1944: Battle of the Bulge is the third iteration in the World War II RTS series from developer Monte Cristo, and this time around, gamers are treated to action packed WW2 gameplay in the German/Belgium region during the winter of 1944/45 - snowy, and highly varied in urban/rural settings. While the game's visual appearance and other initial impressions come off as solid, a swift scratch beneath the surface reveals a far less polished game.
Due to the nature of BotB, i.e. entirely combat orientated and no "camp" management whatsoever, the game modes on offer are somewhat thin in numbers. First you have the expected multiplayer mode, which works for both Online via Gamespy and over a LAN and features 10 unique maps, and then you have the offline campaign mode, which features 20 campaigns that vary in human controlled side.
The campaign mode in BotB doesn't focus on any individual characters but rather just the Allied and Axis sides as a whole. There isn't really a storyline as such, what the game does is set the scene for the upcoming battle and that's about it, however it must be said the game does follow the historic order of the brutal battles that took place. Since there is no developing "between mission" storyline, there is no coherent pattern to the order in which Allied and Axis campaigns are played by the gamer - they seemed to be mixed around, which does feel a little odd at times but nothing overly concerning.
As you'd expect, the first few missions begin as relatively easy, involving little more than move-n-kill gameplay, however it isn't long until you'll encounter slightly more challenging gameplay where unit numbers and unit variety aren't quite in your favor. As you would expect, most of the maps used in the 20 campaigns are based in snowy areas which means white coloured units for better camouflage (A technique which isn't actually all that effective in the game itself, though).
Destructible environments - many games claim to feature it, but most fail to deliver it to expectations. BotB is not one of these games, as the environments in this game are as prone as you'd expect them to be when warfare comes to the neighbourhood. Since foot units can enter buildings for cover, you can attack buildings and unleash some serious structural damage. On top of this, buildings and forests can catch fire, further pampering the game's already authentic atmosphere. Further more, like the other two titles, obsticles like some smaller trees and barriers are easily crushed by the game's realistically portrayed tanks.
Unfortunately, while the tanks and other vehicle units are realistically portrayed, the same can't necessarily be said for foot units, or soldiers. The main complaint can be found in their armour - while it doesn't always seem to pop up, far too often it will seem simple riflemen or similar units are wearing reinforced 10" thick titanium armor as even direct hits with tank and artillery shells rarely cause overly significant life loss let alone death. This has been a problem in the series and hasn't changed in BotB. On top of this, while it isn't as noticeable as the mentioned solider armor quirk, simple machine gun fire from soldiers can seem to be a little too effective against tanks and other sturdy vehicles. In general, some damage and armor values in BotB could certainly use revising.
One problem which doesn't discriminate depending on unit type, however, is the path finding and unit AI - both best described as "hair pulling tedious" at the best of times. In BotB, you have to move carefully as landmines and other nasty surprises are very common. However, even if you are careful in your movements, it is often not good enough, as units will, for no apparent reason, wonder off and take a completely useless path to your commanded destination. As you can imagine, the units will often wonder into landmines, enemy fire and other undesirable situations; sometimes even off the screen completely. You will soon learn that in BotB, you will literally have to babysit every unit individually (vehicles particularly), and mass unit movement almost always ends up in tears. It wouldn't be so bad if your units were smart enough to at least evaluate targets, but alas, the general unit AI in the game also suffers, meaning not only is babysitting required for unit movement, but it is also required for target selection and retreats - there is very little the game does well by itself when it comes to unit control. Again, these have been issues in the series and it is disappointing to see them remain in BotB.
The fact a decent degree of formation control is absent (yet another "trait" of the series) doesn't help the poor path finding and AI. In fact, besides the "move in formation" movement function, which only applies to the actual movement you just ordered and not all following movements, there is no formation options. None. Zilch. What this does is create two scenarios - it either forces the gamer to manually maintain formations, further adding to the game's babysitting problem, or it forces gamers to just forget formation movement altogether, and simply move like a mass of biker gang members on a 6 lane highway. As you may have guessed, most gamers will pick option B, and this does have an impact on the game's strategic value - as a result, the best strategy in BotB almost always seems to be "rush and pray". Also, considering the game supplies each mission's units for you, you can rest easy knowing you have the right combination of unit types to win. This is another aspect which degrades the game's strategic value - forcing the gamer to select the units may not have been ultra realistic, but it would have at least allowed for a "game plan", so to speak. It also means you can win a battle with very little regard for your units - a problem for many RTS titles is that they don't establish a real reason to try and spare as many units as possible, and this applies to BotB.
If anything, the game does at least make up some strategic value in its rather indepth unit function controls. Tanks and other artillery can "dig in", which transforms them into stationary gun stands with sand bags for extra protection. Not only this, but tanks and artillery can also be set to target specific parts of the enemy - such as their weaponry, or tracks. As for foot units, as well as the above mentioned ability to enter buildings, they can also crawl, perform special abilities and enter just about every vehicle unit in the game including those of the enemy, and if you fill a vehicle unit to the max, it's ability in such departments as vision and accuracy will increase, where as better foot units, such as commanders, will bring even further increases to the units they mount.
There is no doubting BotB is one of the better looking RTS titles on the PC market currently - everything from the impressive environments to the highly detailed unit models radiate quality, providing you keep the camera angle zoomed at a practical level. This is a genre that has only started adopting pure 3D engines in the last few years, and BotB's 3D engine is one of the best you'll currently find for an RTS, although on the down side it does make BotB feel exactly like the two previous titles in the series. Everything about the game's fundamental aspects such as graphics, sound and controls feel solid and very polished - it is a shame that some of the more indepth aspects such as AI and path finding couldn't follow this quality.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect to the entire game is the included encyclopedia, which showcases detailed information about all the in the game units including their statistics such as hit points and speed etc. While it doesn't make up for what is a pretty generic RTS game, it does at least show a great degree of attention to detail and the sheer amount of units the game has to offer. You won't find them all on the battlefield at once, but that only means there is good variation as you progress further in the game, so you're not just using the same units over and over again.
1944: Battle of the Bulge is a plausible RTS combat experience, however it is far from a unique one. Even if you disregard the fact it plays remarkably similar to Desert Rats vs Afrika Corps and D-Day, so similar that it often feels more like an addon pack, there is very little about the gameplay in general that strikes you as unique from other offerings in the RTS market. While the engine is nice and the visuals treat the eyes, the ultimate problem with BotB is the fact it fails to deliver in a few keys areas such as unit control, and it doesn't make up for it in any other significant area related to the core gameplay. An enjoyable game is still to be had here with Battle of the Bulge, but don't expect to be enthralled, RTS fan or not.