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

Theatre of War Review

By Larry Levandowski

The real-time format of TOW takes some getting used to for gamers who like a high level of control. Real combat certainly doesn’t stop for you to grab a cup of coffee, and except when paused, neither does TOW. Because the game just keeps moving it demands situational awareness. When the player is focused on combat in one location, he could be taking a beating on another part of the map. The game helps by giving troops minds of their own. If the troops are left alone too long, they will take it upon themselves to defend, advance and even assault enemy positions with no orders from the player. This is probably a good feature in the long-run, but is unsettling for gamers who like the traditional wargame level of control. So while you are giving hands on attention to your ATG on the left your tanks on the right suddenly decide to leave their defensive positions and attack. Sometimes you pan back to find that your guys have over-run the enemy position on their own. Just as often you find your tanks burning in the fields. Players can specifically tell their troops to hold position, but if this detail is forgotten and the troops take their characteristic rash action…well there is always the restart button.


The game interface offers some nice detailed features for controlling troops, but it does have some quirks. With a few clicks, tank crews can be moved around inside the vehicle. If a crew member is lost during combat other troops can be substituted. Heavy weapons like machine guns, field guns and AT guns can be crewed, moved and ammunition selected. Squads move as a group by clicking on the leader. Orders are given point and click style but waypoints aren’t supported. Sometimes vehicles get confused on where to drive so lack of waypoints is a real problem.

As it was in real life, combat in TOW is a very deadly affair. Players attempting to use standard RTS tactics will be in for a shock. Bullets and shrapnel kill without mercy or regard to your troops experience level. So that squad leader you have been bringing along since the early battles in Poland dies just as quickly and easily as the newbie next to him. There are no armor upgrades and no priests healing in the back of the line. Most troops will be doing what infantry do in real life: crawling in the mud or fighting from holes. In order to get through most battles the player will have to use good old fire and maneuver tactics. Movement must be thoughtfully executed; charging a machine gun will result in dead troops. With each victorious battle in the campaign the player brings forward troops, vehicles and even captured equipment. For soldiers that survive a campaign fight, there are medals and experience points at the end of each battle. But because combat is so deadly, not many troops survive through the campaign; this fact is probably more realistic than many war movies would have us believe.

The AI in battles is scripted. This is great for the first time through a battle, but by the second or third play, the scenario starts to become stale. Many of the campaign battles are also very hard. The AI itself is far from brilliant so the difficulty has to do with setup and scripting. Defensive positions are well laid-out, with interlocking fire from AT guns and tanks. When the player takes an objective a scripted enemy counter-attack is often the reward. AI attacks are full of excitement because they are all about assaulting the player’s sparsely defended positions with superior forces. Because of the difficulty level, completing battles can take three, four or five restarts. Needless to say, playing a battle like this for the third of fourth time will cause some players throw up their hands and go play something else. When playing the AI in TOW‘s 40-plus battles becomes old, the game supports on-line play against a human opponent. Since the game is real-time, finding a player who is available when you are is a little problematic but should keep the game fresh when you do find someone.

To enhance replay-ability, TOW comes with a full mission and campaign editor, but no map editor. As of this writing, the development team has promised the map editor in the next release. The tool as it is, allows players to build a completely new battle, or tweak an existing one.. The tool is much easier to use for those with a programming background as concepts like global variables, object orientation and logical loops are key to using it. Still, for those who can get the hang of the tool, quite powerful scenarios can be developed. Hopefully a large base of fan created scenarios will emerge with time.

In the final evaluation, TOW as released, is a guarded recommendation. Players who have mid- to high-end machines and are not bothered about some rough patches will have fun and be taken in by TOW‘s world. Players who are passionate about some of the finer details like the exact penetration of T-34/76 round at 800 meters should probably sit on the sidelines for a patch or two. However, given 1C and Battlefront’s track record with improving released games even the most exacting grognard would be making a mistake to ignore where this game is going.


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