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Review by: John Thompson
Published: January 6, 2000
Designer Sid Meier, whose name on a box is about as close to an instant stamp of approval as there is in gaming, has followed up the success of his Firaxis Studios 1998 real-time Civil War effort, Sid Meier’s Gettysburg!, with a prequel, Sid Meier’s Antietam!. Antietam’s release is notable in that it is not available on store shelves; it can only be purchased through Firaxis’ website. Should this marketing method prove successful, it will be the first in a series of Civil War battles recreated for the PC and sold solely online.
Antietam tells the stories of the 90,000 men who fought one of the most brutal battles in the most deadly war in United States history. When the sun rose on Sept. 17, 1862, it must have seemed to many of the Union and Confederate soldiers camped near the tiny Maryland town of Sharpsburg like any other day of the long, hot summer they had been enduring; dusk brought to close the single bloodiest day in the history of the Western Hemisphere, branding the name of the battle–called Antietam in the North and Sharpsburg in the South–forever onto the American psyche. Now, with the release of Antietam, armchair generals have the opportunity to take tactical control and attempt to either stop Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Maryland in its tracks, or crush the Union army where it stands–once and for all.
Antietam puts the player in charge of either the Union or Confederate forces, starting with a few units in the tutorial and finishing with an exacting recreation of the entire battle. A perfect example of Firaxis’ attention to detail is the Order-of-Battle lists. My great-great-grandfather fought at Sharpsburg as a member of the Fincastle Rifles, a company of the 11th Virginia, Kemper’s Brigade, Army of Northern Virginia. Naturally, I was interested to see if this unit had been faithfully recreated in the battle, and it has been, although the designers chose to combine this unit with another in Kemper’s Brigade. This choice made absolute sense–as even by 1862, especially on the Confederate side, many units had been reduced to a fraction of their former sizes.
Regiments are the chief units of maneuver in Antietam, but to master the game also requires players to become familiar with moving larger brigade-sized units. Much of the combat is automatic; troops will begin to fire at the enemy when appropriate without needing to be told to do so. In fact, they will also choose the target against which they can do the most damage. For example, if a unit can use defilading fire–firing down the length of an opponent’s line instead of against its front–it will, and the damage it incurs will be dramatically higher than if it chose to fire against an enemy unit parallel to it. The player’s job as supreme commander isn’t to tell each one of the Yanks or Johnny Rebs under his or her command where to point their guns, it is to get these soldiers into the aforementioned tactical positions where they can do the most damage.
When the enemy has been cleared from an obstacle or victory-point area, players must again maneuver their forces to take and hold these key battlefield areas. Once individual units have been maneuvered into place on the battlefield, they can be set to fire at a certain unit, hold their ground and fix bayonets, fire at will (default), charge, wheel their lines to the left or right to face the enemy, retreat, or fall back while firing. Correct use and mastery of when and how best to use these commands is crucial to success in Antietam, and can only be learned through observation and repetition; reading about it in the manual doesn’t have the same effect as watching one of your best regiments crumble into a disorganized rabble and flee the field because you didn’t issue the correct command.
Historically, the battle began with U.S. Gen. “Fightin’ Joe” Hooker’s corps assaulting the Confederate left, commanded by the legendary Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. This initial setup is also the location of Antietam’s excellent series of tutorials, which lead players through the basic systems of command and control, maneuver, morale and combat. Once the player has fought enough of the individual scenarios, it is time to take on the whole battle. I found that playing the battle on “slow” speed, and pausing often to check my lines and the locations of my reinforcements using the overview map to be the most efficient method. Purists may scoff (“Robert E. Lee couldn’t press pause”), but the melee is better understood and dissected if players take it slowly and observe what the combatants are doing.
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