The Hot War
It took a truly horrific defeat for me to knuckle down and attempt to break through Wargame: AirLand Battle's tough, uncaring exterior. I'd tossed aside the campaign, had one skirmish match under my belt, and I dived head-first into a 10 vs. 10 multiplayer battle where I was undoubtedly more of a hindrance than anything to my exasperated cohorts.
I'd send out my jets -- the most significant addition to RTS since European Escalation -- only for them to explode and pepper the battlefield with debris. Then I'd call in my tanks and weep as they became engulfed in smoke and fire, blown to smithereens by previously invisible opponents. I pounded my fists and cursed my ineptitude, and all around the map my units were dying and wishing they had a better commander.
AirLand Battle is not a strategy title you can just dip your toes into, nor is it forgiving to those who are unprepared. Over 800 units from 12 different countries have been lovingly modelled and given abilities and statistics that are freakishly close to their real-world counterparts, and if you don't know how to use them effectively, you will not survive. I certainly didn't.
Wargame: AirLand Battle (PC)
AirLand Battle is something of a military fetishist's dream, distilled into a videogame. Upon opening up the deck menu -- where players can put together their force, split by nationality and faction, for online confrontations -- I was more than a little overwhelmed by the huge array of units. Where some strategy titles boil troops and vehicles down to health, armor, and how much damage they can do, each unit in AirLand Battle comes with a long list of statistics and important information that have a genuine impact in battle.
Vehicles can run out of fuel; weapons go through ammunition; they might have a high front armor rating, but have little protection on top; some struggle while going through rough terrain, while others happily power through the mud; and they all have different ranges and lines of sight.
There's so much minutiae to account for that building a deck could take longer than the match you'll be deploying them in. The build might not even last more than one match -- eventually being consigned to the scrap heap when you realize you've made an egregious error. In one of my first forays into the online battlefield, I found myself completely ineffective because I knew nothing about radar, and I was quickly punished for my ignorance.
Most of my AA support vehicles were using radar, and unbeknownst to me, my opponent was using this to his advantage. He was sending wave after wave of anti-radar fighters after my forces, utterly decimating my AA units. Without them protecting the skies, it was little effort for him to bomb my remaining forces and claim a swift victory.
I learned two things from that embarrassing defeat: every unit has an exploitable weakness, and radar can be switched off. Every match, whether ending in victory or defeat, has forced me to tweak my decks or my tactics. There isn't a cookie-cutter build, or at least not one that I've come across, and all it takes is for a half-decent player to have a force that counters all of your choices for everything to go up in smoke.
This is, of course, less likely if you have a good mix of units that allows you to react to a change in the battle or a foes tactics. Having air-lifted infantry is a good way to deploy men quickly, for example, but it's useless if your enemy is just shooting them out in the sky, so it's handy to have a back up plan in the form of armored infantry vehicles.
Deploying the right units for an appropriate task and using the geography of the varied maps to one's advantage will consistently beat numbers and aggression. This is a thinking man's war, where planning and reconnaissance are paramount. There's no fog of war, and players have to rely on line of sight and radar to keep track of enemy movements.
The fastest way to travel -- apart from air -- is down roads, which crisscross the maps. Yet they are often a fantastic place to lay an ambush. I can't count the number of times I've seen a force trundle along a road, through a thicket of trees, and not make it to the other side.
Elevation matters too. Garrison your anti-tank infantry in a tall building, and suddenly they pose a very real threat to the many tanks that have puny armor on top. You could send in bombers too, but if your enemy has prepared for this by bringing along some AA chums, then it will be the infantry that saves the day.
Thus, there are no medals awarded to those who just churn out the most expensive tanks -- all units have a requisition cost, but more points can be earned by holding certain areas -- and send them in for the kill. Without recon vehicles they will be ambushed, without AA support they will be bombed, without helicopters or jets they will harassed by enemy jets, and if they get destroyed, that's them gone for good. There's a limited number of units per deck, so each vehicle and squad represents a significant loss if taken out.
While European Escalation had helicopters, other aircraft were noticeably absent. AirLand Battle rectifies this with a plethora of jets from MIGs to Tornados. Unlike other units, when not active, aircraft aren't present on the map. Airfields don't have a physical presence, so planes are selected from a menu, do their job, and fly around until evacuated or they run out of fuel and ammo. Once they return to base, they cannot be deployed again until the cooldown counter has ended. If they are damaged, they are repaired automatically -- lengthening the cooldown period.
The addition of these new units makes AirLand Battle remarkably different from European Escalation. Air defense becomes incredibly important, as does radar; helicopters now have to deal with additional air threats when preying on ground forces; and new avenues for assault open up. Jets are wonderful at softening up targets and defending vulnerable units when they are suddenly attacked, but they have plenty of weaknesses too: they can be rendered useless without radar and can be taken out swiftly by AA attacks.
Multiplayer matches with allies requires a great deal of cooperation and communication. Quickly sending out a beacon with a simple typed message like "flanking" or "more tanks needed" is a good way to get someone's attention, and it's extremely handy to be able to communicate with such haste and have other players' eyes drawn to the area. When you're playing with people you know and there's a more direct line of communication, things really get interesting. Instead of needing to have something of an all-purpose deck, you can tailor it to what your ally already has. That way it's possible to create a predominantly air or tank deck without fear of being useless.
While multiplayer is undeniably the focus of AirLand Battle, there is a dynamic campaign that can be dabbled in, seeing NATO and the Warsaw Pact butt heads. There's a sizable international map, political events that can have a direct impact on the war, and nuclear weapons that can be deployed. It's all a bit sterile, though. Events are random, no real context is given to the conflict in-game, and the battles are restricted to 20-minute scraps, which at the end of timer result in a draw regardless of how many points one gains or how close to failure the enemy was.
This bizarre limit inhibits the slow, methodical nature of the battles as seen in skirmishes and multiplayer scenarios. The campaign becomes a race to score enough points -- by destroying enemies -- before the timer reaches zero. It flies in the face of the realism that Eugen Systems has worked so hard to craft in the rest of the game.
AirLand Battle's presentation is extremely polished, if not particularly flashy. Maps and vehicles are rendered realistically, while the lighting, explosions, and land deformation are effective and believable, yet the aesthetic lacks style and character. War isn't glamorous, and neither is AirLand Battle.
The UI is surprisingly simple and unobtrusive, relaying information flawlessly while never distracting or taking focus away from the battle. Zoomed out completely, the maps transform from detailed depictions of the European countryside to tactical displays revealing units through icons, air and ground vehicle reinforcement paths, and all the key areas in the conflict.
This all goes towards the very business-like feeling that permeates throughout the experience. It's an efficient, focused game lacking in fluff; one where everything serves a purpose and has a tangible impact on gameplay.
Eugen Systems' serious, well-researched approach to real-time strategy makes Wargame: AirLand Battle a rewarding, refreshing title. Not since European Escalation have I had to work so hard for my victories, and with the addition of aircraft and the absurdly huge 20 player matches, a whole new layer of strategy and tactics has been added to an already exceedingly deep series.
THE VERDICT - Wargame: AirLand Battle
Reviewed by Fraser Brown