One of the great things about the Cold War, for a typical war-nerd at least, is that it promised so much. Sure, it’s most definitely a good thing that tensions between East and West never boiled over into a real shooting war, but that doesn’t stop us from wondering what real, modern war would have looked like. For most, that kind of wondering is limited to obscure tabletop wargames and re-reading Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising, but now there’s a third option, if you want to see what the Fulda Gap would look like after the flag goes up – Wargame: European Escalation.
Wargame’s the product of Eugen Studios, and it uses that same IRISZOOM engine as previous title, RUSE. However, Wargame’s a much simpler beasty, in many ways a classic example of complexity through simplicity.
The game features four campaigns with consistent unit XP, though the campaigns really more of a linear series of scenarios than real, open conflicts. The first, which also doubles as a stealthy tutorial, slowly introduces you to game’s basic concepts, with greater access to more interesting units as each scenario progresses; you start out with just tanks and recon vehicles, but soon enough you’ll be manoeuvring mechanized infantry, air units, and airborne troops all over the lovely German country-side.
Tutorials aside, though, the game has a serious learning curve, and I suspect the AI – which is stolid enough in its own way – is heavily biased in terms of units in can produce or start with. More often than not this leads to the necessity to approach your first effort with any scenario as a test-run, so you can learn what you’re facing, and then re-tune for your next effort. If I had to point out a single serious flaw, this would be it.
As said, though, the basic mechanics are simple. You can order a unit to move, move fast, or to attack an opposing unit or area, and you start the game with a number of points you can use to order up reinforcements, that you can immediately direct wherever you want on the battlefield; assuming they don’t run into opposition along the way. Your points pool increases as you play, so you can call up more units to replace losses, but as your units level, and this XP is persistent, you don’t want to treat anyone as expendable. There’s no real base-building (you do have FOBs to control and capture), nor tech to research. The game’s played in real time, but it’s no RTS in the Starcraft sense; if anything, Wargame is one of those old paper wargames come to life!
There’s a mess of detailed stats on the 361 units (covering all the NATO and Warsaw Pact forces you could want) in the game, from armour values (for all facings), to weapons and communication abilities, to spotting. It’s very easy to lose yourself in this, but at the same time, you can just look at a unit and have a good enough idea of what it can do. In that respect, Wargame does a great job of making you feel like a real commander. Units under your control will seek cover, react to fire, or even rout – morale is another important part of the game, so you really do feel like you’re the one giving the orders.
As simple as moving units around is – and you get great pop-ups when you mouseover terrain, too, so you know if you’re about to send your armour into boggy ground – the challenge is in combating enemy units with the right mix of troops, and being able to work out what you’re facing ahead of any engagement. As the maps you fight on are often large, with multiple objectives and realistic European terrain with villages, roads, highways and rivers, this is harder than it sounds.
Typically, you’ll send a light scout vehicle ahead of your axis of advance, but with a fast reaction force of, say, tanks backing it up, followed by infantry mounted in IFVs. This sounds like a flexible formation, but when you see a formation of attack helicopters pop up over a nearby forest, you’ll wish for some close in flak support, or some choppers of your own. The early levels are a real exercise in combined arms tactics, as practiced by the semi-modern armies of the seventies and eighties.
The IRISZOOM engine excels in this kind of wide-front warfare. You can zoom into the action, and see tanks roll over hills and through hedgelines, only to get ambushed by AT troops hidden in a nearby copse, or zoom all the way out for the bigger picture. The battlefield itself is highly interactive; tanks leave tracks over fields, craters pockmark the landscape after any engagement, and burnt out tanks can even set trees and grassland on fire. There’s a real sense of epic scale to be hand when you zoom out far enough that you can still see individual infantry or vehicles (rather than NATO unit markers), and take in all the fires, damage, and battles. It’s a single, smooth scroll action, and the camera control is precise and simple. The game’s interface is best described as utilitarian, though. I can see what it’s trying to evoke the same feel as piece of period hardware, and it gets the job done, but it could be better. The same goes for the music and much of the voice acting, which is either way too slavishly appropriate (my girlfriend asked me if I was playing an old game when the music kicked in), or just downright annoying.
But they are mere quibbles against what is a very enjoyable and challenging game. There’s something about the scope and the setting that, despite the deck being stacked against a live player (and there is a full MP suite of options once you’ve mastered the range of units, as well as AI skirmish modes), keeps me coming back to the game. Even if you’re losing, the game can be spectacular – watching a mis-timed chopper insertion of airborne troops go horribly wrong really gets your heart pumping.
And yes, I know that from experience. But damn it if I don’t want to go back for more!