Review: Once more unto the breach...
There are two types of RTS games in the world: those that require base building and those that do not. Base building games generally start the player out with just a few units in a hostile environment and give them just enough resources to build a few more units and begin the mad scramble to gather resources and amass that army of tanks to crush the enemy and drive them from the field. In a science fiction or fantasy context, it makes sense for a few rugged individuals to hack out a foothold on a distant planet. It makes sense that they'd collect local resources as building materials and be supported by some kind of mother ship in orbit. But in a WWII context, it pushes the bounds of believability to think that the high command would parachute in a replacement squad once the commander has scrounged up enough resource or control points. Fortunately for gamers who thrive on realism and fidelity to historical detail, there's Theatre of War, the latest offering from 1C and Battlefront.com. Not only does it do away with the base building and resource gathering, it ramps up the authenticity by using improved damage and ballistic modeling, increased sighting distance, and campaigns based on actual WWII engagements.
The first thing to note about Theatre of War is its size. It offers five separate single-player campaigns for a total of over forty individual battles. Players can fight from the Polish, Soviet, German, and French sides, not to mention an Allied faction that mixes U.S. and British missions. The different campaigns span the course of the war and include a cool continuity factor, since soldiers and vehicles are persistent from one battle to the next. After each battle, each soldier earns experience points based on his participation in the fight, and the truly detail-oriented can manage the troops one by one, spending experience points to buy promotions, medals and improved fighting abilities. Each man has a name and personality that'll help get you more attached to the troops you bring into the fray again and again. This is a great feature, but the interface could be refined a bit to allow more control with fewer mouse clicks. As it's set up, it can take quite a while to manage each man's abilities individually.
As if that weren't enough, there are a handful of one-off battles that seem a bit larger in scale than the standard campaign missions and whose outcome don't affect the play of the primary campaigns. And of course there's a multiplayer option that allows up to eight players to compete over LAN or Internet. There's definitely enough content here to keep even the most die-hard players gaming for well over thirty hours. And for us mere mortals, who may have to re-play lost battles (make no mistake, they're tough on any difficulty level), the game offers up months of serious WWII tactical challenges.
The size of the battlefields themselves is likewise impressive in Theatre of War?and also one of the game's major innovations. The battlefields are about 4km on a side, which means tanks, infantry and artillery have room to maneuver and flex their muscles. What's more, the line of sight of all these units is extended to a realistic distance?none of the ?my infantry can't see your infantry because they're too far away? sort of thing other games use to keep the combat distances short. A soldier can see all the way across the battlefield, assuming there are no hills or trees in the way. Weapon ranges are likewise extended to realistic distances, meaning that the German Mauser 98 is easily accurate out to a few hundred yards and the main guns on the various tanks can shoot all the way across a map.
This may not seem like a big deal, but this, combined with each battle's limited resources, means that the battles play out differently than in most RTSs. Since there's no chance to build new units (or repair damaged ones), the player must protect the half-dozen or so tanks and three or four infantry squads that start the battle, so all-out tank rushes are out of the question. Winning a fight means using each unit to its potential, conserving resources until they're best spent, and maintaining a reserve to reinforce the line or exploit successes as needed. In short, this game rewards tacticians who can plan several moves in advance, anticipate surprises and manage different types of assets to achieve their goals. The situation is made still more challenging by the fact that there is no silver bullet unit in this game: a tough tank can be disabled by a flank shot from a smaller caliber gun or even, as the documentation states, ?a lucky shot? from a machinegun. And the game's ballistic modeling means that sometimes you'll see strange shots like ricochets or rounds that penetrate clear through both sides of a turret only to explode when they hit something else.
The game does some impressive calculations behind the scenes in order to make this happen. Each bullet shot from a large-caliber weapon involves not only tracking its trajectory on the way to the target and its properties (such as whether it's armor-piercing, high explosive, etc) but also modeling as closely as possible what happens when the round actually hits its target. For instance, when a large-caliber round hits a tank, the game takes into account the thickness of the tank's armor, the slope of the armor, the relative angle of the projectile's trajectory in relation to the armor, and any special armor-piercing elements of the projectile. During a battle, this means that the player has to pay attention to (among other things) whether his or her tanks are moving up or down a hill when approaching the enemy, since this can expose thinner armor or negate the benefits of an aggressive armor slope. What's more, vehicles can take damage in as many as eight different systems, including the turret, chassis, engine, wheels or tracks, and more. A vehicle can end up disabled by a thrown track, meaning that it can only hit targets that enter its line of sight. Or, its main gun could get knocked out, turning it into not much more than a mobile target.
On the other hand, the terrain can be your best friend in this game, and before every battle, you'll find yourself looking for hills and valleys that can offer cover from devastating enemy anti-tank guns. Moving around the lee side of a hill can be just the thing to get your troops onto the flank of an enemy trench system, giving you a few seconds' advantage as the rotate their AT guns and re-arrange their defenses. Terrain is rendered beautifully in Theatre of War, and you can zoom out for breathtaking panoramic views that go out to the horizon. You can also zoom in close enough to see leaves and blades of grass. Explosions can scar the landscape and knock down trees, and vehicles mark the ground as they pass. The game includes plenty of eye candy not present in the earlier Combat Mission series, like detailed water and shadow effects and extremely detailed vehicle models that show damage in ways that reflect what actually happens in the game. For instance, when a tank throws a track or takes damage to a skirt, it's visible in the game.
In spite of all this eye candy, there really isn't a whole lot of variety in the maps or in the mission objectives. Most of the terrain is of the gently rolling hill type, with some sparse tree cover and the occasional trench line. Plenty of ploughed fields and grassy meadows round out the terrain. Snow, fog and rain jazz things up a bit on some maps. There are no urban environments, but some maps do have small towns or farmhouses. Since the soldiers can't enter these buildings, they serve mostly as cover or to block line of sight. As for the missions themselves, most are of the ?attack/defend objective X? type, meaning that you're either moving forward to strike troops in trenches or waiting in trenches as the enemy advances. This sameness isn't a problem, though, especially with the offensive missions since variations in equipment and terrain mean that every mission is unique.
Before each battle, it's also possible to customize friendly forces by swapping them out with a limited supply of reserve units. These units carry over during the campaign from one battle to the next, so a smart player won't risk losing all of his best units in one battle. And heavy losses are reality in this game, even after a victorious match. Even though the game offers three different levels of difficulty with an optional morale factor, Theatre of War is a tough game no matter how you play it. The AI is relentless?it will hit you with armor, anti-tank guns infantry and artillery from a dozen directions at once. It's great at coordinating artillery and armor to stop your advancing tanks and then outflank them. It seems to know when to stand off and shoot and when to maneuver for a better position. All told, the AI is a worthy opponent and not something you'll be able to roll over in a few minutes. It pays to be patient and scout areas with a few troops before committing your tanks. You won't have to lose too many tanks before you realize how fragile they really are and what a precious resource they represent.
On the other hand, though, Theatre of War does occasionally suffer from the same goofiness that plagues a lot of other RTS AI. Bad pathfinding is rare, but it does happen in this game. On one map, a couple of trucks ordered to cross a simple bridge got hung up for a few minutes, requiring specific destination instructions to untangle them. On a different map, a squad ordered to run from one cover to another with an obstacle in between ended up sending some of its members running around the ?bad? side of the obstacle, the one that exposed them to enemy fire. Fortunately, these moments are the exception, not the norm. One nasty habit all the friendlies do seem to share is a bit of the wanderlust. If you forget to order them to hold their position or if you ignore them for too long, they'll tend to wander off on their own. Officers especially seem to enjoy leaving their men in order to head toward the nearest enemy, even if that means crossing most of the map alone.
This is truly annoying in a game like this one, since its major draw is the chance to micromanage individual troops and vehicles in extreme detail. The game provides the player with plenty of information, including an encyclopedia of the various vehicles and weapons used during the war. It also gives the player an impressive amount of detailed information on each unit under his control, right down to the individual soldier. The game calculates line of sight for every soldier and vehicle, and by clicking on a unit, the player knows immediately what that unit sees. Each soldier has an individual morale and health indicator, not to mention an inventory of weapons and ammunition. The player can also give move orders to individual soldiers while specifying three different stances. Groups of soldiers and vehicles can be ordered into several different standard formation according to the situation. And the game gives players the ability to target specific parts of a vehicle to take advantage of thin armor or other weaknesses. It's possible to disable a tank by hitting a track and then maneuvering around it to expose a weak spot for an easy kill.
The camera controls are also unusually detailed and require a bit of getting used to. The arrow keys move the camera fore and aft, left and right, while the mouse scroll wheel adjusts elevation. There's more than one way to do it, but the best way to ?free look? is to hit the 0 key on the number pad and then use the mouse. It sounds complex, but it gives great camera control and becomes natural by the end of the first tutorial or two. It's also possible to hit ?enter? when a unit is selected to snap the camera to that unit's line of sight. It doesn't necessarily make sense from a tactical point of view, but it's exciting to watch from a tanker's viewpoint as the enemy rolls over the rise of a hill and into the line of fire.
Finally, there are a few downsides on the technical side of things. First is load times. The initial load of a map is slow?a go make coffee and wash the dishes kind of slow. Luckily, successive loads of the same map during the same play session are much quicker. Then there's the occasional lockup and crash to desktop. I didn't experience too many of them, but enough to where I made sure I was saving my game every so often. Framerates can also be a problem for some folks, especially with all the eye candy turned on. The game comes with a tweak guide, and you may have to use it even if your system meets the recommended specs, since framerates can really drop when the battles start getting bigger and both sides have dozens of units on the field.