Genre: Real-time tactical
Release Date: Q1 2007
Somewhere between the frenetic individual experience of a first-person shooter and the Byzantine mechanics of a strategic war game lies a rarely explored gaming arena I like to refer to as the real-time tactical genre. Not to be confused with the popular resource-gathering, tank-rushing click-fest of real-time strategy titles, real-time tactical games explore historically accurate warfare on a platoon, company or battalion level. Early proponents of this genre included Microsoft with its ground-breaking, albeit two-dimensional, Close Combat franchise and Battlefront.com's fully-3D Combat Mission series; although the latter was technically a turn-based game, combat was resolved in real-time.
Merging the two principal elements of these games – real-time combat in a 3D environment – was seen by developers as the next logical step. Leading the way was Freedom Game's G.I. Combat and Squad Assault: West Front, two titles that promised the world but left gamers underwhelmed with their poor A.I., average graphics and lackluster gameplay. Since their release about five years ago, the sound of crickets has replaced the sound of gunfire on the virtual battlefield. You could tell things weren't going well for the genre when Matrix announced it was republishing Close Combat, albeit with new content and features. Something other than a defibrillator to revive a flat-lining title was needed to meet the expectations of today's war gamers. Enter 1C, the Russian company that created the award-winning flight simulator series, IL2 Sturmovik and its upcoming title to be published by Battlefront.com, Theatre of War.
Theatre of War gives gamers the opportunity to test their tactical skills in real-time and in a 3D environment by commanding Russian, German, Polish, French or Anglo-American troops in five European campaigns. In single-player mode, gamers can choose to play single set-piece actions in Battle mode, or fight a series of missions in Campaign mode. Multiplayer combat is also supported with up to eight players fighting on the same or opposites sides over a LAN or the Internet.
The heart of the game is the Campaign mode. Each mission within a campaign is representative of the action that occurred on that front and concludes when one or more key objectives have been achieved. Before the battle starts, units can be assigned to participate in the initial action or kept in reserve. By reviewing each unit's relative strengths and weaknesses, an optimal force mix for the mission can be selected. Which units can participate in a particular mission is also dependent on how many "team points" have been made available. Team points reflect both the value of combat units and the resources "superior commanders" – that is, the omniscient scenario designer – deem appropriate for a particular task. Finally, the level of realism can be set, which determines how difficult the mission will be. At the highest level, all military equipment has real-world performance characteristics, while the medium and lower levels gives the player advantages in firepower over the enemy. Once a mission has been completed, it is effectively "unlocked" so that gamers can replay it later as a single mission. As the time between battles can be several weeks, some equipment may become obsolete and ear-marked for withdrawal by the time of the next mission. Equipment available to units can also be augmented by materiel captured during a battle, although it cannot be kept for subsequent missions.
The scenarios offered in both Battle and Campaign modes are well balanced and are not overly focused on tanks. There are exceptions to this, with at least one scenario made exclusively for tank enthusiasts. But in general, the mix between armor and infantry seems about right, and mission success will often depend on the proper tactical use of these forces. Unfortunately, Theatre of War does not appear to come with a mission builder so players will have little choice but to replay the scenarios that ship with the game once they have been unlocked.
The game boasts over 150 vehicle types, approximately 200 uniform types and over 100 different weapons. Units under direct command can include individual tanks and their crews, snipers, squads of infantry and anti-tank guns. Every soldier or crew member has a unique set of characteristics and can be independently commanded. Theatre of War also includes off-board assets such as artillery and aircraft that can be given targets to attack, although they cannot be directly controlled by the player.
Once a mission has loaded, players are presented with one or more objectives that need to be achieved and are given the chance to position their units within a defined setup area. When completed, the battle unfolds in real-time until the player hits the pause button or the mission's goals are met. Once paused, units can be reviewed and orders given. One major omission in the game, at least in this preview version, is the lack of movement indicators. Unlike similar games, right-clicking on the map does not show a movement path, which makes it pretty difficult to determine which units have been given movement orders and which ones haven't. Also, it isn't possible to give a unit waypoints to follow a particular route. To get a unit to follow a road, for example, means the player cannot set and forget the movement path, but instead has to constantly adjust this path with every bend in the road.
Navigating around the map is achieved either through a combination of keyboard strokes and mouse clicks, or by using the mouse alone if it has a middle button. Players can zoom out for a bird's-eye view or zoom in to a first-person view, which is particularly useful in determining line of sight. A mini-map found in the lower left corner of the screen further expedites navigation, while hitting the Tab key rapidly transfers the view from one friendly unit to the next.
Unit information is displayed at the bottom of the screen, as are various command icons that allow players to give orders to their units, which include movement for infantry – double time, formation control, combat orders, facing, towing and disembarking. The Information Panel at the bottom of the screen also provides current battle statistics and detailed vehicle and soldier data, such as weapons, health, morale and veteran status. This panel consumes about one-quarter of the screen but can be minimized if desired.
Targeting an enemy is simply a matter of right-clicking on a visible unit. If the attacking unit cannot see the enemy, it will advance until it has a line of sight and then open fire. Some liberty is taken here by the developers in assuming all units are communicating with each other for this to occur, but it's a minor compromise that advances gameplay and is easily forgiven. Realistic weapon ranges mean that fighting can begin at considerable distances. Although the game's maps aren't particularly large, they do cater well for these historically accurate weapons and generally provide sufficient room to perform tactical maneuvers.
A nice feature is the ability for tanks and anti-tank guns to target the upper, middle or lower hull of a vehicle. Hits inflicted can cause varying degrees of damage, which is highlighted in red on a data panel at the bottom of the screen. A hit can cause pieces of the tank or armored car to fly off, tracks to fail or make it catch fire. While the crews of immobilized tanks may stay with the stricken vehicle, those suffering more serious damage may see their crews bail out and seek cover. Providing their morale is not too shaken, crew members can be commanded to re-crew this or another abandoned vehicle or gun.
Visually, Theatre of War is excellent. The vehicles and anti-tank guns are the best-looking models I've seen in a war game, and the animations of their crews and the infantry are first-rate. The environment is equally impressive, with gently rolling countryside, quaint villages and meandering rivers that exude attention to detail. Clouds hang lazily above the battleground, and in some scenarios snow or torrents of rain will fall, drastically reducing visibility. All structures and trees are destructible, and exploding artillery shells will pockmark the landscape. Entrenchments and other fortifications are included, although the player cannot position them during the setup phase, nor can units dig themselves in during combat. Another point of contention is that buildings cannot be entered by troops. Hopefully this will be corrected by the developers at a later point.
Information on the units is well presented both during the battle and "off-line" when accessing the game's encyclopedia, which displays information about the selected unit, its 3D model and available camouflage schemes. While the battle is in progress, details on weapon ranges and effectiveness, damage to vehicles and the profile of individual troops are all visible on the Unit Details Panel at the bottom of the screen. The only information missing on this panel is an overview of all troops under your command. Players can get a snapshot of their troops' well-being, however, by zooming out and glancing at the icons that hover above each unit. They display the type of unit as well as its overall status and can help in locating units spread across the map.
Theatre of War's A.I. appears adequate, but in the beta version previewed, it clearly has room for improvement. Troops advance fearlessly toward the enemy and generally show little tactical skill, seeming to prefer a frontal assault over a flanking maneuver. Armored vehicles, however, are much more cautious and can often be seen backing away if outnumbered. They will also attempt to prioritize threats and change their facing to meet the greatest danger. Morale is a factor in the game, and the loss of nearby friendly units can have a detrimental effect on the survivors. It's unlikely, however, that infantry will flee the battlefield altogether as they prefer to hunker down and hope for the best. Although this may often result in the elimination of the infantry platoon, I know I'd much rather have them trying to weather the storm than run away. It's not necessarily realistic, but who really wants to see their soldiers flee in panic?
In summary, Theatre of War is a welcomed addition to the real-time tactical genre and shows great promise. If the developers have aimed for historical accuracy, attention to detail and general ease of play, they've not only hit the target but pretty well got a bull's-eye. There are areas that can be improved, such as the A.I. and movement into buildings, and it's possible these will be addressed in the final version. The absence of a mission builder is disappointing and will likely limit the replay value, but hopefully this, too, will be fixed in the near future. Despite these shortcomings, gamers who have an eye for historical accuracy and enjoy Battalion-level action in a World War II setting are likely to find Theatre of War a valued addition to their war game collection.
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