Theatre of War hands on PC preview page 1
If there is one genre on the PC that is in no way shape or form in short supply, it is the World War II strategy genre. Whether it's a game with mainstream appeal and console like gameplay, or a more advanced style strategy game that full utilizes the versatility of a PC mouse and keyboard, there always seems to be another WWII on the horizon.
Naturally, the problem here for developers is creating a game unique enough to set itself apart from the flock, and for 1C for Battlefront.com, this
is definitely the biggest hurdle for their soon to be released WWII RTS, Theatre of War. With a few name changes and years of development and fan anticipation behind it, Theatre of War is finally approaching release and from what we've experienced in the pre-release beta, it should be quite a successful one.
Obviously being based on World War II means the units, the environments and the missions featured in Theatre of War are going to be at least semi-familiar to some if not most gamers interested in this type of game, but where ToW tries to approach the genre differently than most games before it is in the way it approaches the gameplay itself. Like the vast majority of WWII PC games, ToW is based around the Real Time Strategy formula, and to a large degree it seems to follow this formula
like it's an IEEE standard, but when it comes to the actual make up of the gameplay, RTS gaming really hasn't ever been quite like this before. This is because ToW focuses on total and utter realism, with very few compromises along the way.
First and foremost, ToW will feature the usual suspects in the RTS genre when it comes to game modes - a single player campaign, training missions, "battles" which has five instant battles on offer acting as "quick games", and a multi-player mode. The single player campaign mode features around 40 missions and can be played
from five perspectives - Poland's, the Allies, Russia's, Germany's and France's. As for multi-player, in the pre-release beta we were playing it seemed only
IP to IP was on offer so we're not sure if the final retail version will have any sort of in-built online browser. If not, it would certainly make organizing online games a lot tougher.
Regardless of what mode we initially chose, it didn't take long for ToW's realistic approach to RTS gameplay to become apparent, and really, it is surprising how playable the game actually is. As mentioned above, ToW does seem to follow a lot of RTS standards and in a way it is fundamentally a very generic RTS game particularly when it comes to the controls and the game modes, so anyone even slightly familiar with the RTS genre will probably be able to come right in and play ToW. In fact, in its
simplest form, ToW is little more than a map with a few units you send around shooting the opposing forces, but that is selling the game way too short as it's really all the details attached to this generic RTS framework that seems to make the game come together, not to mention make the game a hell of a lot tougher than 99% of RTS's out there.
For example, the amount of detail gone into individual unit characteristics and attributes really is amazing. Inside ToW's campaign mode are RPG elements for upgrading the skills and abilities of your units from battle to battle, and these really do translate onto the battlefield. For instance, you may successfully force an enemy to abandon a vehicle of theirs, or maybe a driver of yours needs replacing. In these situations, a solider with adequate driving skills is ideal. Another
example is attributes
like leadership and the current state of a soldier's morale, which can influence their willingness to carry out your orders. Perhaps the best part about all these unit elements is the fact the attributes and statistics are so easily accessible on your screen, neatly displayed horizontally across the bottom quarter when you have a unit selected. For a game that focuses on "the bigger picture" when it comes to battles, it's amazing how individual and personalized TOW can be, as not only can
you issue out
orders to individual units, but you can consult a wealth of information about each unit in real time on the battlefield to aid in your battle plan.
Theatre of War hands on PC preview page 2
Another example of quality in the detail is the size and scope of the maps you will be fighting in. Even the smaller initial campaigns in the game are fought out in reasonably large areas, and as you progress throughout the game you will experience even bigger battles. What this does is it permits ToW to replicate the WWII strategy experience without scaling down on the action, allowing for plenty of units and land structures such as trenches and strongholds on hills. It also allows the game
to produce terrains
and environments that can totally dictate a battle as you choose where to pinpoint your attacks and where to setup your defenses. Without these huge authentic areas to fight in, ToW just wouldn't play nearly as well as it does and the experience wouldn't be anywhere near as realistic. For instance, due to the map size and the scale of some battles, success or even ultimate failure can take just as long as you'd expect it to in a real life situation.
Perhaps the best details of all though can be found in the smaller, less obvious parts of the game, such as the location damage, which can cause vehicles like tanks and other armed war machines to stop moving because their tracks are broken, or stop firing altogether because of turret damage. Depending on the damage to tanks, crew
can also be killed or wounded independently of the tank. A few more examples of small but cool details to ToW is environmental damage such
as tanks rolling over gun stands and trees to get to their location, the extremely challenging and complex computer AI which showcases few if any unexpected weaknesses even at this stage in the game's development, and the ability to call in artillery and air strikes where available to really pummel an area, but not to the point where they become excessively effective. ToW really is a case of a solid generic RTS game built around many small and very well balanced tweaks and features that seamlessly
Combined, all these elements of the gameplay create the realistic experience that ToW is being touted for. This is not a game where a whole bunch of machine gun toting soldiers will eventually bring down an enemy tank on bullets alone. This is not a game where you can blindly storm through an enemy front line expecting victory on sheer numbers and brute force, this is a game where every single unit counts, and authentic tactics are absolutely vital for success, such as flanking, utilizing the terrain
and utilizing unit
formations and rules of engagement. This is a game where higher powered units could be attacking each other from distances farther than you can see without zooming the camera all the way out and then scrolling across the huge map. This is a game where WWII realities such as some weaponry being far more superior to others plays a huge role and dictates how you can approach a battle. In essence, ToW is a game where you will need to deploy real world tactics for success, even on the easiest settings. For a
lot of gamers out there, ToW is the type of RTS that will actually require you to practice considerably before you master it, because while the fundamentals are reasonably standard as already emphasized, the actual ins and outs of the game are so "real world" and so realistic, you'd have to be a war commander prodigy to jump in and conquer all straight away.
With all this said though, there are still two areas in the pre-release beta which displayed some shortcomings. First up is the camera control, which is fine functionality wise as all the usual abilities such as zoom and rotate and scroll are here, but given that even small battles can take up large portions of a map, I found myself moving the camera
literally constantly and at times it can seem like more work than it should be. For example, zooming with the mouse wheel simply moves the camera up and
down the Y axis and not "in and out" which forces you to zoom and scroll at the same time if you want to zoom in on a distant area which can be tad tedious. This usually wouldn't be a big deal but, as stated, battles in this game can really span large distances so the importance of camera control over other RTS's is magnified significantly. The other disappointment is the campaign mode. While seemingly featuring plenty of missions, it doesn't quite do the game justice
in my opinion. It would have been great to see a far more epic mode, perhaps modeled after the conquest style mode we see in the Total War series amongst others. While it may have left the door open for alternative endings and outcomes to key battles and hence historical inaccuracies, this in itself could be considered a selling point really, as it's something I feel no WWII game has really captured properly yet. I fear that some gamers may come away slightly unsatisfied with ToW's campaign mode as it's
basically just a series of linear missions linked together with upgrade points for your units.
With gameplay aside, like a lot of strategy titles based on a real war such as WWII, ToW will feature a reasonably in-depth encyclopedia containing information and 3D models for almost every vehicle in the game, ranging from the American M8 light armored car to the German "Brummbar" assault tank. Notable absences from the encyclopedia
are personnel weaponry such as guns and explosives which is somewhat odd but not a huge deal, and aircraft, which is mainly due to the fact that air
based warfare in ToW only makes somewhat of a secondary appearance; after all, this is not a combat flight sim. Perhaps this will be beefed up some more before release but even in its current state there is a nice collection of information available for those less knowledgeable in the area of WWII vehicle technology.
Theatre of War is not likely the type of game that will get a whole heap of attention from the mainstream PC gaming scene when it is released mid April, but that is a trade off some developers are whiling to take for the sake of producing something for the more hardcore fans out there, and in ToW's case, the hardcore strategy fans, or ideally, the hardcore WWII strategy fans. On the other hand though, catering for hardcore enthusiasts of almost any genre can be a double edged sword in that they can certainly
be a hard to please bunch, so while I'm not going to sit here and say Theatre of War is definitely going to rock your world if you're a fan of real world war strategy, it's probably the best game up for the job that I've seen for quite some time. Being a semi-strategy nerd with a History channel level of WWII knowledge myself, I can certainly say I was thoroughly enjoying the gameplay ToW had to offer and am looking forward to checking out the final release due mid April.