It's not often games buck the trend, there's a lot of money out there in being able to copycat or toe-the-line when it comes to the industry standards for a genre, and it's often easier to do that than try and stand out. In the strategy genre, atleast on the PC, this has been a particularly prevalent theme for the last decade or so, with a string of decent enough titles coming out one after the other, each with a element of individuality but not really enough to stand them too far out from the crowd. Wargame: European Escalation is a game that attempts to buck that trend.
The game came out about 4 months ago now so I've had some time to make my way through the single-player campaigns and tried a little of the 'against AI' missions. Overall I've been really impressed with the game, at it's simplest (and particularly early on in the game) it can be played like most RTSs, with you chucking units at a problem till it goes away, but as the campaigns develop the emphasis shifts and strategic obstacles start being put in your way – you're no longer able to send long-range scouts out or attack the enemy's command units with an airborne assault at will, for example, for fear of them running into entrenched anti-aircraft artillery that could knock them out of the sky; you start having to think about the value of your units, and whether or not you'll be wasting them when you make each new move.
As it develops it becomes much more a game of strategy, with the value of each piece having to be weighed, the likelihood of running into hidden enemy units considered, the merits of cover mulled and even the range of your surveillance units taken into consideration. The game does all this beautifully well, with the player really having to consider everything he or she does (especially considering the unit limits and limited resources you have), but there are things about the game that I didn't like and thought could have been done better:
The campaign structure, for example, focuses on four separate stories, each leading on from one another in terms of difficulty but completely unrelated otherwise. Each is a hypothetical, each gives you a range of different units at your disposal from either Nato or Warsaw Pact forces, or both. The problem is though that the scenarios themselves don't really have very concrete goals, true the narrative surrounding each is interesting enough, but once you actually get into a mission most simply consist of taking or holding points. Occasionally you get a mission where you'll have limited units but that's mostly it. The game's very vague in that sense, buildings, structures and other landmarks have value as cover but not as objects of strategic worth, just the points you have to capture.
I feel like they borrowed a little too much from the regular RTS genre in this regard, the game really would have benefited from some sort of system which stressed holding strategic structures or landmarks like hills or bridges in order to better complete your mission; They wouldn't necessarily have to be sources of income - because that might change the feel of the game a little too much, but if keeping or losing them made some difference to the tone of the battle (say, whether or not your side or theirs felt as though they were winning) it might give more weight to keeping a hold of high value structures and positions.
On a similar note I also think the way the missions are designed are a little too inflexible and run of the mill – with each mission you're given a selection of units and have to put them into play in concert with one another. This works well for the most part as each unit plays off one another, with each having different strengths and weaknesses and different uses. However, apart from the very first mission, you're only ever given these units as a part of a bigger, wider, strategy; it would have been nice to explore the unique aspects of each kind of unit in some form of asymmetrical warfare – infantry for example are brilliant at ambushes, and taking out individual units or sniping tanks from within the tree line; some helicopters like the Mi-24 (Hinds) are excellent at battering and stunning tanks whilst others like the Apaches and Havocs are much better at targeting and eliminating individual armoured targets though they themselves are limited in availability; but you only ever get to explore these aspects through an overall battlefield strategy, you never get to explore them on a one-on-one basis. Which is disappointing.
I'm not saying they necessarily should have allowed you to use just infantry for a mission or just tanks, or anything like that, but a few missions here and there where you only had one type of unit and had to work with that unit's strengths and weaknesses would have been nice – for example, having to stall a tank column pushing down a highway using only entrenched/hidden infantry units; or, having to whittle away at a far away invasion force approaching an airbase using only aircraft. Not only would it have been technically challenging but also set it apart from most strategy games.
I'm not saying what the game offers is in any way bad, the levels themselves are for the most part very enjoyable, but what you get does show up the flaws in the way the strategy system works within European Escalation – units work well in cohesion but independently they're often useless.
Those are my only proper complaints, I have some minor niggles:
I think it's a shame you can't pause time in the game, or atleast pause for a few seconds to order units properly, there are often times when the speed of your mouse clicks is more important than how strategy-minded you are, which I think is a shame.
In a similar vein, you can't group units together very well, sure you can form units of the same type into squad/airwings/whatever, but you can't create groups of different units with a particular goal – so you can't group a bunch of Bradley IFVs and Abrams into a column to provide infantry with heavy armour cover, as they'll all drive off at different speeds and won't keep pace with one another, nor can you put a reconnaissance helicopter together with Hinds or Apaches and have them move in formation to a target, as each type of unit will act independently of one another.
Obviously you can move them all together, but as soon as you deselect the units you'll have to drag and reselect them all again. You can't just click one unit to get that whole group, which seems a shame. Not to mention the fact that they are move at different speeds, so with the Hinds and reconnaissance helicopter example above, more often than not the reconnaissance helicopter will get shot down before the Hinds get to what you moved them to fire at. You can still do these things, but it often requires you to do a lot of micromanagement – moving each unit to different places to make sure they're not in the firing line.
Another thing, pretty minor, and more a selfish desire than anything: No planes.
Seems a shame you can utilise any sort of fixed-wing air cover or call in air strikes. Being able to call in close air support from some A-10s or Sukhois in a tight spot would have been fun!
But like I say, that's more a personal desire than anything.
Overall, the game is thoroughly enjoyable, and though there isn't any attempt to offer historical element to the battles to engage you (past the justifications for the conflicts) what they do give you is an engaging and enjoyable slice of very strategically minded real-time strategy. Let's just hope it's the start of a series!