Genre: Real-time tactical
Publisher: CDV / Battlefront.com
Release Date: May 19, 2008
I figure I can write this review while I wait for my troops to cover some terrain on their way to the city that they're supposed to clear out. I've got plenty of time, given that everything in Theatre of War moves at the speed of molasses, even with time compression activated. What's more, half of the guys will probably break ranks and retreat, or just forget what they were doing halfway to the objective and wander off. Sound like a great strategy title? It's not.
It's somewhat ambitious, though, with six campaigns told from the point of view of several factions involved in WWII, including Poland, France, USSR, Allies, Germany, and a smattering of extra missions like the Normandy invasion and the battle for Moscow. For all that they crammed into this title, it's too bad that it's not much fun to actually play.
A typical battle begins with placing your troops. There is a finite number of everything per battle, and you won't be building bases or collecting resources or developing your army to fit your play style; what you see is what you get. How you arrange your army may or may not have much of an effect once the fight begins, as enemy troops will spot you and start firing from miles away. You can't access or assign specific abilities at the squad level (only per individual unit, a micromanaging nightmare), nor can you really define your own squads and/or assign them to hotkeys like in any other RTS. Surviving a battle gives a soldier experience that can be used to improve individual stats (gunner, driver, marksmanship, scout, etc.). However, this doesn't make the guy any more bulletproof, so you could spend a good chunk of time leveling up someone just to see him taken out by a stray artillery round — probably one of your own, given how inaccurately they fire. Of course, this is assuming that anyone survives the battle to even worry about gaining experience.
So you issue that first marching order, and what happens? Nothing at first. Every command takes several seconds for your boneheaded brigade to react to, making split-second reactions to changing battlefield conditions just about impossible. You'll sit there, clicking frantically, wondering why your guys seem to want to get torn to pieces rather than promptly listen to your orders.
How about the strategy aspect? Well, in one instance, I tried moving tanks up one side to distract a group of enemies while my infantry could move up behind and take them out without a scratch (this would have worked in Company of Heroes). There are several things that made all of this simple planning not work. For one thing, issuing a Stop command for my tanks — which are several times faster and more adept at covering terrain — did nothing. The goal was for them to park it while the troops caught up, but they stopped for a moment, only to keep trucking right along a few seconds later. As it turned out, my tanks cleared out the trenches and infantry before my troops could even get close. The next wave saw a similar situation, but this time the tanks drove right up onto the trenches rather than firing at the troops inside. So there sat my tanks, getting hammered while forgetting they had guns, and my infantry was left out in the cold with nothing to hide behind. Elsewhere on the battlefield, one of my troops also forgot he had a gun and was trying to kill a guy by walking back and forth through him vigorously. Sigh.
Vehicles have subsystems and abilities that you can utilize (or lose to damage), from 7.62mm turrets atop the main gun on a tank (better for picking off grunts, with faster reload than the main gun), as well as different types of shells you can put into the main gun, from high explosives to armor-piercing. OK, now wrangle this while trying to steer three or four uncooperative tanks, picking the right driver and gunner out of your army based on stats (which basically requires at least mousing over and at most clicking directly on each troop), getting them into the vehicle, arranging them to the correct seating, and then telling them which way to go. All the while, you're probably taking enemy fire, and half your people will be dead by the time you get your crews set up in the tanks. Better yet, the treads might have been blown off at that point, rendering useless the tank that you spent all this time equipping. As a turn-based game, Theatre of War might actually work, but as an RTS, there's just too much going on that isn't organized or optimized to be used efficiently and effectively. In short, you will seldom — if ever — feel satisfied with your tactical endeavors.
In another instance, I had a tank simply stop in the middle of a field. It wouldn't move, shoot or do anything. It wasn't damaged, and the crew was still inside, so it must have just felt that it was a good day for a mutiny. In yet another situation, I had told a tank to Hold Position (and it actually obeyed), then gave it a Move command and told it where to go, but apparently one command doesn't override another in succession. No, you have to turn off the Hold command before trying the Move command in order for it to have any effect.
Then we have the soldier behavior. Despite being under the Assault stance the entire time, my troops failed to shoot at anyone while moving (Attack is stop and shoot, Assault is shoot on the move). My troops panicked and ran away while standing in an open field with nothing more than an abandoned enemy vehicle nearby. The irony is that I was ordering them to get into the APC for cover, but they figured running a half-mile across open ground back to the tree line (which afforded no cover when we were in it before) was the best plan. There are squad formations available (Line, Column, Wedge, etc.), but no matter how much I clicked, they would never do anything but this random ragtag scatter formation. Hell, Hidden and Dangerous, Deadly Dozen, and even KumaWar were able to get this much right, fellas. Can you see how this becomes an overwhelming chore of babysitting and micromanagement just to engage in a fair fight?
Visually, Theatre of War doesn't wow, though it does have a respectable draw distance. However, this doesn't really affect gameplay since your troops will only spot enemies at a hundred yards away at best, and even when they spot someone, that enemy might randomly flicker in and out of existence. There's no persistent, clear border to the "fog of war," making it annoying when you try to attack from a distance.
At max details, the sights look okay but not great (blocky and bland next to CoH), though the frame rate often lingered in the low teens and even single digits from time to time on a Geforce 7950GT 512MB; reqs state a Geforce 6600 minimum and 6800 is "recommended." Right. You also have to completely exit the game and restart it to change the resolution, a requirement that felt a little behind the times. It does support widescreen resolutions and will auto-detect what your monitor is capable of, with an apparent minimum of 1024x768.
Sound is sporadic but generally appropriate, again not trying to raise any bars. Guns sound like guns, artillery sounds like artillery, and so on. Music also ranges from unnoticeable to overblown, but not in a particularly cinematic or dramatic way; one time a track stopped completely for several seconds, only to come blaring back through the speakers again a moment later. It just does what it wants and isn't coordinated with anything that's happening on-screen.
Included with your installation are editors for campaigns, missions and specific battles, allowing you to customize new experiences, though they'll still play with the same problems that the engine is beset with.
I really can't overstate how dissatisfying it was to play this game. Remember the land battles in the original Pirates! on the Commodore 64, where you'd have two or three clusters of troops marching along, with trees, swamps or rough terrain for cover or to slow you down? Remember setting up ambushes for the enemy, launching a multi-pronged attack and smashing the opposing morale in a consistent fashion that made sense, worked the way it should, and was engaging to participate in? Remember how cover actually concealed and protected troops, unlike how it doesn't in Theatre of War? If not, I do, and despite its age and simplicity, that aspect of a 20-plus-year-old game managed to work better than this, and it was really only a mini-game within a much bigger experience.
Also part of the package is multiplayer via LAN, Internet or Direct IP. Some of the pacing and balance issues (AI is aggressive and responsive; player units are sluggish and disobedient) are even here, since you both have to suffer the same interface problems. Still, you don't get to customize your army much, and given that you start with a fixed number of units, I have a hard time seeing battles last more than an hour or two — much of that time spent waiting for your armies to reach one another (time compression is not allowed in MP). There are also not many options for customizing play. The maps are based on actual battles, with annihilation being the primary victory condition. There are no resources to monopolize, no monuments to erect, and no population caps to achieve. You go and kill each other in exceedingly clumsy fashion — very slowly.
Even installing the game wasn't without problems. Straight out of the box, there was a significant smudge on the disc that stopped the installation dead in its tracks. I was able to get enough of it off the disc to finish the install; whether that's a good or bad thing is debatable. It insists on having the disc in the drive to play the main game, though not to use the Battle Generator, Map Editor or Mission/Campaign Editor.
As a turn-based experience, this might have been something, but even the earliest Panzer General game left me with fonder memories than Theatre of War has. With smaller-scale but more focused and dynamic experiences available like Company of Heroes (now seeing its second expansion), further Panzer games, and countless other WWII RTS games on the market, there's really no reason I can find to spend much time with Theatre of War.Score: 5.0/10
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