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Posted on Jun 3, 2007 in Electronic Games, Front Page Features

Theatre of War Review

By Larry Levandowski

Passed inspection: Gorgeous 3D world. Immersive squad level combat. In-depth historical modeling of infantry and armor units.

Failed basic: Sketchy line of sight implementation. Buildings can’t be occupied. Nearly impossible campaign scenarios.

Every once in while, a computer game is released that challenges well established convention. Theatre of War (TOW), the much anticipated game of World War II tactical combat, mixes the hardcore wargame with 3D RTS gameplay in a way that is new and immersive. Theatre of War is not the first game to try this particular mix of formats, but it is certainly one of the better efforts. The game, developed by the 1C Company and published by Battlefront, is not for the faint of heart. Combat is brutal and some scenarios seem almost impossible for the player to win. The game as released also has a handful of sour notes in terms of interface and game play. These problems keep the game from being great, and will turn some players off out of the gate. Still, many gamers will find that TOW is a great ride, offering a rare gaming experience. Both the developer and publisher are known for their nearly fanatical support of released titles. So, while only time will tell if the game will become a genre maker, it’s a good bet that TOW will spawn a series of great tactical wargames for years to come.

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Theatre portrays an intimate, almost first-person view of World War II skirmish warfare in the European and Russian Theaters. Players control a small force of one or two platoons of infantry and AFVs, using a fairly standard 3D RTS interface. The player can control individual troops or squad sized elements with a single click. One nice feature is that TOW presents combat through the entire war. Players can choose to fight a battle or campaign playing Polish, French, German, US/British or Soviet forces. The Early War set of AFVs and weapons adds a very welcome set of toys to the wargamer’s sandbox. Battles run in real-time but orders can be issued while paused. Each scenario lasts approximately 30 – 40 minutes of game-time. So even with a restart or two, a battle can be easily played in a few hours sitting. The campaign feature links battles together with the German campaign being longest and the unfortunate Poles having the shortest.

With enough computer horsepower, Theatre presents a wonderful 3D environment. The game is choppy on mid-range machines, so detail may need to be curbed. Still, even with detail turned down, the maps of the European and Russian countryside, are complete with lush vegetation, destructible buildings, a realistic horizon and great sky effects. Fields are covered with knee-high grass. Each individual soldier and vehicle are presented in highly accurate detail. Tanks belch smoke when they start to move. Escape hatches open and crewman frantically bail out when AFVs are hit. Field guns, fences and trees are all taken down with a satisfying crunch under the treads of tanks. The graphical world is so complete, that zooming down to eye level, will make players think they have suddenly been ported into a World War II FPS, like Valve’s Red Orchestra.

Not content to be just a pretty face however, the game also has all of the technical detail that wargamers demand. Historical background and technical details of every vehicle in the game are available in an easy to use encyclopedia. Troops have names and carry tradable weapons like grenades, SMGs, rifles and LMGs. Each soldier is rated for skills like gunnery, driving and marksmanship. Vehicles have historic ratings for armor based on hit location. Guns are realistically supplied with the various types of ammunition, like APCR and HEAT. Powerful artillery and air strikes can be called in to pound the enemy. The effect of all this realistic detail is that while the game looks, acts and walks like an RTS, the mechanics are more like a hardcore wargame.

There are a few of these wargaming details where there is room for improvement. The calculations that go into determining shell hits and armor penetration are described in the manual; and are as detailed as any gamer could want. But this sense of historical realism is shattered somewhat by the implementation. Some gamers have complained about inaccurate penetration modeling. But the issue of most concern is the game’s implementation of line of sight. While elevation and buildings clearly block LOS, the numerous trees and bushes don’t. The AI is particularly good at seeing through vegetation and can pick off troops and tanks that seem to be otherwise well hidden. Another issue is that buildings can not be occupied. Most of the maps are rural, so this is not much of an issue, but it still would be nice to have this choice. Finally, while men can be hurt, even those with critical wounds regularly stay in the fight when they should be calling for a medic. Overall, many players will never even notice these problems but these points may annoy the grognards to no end.

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