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Posted on Mar 31, 2007 in Electronic Games, Front Page Features

Battlefront Review (PC)

By Larry Levandowski

Passed Inspection: Deep, satisfying scenarios, great AI and easy-to-use interface.

Failed Basic: Documentation of the game editor is not complete. Battles need historic background.

When challenging situations are handled like child’s play, you know you’re in the midst of a pro. A top chef can make Peking duck look so effortless that we question just why they are paid so much; that is until you try to make Peking duck yourself. In a similar way, Battlefront, the latest game from SSG and Matrix Games, appears to be a light frivolity at first glance, but once tasted, turns out to be a connoisseur’s delight. That SSG has produced such a great game should be no wonder. The company is the lone survivor from the pre-IBM PC days of computer war gaming. In fact, Battlefront is the namesake of the original game, released 20 years ago. So this latest version has not only been a long time coming, but has been built with confident and professional hands. Battlefront is an easy to play, but complex game that will appeal to both the hard-core grognard, as well as the casual player.

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At its core, Battlefront is a game of tactical combat in World War II, with the basic unit being a battalion or company. The game’s atmosphere is a very traditional board based war game. Play is on a hex map representing 1km per hex, with each side taking alternate turns. Combat is resolved with one or two virtual six-sided dice. A combat results table (CRT) is used with combat rolls shifted or adjusted based on factors like terrain or defensive situation. This format has seemingly been around forever and will seem familiar to many players.

But beyond look and feel, Battlefront is not like any of those old games that you might have plucked from an ancient copy of Strategy and Tactics. Underneath Battlefront‘s hood is a complex game engine that models so may facets of warfare in World War II that a paper version of the game would take forever to play. Important tactical considerations are deftly modeled. Headquarters units provide offensive supply to their units that are within range of transport, but they don’t do this well if they are on the move. Units fight better when kept in divisional or regimental groups. Destroyed units can leave residual troops and over time gradually reconstitute themselves. Units can have special attack modes like the Japanese banzai charge. Retreating units can frustrate enemy pursuit by using screening detachments, strong-points and minefields. The list of these features is long and very rich.

Despite the complexity of this game however, SSG has put together a truly inspired interface. A few screens make the game’s depth accessible to even new gamers. While the documentation could do a better job in helping players understand what they are looking at, once a player gets the hang of the screens the game is a snap. In fact, the interface is so carefree that even a large scenario can be played in an evening. That is not to say that the hardcore gamer will not be pleased. All of the volumes of information that go into combat, organization and movement are at the players fingertips. Those players with time-and an understanding spouse-can easily spend hours on one turn; but they don’t really have to. This fact makes the game both deep for the grognard and accessible for those with less time and spouses who don’t understand the importance of tweaking column shifts before a critical engagement.

Out of the box, Battlefront has quite a bit of meat. SSG has provided four scenarios; each showcasing different opponents and theaters; Market Garden, Saipan, Gazala and Novorossisk. The games can be played either against the computer or another human in hot-seat or PBEM modes. A fifth PBEM-only scenario, Operation Crusader, has been made available post release via download from SSG’s website.

As far as competition is concerned, the AI can put up a decent fight. The game uses a flexible structure called war cards for programming the bad guys. The AI is appropriately aggressive, but not suicidal. In Market Garden, the AI playing the British ground force blows open the German line with such alacrity that the human player will immediately get a lump in their throat. The AI generally makes good choices but, as expected, is not as creative as a human opponent would be. In one Saipan game, the Japanese AI managed to exploit a weak spot by launching a banzai charge to open the US line and then rushed through to take out soft rear echelon troops. But after that success, the AI lost nerve and dug in, only to be surrounded and cut up; a good human player would have exploited the opportunity better; but it was still a good game.

One of the best innovations that Battlefront introduces is the concept of off-map areas (OMA). These are holding boxes that represent areas outside of the map. And if the scenario is set up to allow it, players can move forces off-map, and then from one OMA to another. So tactics like forcing your opponent to the edge of the map where he dies if he retreats off-board, are now given much more realistic treatment.

Another long anticipated feature of the game is the scenario editor. The SSG design team has provided the same set of tools they used to create the scenarios in the game. A foray into the editor can be daunting and the documentation in this area is less than stellar. In fact, the AI war card system is not in the manual at all. Long-time modders are used to spotty documentation and will no doubt be churning out great work shortly. For those who are not part of a modding geek squad however, it might be better to wait for the documentation to catch up with your creative urges.

Like all good things, the game is not without some weaknesses. In addition to some issues with the documentation noted above, graphics seem small and not quite as crisp as expected. And while there is a nifty magnifying glass feature, the text and graphics could be hard to see for those who don’t have good vision. Finally, the game as released does not provide any historic background to the scenarios….anywhere. So a player who is murky about the history of Gazala for example will be dumped into the game without even knowing who is supposed to be on the offensive.

But despite these few issues, the real point to the game is good old-fashioned war game goodness, and this is where the game stands out. With Battlefront, SSG has given us a game that will appeal to a broad war gaming audience and stay on many hard-drives, for many years to come.

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