Buy 'SQUAD ASSAULT: Second Wave': PC
For a long time now, serious wargames have only come in one size and in one flavor – large-scale operational level and turned-based. Then during the late '90s, Atomic Games put out a little company battalion-sized wargame that occurred in real-time. That game was Close Combat, and it posed an importance design question: Could realism be attained if the designer forsook the "You-go, I-go" paradigm?
After a series of sequels, the Close Combat franchise grew to cover both West and East Front settings, but as the world turned and the gaming industry erupted, the wargame genre remained a relatively unlucrative niche market and thus the Close Combat franchise fell into mothballs.
Things were made worse with the "resurrection" of the Close Combat franchise under a new name, GI Combat, which was a wretched foray into 3D and then a re-branding as Close Combat: First to Fight, which in my experience, was a lifeless first person "tactical" shooter. It seemed that the Close Combat magic was lost. However, as Frederick von Moltke said, "The enemy will present you with three options and then choose a fourth." In this case, the fourth option is Squad Assault.
Since the debut of Squad Assault, designer Got Game has been hard at work on a sequel, Squad Assault: Second Wave, which still focuses, as with the first Squad Assault, on the Western Front. The Normandy campaign is the focus, but there are options to choose the American campaign, the Commonwealth campaign, German Counter Attack campaign and Market Garden. It is a comprehensive and impressive array of operational areas that would cover the entire first three Close Combat episodes.
Unfortunately, none of the campaigns look to be dynamic to the point of changing the war’s outcome, but then again, this is a tactical endeavor, and it would only be appropriate that a game on an operational or theater level would sway the course of the war. In any event, any World War II fan will find this wide selection more than satisfying in a time where most gamers think that World War II began with Omaha Beach and ended with Private Ryan being saved.
As with Squad Assault, Second Wave is a 3D game with a dynamic and user-controlled camera. You can navigate the map from any altitude and angle where you can zoom out to see the entire map or zoom in the see a specific soldier. Second Wave is not going to blow the doors off of any graphics cards, but the ability to examine the battlefield in such a comprehensive way is impressive nonetheless, and besides, it is the gameplay that matters most. Squad Assault’s gameplay centers on delivering orders to your teams and squads. You won’t directly control them, only direct them to lay down fires, maneuver through terrain, defend a sector, set an ambush or simply hide.
While the orders seem simple, the actions attached to them are not, and each soldier does his job to the best of his ability and under the present circumstances. Ask a sniper to shoot and tank, and he’ll cuss you out. As a tank to assault a house, and your tank commander will request a transfer. If your orders don’t make tactical sense, your soldiers will react accordingly and disobey you. After all, victory might be your objective, but each of your polygonal riflemen also want to see the end of the war, and that motivation often supercedes your rank.
A nice feature to the game, which I wasn’t able to take full advantage of in the beta campaigns, is the fact that your soldiers carry on from battle to battle. Each has a name, rank, morale bar, health bar and experience bar. Soldiers with more experience follow orders better and are quicker to react and are more effective, so it would behoove you to think through your tactics and keep your men alive, for they will serve better later on. After Action Reports will also tell you who’s getting the job done and who isn’t, and thus you can award your men accordingly with various medals, which helps morale and experience even further.
What made Close Combat so special was the realism that was injected into a real-time strategy game. Close Combat boasted two key features. The first feature is the morale-based algorithms that determined the mindset of each individual soldier, which in turn affected whether or not your soldiers followed orders, broke and ran, or became enraged and slaughtered all comers. Soldiers reacted to orders realistically according to their morale levels, available cover, incoming fire, casualties and command influence. Second Wave will share this same feature, as it has been revised and refined over the past few development cycles.
The second crucial feature to gameplay is the comprehensive ballistics modeling that affects every round fired from every type of weapon. The only other game that I know of that can boast a similarly comprehensive ballistics model as Close Combat (and by extension Squad Assault: Second Wave) would be Combat Mission, another revolutionary wargame franchise. If you are one who likes to know that your units aren’t play-balanced to the point where they are remodeled and reskinned clones of each other, you’ll be happy to know that Second Wave has nothing of the sort. While comparable in stats, the British 8pdr anti-tank gun is certainly not the equal of the 8.8 cm Flak Kannone anti-tank weapon. German rifle squads carry heavier organic firepower in the form of an MG42, but their Mauser K98 rifles are slower firing, bolt-action rifles, whereas the Americans wield semiautomatic M1 Garands that spreads out the firepower, thus making for a less potent and focused suppressing fire.
While Second Wave is sound in the gameplay department, all is not well in this tactical deployment. My initial difficulties with Second Wave begin with the game’s performance. My machine is a modest Athlon 3000XP with a gig of DDR RAM and a GeForce 6800 GT/OC, and at medium to high graphics settings, the game chugged at a lowly 15-20 frames per second. Now, it would be one thing if the game offered high-end features like normal mapping, anisotropic filtering and a high level of anti-aliasing, but even without these features or without then enabled, I still couldn’t get this game to run very well. I never experienced a lock-out or a crash; however, there were times when I was crossing my fingers that the game wouldn’t break down.
Without those quality graphic features I mentioned, it must also be noted that Second Wave is not very pretty. The models are blocky and the textures are all very low resolution and redundant. Animations are cut by the dreadful frame rate and it often looks as if your soldiers warp across the field. Pull out the camera to a far away perspective and these problems aren’t evident, but sometimes you need to get in the mud with your troops to see what they see and in Second Wave the horrors of war aren’t always of war.
Problems with Second Wave persist in that the multiplayer functionality is limited without that of a game browser, and without a browser, one is limited to finding direct connect games through IP addresses taken from community websites. That being said, players will find that Squad Assault ought to have a strong cult following. Wargamers are that type of people that will build and nurse a game through the lean times. Take a look at Rome: Total War, one of the best wargames produced in recent years, and you’ll find hundreds, if not thousands, of website dedicated solely to Rome and its community. I doubt Squad Assault will enjoy as strong a following, but there will be a strong following nonetheless.
Second Wave ships with a full scenario editor, which allows you to building off of the available map sets to create new missions, operations and campaigns complete with orders of battle and briefings and objectives. This was one of the best features of Close Combat: Eastern Front, and I am glad to see it strengthened in Squad Assault: Second Wave.
All in all, Squad Assault: Second Wave is an evolutionary step. It would be worse to not have a Squad Assault at all, but that being said, Second Wave is still deeply flawed. Gameplay is everything for wargames, but immersion and intensity are also crucial. Squad Assault’s overall gameplay mechanics are sound however the ugly graphics and poor performance hamper the game’s general appeal. Squad Assault: Second Wave doesn’t help itself with its menus and front-end interface either; to say this game is sterile would be a gentle criticism. For the Close Combat fan, Squad Assault: Second Wave will be a godsend. For those of you who haven’t played or loved Close Combat, Squad Assault: Second Wave will be a decent experience and hopefully one that will make you anticipate the next installment of the series. It my hope that Got Game puts some serious work into the game’s 3D engine for the next go-around, as it will make the game play smoother and better.
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