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Posted on Nov 5, 2004 in Stuff We Like

Reaching Towards Realism: A Survey of World War II Tactical 3D RTS

By Jim Cobb

Introduction

The gaming market has been flooded the last two years with real time strategy (RTS) games depicting World War II action. Gamers have every right to be confused about which of these games are right for them because discussion and reviews mingle praise and criticism over three categories: realism, interface and graphics. Graphics themselves have an overarching significance as most of these games have 3D graphics to the point where such graphics are de riguer.

A survey of some of the games in this genre may help players decide on what they would like to buy. Moreover, the gradual progress toward a realistic 3D tactical RTS can be outlined. To accomplish this, a little history is in order.

It All Began with Sid

Actually, World War II RTS games have a long history. Sid Meier and Ed Bever began it with Decision in Europe and Knights of the Desert in 1985. These games were strategic/operational with NATO style counters. SSG followed up two years later with the Battlefront series. These products were operational, light on graphics and heavy on command and control. Both of these systems were plagued by poor AI and gamers’ predilection toward the control of turn-based systems. Units apparently having a mind of their own bothered them. Descriptions of these older games can be found at M. Evan Brooks’ excellent home page, http://www.pressroom.com/~meb/.

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As technology changed, so did tastes. The Close Combat series was the first serious attempt at tactical RTS World War II play. The first six releases of this series, coming out since 1996, concentrated as much on morale as they did weapon systems. Beloved by many serious gamers, the overhead 2D graphics as well its complexity kept it from making a bigger splash in the mainstream commercial pond. The same fate awaited the Airborne Assault: Red Devils Over Arnhem/Highway to the Reich system (http://www.airborneassault.de/ and http://www.airborneassault.de/). This system is probably the most realistic operational/tactical product around but the 2D graphics and NATO counters relegate it to the “grognard” niche. One attempt at a RTS World War II tactical game in 1994 was New World Computing’s Iron Cross. This game only proved that the concepts for an RTS tactical game weren’t extant yet.

Enter Blizzard

RTS tactical gaming really took off when Blizzard’s Warcraft series (http://www.blizzard.com/) blew into the public imagination during the mid-1990s. Set in a fantasy world, Warcraft has various units that can be called, in military terms, shock and missile. Proper coordination of types can sometimes be crucial to victory, although games are usually won by producing large numbers of units. Resource gathering and production are as vital to success as combat. Although lacking in realism, Warcraft has an underpinning of humor that makes it charming to players of all persuasions.

Of course, Warcraft’s phenomenal success led to many spin-offs including some games purporting to be serious. Command and Control seemed to advertise itself as an RTS mimicking modern warfare while Microsoft’s Age of Kings and Age of Empire garbed the Warcraft concept in historical clothes. Although popular, the games missed the point. Tactics remained crude ala Warcraft and resource gathering and unit production distracted from combat simulation. The use of this paradigm hit its nadir in Encore’s WW I: The Great War where recruiting stations and gold mines are found in the middle of No Man’s Land.

The first series to attempt to inject a measure of historical realism into RTS tactical combat was CDV’s series on war during the Enlightenment, Cossacks!. Units had very different capabilities and formations. True combined arm tactics could often carry the day. Unfortunately, the game carried the usual baggage of resources, production and technology. Fun and interesting, Cossacks! represents only the first wobbly steps away from Warcraft and toward realistic combat. However, CDV smelt blood in gamers’ positive response to any attempt at realism and looked at the Promised Land for wargamers, World War II. The result was Sudden Strike.

The Sudden Strike series rid itself of resources, production and technology and concentrated on tactical level. In doing so, the game provides the set of criteria that will be used to critique more recent World War II tactical RTS games. Those criteria are:

  • Functional use of graphics. Graphics should fit into combat and not be mere eye candy.
  • Accuracy of weapon systems. Units should perform along historical lines.
  • Believable scenarios. Scenarios should be something a real field commander could expect.
  • Supremacy of historical tactics. The “bum rush” of many RTS games should not be successful most of the time.
  • Ease of interface. “Click fests” are not wanted.
  • Scope. Scenarios covering more than one theater of war are nice, but should be reflective of the theater portrayed.
  • Advancing the genre. The game should boast innovations toward realism.

The “fun” factor will be mentioned but not be given as much weight as the other points due to its subjectivity.

Now that the context and parameters are set, let’s take a look at some of the World War II tactical games released in the last few years.

Sudden Strike II

Designed by Fireglow and published by CDV in 2002, Sudden Strike II (http://www.suddenstrike2.de/english/index1.htm) was the last entry of the Sudden Strike series that appeared in 2000. Conceptually, this game should have been everything RTS gamers could desire. Its successes and failures form a template for what RTS World War II tactical game should be but aren’t.

Sudden Strike II has a scale of one vehicle/soldier. Scenarios cover German, Russian, British, US and Japanese operations from 1941 onward. Play is either through campaigns with interlocked missions that award medals and better equipment for success or single missions. Multiplayer modes are supported.

Units are modeled for health, experience as well as primary and secondary ammunition loads. The large number of weapon systems seem fairly accurate in terms of range and effect, although vehicle armor doesn’t differentiate between front, side and rear aspects. Some units have special abilities such as long-range fire, binoculars, healing, supply and repair. Infantry units can go to several stories of multi-level buildings. Air support is present and comes in too perfectly. Collaterial damage can hurt friendly units. A bright circle around them that pushes back the darkened fog-of-war area portrays units’ line-of-sight.

The interface is left click to select and right click to target. Orders can be given through a single hotkey or a click on a panel. These panels are scattered along the bottom of the screen, making their use more difficult than necessary. Orders cover all infantry stances such as run, walk, go to cover and scatter. Combat orders include such fine abilities as laying and defusing mines, assaulting and “hold fire/ hold ground” options instead of the default “fire at will/move toward enemy” modes. Game play is enhanced with these features and by the slider-controlled game speed and the ability to form readily accessible groups using the CRTL+# convention. A combination of speed, grouping and issuing orders while paused avoids the “click fest” problem. A good mini-map allows quick movement about the battlefield. The AI is good on the defensive but timid on the attack.

Most annoying features could be overlooked. Morale is not present; too many missions are the “commando” type (assassinations, rescue, destroying secret bases). Smoke is absent and infantry can handled captured tanks and heavy artillery as if they were trained for specialist tasks. First aid, repair and supply bring almost utterly destroyed of depleted units back to snuff rapidly and completely. None of these problems are game breakers.

Significantly, Sudden Strike II fails because of the graphics. The faux 3D scenery and units seem more like 2D. The complete lack of zoom, tilt and rotate camera controls prohibit players from checking out cover and lines of sight. Infantry types are indistinguishable from one another and can only be identified via a text bar. Even the text bar is useless because of the small, cramped font. The bars for health, ammunition and experience suffer the same complaint. The fine sound effects are often players’ only way to gauge how the battle is going. Constantly squinting to see troop status and guessing the effects of terrain removes any fun from the game and spoils serious play completely. On-line play must be limited to a few hard-liners. Sudden Strike II had all the game play and historical features to be a very satisfactory game. The miserable graphics doom it to be a collector’s oddity instead of an industry standby.


A single German tank handles several Allied units.

Japanese units debark on a tropical island.

Those units fight there way through a jungle filled with mines and ambushes.

[continued on nextpage]

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