2013 has dawned, and it’s time to review the best of last year’s games (that I played). This year I’ve opted to break from the traditional “best RPG”, “best strategy”, etc format normally used in Game of the Year rankings. For one, it papers over the vast differences that exist within any genre: Dark Souls is not Skyrim is not Mass Effect. For another, there are sometimes multiple standout games within the same genre. So instead, I’ve opted to recognise games for their special achievements. Here are 2012’s exemplars:
Update – 5 July 2012: It’s a mystery no longer: details of Conquest are now on Steam. It’s a territorial victory mode:
’CONQUEST’’ for Wargame: European Escalation brings brand new exciting content to extend the conflict.
Defy commanders worldwide in the brand new multiplayer mode: CONQUEST. To be victorious in this mode, in addition to the classic Command Points, you will have to control Victory Sectors (VS) located on the map, until the victory conditions are fully satisfied. In this mode there’s no Scoring System related to the destruction of your adversary’s units, only controlling territories will grant you victory. 7 maps have been adapted or created to fit this new mode, where you can either challenge players or AI.
Update – 4 July 2012: Patch notes are out! It’s a long list, but the highlights include a new gameplay mode (“Conquest”) and continued balance tweaks. I have to say, I’m very happy with Eugen’s post-release support for this game. Developers, this is how you treat your customers!
Original post: Back in April, Eugen Systems patched a new game mode into Wargame: European Escalation, and now the game’s Facebook page has this to say:
Second free DLC coming in July !
Get ready to confront your opponents in new multiplayer mode!
There are no additional details for now, but I’ll keep you posted as more emerge.
Eugen Systems has released a new content patch for Wargame: European Escalation (officially a “free DLC” – the only practical difference is that you’ll have to download it separately), while for the weekend, Amazon and Steam are now selling the game for US$24, representing a 40% discount. Reader Wolfox wonders whether the game is worth it, for an offline gamer, at that price.
My answer is “probably”. At a design level, Wargame is fantastic, and the new patch has fixed two issues that had marred player-vs-AI games. You can now do comp stomps, and you can now unlock new units by playing the skirmish mode or comp stomps (albeit more slowly than through PvP). The skirmish AI still offers less challenge than an experienced human player, but it plays well enough to make me work for victory. (Think one of the better Total War games, or, well, most strategy games.) And there’s a fun way to enhance the challenge – play with a themed deck, e.g. by restricting yourself to units of just one nationality.
Meanwhile, my recommendation for the game’s target audience (folks who enjoy PvP multiplayer) hasn’t changed. Wargame was worth it at full price, and it’s definitely worth it at 40% off!
Going forward, I’d still like to see more options to handicap the game or customise victory conditions. However, Eugen’s track record (in addition to the above additions, it’s patched in a new gameplay mode, more maps, and continued balance tweaks) makes it very plausible that we’ll see future additions along these lines. Keep up the good work, Eugen!
Summing up Wargame: European Escalation, Eugen Systems’ latest real-time strategy game, is easy. It’s designed to do two things: evoke the modern (1970s-1980s) battlefield, and give the player choice. Picking it up is easy. But mastering it – that’s hard.
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 361 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?
And that is the beauty of Wargame. From a thematic perspective, while the game is a long way from a realistic simulation, it borrows enough to feel believable (think Total War or Panzer General). Simply but clearly, Wargame illustrates the importance of scouting, flanks, supply lines, terrain, and more. Its huge arsenal helps bring the setting to life – it’s addictive to compare an Abrams to a Leopard 2 to a Challenger, or a Marder to a Bradley to a BMP! From a mechanical perspective, it epitomises Sid Meier’s definition of a strategy game as a “series of interesting choices”, beginning with which units to unlock and which of those unlocked to take into battle; and culminating in the myriad of decisions made during a match.
Unfortunately, the game’s single-player campaign can’t do justice to its design. I’m not convinced that linear campaigns and scripted missions fit a game built around choice, and while I did get past the introductory campaign (5 missions out of 22), the next mission I tried prompted me to abandon this mode out of frustration*. I think enjoying the campaign would require a taste for scripted (and difficult!) RTS levels, one which I don’t share. The game’s skirmish mode is much better suited to its design, and decently implemented: I can beat the computer player almost every time, but barring the odd off day, it’s usually good enough to give me an exciting fight. The bigger problems with skirmish are a lack of customisation options and a failure to tie into the metagame: skirmish is limited to 1v1 matches (in a game where most maps are intended for >2 players), you can’t save skirmish replays, and you can’t unlock new units by playing this mode. (Update: Eugen has now added a comp stomp mode to Wargame, and you can now unlock new units via skirmish, albeit more slowly than via the campaign or PvP multiplayer.) As such, I would love to see a expansion that added a dynamic campaign, a la Dawn of War:Dark Crusade or Rise of Nations. It’s in multiplayer where Wargame really shines.
(A couple of quick notes about multiplayer. The community is mostly civil – I think Wargame benefits from not being the kind of title that draws the ‘l2p nub’ crowd. And while forum discussions are filled with complaints about unit balance, exploits, and immersion-breaking tactics, my actual experience could not have been more different: 95% of my matches have featured well-rounded armies deployed in reasonable ways. I have no doubt that exploits exist, but Eugen’s track record makes me confident it’ll patch the remaining holes.)
Lastly, I should warn that Wargame’s plethora of units has a downside: I’m sure it would steepen the learning curve for players new to the period. The game’s manual provides brief descriptions of each category of unit, and detailed stats are available in-game. However, short of poring over those, there is precious little guidance as to which tool to use for which job. How would a Leopard 1 fare against that T-80 coming down the road? (Badly.) Is the Challenger or the Chieftain the high-end British tank? (The Challenger.) What’s the difference between the Dragon and TOW anti-tank missiles? (The Dragon is carried by infantry, the more powerful TOW is carried by vehicles.) While surmountable, this could well be an early stumbling block.
At the end of the day, Wargame won’t be all things to all players. For someone who isn’t interested in the period, an offline gamer, or both, my advice would be to wait for a demo, a sale, or perhaps new features in a patch– the campaign is just too taste-dependent, while skirmish is a bit limited. (Update: The new features have come, and Eugen has added comp stomps, which should enhance Wargame’s appeal to non-PvPers.) But for a gamer who is interested in Wargame’s subject – say, someone who grew up playing Gunship 2000 and M1 Tank Platoon, or reading books such as Nato and the Defence of the West, Red Storm Rising and Jane’s Modern Tanks – and who enjoys multiplayer, this will be a dream come true. Highly recommended to the latter, and a candidate for Game of the Year.
* This mission placed me in command of an American force stuck behind enemy lines, low on fuel and ammo, and reliant on captured Soviet supply depots. Very cool concept, but wearyingly implemented.
You can buy Wargame: European Escalation from, amongst other vendors, Amazon US and Gamersgate.
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Time spent with the game: I estimate 20-25 hours. Steam says almost 50 hours, but this includes a lot of time away from the computer. Meanwhile, the game’s figure of 18-plus hours seems to underestimate time spent in single-player, checking unit stats, etc.
What I have played: A lot of unranked multiplayer games (mostly team games – 2v2, 3v 3, 4v4), one ranked 1v1 multiplayer battle, a fair number of skirmish games, the first campaign (5 campaign missions out of 22 total). This has mostly been as Nato.
What I haven’t played: The remaining campaign missions; the Warsaw Pact (much).
It’s pretty clichéd to describe inventions – military, cybersecurity, maybe even medicine – as a race between offence and defence: I invent a weapon, you invent armour, I invent a bigger weapon. But that could almost sum up how my approach to Wargame has evolved. It’s not just that I’ve learned how to counter unit X, or how best to use unit Y. My overall strategy, the way I look at a map and lay my plans, has shifted: first from overly-aggressive to overly-defensive, and now hopefully to a happy medium.
This is how I learned.
1. Never believe everything you read on the internet
Internet forum threads made multiplayer mode sound so easy. Most players are careless, the forumites boasted. They don’t guard their backs with anti-aircraft units, they’re heedless of the dangers that can lurk in forests. All I had to do was:
i. Fly over a few Black Hawks, loaded with the toughest troops money can buy.
ii. Drop off my men in forests near enemy HQs.
iii. Laugh as they roll over unsuspecting targets.
Why learn the intricacies of commanding tanks, infantry, artillery? Chop off the head (eliminate all of a team’s command units) and the body dies (that team loses the game). It worked against the computer, when I tried it once! The war would be over by Christmas!
As it turned out, most players were not that careless. Anti-aircraft fire swatted away helicopters that flew too close, and a few tanks or flamethrowers could usually swat away commando raids. Meanwhile, I found myself regularly outplayed in the nuts-and-bolts ground war.
2. The art of defence; or, David vs Goliath
Out went the tactical gimmicks, which sounded so good on paper and were so easily countered by simple precautions. In came a focus on learning the basics of the game – down to defending against frontal assaults. Since I usually play Nato, this meant “how not to be overrun by cheap, powerful, abundant Eastern Bloc tanks.”
This was when I learned the value of cheap anti-tank missiles, carried by infantry (as in the above screenshot), or as in the screenshot below, jeeps and French Gazelle helicopters.
Cost of a jeep with an I-TOW missile launcher: 25 deployment points
Cost of a Gazelle with HOT missiles: 45 points
Cost of a high-end Soviet tank, such as those they demolished: 60 to 110 points
Satisfaction of gutting the enemy assault: Priceless
True, in this case, the opposing team had played exceptionally poorly, driving tanks down a highway with no recon; no anti-aircraft support (this had been left in the next village over, where it was completely useless); and inaccurate and mis-targeted artillery. But a victory was a victory!
3. The last argument of kings
Find good defensive position, dig in with infantry and jeeps with anti-tank missiles, support with other units as needed, massacre attackers. Win?
The above screenshot shows my troops being rocketed by one of the most powerful artillery units in the game, the Soviet Smerch. It wasn’t quite as devastating as it looks: my column was on the move, and many of my units (e.g. the tanks) were armoured. But infantry and jeeps with anti-tank missiles are not armoured. And if they’re in a defensive position – i.e. not moving – that leaves them frightfully vulnerable to well-aimed artillery. Guess what I encountered more and more often?
Clearly, finding one spot to turtle was not the answer.
4. The art of attack; or, know thy battlespace
Around the same time I realised I was placing too much emphasis on defence and not enough on manoeuvre, I watched a Youtube replay of a match between top-10 players. The contrast could not have been more stark. These guys made full use of the large map: they spread out their troops, they sent out raiding parties, they tried to flank each other using side roads, they were proactive.
Back to the tactical drawing board I went. It was time I rediscovered the offensive – or, to be precise, time I learned how to balance offence and defence. Time I moved freely instead of pinning myself down; time I learned to strike along one front while defending along another. And to my frequent joy, I discovered that while most players know to watch their backs against aircraft, only the better ones seem to watch their flanks.
The transition wasn’t instant. In my first ranked battle, I crushed my opponent with a small but powerful flanking force of tanks supported by an infantry-heavy anvil*. Soon afterwards, in the exact same forest on the exact same map, I focused too much on the anvil only to have the enemy blast it to bits. One match exemplified this – I pushed ahead with scouts, realised the other team had left their entire flank open, and bulldozed their artillery – and while our team lost by a hair, we might just have won if I’d brought more tanks (good on attack and defence) and fewer infantry (best on defence).
But the trend was there. And it reached its most satisfying point in the last match I played, the source of that Smerch screenshot above. The other team brought enough artillery to blot out the sun, enough to wipe me out if I’d turtled.
I did not turtle.
When that Smerch barrage came in, my armoured column was already halfway to the other team’s artillery. My soldiers regrouped; drove on. And once they arrived, revenge was sweet. The battle wasn’t the pushover I’d hoped: the other team called in more and more tanks to defend. But slowly, surely, it went my way. When my first wave went up in flames, my second wave picked up the slack. The enemy reinforcements slowed to a trickle. And my third wave started rolling in. Our team’s score had been well behind the enemy; now it leapt up and up. We fired the last shot, and when the match finished, we were ahead in points.
The game called it a draw, but I know who really won.
* I won despite accidentally buying the wrong infantry unit to support my tanks in the “hammer”!
It took a lot to drag me away from Crusader Kings 2; “ a lot” came in the form of Wargame: European Escalation, the Cold-War-gone-hot RTS from RUSE developer Eugen Systems. I’m still climbing its learning curve, but I’ve played enough to get a decent taste of its campaign, multiplayer, and to a lesser extent, skirmish modes. Several things stand out:
Simulation meets accessibility
Just as Panzer General did for the mid-nineties, Wargame: European Escalation does for 2012. Specifically, it’s a beer-and-pretzels wargame, a title that combines real-world principles such as morale, logistics, visibility, and flanking with a sleek, approachable RTS veneer. Terrain matters: driving along a highway is faster, but leaves you vulnerable to anyone lurking nearby, while forests can provide shelter for special forces raids. Think a deeper version of the tactical battles in Total War, one that also allowed you to call on reinforcements in mid-battle.
For example, take the above screenshot, from the second level of the campaign. My units are blue; the computer’s, in brown. My attack is occurring along three prongs: I have tanks pushing up from the left and the centre, but on the right, hidden by the forest, I have another mixed force of tanks and infantry ready to move up and hit the enemy in the flank. Tanks have much weaker armour on their sides than on their fronts, so this works just as well as it does in Total War. This was a huge risk, because I’d have been unable to see anyone hidden in the middle of the forest – and tanks are horribly vulnerable to point-blank ambushes – but it paid off! If I’d simply charged up the road in the middle, things would have gone much less well. Note the enemy tanks in the hedgerow at the upper middle of the picture – a frontal assault may very well have led to me being the one taking fire from the sides.
Just as important are the other supporting units. Recon units, the ones with the binoculars next to their names, are vital to spotting ambushes and keeping an eye on the enemy’s movements – and in this game, if you can see a unit, you can probably kill it. Anti-tank missile teams can make short work of even the most expensive tanks, but tend to carry little ammo and can’t shoot on the move. Artillery is horribly inaccurate when fired blindly, but when someone – such as those guys with binoculars! – has a line of sight on their target, an artillery barrage can stun, panic, or disorient defenders, and kill the lightly armoured ones outright… such as, say, those anti-tank crews. Helicopters are target practice if you have good anti-aircraft units, and murder if you don’t. What happens if I aim my best artillery not at the other guy’s tanks, but at his AA? Supply trucks and helicopters are unglamorous, but resupplying fuel and ammunition is vital.
Real-world tactics demand real-world units, and Wargame’s metagame revolves around unlocking these. Completing campaign objectives orplaying multiplayer (not skirmish!) matches will earn stars, and different units have a varying cost in stars to unlock. Normally I would not be a fan of this; however, earning stars is quick enough for me not to mind.
So, how many units are there in all? According to Eugen, the answer is over 350: light tanks, heavy tanks, old tanks, new tanks, jeeps, scout cars, mortars, artillery, rocket artillery, recon helicopters, attack helicopters, infantry in personnel carriers, infantry in transport helicopters… These vary across a range of dimensions: weapons, armour, accuracy, speed, fuel/ammo capacity, and cost in deployment points. Even accounting for duplicates and units that occupy the same niche, that is a lot of choices. Some are clearly over- or under-powered for their cost, but Eugen’s balance patches are chipping away at this list. Most are situational, and this is the beauty of the unlock system. Stars are abundant enough for me to have lots of cool toys to play with, but not so abundant that I have every cool toy to play with, which forces me to make interesting decisions even before I begin a match.
The single-player campaign
Wargame includes a 22-mission campaign, divided into four smaller sub-campaigns (which you have to play in sequence). So far I’m up to the fifth mission, and I think the best way to describe these would be “challenges”.
The campaign missions are challenges in two senses. First, they’re difficult. Usually, but not always, they require driving the computer from specified locations; this can be tricky for several reasons. First, the computer is often well dug in. Second, while there is no formal time limit to attack (though winning in X time can be a bonus objective), finite supplies impose a practical limit – turtle too long and you could run low on ammo. Third, you have to keep casualties down: there are only finite troops available in each mini-campaign, and keeping units alive from mission to mission allows them to gain experience (once again, a la Panzer General). Fourth, the computer can counterattack – in one mission I didn’t cover my flanks, leading to the enemy rolling up my supply lines and almost wiping me out! I won that mission in the end, but it was by the skin of my teeth: a crazy drive by a single command jeep to the victory objective*. The net effect is that after the first mission (effectively a tutorial), I’ve really had to work for each victory.
Second, the campaign feels as though the game designers have set me a string of problems, each of which is meant to teach me something. “Peter,” Professor Wargame says when I play the campaign, “the computer is dug into positions A, B and C, and it’s scripted to do X, Y, and Z. Given this set of tools, how would you achieve your objective?” And it succeeds at this. At the end of each mission, win or lose, I tend to walk away feeling as though I’ve learned something about modern military tactics. There is an element of hindsight involved when I replay missions, but so far, I feel as though I could have won the first time through with better tactics. For example, the three-pronged attack in the screenshot at the top followed my belated discovery of the perils of a frontal assault, and “okay, I’ll come under attack from this direction, so I’d better place some tanks over there!” could have been avoided had I kept scouts on all approaches. (I’m avoiding the word ‘puzzle’, which implies there’s only one solution to each mission; in a game with this many units, there has to be more than one.)
Note that the campaign is effectively story-less. A brief cutscene outlines the premise of each mini-campaign, but from mission to mission the context is limited to a narrator intoning that the BAOR has entered the fray or that NATO forces are attempting to encircle the Eighth Guards Army. I don’t mind; RTSes aren’t known for their writing anyway.
Skirmish and multiplayer
The skirmish and multiplayer modes feel very distinct from the more rigid campaign. Here, each team starts on opposite sides of the map, with an equally-sized pool of deployment points. There are objective areas scattered around the map, but ultimately the goal is to kill more of the enemy than you lose yourself – victory goes either to the side that first kills X points of units, or to the side with the greater kill score when the timer runs out. Lastly, whereas the campaign specifies the unit types available but lets you add as many as you can afford, skirmish/MP limits you to taking up to 25 different types (your “deck”) into a game.
The skirmish mode (limited to 1v1 matches) is passable, from what little I’ve seen. The skirmish AI plays a lot like an inexperienced human! I’ve seen it drive tanks too close to potential ambush locations, and I recently saw the AI open by spamming helicopters –terrifyingly effective against my initial line-up, but a game-loser once I responded with massed anti-aircraft units. However, these are the sorts of things that newbie players do – I know I’ve made the same mistakes – and as such, I’m not going to cast stones at the AI quite yet. The bigger problem with skirmish, as noted above, is that this mode doesn’t award stars for unlocking units. In other words, you cannot play this as a pure skirmish game. You’ll have to earn stars via the campaign, multiplayer, or both. This has been changed in a patch.
Multiplayer is where I’ve spent the most time. Rather annoyingly, the game often crashes while I’m trying to find/start a match, though it’s rock-solid once play begins. However, the quality of the MP gameplay is good enough for me to forgive the developers. The variety of units, the unlock system, the large map sizes, and the emphasis on tactics combine to create a plethora of interesting decisions: if I unlock this and that, could they form the hammer and anvil of an attack force? Do I hold at this juicy objective, or do I look for a more defensible position that brings in fewer deployment points? How do I ensure my deck can counter this common tactic? Hey, that guy rolled over me with an army of this! What should I unlock to counter it? And what do I have to jettison from my deck in order to make room?
Note that comp stomps aren’t currently in the game – for now MP is strictly PvP. However, Eugen has stated that it’ll patch this feature in within the month, so I look forward to trying it out. Comp stomps have now been patched in.
At this stage, I expect I’ll focus more on multiplayer than on the campaign. While the campaign feels cerebral, so does a maths lesson; I personally prefer the fluidity of multiplayer. However, the campaign’s style of gameplay could be more to others’ liking.
Stay tuned for further updates!
* It’s for this reason that I don’t believe the common forum assertion that the AI is omniscient. If it were, surely it would have pounced on my poor jeep?