I like turn-based strategy games. Why, you may ask? Because I cannot juggle.
Real-time strategy games, while very fun, require a level of multitasking that I just cannot seem to muster. I am too detail-oriented, too focused on the "small picture" right in front of me. Too many balls to keep in the air, and I always end up dropping something. I would rather spend hours making sure that the layout of my base is just right, than worry about charging forward with a horde of troops to stomp on the enemy. So real-time is not my genre, I can accept that.
However, I do enjoy strategy. Controlling forces, formulating plans of attack, advancing into enemy territory and trying to outflank and break through the enemy lines – all in good fun! So take a turn-based strategy game and set it in a war-torn future America, and you definitely have a game that piques my curiosity. You also have Shattered Union, the recent release from 2K Games and PopTop Software.
Shattered Union is set in an America of the future, where the country has broken into several large territories, all facing off against each other in a bid for overall dominance. It's the Civil War again, only with six players (seven if you count the European Union) instead of two, and tanks and attack helicopters instead of cannons and cavalry.
For those players who really enjoy RISK, Shattered Union is definitely a game where you will find something to enjoy. The game is structured very much like the classic board game, with some added mechanics to give a little more depth to the experience. Control of territories and acquisition of new ones is the name of the game. Each player controls their territories and the number and type of territory contributes a certain amount of cash to the player's funds each turn. Funds are used to repair units damaged in battle (which you will do a lot), or to buy new units to add to your overall forces (which you will do even more).
Each turn, players can decide whether or not to attack a territory adjacent to one that they currently control. This is the first element of the game where a good balance of overall strategy is absolutely necessary. First, if a player decides to attack, they must decide how many of their units to commit to the assault, and any units attacking in a turn cannot be used for defense if a player's space is invaded by the enemy. I found this to be quite a good challenge that made the idea of invasion and the process of trying to gain control of new territories quite fun. I had to not only seriously consider which territory to attack, but how many of my forces to commit, and which I might need if I were to suffer an incursion.
From a technical perspective, Shattered Union is more than adequate. The visuals are appealing and are nicely detailed at both the far zoom and close-up levels. The music is also quite good and is appropriate to the "setting" instead of being intrusive. However, the audio effects are what I appreciated the most; tanks and choppers are accompanied by good sound both in their movement and in their weapons, and the destruction of enemy units rewards the player with a satisfying explosion, both visually and audibly.
The units under your control are quite large on the screen and not scaled to their surroundings at all; instead, they are much like "markers" on the hex board. I am sure that this was a choice made from a design and usability perspective, but I found this a bit of a disappointment. I think that the game would play with greater depth and intensity if the units were scaled more towards the playing field, instead of tanks the size of cities. If PopTop had used models that were more realistically scaled, then the fog-of-war used to represent visible enemy units would not have been as necessary. Instead, enemy units could appear when they came into one's line of sight. Considering that the tools included a nice "Next Unit" button (which I used all the time), with a bit more creativity, I think that PopTop could have come up with a system that was a bit more immersive. However, Shattered Union, as it stands, is easy on the eyes and simple to pick up and play.
When it comes to the individual units in your army, it is definitely worth the time and effort to learn, in depth, the strengths and weaknesses of each type. Some armored vehicles, for example, have a higher attack rating against airborne units than other armored vehicles or infantry. Knowing which units are best against enemy forces is an absolute imperative; without that knowledge, you will find yourself at the bad end of a massacre. I found myself wishing that PopTop had included a cheatsheet or reference card that outlined the various unit types and their strengths, but I suppose I could have paid closer attention to the on-screen information when selecting each unit for movement or attack. Nonetheless, Shattered Union will quickly teach those who are reckless or rash the real value of considering their strategy in full before advancing – I lost many a unit and a territory to quick decisions that put the wrong unit up against a superior enemy force. Shattered Union is not about fast action; it's about solid strategy!
The only real weakness I found in the game was the lack of variety or differentiation between units. To be more precise, I think that gameplay would significantly benefit from each army having its own special units, or specific bonuses for certain types of units. As it is, the only difference players will find when choosing which army to play is their starting territories. The armies all seem to have the same options for units – a Jackson Battle Tank from one army is essentially the tank you will come up against fighting any other army. While this makes strategic decisions a bit more straightforward, I think a bit more variety is in order, given the current market. Take, for example, Dawn of War, which recently announced its second expansion; the total number of playable armies, all with their own units and bonuses, has reached a total of seven! Granted, it is an RTS, but the concept of unit statistics, types, and army bonuses carries over pretty seamlessly between the two genres.
As for the multiplayer aspects of Shattered Union, they are, I believe, fairly standard for the strategy genre. Internet play is pretty standard fare and is powered by GameSpy; however, I found that even after I could connect to the service, there were no other players listed and no games available from which I could choose. Perhaps it was my configuration, or user error, but worst-case scenario … I think you can see where that line of thinking goes. LAN play is also available, and a play type that I found interesting, and one I have not seen often. The type was called Hot Seat, and it turned the game into multiplayer without needing an Internet connection or even two computers. Players are asked to switch seats to take their turns. This is an addition that I can appreciate, and one I would like to see in other games; it almost turns Shattered Union into a party game.
Overall, Shattered Union is a good entry into the turn-based strategy genre. It doesn't offer a depth of play of some of the bigger titles, but it is fun and, more importantly, easy to pick up but difficult to master. It has significant replay value for the single-player modes (and I would assume the multiplayer mode as well). For anyone looking for an updated version of RISK, Shattered Union is one game you should take a look at.
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