Thursday, April 05, 2012

Team Assault: Baptism of Fire Review

Team Assault: Baptism of Fire, developed by Zeal Game Studio and published by Slitherine and Matrix Games.
The Good: Weapon accuracy considers many factors, robust custom squad builder with varied units and abilities to choose from, multiplayer
The Not So Good: Moving units never come under fire, the entire squad must move if one member does and the entire squad must stay still if one member performs an action before moving, no indication of being behind cover, poor map size balance, no campaign, lacks a guided tutorial, uncompetitive AI
What say you? This tactical game is shackled by oddities of the turn-based gameplay: 4/8

UPDATE (4/5/12): A helpful reader has informed me that you can see if units are behind cover by pressing the "H" key. A guided tutorial would have really helped.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was just one World War II computer game? This has to be one of the most neglected wars in gaming history, constantly getting overlooked for yet another Spanish-American War first person shooter. Sure, we have a couple niche titles like Axis & Allies, Battlefield, Battle of Britain, Blitzkrieg, Brothers in Arms, Call of Duty, Close Combat, Combat Mission, Commandos, Company of Heroes, Day of Defeat, Hearts of Iron, Hidden & Dangerous, IL-2 Sturmovik, Medal of Honor, Men of War, Red Orchestra, R.U.S.E., Silent Hunter, Sudden Strike, War in the East, War in the Pacific, Wolfenstein, World at War, and World of Tanks, but nothing people have ever heard of. Thank goodness for Team Assault: Baptism of Fire, which finally brings World War II to the desktop in its tactical squad battles. Let’s dive between the hedgerows and see what strategy gaming lies therein.

Team Assault: Baptism of Fire is in 3-D and has some good and bad features. The maps are somewhat varied, taking place in urban and rural environments, and some designs have a lot of objects (sandbags, destroyed tanks, crates, fencing) that provide cover, but they are generally recycled from one location to the next. The maps are also devoid of animations (flowing rivers, wind) to make them feel more alive. Maps are very dark and foreboding, possibly a metaphor for the tragedy of war. Units have bland uniform textures, poor detail, and slow animations when moving, shooting, and being shot; they are best seen when zoomed out and certainly don’t look fluid. The sound design is much of the same: generic, non-distinct weapon sounds and the lack of panicked voice acting doesn’t immerse the player. There are very rare off-map battle effects to put you in the wargaming mood. The subtle music isn’t memorable, either; I actually had to reload the game to double-check there actually was music. All this said, while Team Assault: Baptism of Fire certainly isn’t immersive in terms of the graphics and sound, there is nothing that negatively impacts the gameplay either, which is maybe all you can ask for in a $20 game.

Team Assault: Baptism of Fire is the story of…well, nothing, really, since there is no campaign in the game, just a collection of ten maps you can play in skirmish mode. I don’t think it would have been too difficult to piece together a set of skirmish games masquerading as a campaign mode (of course, then I would complain that the campaign was just a set of skirmish games…you just can’t win) and add in some story elements to draw people in, but, as it stands, Team Assault: Baptism of Fire is just a series of random battles in ten locations. The maps provide a lot of cover and objective locations to fight over, but the medium maps are too small and the large maps are too large. I was instantly engaged by the enemy in my spawn zone on some of the smaller maps, and it took several turns of running to reach the objectives on the larger ones. Games can use four victory conditions: area control (take some control points), blitzkrieg (take all control points), deathmatch (kill some enemies), or annihilation (kill all enemies). The game comes with a set of tutorial videos and an in-game HTML manual, but no guided tutorial to show new users how to do things more directly. Sure, the manual is comprehensive, but I still like to see instructions and then do them. Team Assault: Baptism of Fire comes with multiplayer and a server browser to find matches, but does not take advantage of the online play-by-email used by other turn-based Slitherine titles. Because of that, it can be difficult to find opponents that are online at the same time you happen to be.

Team Assault: Baptism of Fire comes with ten platoons of German and American heritage (even though British weapons are included). Luckily, you are not limited to these, as the force builder used to create your own squads is nicely done. You can choose the outfit for your squad (providing better armor or a parachute), the quantity of grenades that are shared amongst them, and any disciplines they may have (examples include a higher initiative, faster morale recovery, or more protection when behind cover). Then, it’s time to add soldiers. There aren’t classes, but rather roles that are defined based on what weapons and items the soldiers carry. Options are comprehensive, as soldiers can carry a pistol, submachine gun, rifle, sniper rifle, light machine gun, heavy machine gun, rocket launcher, or flame thrower. In addition, soldiers may be given a medical kit, demolition charges, or mines to use. Finally, you can assign a rank to each soldier, which increases the initiative of the squad. Creating mixed squads of soldiers with different weapons and items make the squad more versatile on the field of battle, so experimentation is both fun and necessary to create the ultimate killing machine. I really like the force builder and the flexibility it allows in creating your own army of soldiers.

The interface of Team Assault: Baptism of Fire is pretty standard stuff for a strategy-type game. Units are listed across the top of the screen in a handy display that gives one-glance access to morale, stamina, and ammunition levels. Icons also appear on top of enemy units that can be fired upon, which eliminates the need to hunt for targets. The game also provides a detailed hit-percentage breakdown, so you know exactly what the chance of success will be when the trigger is pulled. My interface complaint deals with cover: while placing your mouse cursor over objects will show their cover value, there is no indication of whether a unit is actually behind cover, or if moving to a specific location will provide cover. This small enhancement would make unit movement more tactically satisfying.

As you can tell from earlier, Team Assault: Baptism of Fire has a good variety of weapons and items your unit can carry into battle: parachutes for more flexible deployment, grenades, machine guns, rifles, rocket launchers, mines, and more. In addition, the various squad disciplines and leadership ranks can further determine the most appropriate role for a particular squad on the field of battle. The unit design also determines the statistics of the squad: weapon range, penetration, accuracy, recoil, and area of effect. Points are earned each turn (more when you hold objectives) and new units can be bought and deployed along your edge of the map (though parachute troops can spawn near any friendly unit). Units take their turns in order of initiative, based on the rank of the units in each squad (more experienced soldiers cost more). In general, you can move and then perform one action each turn. Orders include firing your weapon, tossing a grenade, placing mines, providing medical assistance to a friendly unit, taking cover by going prone, capturing an objective, or waiting to do counter-actions (returning fire, retreating, or taking cover) if the enemy attacks. Units can run to further destinations, but then their turn is over. Also, units carrying heavier weapons can cover less ground in a single turn. Squads must stay in close proximity to officers, which makes managing them easier.

The turn-based gameplay of Team Assault: Baptism of Fire has some quirks. If one member of a squad moves before performing an action, then all members of the squad must move before performing an action. This causes an accuracy penalty, problematic if you didn’t want to move units that were already in good position behind cover. In addition, if one member of a squad performs an action before moving, then nobody in the squad can move. This mechanic doesn’t make sense to me, but I guess it’s an artifact of the turn-based gameplay. Still, I swear I saw soldiers in the movies simultaneously provide cover fire while others in the squad moved. There’s more: the I-go-you-go turn-based nature of the game means you can walk right in front of an enemy unit and then shoot them all dead without them being able to do anything about it, as counter-actions are only available after the attacking squad has finished their assault. In fact, you can run right past an enemy and they won’t do anything (unless you attack them and don’t kill them all and they have counter-actions available), since it’s not their turn. Just make sure you end up behind cover again and it’s like you were never there. Peculiar rules like these make Team Assault: Baptism of Fire less intuitive and more confusing to play.

Overall, Team Assault: Baptism of Fire has a slower pace because of abbreviated movement allowances on the large maps: it takes three or four turns of sprinting to reach the front lines on the large maps, which tires units and prevents them from performing actions. The game focuses on cover: always place your units behind something (which may be difficult because of the lack of direct interface feedback) to absorb some of the bullets. All of the weapons are one-shot, one-kill (or severe injury) if they hit successfully, which makes it deadly to be out in the open. Accuracy calculations are pleasingly stout, taking many factors into account: unit movement, range, weapon ratings, soldier disciplines, cover, and morale. The game displays a clear percentage chance of each bullet hitting its target, so you can focus on the most vulnerable opponents. Smoke grenades are very effective and must be flanked. Morale of units drops very quickly; you can have a very small chance of hitting someone but you can still cause them to rout. The AI opponent can be easy to exploit. The computer has the habit of ending their turn with units in the middle of the road, ready for easy pickings. The AI also forgets where your units are, sending new squads directly into the line of fire. The computer also does not retreat often enough when under fire, and it’s not aggressive enough attacking objectives, especially those located in the center of the map. Once the fighting begins, the AI will usually be content with keeping units in the same position for the remainder of the match, unless they rout and are automatically removed. The computer does, however, use smoke effectively, but I think most experienced strategy gamers will figure out how to regularly beat the AI quickly enough.

The way actions are handled in Team Assault: Baptism of Fire basically ruins the entire game. If one member of a squad moves, everyone else in the squad must move to a new location. If one soldier captures an objective or engages the enemy before moving, nobody in his squad can move that turn. It is tactically limited game design for no discernable reason. In addition, the enemy cannot counterattack until you have finished your turn moving and shooting. This means you can move right in front of the enemy and eliminate them all in one turn before they have a chance to retaliate. Sprinting, required to traverse to larger maps, doesn’t let you shoot, so you better be darn sure you won’t be in range of any enemy units. All of these shortcomings are unfortunate, since there are several aspects of the game that are done well. Weapon accuracy calculations are pleasingly complex, taking cover, morale, and unit ratings into consideration. Units also have a nice assortment of weapons, disciplines, and statistics, with leader-based initiative determining who can move first. I really like the force builder, which allows you to customize your own squads, specifying the weapons, abilities, and leadership values of your manly men. Team Assault: Baptism of Fire also has online multiplayer, although it does not utilize a play-by-email model so it’s difficult to find games. Team Assault: Baptism of Fire lacks a campaign that ties the various maps together and/or carries units over from one battle to the next. The skirmish mode features different game modes (namely killing enemies or capturing objectives), but there isn’t a guided tutorial as you must read the HTML manual. The AI is OK in spots, effectively using smoke and capturing their nearest objective, but stays in the open too often and doesn’t move when under fire; ultimately, the AI doesn’t provide a good enough opponent. The interface uses icons to show potential targets and makes finding friendly units easy, but lacks a clear indicator of being behind cover. In the end, concessions made in the turn-based movement of Team Assault: Baptism of Fire abstract the game too much, resulting in unrealistic behaviors and less satisfying tactics.