Wargame: AirLand Battle [Review]
Artillery shells soar across the sky and slam into the ground, kicking up pounds of dirt as infantry soldiers sprint for the small amount of cover the oak trees could provide. The wood splinters and creaks as the massive trees crash to the ground, providing a stronger line of cover for the infantry of Task Force Mash. The soldiers wait patiently for the shelling to subside, their hopes answered as two A-10 Warthogs roar overhead; raining rocket and heavy machine gun fire on the artillery emplacement miles away.
This small description describes just one of the many intense scenes played out in Wargame: AirLand Battle, the sequel to the award-winning Wargame: European Escalation. Dirt shoots into the air as artillery shells slam into the ground. Jets will soar over head in glorious aerial battle, peppering one another with missiles and machine gun fire. This up close and personal perspective really makes the game feel alive. Your faceless soldiers and tank drivers are really engaging in a cinematic experience unlike any other RTS. Seeing the fighting from this perspective is also completely optional, as the player will otherwise be given view of an entire countryside, littered with the blue icons of their units and the red icons of their enemies. Never before have I witnessed a game where I can peer from above the clouds down onto a battlefield map for excellent tactical oversight and troop management, then zoom all the way down to the smallest blade of grass to watch the battle unfold.
The game is rendered beautifully, an impressive feat considering how much action is taking place at once. Thousands of units will litter the miles of open battle space, both on ground and in the air, yet the game is not demanding from a technical perspective. My PC is far from the cream of the crop; however, I managed to run the game at a constant steady 60 frames on high settings.
The sound design behind Wargame: AirLand Battle is top notch. As you zoom into the battlefield you will hear the thunderous booms of tank fire, followed by the display shaking to add the sense of this powerful weapon being fired. Each of the sounds in the game are balanced against each other, like when your troops shout in response to your commands but are almost drowned out completely by the sound of battle around them. As you move away from the battlefield to your tactical overview of the map, the sounds of battle become dull rumbles—still very much audible, but not as loud and powerful as they were on the battlefield.
The game takes the RTS formula and turns it on its head, battling on Risk-sized maps in real time. There is no base building to be had in Wargame: AirLand Battle. Instead, the player is taken to a Total War style scenario, where he/she is given a limited number of units and reinforcements to manage. One should not go into the game expecting a short match however. Battles are slow and patient, and the smart general is one who plays safe and tactically. On my first attempt I foolishly believed multiple airstrikes would be all that was required to blast the enemy into submission. Unfortunately, my gamble was incorrect, as multiple hidden anti air units were stationed within a nearby forest and my air support came crashing to the ground.
Planning is an important part of Wargame as not all enemy units are visible to you on the battlefield. There is no fog of war like other games of the genre; instead, enemy units are not visible to you if your own units cannot see them. This is where it is helpful to create a recon unit to scout the terrain ahead and spot enemies for your armies to assault. To counter this, the recon units are not great in combat and are easily destroyed.
Wargame has a very steep learning curve, though this is not necessarily a bad thing. The game is not trying to appeal to the masses, but rather fans of strategic simulators. If you enter the battle with a mindset to rush your opponent like in StarCraft, you will fail. Not only does the game slap you silly if you attempt to rush your enemies, but it is often impossible to even do. Each unit is given a specific amount of fuel, and as they travel the fuel count decreases. Long treks across the countryside may not even be possible without creating multiple checkpoints, known as an F.O.B (Forward Operating Base) for your units to rearm and refuel. Ammunition is also to be considered; if you find your units engaged in battle for a long period of time it may be time to pull them back or send a vehicle to repair and rearm them. This sense of realism is rarely seen in the RTS world, as most often all a player must take into consideration is a unit’s position and health. It adds a sense of depth and complexity to the game, which only helps it stand out from your other, more typical RTS games.
Not all is unfamiliar though, as each unit has multiple special abilities like in other RTS’s. These could range from firing a P.O.S onto specific locations or deploying heavy smoke screen cover for your units. Units can also be organized into formations, splitting a massive squad of forty into two squads of twenty so they can capture multiple objectives. Otherwise, all other abilities within the game differ from most RTS’.
Wargame: AirLand Battle plays a lot like Risk in many ways. Aside from the massive maps, the game is all about capturing and holding key territories on the map. These territories can be used to station more F.O.Bs or even call in reinforcements to execute flanking maneuvers, as units will be able to be called in from different positions on the map rather than one point. There are also multiple ways to win a game in Wargame. For each unit you destroy you gain points, with point values varying depending on the cost, rank, and effectiveness of the unit. While a platoon of forty soldiers may be worth ten points, shooting down a fighter jet may be worth up to 140 points. A point cap can go up to six thousand points, making matches last up to an hour. There is also total annihilation, a game type which can last even longer, where your objective is to destroy every enemy unit the other player has.
Where Wargame stumbles is in its campaign and tutorial. There is no true story behind any of the battles or even the war that is going on. You are given a brief summary that it is an alternate world where the Cold War turned into a full conflict, but that is it. The lack of story does not hurt the game per se, but the idea of a conventional war that goes to the 21st century is a lot to work with. Do not expect a Company of Heroes-type narrative filled with cutscenes and voice actors.
The tutorial for the game is also very brief, and you may even fail while trying to learn. Each tutorial has a difficulty level, though it is challenging regardless. You are first taught how to command tanks, then other units. The issue is that it only teaches bare bones mechanics; any strategic maneuvers and possible strategies are left for you to figure out. This difficulty may turn away some fans of strategy games, as you need to lose repeatedly before you really understand what it is you are doing and how to play.
The game also has the option to play the campaign with a friend, managing your units together on this massive battle plane. Multiplayer is indeed where Wargame shines. Up to twenty players can battle on screen at once, ten players on each team, playing as one of the many countries. The game functions without lag, and depending on the coordination on your allies will determine whether you win or lose. With the same game types as the single player, combating the A.I is a great way to get yourself situated before you go against real world strategic masterminds.
All in all, Wargame: AirLand Battle is a must-buy for any fan of strategy games. While its learning curve is steep, and the tutorial is just as brutal. Very few strategy games have shown this level of sophistication. An hour can easily fly by on one match as you with your opponent desperately try to outwit one another and the result is a fun, fair, competitive RTS that is balanced in every way. I did not believe either faction was over or under powered and each match came down to wit.