Wargame: AirLand Battle: right troops, right place, right time

A view to a kill: a French Super Etendard strike plane fires a missile at a command vehicle.
A view to a kill: a French Super Etendard strike plane fires a missile at a command vehicle.

 

 

My last attack failed. This one, I promise myself, won’t.

 

I’m playing a NATO vs NATO mirror match, one of the options available in skirmish and, in this case, multiplayer. (In universe, I imagine it as an especially realistic military exercise.) Last time I made the rookie mistake of advancing without reconnaissance; my raiding force drove straight into a platoon of Challenger main battle tanks. This time, I’ve infiltrated an SAS patrol behind enemy lines to scout out my objective, and they’ve spotted nothing but a platoon of mechanised infantry. Since then, I’ve spent several minutes hatching my plans: Norwegian infantry will assault from the south, US marines and French tanks will come from the southeast, and I’ll use artillery smoke shells to screen their advance.

 

It’s time to go. A smokescreen billows into life, and my tanks and APCs burst out of cover. No resistance so far – the recon work paid off. Excellent. I look at the minimap… and see an enemy horde advancing on the other side of the map,  towards an objective I’d secured earlier. My opponent, it seems, chose the exact same time to make his push.

 

I’ve already committed my ground reserve, but I have one last lever to pull – RAF Tornados loaded with tank-busting cluster bombs. Aircraft are as fragile as they are valuable, and if the attackers brought enough anti-air units, my Tornado pilots could be flying into a suicide mission, their planes’ advanced countermeasures notwithstanding. But sometimes, fortune favours the bold…

 

Welcome to the second part of my Wargame: AirLand Battle preview, based on the game’s current pre-order beta! I’ve divided this into two sections, below – one for new players, and one for returning European Escalation veterans – before offering up some concluding thoughts.

 

New players

 

Total War with tanks. Sins of a Soviet Empire. Supreme Allied Commander: Europe.

 

With those analogies, I can convey some of Wargame: AirLand Battle‘s scale and pace. This is a vast, cerebral game, one which rewards scouting and flanking and planning over actions per minute. At the same time, like Total War or a modern Panzer General, it keeps its controls simple and its matches manageable (usually around 30 minutes, though this is customisable).  Most of what I said about its predecessor, European Escalation, still applies:

 

Playing Wargame is about putting the right troops in the right place at the right time. Unlike Eugen’s earlier RUSE, there is no base-building and almost no economic management – more dangerous parts of the map are worth more reinforcement points, that’s it. Instead, tactics are king. The basics are simple: use recon units to size up the foe; recognise that in an equal fight, the defenders will win; attack where the odds are unequal in your favour; and defend or fall back where they’re not. The tricky part is the “how”.  With [826, as of AB] units in the game, who are the right troops for a given situation? On large maps, laden with forests and swamps, highways and towns, where is the right place to attack, hold, lay an ambush? On battlefields this fluid and lethal, when is the right time to act?”

 

In practice, AB feels like that RUSE trailer depicting a rather intense battle of wits. Matches alternate between stretches of tension, as units move into position and as players husband their resources, and short, nasty firefights when one player pushes a perceived or actual advantage. The thrill of outwitting the other player means that the game shines in PvP multiplayer, but it also offers a credible skirmish mode. The computer can’t beat an experienced human (me), but plays well enough to offer an exciting match – I’m sure it could beat me if I were careless. The computer does receive a resource bonus that varies with difficulty, but with one minor exception (1), its cheating doesn’t bother me. Judging by what I have read on other sites, it often plays well enough to beat newbies!

 

Suppression fire: Swedish artillery rains down around Soviet surface-to-air missiles.
Suppression fire: Swedish artillery rains down around Soviet surface-to-air missiles.

 

 

European Escalation veterans

 

If Wargame: European Escalation was Sins of a Solar Empire, then this is Rebellion. W:EE veterans will feel right at home with AB’s general look and feel (controls, art assets, unit voices, etc) – but spend a bit more time, and you’ll find that the underlying flow of the game has changed for the better.

 

AB’s most visible addition is fixed-wing aircraft, which are an interesting beast. They can be glass cannons in much the same way that Apaches and Havocs were in the original game, although more modern aircraft get a survivability bonus from their electronic countermeasure (ECM) suites. Their speed makes them great rapid reaction units, and of course, they’re a delight to watch.

 

However, other changes are just as – or perhaps even more – important. The new deck system increases the element of choice before a game. The economy has been revised – by default, players start with fewer points (1,000 vs 1,500 in EE), but zones are now worth more points. So instead of matches ramping down as players lose their starting forces, they now ramp up as players can afford to bring in substantial reinforcements. Cheap unit spam, in my limited experience, seems less viable now that (a) aircraft can gut an attacking column, and (b) the armour and AP scales have become more granular (1-20 and 1-30, respectively; vs EE’s 1-10 and 1-20). For that matter, high-end ground units have become vulnerable to aircraft, reinforcing the importance of combined arms. I’m still trying to get the hang of smoke shells, but I think they’d be invaluable to screen attacks that would have been suicidal in EE. At an implementation level, the skirmish AI is markedly improved from EE’s – no more suicidal chopper rush! Now the AI will retreat (2), garrison infantry in appropriate locations, even communicate with human teammates by dropping beacons on the map. And I’m sure there’s more…

 

Overall thoughts

 

Is Wargame: AirLand Battle worth checking out? If you like the game’s subject matter, yes. Newcomers to the Wargame series will face a bit of a learning curve, but underpinning this game is a fantastic design that blends choice and, despite the huge number of units on offer, elegance. For veterans, this has surpassed European Escalation in every way I’ve seen so far. My only caveat is that if you prefer single-player campaigns, you may want to hold off until after I’ve had the chance to assess them in the launch version of the game. Otherwise, my impressions of what is in the beta are overwhelmingly positive. I look forward to trying out the final product!

 

Resources

Video by developer Eugen Systems, explaining the game’s army-customisation system

Manual for the beta version

 

(1) The computer likes to use smoke shells to block your recon units’ line of sight. Cool! Except that the game doesn’t seem to check if the AI can actually see the target recon unit. It routinely drops smoke on scouts hiding in the forest, which does no harm but is a little jarring. However, the computer otherwise seems to respect line of sight when it shoots.

 

(2) In one recent skirmish game, the computer not only retreated its Mi-24s when I brought up an anti-air Gazelle… it sent in two fighter aircraft to blast my poor chopper out of the sky. Ouch.

 

Wargame: AirLand Battle is due out on 23 May. Preorder customers gain access to the AB beta, and owners of EE receive a 25% discount on Steam for preordering.

 

The above comments are based on a preview copy supplied by the game’s publisher, Focus Home Interactive.  

 

Series Navigation<< Wargame: AirLand Battle: opening a box of virtual chocolatesLet’s defend Scandinavia in Wargame: AirLand Battle! Part 1: Something Rotten in Denmark >>
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