World War II General Commander: Operation Watch on the Rhine – PC Game Review
World War II: General Commander – Operation: Watch on the Rhine
Designer: Victor Perez. Developer: Games GI. Publisher: StraGames. $39.95 download.
Passed Inspection: Great graphics, innovative mechanics, superior play, fine editor.
Failed Basic: Hard-to-read font. limited activations, complex multi-play login.
This game is great and sets a new bar for historical real-time games.
Veteran gamers will ask “Do we need yet another Bulge game? We only have around eighty already!” Developer Games GI, designer Victor Perez and publisher StraGames deliver an emphatic European "Yes!" to that question.
At this time, Watch on the Rhine is available by download only, although other arrangements are being made. The download comes in three separate parts: two BINs and an install EXE; all go in the same directory. Launch the EXE to install and it asks for a serial number from an email. After the game is booted the first time, players enter an activation code and that goes to a server. This rather complicated process is good for three activations. The second code is also necessary to log into the forum and multi-player server.
The 60-page manual covers all aspects of the game. An illustration of units’ view and fire-radii would have been helpful but not critical. The mouse tip not only explains options but changes to terrain type as the mouse passes over. Hints that appear during scenario loads further aid players. The manual is detailed, although it was obviously written before the final release by someone whose first language is not English.
The graphics are that rare entity: a packet with features not only elaborate but useful. The default map is geomorphic showing ridges, hills, rivers, towns, supply dumps and two types of bridges. This map becomes lighter and darker as days progress. Atmospherics are represented with rain and snow. Exceptionally impressive is the differentiation between light and heavy forests. If players find this map too busy, they can toggle on a brighter, simpler map. Map overlays show supply and area control. Display of unit, town and river names can be turned on and off, although the font here and in the unit info box can be hard to read. The map can be zoomed and rotated at will. Rotation is accomplished using the mouse and left ALT key. A bar scale shows the relative distances at every zoom level. For larger scenarios, a box displays the side’s order of battle. A bar across the top gives information about air availability, weather, victory points, and time, and includes a running commentary on events.
Units can be shown as 3D models, silhouettes or NATO symbols. Zoomed in, the 3D models are extremely accurate and show damage and action such as fire and motion. Each battalion can be located and selected by a small symbol over the unit. Shell and bomb hits mark the ground with craters. Movement routes and vision/fire/command radii are clearly delineated in color, as are axes of attack. Unit info bars reveal units’ strength, efficiency and supply status along with weapon range. Air missions look a bit trite with planes coming over in perfect formations.
Sound effects are used very well and include sounds for wind and precipitation. Engine noises confirm movement, and the roar of aircraft engines signal when air operations are possible. The usual rattle of small arms and blasts from explosives denote combat.
Playing the Scales
The unit of maneuver in Watch on the Rhine is battalion level. Battalions are labeled for their primary and secondary weapons with ranges and effectiveness shown. They have the usual health bars for strength, speed, efficiency and supply. One can quibble over some of the terminology, such as calling the Pzkw Mk. IV a light instead of a medium tank. Battalions can be given orders at the regimental level, which allows easier control of units and permits players to choose among four attack postures. Forces can also be moved at a divisional level but some coherency is lost. The only distinctive divisional function is sending recon out to find the enemy. Ad hoc formations can be created with the old lasso method.
Six basic regimental and battalion commands are accessed from a button bar or hotkeys and mouse clicks. Movement usually follows roads, although routes can be modified with nodes. “Attack” orders units to engage with their longest range weapons while “assault” sets up short range slaughters. “Hold” and “fortify” denote different levels of defense. “Flee” retreats a unit toward a movable white flag. “Stop” is obvious. Special orders can be given to engineers and long-range artillery. Air missions such as tactical support, para-drops and supply are provided through an airbase menu.
The 14 scenarios come in four lengths, from short, battalion-level scrapes lasting a few hours to a five-day campaign covering the crucial first days of the battle. Some alternative scenarios that the Germans historically considered but didn’t implement are included.
The uniqueness of this game becomes evident in the relationship of time and distance to play-speed. Solitaire has three speeds: 25x, 50x and 75x acceleration of real time; multi-play has 50x, 75x and 100x. Players will be given more control over game speeds with an upcoming patch. Instead of pauses, a set number of time-outs linked to scenario size lower game speed to 5x, Battalion speed is determined by the speed of the slowest vehicle in the unit, plus terrain and weather. Since formations use roads, units in march formation must maintain the proper distance between them, which allows for the traffic jams that plagued the Germans in ’44. Battalions cramped too close can suffer collateral damage to all units. Thus, players must time attacks by keeping an eye on the bar scale, unit density and speed as well as time. Air attacks— when available—cause havoc at choke points. Battalions do a better job of responding to commands and regaining efficiency when in the command radii of battalion leaders, who are anonymous in the game.
As in reality, the battle falls into three stages. The attacker reconnoiters the area, usually from divisions, not only to find the enemy but to seek relatively safe staging areas like forests to gather forces and engage in long-range fire. Routes to supply lines must be secured to assure recovery of efficiency. The defender fortifies the main line of resistance while sending out delaying forces. Their supply lines must also be secured.
The next phase is pounding the foe to decrease efficiency. In Watch on the Rhine, the attackers move to axes of attacks while shelling enemy positions. Air power is useful for that. Efficiency, decreased by losses at the battalion level, is slowly but constantly recovered in this game, so pressure on the enemy must be kept up. Morale and troop quality is factored into efficiency. Weakened units can be pulled back to command radius via manipulation of retreat flags. Being in supplied, fortified position increases recovery rates. Both sides can send out small forces to disrupt enemy supply.
The final phase is the bloody close assault, which best carried out by infantry, though the attacker may send mobile troops to the rear areas and flanks: Although no facing is involved in the game, units can only fire in one direction, making attacks from more than one side devastating. Defenders can counter this by calling up reserves and reinforcements. The slower speeds and relatively large unit scale allow players to handle matters without the “twitch” factor, and the limited time-outs provide a way to assess the situation and give orders without stopping the flow of the game. Quick saves can also serve as pauses. Battle becomes a test of German quality versus American numbers and air power. Action has a historical feel as the Belgian countryside is ravaged once more.
The AI is fairly good, but it doesn’t protect rear areas well, mishandles reserves, and pushes unsupported and weaker units too much. Multi-play could solve this but is hampered by the jumble of passwords needed to join a game.
The battle editor is a historian’s dream. Not only can pre-made scenarios be modified in all aspects but the map covers the region from Lille to Koblenz and Luxemburg to the Channel. Units of any size, type and caliber can be used to create all sorts of battles.
World War II: General Commander Operation: Watch on the Rhine will be compared to Panther Games’ fine Highway to the Reich and Conquest of the Aegean. However, the newer game’s graphics, scale and versatility set it apart. This game is great and sets a new bar for historical real-time games.[gallery:204]