Review: Wargame: AirLand Battle
Wargame: AirLand Battle is a cunning juxtaposition of opposing words forced into polarised portmanteaus. For example, ‘war’ is not a ‘game’ and ‘air’ is not ‘land and ‘bat’ is not ‘tle’… hmm. Maybe we’re looking into this too much. Let’s start again.
Wargame: AirLand Battle is a new real-time strategy PC game by Focus Interactive and Eugen Systems, pitting the finest military machines known to man together in epic battles for the domination of a variety of intricately concocted maps, which are scattered throughout Europe. In fact, the maps themselves are recreated from satellite imagery, and have a tremendously tactile sort of toybox aesthetic; although it’s a very realistically faithful toybox. Think of scale models and you’re in the right area.
Eugen are known for the niche-but-quietly-appreciated Ruse, and this is a game certain to cultivate its own very particular and quite impassioned following. The game takes some very obvious cues from its predecessor, Wargame: European Escalation, but adds aerial combat into the mix, joining the satisfyingly trundly tanks and the general array of nifty military gadgetry.
It’s staggeringly comprehensive stuff, and certainly quite daunting for those unfamiliar with the series as a whole. Nevertheless, there’s a tutorial system for new players — the HUD isn’t going to blow anyone’s minds, but it’s functional enough, and the game seems to desire being a strategy sim rather than a strategy ‘game’ as such. With 820 unit varieties from 12 countries, it’s difficult not to feel initially overwhelmed, unless you’re a returning series savant.
That said, expect the full roster of XP and levelling up and acquiring ranks and such that so permeates the gaming landscape of today. There’s also the ‘Decks’ system, permitting the kind of comprehensive military tweaking that’s certain to please any armchair general, and allowing you to build up a roster by use of ‘activation points'; which are, of course, cleverly balanced so as to prevent you from creating an unstoppable army. Bonuses are nevertheless present, and it’s a fun little system to poke and prod around with. The game undoubtedly rewards invested time in tinkering with various components.
The singleplayer battles themselves zoom in from an overhead international map, and from occasionally tedious time spent waiting for a cluster of tanks to get from A to B, these soon evolve into tense and explosion-smattered affairs. Considering that you’re viewing the action from afar, there is certainly a sense of immersion as warning alarms blare as units take heavy damage. That said, ideally you’ll be wanting to smugly grin as you litter your enemy’s base with a fireworks display of satisfying orange fireballs. To do that, though, you will need to be on top of your game.
In the map view itself, things are a little colder, but there’s still a sense of overarching grandeur. Units are represented as chunky colour-coded models on the maps of various European nations, with various events and ticking timers giving a chilling sense of urgency to things from time to time. That said, the learning curve is steep indeed, especially for those gamers accustomed to the hand-holding videogames of today. Persevere and immerse yourself in the staid menus and staggeringly long lists of units long enough, though, and it all begins to make a pleasing sort of sense.
Strategy and tactics are unsurprisingly the order of the day, but don’t think zerg-rushing is going to win you any points. At least, not unless you’re darn tactical about it. This game rewards consideration and picking the right tools for the job, and will swiftly punish failure with unforgiving weaponry aimed very aggressively in your direction. So deep are this game’s systems that you’ll expect to monitor and plan the fuel supply chain of your army.
Maps themselves are lifeless, although rather impressively varied, each offering different strategic opportunities. The sense of scale is certainly palpable, and unseen enemies often prove to be as deadly and efficient as the ones your foe lets you see. There’s no fogging though, so if you didn’t see it coming, it just means your enemy outwitted you. The game holds no punches.
There’s a lot to be said for the gleefully tactical multiplayer mode, which hooks up in up to 10-versus-10 style to allow some truly epic battles. Furthermore, every player can play his or her own part, bringing their own Deck into the fight; for example, specialising in anti-air units to complement anything coming after an ally’s skyward death-squadron. Skirmishes are chin-scratchingly ponderous and immersive affairs too, and the game as a whole will truly test your military mettle.
All in all, it’s a game with depth, though unfortunately not quite enough character. Menus are perfunctory things simply serving to point you in the right direction, and in many respects it’s what fans of this genre will prefer. The singleplayer campaign itself is a curious and some might say forgettable affair, but the scale of the game simply cannot be faulted in breadth and depth alike — and you’ll likely be too busy with the multiplayer anyway.
It’s not for everyone, but what Wargame: AirLand Battle gets right, it gets very right. Battles are tense, with limited resources hanging on the weight of your every decision. The Deck system is a stat-tweaker’s dream come true. The multiplayer is a hotbed of delightful military mania funnelled direct to your computer-box, and for all the little cold and unfeeling menus, the lack of personality and the occasional curiosity (why in such a meticulously crafted game can jeeps happily drive through barbed wire fences without damaging them, for instance?), Wargame: AirLand Battle is worth your time — though expect to invest a lot of it to see the best results.
Don’t say we didn’t warn you about the learning curve, General.