I admit it: I love 'Red Storm Rising'. The novel describing the conventional conflict on air, land and sea in Europe - World War III without the nukes - was a staple of my High School book reading years. The combination of high-powered (no pun) action set against a plausable enough backstory was, and continues to be, a book that I read and reread periodically.
Games based on this era of history have typically been focused toward the hardcore strategy gamer taking a very high level (say, divisional rather than, in this case, units within regiments) view of the conflict. In that regard, Eugen Systems' Wargame: European Escalation is delightful. However, it suffers from some debilitating design decisions that keep the game from being truly great. Sadly, many of these issues are uniquely specific to games designed and developed 'across the pond'.
WHAT ARE 'EUROGAMES'
This is a term I tend to use to not only describe a games region of origin, but also to describe a specific set of design issues that I find endemic to games developed in Europe. This is, by no means, a scientifically researched or verified description, but an anecdote I use to sum up some very specific issues that crop up with an alarming frequency in games developed by European developers.
Eurogames, in terms of design issues, are described as having:
- flawed or non-existant tutorials and/or objective briefings
- an amazing attention to unit/character stats that gets muddled in gameplay balancing and/or execution
As much as I enjoy Wargame, it really highlights these two qualifiers pretty starkly. These issues stand out to me because I want to LOVE this game, it has everything I love in a RTS game, but these nagging issues keep it from rising above 'good'.
TUTORIALS & BRIEFINGS
In the case of Wargame, the campaign is a source of frustration not because of gameplay, but because you must purchase access to units BEFORE you get a briefing on the mission. You don't know what you need until after the briefing, but the briefing occurs AFTER you can purchase new units. This is explicitly backwards - I started many a level only to restart and purchase new units to successfully complete the level. Understanding what the goals of the mission are prior to unit purchase would accelerate gameplay and reduce the amount of trial and error / restarts the game currently applies.
In order to earn 'stars' to purchase new units, the player must complete objectives in the game. This is a great system to encourage players to pursue secondary and tertiary goals. Unfortunately, because you don't know what units you'll need before you start the mission, you often waste stars purchasing units you won't need for the immediate objectives - at best - or will never deploy.
Further, to call the tutorials lacking is being kind. The fact that they are part of the initial campaign is fine, but there are several core gameplay limits/features that are not explained in enough detail or reinforced adequately. Units have a limited amount of ammunition and fuel - which is an awesome strategic and tactical feature, but it is barely touched on in the campaign. My first playthrough saw my West German Tanks grind to a halt because they ran out of fuel. This is a critical gameplay mechanic, yet didn't recieve a detailed tutorial or help text, a single blurb and that was it, forcing me to restart.
ATTENTION TO DETAIL - MUDDLED BY BALANCE
The sheer amount of data, as well as unique units, is staggering. Another hallmark of European strategy games, I find, as well as a huge amount of data exposed to the player, but are often muddled or rendered moot by gameplay. In Wargame, everything from effective range to weapon capabilities are exposed for the player to see. Unfortunately, for the sake of gameplay, some of the numbers are unusually balanced. For example, the Warsaw Pact forces routinely use the T-34 in the first campaign. Tanks that were vintage 1944, and going up against West German Tanks that were vintage 1980, yet, the T-34's antiquated 85mm tankgun were routinely engaging my Leopard-2s at the same range and killing just as quickly. As a gamer and someone with a more than extensive knowledge of history, this bothered me. If you're going to base your game on REAL history and REAL weapons, then these weapons should behave as their REAL counterparts. This wasn't true to the source content - my German Tanks should have been engaging the Soviets at greater ranges and killing units more accurately than my Soviet counterparts.
The crazy attention to detail in the stats and description of units seems to have been muddled by the need for balanced design. As a designer, I can appreciate the need for a balanced design. But much like watching a phalanx overrun my rifleman in Civilization II, there are ways to balance unit disparity without resulting in comical gameplay events. Using the above example, the T-34s should - and are - incredibly cheap to purchase. Almost 3 times cheaper than the Leopard 2. Therefore, it should take 3 T-34's to equal 1 Leopard 2 both in unit cost and combat ability. But, in fact, the opposite is true. The cheaper the unit, the better it tends to fight in combat particularly when veterancy is applied because their rate of fire, accuracy and morale in combat increases.
I'm sorry, Eugen, but a veteran T-34 is going to have a hard time defeating a German Leopard 2 tank on the battlefield anyway you slice it. In computer skirmishes and, in most battles, I've had greater success with more numerous, obselete, cheaper units rather than a middling amount of more expensive or top tier units.
ATTENTION TO DETAIL - FAILED EXECUTION
In modern warfare, the facing of units is important. If you know the enemies axis of advance, and you have tanks, you want your tanks to be oriented TOWARD your enemies axis of advance to ensure the thickest armor will protect your crew. The same holds true for anti-tank infantry, etc. - if you know where your enemy is approaching from, you focus your fire to repel the attack and ensure your unit is protected from counter-attack.
This is a factor that has been taken into account in modern PC games back to the original Close Combat series, and more recently, 'Company of Heroes'. These games placed an emphasis facing because it is both reasonable and expected in modern tactics.
Wargame units take into account facing when taking damage - units have armor ratings for sides, front, top and back, but there is no way for the player to face his units in a given direction. This is a serious gameplay flaw - if facing counts in terms of damage, then the player MUST be able to orient their units to protect themselves and, more importantly, be able to exploit facing problems against their enemies. If I know where the enemy is coming from, I need to be able to face the fronts of my tanks TOWARD the enemy. Yet, I must rely on the usual movement of the vehicles to do this - often with mixed, or inappropriate results.
ONLY THE DEAD HAVE SEEN THE END OF WAR
In the end, I enjoy Wargame despite its flaws. There have already been several balancing patches, so, I know that Eugen wants the game to succeed. But several gameplay flaws go way beyond a balancing patch to fix, and these flaws are significant enough to keep more casual or less-dedicated players away in droves. These flaws, particularly given the high bar set by such games as 'Company of Heroes' has set, are exceptionally detrimental to the game as a whole, which is saved by its unique alternate history spin on World War III and sheer volume of content.