Perhaps two of the most popular forces in Computer gaming today are World War 2 games, and Real Time Strategy games. It seems whenever you look, any given publisher is releasing a game fitting either one of these categories. And then, of course, you have games which are both WW2 based and RTS based, after all WW2 is a hugely popular era of war, and the RTS genre lends itself nicely to strategic gameplay; they work perfectly together. That's the theory anyway, unfortunately in practice it is often not so simple, and TimeGate Studios along with Atari have created a great testament to that with Axis & Allies, a hot and cold title that fans of TimeGate's Kohan fantasy RTS series might already be somewhat familiar with.
Before starting in any main game mode, A&A offers to take you through a two stage tutorial showcasing all the in game features, which is a good idea as there are quite a few functions you'll want to master before going into battle. Beyond this, the game offers four distinct game modes - Campaign, Custom, Multiplayer and World War II. Campaign offers the chance to play linear missions as either the Axis or Allies, whilst Custom lets you define a few variables in a one off "quick" battle so to speak. Multiplayer is self explanatory, including online and LAN play. World War II mode is an nonlinear style of play in the same style as the main mode featured in Rise Of Nations; you select one of the 5 super powers (USA, Britain, Russia, Germany or Japan) and control the movement of your forces via an on screen world map, which is turn based, taking your battles into the game's real time engine, or a "quick resolve" simulation if you prefer to save on time. This is a good selection of modes, for offline gaming both the Campaign and WW2 modes offer plenty of gameplay for the enthusiastic, whilst Multiplayer keeps the game going into the realms of human controlled opponents.
As hinted in the intro, A&A's style is strikingly similar to the style seen in TimeGate's popular fantasy RTS series, Kohan. This becomes evident almost instantly when playing A&A; both games share many mechanics and generally feel the same in execution, there is little doubt the Kohan engine was utilized here, or at least recycled in copious amounts. In all honesty, A&A feels more like a user made mod for Kohan than a stand alone game. Although I tried my best to keep this in the back of my mind, the similarities were too strong to ignore - the unit functions and unit structure, the controls, the visuals etc. Whilst the Kohan series is pretty good overall, it is not as exciting in the form of a WW2 RTS when you're supposed to be buying an entirely new game. I know engine and element sharing is nothing new in gaming, a quick glance at the FPS genre will tell you this, but for an RTS, it just comes off as a little more obvious - in an FPS, much more customization can be done to the engine, in an RTS, not much so.
That's not to say the gameplay is necessarily bad though, it just doesn't feel overly fresh, particularly if you've extensively played the Kohan series before. With that aside though, one good aspect of the Kohan series was the strategic elements and those have translated at least in part into A&A. You can't simply build an army and charge in a straight line to victory, you'll need to position your units so their strengths can be utilized. You'll also need to select your units carefully and plan out attacks carefully, whilst also catering to your base defenses - it is clear that using your entire arsenal, from sea, air to land, is important in A&A for victory, as most battles are very challenging.
Although, this also means a lot of the game is based on management, which is fine, but often it consumes much more time than combat, which can make the game dull at times. Whilst there is no "farming" involved what so ever, you'll need to keep tabs on your ammo and oil consumption, and you'll also have somewhat tight restrictions on building and troop numbers to worry about; it is quite a balancing act really. What this does is basically make every battle identical in the first few minutes - after a few sessions you'll work out a strategy for base camp building, and you'll execute it identically every time, which does become repetitive quite quickly. Also, the fact you have access to pretty much every unit and every upgrade early on in some modes of the game doesn't help either; although the battles are done in real time, it often doesn't feel that way when you execute the same game plan time and time again.
As far as the units go, there is a decent amount of variation on offer depending on the super power you choose. Whilst it isn't exactly to the point where you'll have a completely different style of play under any of the super powers, you can at least appreciate the detail in creating a unique appeal for each included, for example, each super power features four figure heads such as General Patton of the USA and Field Marshal Rommel of Germany, all of which themselves have four unique abilities which can be summoned during battle, resulting in such improvements as increased unit morale, speed or armor to name a few. As mentioned before, a lot of the game's strategy comes when choosing and placing you units for the situation on hand, and it is because of the amount of unique units on offer that this is possible; for any given situation there seems to be the right solution.
When it comes to the AI of units, however, A&A isn't as impressive. For instance, large battles are simply a nightmare, mainly because your units either don't listen to you commands or don't do anything until you tell them to, quite an interesting mix, no? Should your army be attacked from the side, it seems only the few squads under attack actually respond; all others surrounding them either stand there or waste valuable time trying to get into position only to start attacking either when the fight is over or when your attacked units are lost. Whilst this makes unit positioning even more important, it creates a battlefield of frustration, as the CPU controlled enemies seem to far outsmart your guys, who seem to rely on your approval before defending themselves, further adding to the management woes, which really shouldn't be this evident once battle commences.
On top of this, path finding isn't much better at times; the one command your units instantly obey is retreat, however when they decide to run in the direction of more enemy units, it doesn't work out too good. These AI issues don't always occur, but they often will - the only solid aspect of the AI seems to be the CPU base management, which offers a few surprises here and there, but other than that, the AI is a little rough.
The problem with A&A, besides the negative points brought forward above, is the WW2 and RTS genres of gaming are two very prestigious genres, and it doesn't do enough to top what else is out there on offer. Perhaps the market is getting to the point now where WW2 RTS titles are just getting too repetitive, but I also think some developers rely too much on the pre-existing fan base of these genres rather than trying to actually enhance them. Granted, A&A does have a few nice aspects and I'm sure plenty of WW2 fans out there will really enjoy the game modes on offer, but for the rest of us who game for the sake of good gameplay, A&A just doesn't do enough to impress.