestling game). Using the mouse wheel doesn’t zoom toward the cursor position. You can’t use the minimap to issue orders (right-clicking on it sends units to the bottom-left corner of the current view), and the minimap consists of an unnecessarily zoomed-out view with tiny squares for units and objective locations. Units sometimes ignore orders, moving for a couple of seconds and then stopping, and attack orders do not work at all. You are never given notification that your units are under attack. While the army skirmish mode provides a handy list of all your units (good), double-clicking a unit in the list doesn’t center the camera on it. The number keys do not select units in the list (even though the manual says it does). Placing the mouse at the top or the bottom of the screen does not move the camera. Unit indicators (triangles showing whether they are friend or foe) sometimes disappear or don't show up at all, making identification difficult. Weapons (especially tanks and artillery) do no shoot where the aiming cursor is located. Objective location flags are blocked by the terrain (causing frequent disorientation), and the range to objectives is not provided. While the controls are typical (WASD to move, interact to scale walls, double-click to directly control a unit), you can’t reconfigure them for alternate keyboard layouts or personal preferences. In short (too late!), the interface is a gigantic liability.

Gettysburg: Armored Warfare includes a number of different units to command and control on the battlefield. Some are historical units, like the cannon that’s best used on high ground, cavalry that runs fast but only gets a sword (and, thus, is completely useless in battle), and the ironclad ship that has limited use in the small bodies of water near each battlefield. Some are futuristic units like the dominating tank, artillery (used primarily for anti-air operations), armored personnel carrier (for carrying infantry), and zeppelin (for area bombardment, but a juicy, easy-to-see target). Infantry units include a mix of 1860’s and 2060’s units, but a single unit is limited to only one (one!) weapon: an assault rifle, sniper rifle, gatling gun, repair kit, medic kit, RPG, grenade, or mine. This means your role on the battlefield is one thing and one thing only, making infantry susceptible to every other kind of attack. It's tiring to take five minutes walking across the huge maps (because nobody using an APC actually waits for infantry to load up) with an RPG, ready to take out an enemy tank, only to get gunned down by an assault rifle with no way to counter. Plus, I don't even know if some weapons actually do anything: I've fired countless RPGs and heard them launch but I've never actually seen them; missing animation or broken weapon? As it stands, all infantry units are just there to look nice and get blown up by tanks. Thing is, there is a really easy fix to this problem: just give each infantry unit one rifle (assault, sniper, or 1860’s) and two support items (RPG, mine, grenade, repair kit, medic kit, knife, or pistol) that the player can choose. This would give infantry flexibility on the battlefield to at least make them somewhat important to the outcome of the battle. Hey, there are three weapon slots, so why aren’t they being used? This kind of confusing limited design permeates throughout Gettysburg: Armored Warfare.

Gettysburg: Armored Warfare comes with two game modes: deathmatch and army skirmish. The deathmatch mode supports 64 players, but the large battlefield spreads out the action somewhat. That said, battles can be chaotic fun when several to many evenly-match units are hammering away at each other near the objectives. In the deathmatch mode, there are no RTS controls, odd for a game that advertises RTS controls. In addition, you can’t buy specific units to place on the battlefield (the game spawns a predetermined selection). Instead, units just stream from the base towards the closest objectives until a human double-clicks on them and takes direct control. Because of this, deathmatch becomes a mad dash for tanks and zeppelins, and everyone who loads up the map seconds too late is stuck with useless infantry and cavalry. This game mode would be vastly improved with a commander (or two) that could give orders to units not under direct human control. This would integrate the game’s RTS features into the deathmatch mode, and drastically increase the organization of deathmatch games. As it stands now, deathmatch in Gettysburg: Armored Warfare is really just a third-person shooter.

Army skirmish is the more interesting game mode that plays out more like I envisioned Gettysburg: Armored Warfare to be, although it only supports four players unlike the sixty-four of deathmatch mode. Each person can field twelve units a piece, then give orders and directly control their units. Orders include the usual RTS nassortment of move, attack, attack ground, formation (square, circle), and stance (aggressive, defensive, hold). These are basic options to be sure, but enough to get your units moving towards the objectives you desire. The long objective capture time and lengthy travel time means that army skirmish battles last considerably longer than their deathmatch counterparts, but this allows for counter-attacks and flanking. Of course, the issues giving orders and other interface limitations I mentioned earlier make this mode tough to manage, but it’s still more interesting than the deathmatch option from a strategy perspective. In the army skirmish mode, you have greater control over your army, specifying which twelve unit types to use and sending appropriate units to counter the enemy forces. It’s more thoughtful than the chaotic (albeit frequently enjoyable) mess of deathmatch mode. As for the AI, I found the computer opponent to be sufficient: they attack objectives and will fire at you when you are spotted, although they do not coordinate attacks using units that move at different speeds. Curiously, the AI will not drive any vehicles in offline deathmatch mode, pitting you at an instant disadvantage unless you can drive six tanks at once (spoiler alert: you cannot). Ultimately, I’d really like to see the army skirmish mode expanded (supporting more players that control less units), or integrated somewhat with the deathmatch mode (by using the commanders feature I mentioned earlier), to combine the strategy of the army skirmish mode with the action of the deathmatch mode.

Gettysburg: Armored Warfare is a good, incomplete idea. I can see glimpses of fun, exciting gameplay in the online battles, but it’s tough to see through all the shortcomings. First, there are so many things wrong with the interface in its current state that playing Gettysburg: Armored Warfare is a chore: zooming to units, successfully giving orders, correctly identifying enemy (or friendly) units, finding objective locations, controlling units, using the minimap, and moving the camera are all hit or miss. The deathmatch mode is crippled for unknown reasons: you can’t use any RTS controls (instantly removing half of the game) and can’t purchase units, which puts you at the mercy of your computer’s loading speed: which unit you can grab first at the beginning of the match? Some of the unit choices are inspired, although I’m not sure why the future would use zeppelins instead of jets, but whatever. However, it’s a terrible idea to give infantry units only one weapon, offering a choice between carrying a grenade OR an assault rifle OR an RPG OR a sniper rifle OR a medic pack, instead of utilizing the secondary slots that are clearly in the game but locked from use. This is a huge limitation that makes fielding and controlling infantry, especially in deathmatch mode, a grave mistake. Much more interesting is the more organized army skirmish mode, which only supports four players and you can't make your own server. This structured setting plays out better with a true mix of strategy and shooting, and you can try it out online against the inconsistent AI. I'd like to see where the game stands in another six months or so of development when the interface, infantry weapons, and game modes have been (hopefully) more fleshed out. As it stands now, Gettysburg: Armored Warfare is a rough $10 experiment that the truly curious might consider checking out.