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Posted on Apr 19, 2007 in Electronic Games, Front Page Features

Blitzkrieg II: Fall of the Reich Review (PC)

By Jim Cobb

Passed Inspection: Adequate graphics. Slick promotion system.

Failed Basic: Realism remains inadequate. Interface requires too many pauses.

Any once-innovative series is always good for one more squirt from the udder. CDV and Nival continue to milk the Blitzkrieg series for all it is worth. Blitzkrieg II: Fall of the Reich is the latest pump on the franchise but the age of this cow is showing. The manual itself issues the warning on this stand-alone game, recommending it to players who have played previous entries in the series. Beginners should visit the counter down the line and buy older products first. In a way, this warning underlines the ambiguous nature of Fall of the Reich very well.

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Through a Reading Glass Darkly

Aggravation begins with installing the three discs. Although the protection key code is clear, the usual "Browse" function is not on the initial screen but is hidden under the spooky looking "Advanced" options. Neophytes will then be forced to load into the default directory regardless of their wishes. The last install step is a prompt to register on-line; a fine idea but the program refused to acknowledge a wide-open broadband connection. Looking for help in the seventy-page manual is actually painful. CDV continues to use the small font, black-on-grey format endorsed by optometrists with low caseloads. Dealing with the print manual is almost impossible and the PDF manual doesn’t copy automatically with the install. Savvy gamers will go back to the discs and copy the PDF file manually. The manual does not document some commands like "`" to bring up an event log. Fortunately, the in-game tutorial covers the basic concepts of play well.

A final documentary disappointment is the encyclopedia. All units represented in the Blitzkrieg II series have entries there but the quality is uneven. For example, the Pzkw Mk III ausf. G is described in detail but the much more interesting Ferdinand rates only an overview with no specifics on armaments or armor.

Very Nice – for an Octopus

Fall of the Reich‘s graphics are nicely detailed for vehicles, terrain and combat effects, although infantry still resembles ants. The map is zoomable, tiltable and can be rotated 360 degrees. The 3D images would be even more effective if the tilt was more than twenty degrees and could be managed through the mouse instead of only through the keyboard. Wrecks are permanent and the smoke from them stays awhile. Buildings, especially castle ruins, are depicted attractively and night missions have a suitably eerie atmosphere. The animated information bar delivers valuable information on armor values and unit status. Combat sound effects are fine but the voices are repetitive and often out of context. The mouse tip changes with the action ordered, useful if players have time to notice the change. Similarly, small tags appear over units’ health bars to indicate special orders or status like thrown treads or low ammo.

The element of time is the factor that makes this game’s interface ambiguous. Basic move and shoot orders are given through the usual left/select, right/execute clicking convention but basic orders do not win games. Special orders including aggressive move, dig in, camouflage, ambush and rotate are essential to victory. These commands add an extra step after selection, either through clicking on an icon in a command panel or via the keyboard. To confuse things, executing a special command is done by left, not right, clicks. An option to use a "classic" interface indicates the developers are not completely sold on their own system. Double clicking on a unit selects all units of that type, a feature useful for creating numbered groups if players realize that only the left Ctrl key works for this purpose. The two slow game speeds and ability to give orders when the game is paused can take the edge off on the complicated command structure but interferes with game pace at the same time.

The Worst of Times – The Best of Times

The game’s action takes place in 1944-1945 as the Red Army pushed through the Baltic States and western Poland on its way to Berlin. The Soviets enjoyed superiority in logistics, numbers, quality of armor and ruled the air. The Wehrmacht hung on tenaciously but ever-decreasing resources made any triumph minor and ephemeral. Fall of the Reich portrays this period with a campaign of multiple linked battles for both sides and ten stand-alone missions. In the campaigns, players can assign officers to each arms branch, e.g. infantry. Success will give the officers promotions and new abilities as well as giving their units better fighting qualities. Players themselves can get medals and promotions.

Each mission has a series of objectives, usually important terrain designated with a big, green suspended arrow on the main map and symbols on the mini-map. Players begin with a fairly balanced force of infantry and vehicles with the possibility of calling a limited number of specific reinforcements, plentiful for the Soviets, scant for the Germans. Small icons to the left of the screen show objectives when clicked and a larger button brings up present objectives and progress. Players should group their units by type and begin by sending out small forces to reconnoiter. The AI defends all approaches well so that, given the improved range of sight of infantry and recon units, contact will be made quickly. Action then becomes fast and furious. Enemy positions will have overlapping fields of fire, making players direct the forces in more than one direction. No "bums’ rush here; players must use special commands such as suppressing fire, ambush, rotate to present frontal armor and various infantry stances to handle the enemy onslaught. Armor will use the surrogate for "hull down" – "dig-in" — because, even on defense, the AI will make local attacks to keep players off their guard. Even the lowest of the four levels of play which gives the player advantages in numbers and AI skill provides a canny computer opponent.

This hectic pace may reflect the "friction" of combat but it also muddies the game play waters. For example, an infantry unit on recon would come out of a treeline, take fire and duck back if handled well. In isolation, this move would involve three clicks. Nothing happens in isolation, though, because the AI opens up everywhere and the player must look after his other units. The sequence then becomes "pause, check the map, give orders, unpause, watch developments, pause"; "lather, rinse, repeat as necessary". The feel becomes one of a very asymmetrical turn-based game instead of a continuous time one.

Fall of the Reich does a number of things well. Infantry can occupy structures and handle captured artillery. The non-lethal vehicle damage is welcome as is the possibility of running out of ammunition. The lag and drift of indirect fire is a nice touch. The ability of players to select battles in the campaign screens adds flexibility. Units often handle themselves well without orders. The very "friction" mentioned above is accurate. Players must use solid combined arms tactics including recon and maneuvering from a base of fire,

Yet, these credits are offsets by realism debits. Fifty MM AT guns can still penetrate the frontal armor of a heavy tank. Indirect fire often destroys single tanks with supernatural accuracy. Reinforcements always arrive on time and in the right spot. Crews and platoons never rout. Engineers repair vehicles, deal with mines and dig trenches too quickly. 150 MM howitzers can be manhandled around quickly and have their barrels depressed to bear on just-spotted infantry. Smoke from any source is not persistent nor can smoke shells, grenades or generators be used. The distance and time scales appear disjointed.

Players who enjoy the Blitzkrieg system will enjoy this game either solo or through the Nival server or a LAN. The missions’ difficulty assures replay for determined players. However, no significant advances in realism and play are present while many of the old annoyances remain. The World War II continuous play genre is advancing; the developers of Blitzkrieg also need to move on.

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