Publisher: Wastelands Interactive
Developer: Wastelands Interactive
System requirements: Windows XP/Vista/Win 7, 1.5 Ghz AMD 2000+ or better CPU, 1 GB RAM, 256 MB DirectX 9-compatible graphics card, DirectX 9-compatible sound device, 600 MB hard-drive space
ESRB rating: Not rated
Release date: Available now
Some strategy gamers these days forget there was a time when the only complicated RTSs available were board games made by companies such as Avalon Hill. They would take forever to set up and play, and the rule books were the size of small novels, but if you wanted to fight World War II at the divisional level, then it was your only option. Video games have alleviated most of that by automating the rules and making games with your friends a lot easier to organize. They’ve also gotten even more complicated in the past 10 years. But Polish developer Wastelands Interactive wants to take us back to the golden age of strategy games with its new title, Strategic War in Europe. They claim that it’s “A board game on your screen. Strategic War in Europe allows you to play a computer game [that] looks and plays as a board game, but you don’t have to look for a human opponent anymore.” In a market saturated with newer games and fancy graphics, SWE is a nostalgic throwback to the good ol’ days that almost, but not quite, lives up to expectations.
SWE allows you to play any one of 25 nations during World War II. The earliest scenario begins just at the outbreak of hostilities in 1939, and there are later scenarios that cover every year of the war. The game focuses on Europe, as its title suggests. The Pacific theater is not a part of the action, so players never have to worry about what Japan is doing in Asia. The hex-based map stretches from Portugal to the Soviet Union, and includes North Africa for fun in the desert with your favorite Desert Fox. Turkey, Iraq, and parts of Canada and the U.S. are also shown so that they can contribute to the war. The map is not too detailed (areas such as the Maginot Line only take up three hexes), but it has sufficient detail for you to efficiently move corps and army-sized units. It doesn’t go into the kind of detail that Hearts of Iron 3 does, but that’s not the game’s goal.
In each turn, which covers one month of the war, you spend your country’s production points on new units or research. In true turn-based fashion, you move and attack during your own turn and then watch the other players/AI do their turns. There are a host of options for you to consider during the war, even without looking at combat mechanics. Diplomatic points can be spent on either executing coup d’états against nations aligned towards your enemies, or using diplomatic pressure to encourage people to join your faction. Units can be moved on your country’s limited rail networks to shuffle them between theaters. Amphibious invasions not only require control of the sea, but also cost production points to make possible; you can’t conduct an invasion the size of Operation Overlord or Sea Lion without some prior investment and forethought. And I’m happy to say that supply is an important issue, even as concentration of force is also important. Having a veritable horde of cheap infantry divisions is meaningless when armored units can break through and encircle them.
Combat mechanics are deceptively simple. You move units into adjacent hexes and order them to attack. The game takes into consideration the types of units involved in a battle, and units can be ordered to fight together against a single target. This encourages breakthrough tactics and encirclements. If you can get your armor into the proper position and cut a hole in the line, then your units can execute multiple-hex attacks that easily eliminate the enemy. The fog of war is omnipresent, but if you can get air superiority, then you can order your aircraft to run recon and reveal what’s going on behind enemy lines. And naval warfare, while abstracted in some ways, contributes to the war, with subs sinking convoys, and surface ships either sinking other ships or bombarding the shore. SWE even models nations economically gearing up for war. The U.S. is a powerhouse of industry, but the first year of the war sees them trying to get war production up to full speed, giving the Axis time to defeat either the Soviets or the British before the Yanks can contribute substantially to the action.
While I feel that SWE does a good job of giving me a taste of old-school strategy gaming, I was disappointed in some of the game’s quirks. There are some crashes that affect the game. There are also issues with how some wars are scripted. The best example is the Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union. On the historical date it happened, the Soviets get an event that lets them declare war on Finland, as they did in 1939. The catch is that a human player can execute a war with Finland any time they want. This shouldn’t be a problem, except that when I attack Finland early as the Soviets, the scripted war still pops up. When I achieve victory, my units in Finland leave the map and re-enter the deployment pool, and my borders with Finland are adjusted, but the war is still active, so I have to redeploy my units and continue the battle without my units sitting on half of Norway’s cities anymore. It doesn’t make any sense and shows a failure to script for an obvious contingency. There are also problems with the U.S. getting help to Great Britain once they join the war. Land units are moved over the ocean using sea transport, and this works fine (provided German subs are not sinking the ships). But aircraft can’t be shipped by sea; they have to re-base from North America to Britain. The only valid place for this I can find is the single hex in British North Ireland, and re-basing aircraft there results in their getting stuck because they’re out of supply. There’s no real way to shift American airpower to Britain in significant numbers as it was really done; this makes no sense in a game that gets so many details right. A final issue is the German AI’s willingness to directly attack the Maginot Line. The Nazis are far too eager to throw entire corps and armies pointlessly into the meat grinder without first getting an encirclement. Germany still consistently defeats France, but I find it perplexing that the AI thinks it’s a good idea to make attacks at bad odds needlessly against the famous fortified line. It really should know better.
SWE has multiplayer available, but only over email or in hotseat mode. This isn’t a big problem, since the game is turn-based, but there’s no matchmaking service or other 21st-century amenities for setting up multiplayer games. This, plus the problems I listed above, is part of the reason I found myself slightly disappointed. Strategic War in Europe is not bad for an indie strategy game with an emphasis on old-school mechanics, but the $14.95 price tag is too steep for what’s offered. When the price goes down to $9.99, you might pick up a copy for a manageable strategy game of WWII.