Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Strategic War in Europe Review

Strategic War in Europe, developed and published by Wastelands Interactive.
The Good: Streamlined and simplified wargame mechanics with manageable unit counts and a smaller map size, $15
The Not So Good: Too similar to Time of Fury, basic diplomatic and research options, lacks alternative scenarios, no multiplayer matchmaking
What say you? A smaller, more easily controlled version of Time of Fury fails to bring any other improvements: 5/8

Six months ago, Time of Fury was released, which sought to provide a comprehensive look at World War II from a strategy gaming perspective. While the game did streamline a number of wargame conventions, it was still unwieldy thanks to a large map and lots of units to control. As if they listened to my feedback, developer Wastelands Interactive have created Strategic War in Europe, enlarging the map and subsequently decreasing the unit count by combining the military into corps and armies. This $15 budget-level release hopes to continue to march towards accessibility that started with Time of Fury. Does Strategic War in Europe march on Berlin, or march on Paris (you can decide which of those options is better)?

The simplification of Strategic War in Europe starts with the graphics: a less flashy 2-D map with 2-D unit counters replace the 3-D models from before. Honestly, I actually prefer the informative counters in Strategic War in Europe to the 3-D models in Time of Fury. In addition, the hand-drawn attack circles and destination indicators look neat. The World War II unit portraits return, as does the interface, which provides sortable unit lists and reports that make all of the game’s information accessible, although not as efficiently as I would like. The sound design is quite basic, with occasional battle effects and decent music to accompany your attempts at world domination. Strategic War in Europe doesn’t provide any groundbreaking innovations in terms of graphics and sound design (and recycles a significant portion of Time of Fury), which is what you would expect for $15.

Strategic War in Europe lets you take command of any of the European (plus the United States) nations during the Second World War (also known as The War Between The States). The alliance that earns the most victory points (earned by holding cities) is declared most awesome. The game comes with six scenarios, giving you the starting conditions for each year between 1939 and 1944. Games are played with one turn representing one month, so the longest game lasts a manageable seventy turns, which is a far cry from the 300-turn behemoths of Time of Fury). You can choose to control one or multiple countries (even those from opposing sides) and allow the AI to take the helm of the remainder. Strategic War in Europe lacks the alternative scenarios provided in the previous title, which is a bit disappointing. Strategic War in Europe also lacks matchmaking or centrally hosted multiplayer; I suppose that, with shorter games, the developers figured players could handle play by e-mail on their own. Still, the smaller map size (presented at a larger scale), reduced unit count, and shorter game length makes Strategic War in Europe much more approachable than its predecessor.

Units in Strategic War in Europe consist of corps and armies (instead of divisions and corps), which is appropriate for the increased scale of the map. Like before, ground units include infantry, motorized, and armor types, while fighters, tactical bombers, and strategic bombers take to the air, and carrier group, battle group, patrol group, and submarine group rule the seas. Each unit is rated according to strength, a health value that also determines attack and defense, and the effectiveness, a combination of battle experience, commander values, and supplies available. A selection of commanders can be assigned to important units, which generally increases attributes according to the rating of the commander. Supplies are automatically ferried from nearby cities to your units, the amount of which is inversely proportional to the distance from the city. While you don’t have to worry about managing supplies directly, the system does allow you to control rail lines and cut off supplies through flank movements.

Each unit has a number of action points (determined from the type of unit) that it can use to move and attack each turn. In addition to conventional movement, units can take advantage of strategic rail movement, sea transport, amphibious invasions, and paradrops. Air units can rebase, scout, and nuke targets, while naval vessels can raid supply convoys. Units can join an attack once per turn, adding to the strength of the assault and allowing you to take down powerful armies by surrounding them and simultaneously attacking them. The victor of a battle is determined from the unit strengths, terrain, and weather conditions. This system is intuitive while allowing for large-scale tactics. I found the AI nations in Strategic War in Europe to be fairly intelligent (artificially, of course), surrounding and attacking important units it can beat, avoiding combat when appropriate, moving towards city objectives, and attempting to keep units in supply. Units will get damaged, so you can spend production points earned from cities under your control to reinforce existing units (preserving the experience they have earned) or purchase new units that can be placed near any city once completed. Existing units can also be upgraded to a higher experience level or changed to a new type, if they are in friendly territory and you have the production points to spend.

Diplomacy and research in Strategic War in Europe is very basic. Diplomatic points can be spent delaying or hastening your country’s entry into an alliance, triggering an election, or changing political parties. You can also pressure other nations into a specific alliance, attempt to change their political affiliation, or declare war. And that’s it: no trade or dealings other than pure alliance. Research is even more primitive: you invest money to increase the focus in six areas (infantry, tanks, aircraft, submarines, navy, and nuclear weapons), allowing for more unit upgrades. Neither of these areas get much focus during a game of Strategic War in Europe, so most of your energy will be spend moving units and attacking your foes.

Not surprisingly, Strategic War in Europe is very, very similar to Time of Fury, except with less units on a larger-scale map. The bigger unit sizes, represented as corps and armies, do make the game much more manageable, and Strategic War in Europe is subsequently more approachable and serves as a good introductory wargame. Units move, attack, and gain experience over time, increasing their strength as the war progresses. Attacking from multiple directions on a single unit is the best strategy, surrounding the enemy as you march towards city objectives that contain the production points necessary to recruit new units and repair old ones. The diplomacy and research aspects of the game remain underdeveloped, and things will generally play out as they did historically. Strategic War in Europe features the same decent computer opponents as before, who play competently as they attack vulnerable units and capture important objectives. The simplifications of Strategic War in Europe have resulted in less scenario diversity, as the historical variations of the past are mysteriously absent this time around. The longest scenario in Strategic War in Europe is a fourth of the size of the largest offering in Time of Fury, allowing you to actually finish a game in a reasonable amount of time. While I do like Strategic War in Europe more than Time of Fury because it is more manageable without sacrificing strategy, I wish innovations were brought to the table along with the reduced size. The smaller price helps to lessen the sting of Strategic War in Europe essentially being a direct copy of Time of Fury with more streamlined features, though. I think that if I was overwhelmed by Time of Fury and wanted a quicker, easier experience (as I do), then I would take a look at Strategic War in Europe and its $15 strategic gameplay.