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Here’s a familiar song. One that sounds like a Rolls-Royce CV12 growling across the hills and vales of a Cold War-gone-hot Europe, and one not particularly unknown to those poor saps who follow my ramblings on Twitter. The new one from Eugen Systems is out, and rather than review it, I just wanted to suggest a few reasons why it’d be worth someone’s time who perhaps wouldn’t consider ladling an operational-level RTT game onto their pannikin. Beats the usual slop, surely. Taste the diesel, smell the napalm.
Wargame: AirLand Battle is the sequel to 2012’s European Escalation. And just before we close the hatch and get rolling, AirLand Battle isn’t a product of bad videogame naming, a facet of strategy gaming that is especially rife (I’m looking at you, Storm: Frontline Nations, Reign: Conflict of Nations, World in Conflict and so on). No, AirLand Battle was a military doctrine in the 1980s that spoke to the use of a highly mobile mechanised ground force backed up by aircraft hitting logistics feeding an enemy’s front lines. The more you know.
Eugen Systems stepped away from the conventional RTS mould with 2010’s RUSE. Taking visual cues from the maps and arrows of military history and creating an operation-level World War Two strategy, the French developer fused style and substance with a measured pace that evoked the Axis and Allied war rooms of the past. It was a game that dabbled – perhaps not to extend that we all would have liked – in the idea of information being untrustworthy. Fakes and feints could be made against an opponent. Units could be disguised as weaker or stronger variants. Camouflage and radio silence prevented an enemy ascertaining where your forces or facilities were. All of this spread over a gorgeous and abstracted map that spread for hundreds of miles. RUSE was a very special game that blended the board game with the likes of Airborne Assault; a grand, slower-paced strategy.
Everyone must know the hilarious Red Dawn, but not as many would know Ralph Peters’ fine tome Red Army. There might be some middle ground if I mention the name Team Yankee. The point is, rarely had we seen a proper real-time strategy game that treated Cold War hardware with some semblance of awe and understanding until Massive Entertainment’s World in Conflict. Prior, the comical footfalls of the Command & Conquer: Red Alert games shook all. But while such a farcical fantasy delivered on pulpy super-science, World in Conflict took it a little more seriously, and deservedly so. The action might have been fast and stylised, but the tone was a touch sombre and the scope larger than most. Just quietly, between you and I, how Ubisoft turned Massive Entertainment into a farmhand on the Assassin’s Creed titles puts them permanently in the personal sin bin.
The Cold War scope got even larger when Eugen System rolled out Wargame: European Escalation.
The magnificence of the Wargame titles is a touch subjective, but the raw technology that powers these games and the attention to detail is certainly worthy of praise across the board. The IRISZOOM engine beneath the hood affords players an operational overview; with units presented as mere abstracted NATO chits. but at the roll of a mouse wheel, they can zoom to ground level and see individual decals on the sides of armoured vehicles. One can peer through the bulbous cockpits of helicopters and see pilots fully rendered within, then zoom out to see eight hundred square kilometres of detailed countryside. Each vehicle is recreated in exact dimension and operational capabilities to its real-world inspiration. And, like, there’s about seven hundred units and variants to choose from.
This might sound a touch overwhelming. But it most certainly isn’t. And while there’s an element of tank nerds and military buffs appreciating it beyond the average punter, it’s the actual gameplay of, in this case, Wargame: AirLand Battle that makes this an easy recommendation for anyone who wants to turn up the heat in the Cold War.
AirLand Battle, turn-based campaign notwithstanding, is a game of sector control, supply and reconnaissance. Not in that order, but those are the three fundamentals of sustaining an engagement. There is no real micromanagement or increased player performance to wearing out mice like it’s a Busan PC Bang. Gameplay is measured and comparatively glacial to games like Starcraft. This isn’t the realm of the infinite magazine or the magical fairy SABOT loader. There are requirements regarding line of sight and putting eyes on the prize, especially when it comes to aiding other units in getting a bead on an inbound enemy. Units come replete with more stats than a surgeon’s assistant; on range of weapon, rate of fire, armour values, stabilisers, weapon type and the list goes on.
BUT, and I insist with the pleading eyes of a thousand shivering shelter puppies, this is a game that can easily accommodate a player who is willing to just roll with it and learn by doing. The Cold War buff will know the operational differences between a Mirage III and a Super Etendard. But the building blocks of knowledge start with ‘That French jet drops some hefty bombs and is a bit awful against MiGs’. And within what is now the best thing to happen to multiplayer strategy gaming since, heck, I don’t know. The mouse? Since that clicking chaise longue for the palm arrived, revolutions have been thin on the ground. Until now.
10 versus 10 multiplayer.
Permit me my giddy bombast. In po-faced seriousness, there is no better way to both witness and experience the breadth of AirLand Battle’s pace and mechanics than with nine other folks and their armies taking on ten belligerents across the vale. While it might seem like a recipe for what post-war Australia would call a ‘shemozzle’, the large population on both sides of the line takes the individual stress off a player and, at the same time, affords cooperation and teamwork under a pleasant clip.
Such a relaxed canter means there’s time to see opportunity and take initiative. Be it aiding an ally’s armoured spearhead into a sector with assisted artillery barrages or a bombing sortie by your pilots in their hefty Cold War aircraft, or even simply holding the line with others in a grinding exchange; the largest offering in the AirLand Battle multiplayer suite is by far the best showcase of combined arms and combined systems to learn how to play.
AirLand Battle is not a complicated game, but it is a complex one. After acclimatisation, there’s a deep strategic draught to the affair of waging conventional war in the various periods of the Cold War. I’ve always marvelled at the era; the development of electronic weapons systems, the new age of jet aircraft, of massive leaps made in armoured warfare and military doctrine in the wake of World War Two and the looming threat of a nuclear battlefield. While it was a time of proxy wars and the superpowers’ dance of subterfuge, brinkmanship and espionage, seeing the warhorses and diesel goliaths that sat either side of the Iron Curtain go at it is breathtaking and sobering.
And I think that’s the best thing about Wargame: AirLand Battle. It’s a rumination on a tumultuous time in our recent history. It doesn’t claim to do anything but focus on the sheer hardware sported by NATO, Warsaw Pact and their respective allies. In that, though, there’s a terrific clarity on not just what devastating power was and remains wielded even today, but the logistics and systems interconnectedness of warfare in the modern era. AirLand Battle isn’t a simulation in the true sense. This isn’t Combat Mission, nor a shade on the hex-and-chit efforts out of Matrix Games. But what Eugen Systems have done is present a detailed and rigorous interpretation of modern symmetrical military engagements. Not just from the barrel of a gun, but the scale of the front, the capacity to see and the capability to supply.
Though not without flaws – the dynamic campaign could do with a little more meat stapled to the bone and small niggles like aircraft evacuation vectors often run them over enemy lines and, thus, often into more AA – Wargame: AirLand Battle is a terrific successor to Eugen Systems’ prior work and even more so, a boon to the strategy genre. While it might not have the raucous flair or the E-Sport broadcasting possibilites of its RTS stablemates, AirLand Battle has impeccable design and comparatively unique gameplay that should be relished and supported.
Unless you’re a communist.
But if you were a communist, you’d already be playing. The Motherland makes some great gear.