No sea for you
Wargame: Airland battle is essentially the ArmA of RTS. While the ArmA/ Operation Flashpoint series took a look at Call of Duty and Battlefield and threw all of the sped-up gamification away, Eugen Systems have looked at Command and Conquer and tried the same trick. In some ways, it works brilliantly. Rather than churning out tank after tank you become attached to your units, and each feel enormously powerful and purposeful when used correctly. In other ways, it’s simply shared the same frustrations, the game is hard and it can seem unfair, it also brings some of the tedium of real life to the virtual battlefield.
This is really two games. As with many RTS titles, the single-player ends up being more like a complex puzzle game than anything, while the multiplayer is a frenzy of hurried orders and skilled micro-management. In the single-player campaign you are put up against increasingly difficult odds, starting off with your tanks against the enemy’s rusty buckets, leading up to huge conflicts involving squadrons of jets swarming over infantry, armour and support vehicles while you struggle to keep the front line moving forwards. There are ‘correct’ strategies to some fights but this becomes less of an issue as you progress as your actions have some effect on what missions are available to you as the game moves on. Often it’s a case of ‘Oh so that’s how they slaughtered me, now I can prepare for that’ and you learn how to counter certain attacks.
The game is difficult, even in single player, and there’s a lot of learning to do, but it all relies on common sense and some knowledge of the real military. For example, tanks are immense. They crush trees and walls, and can plough into enemy territory without a care in the world. Against support vehicles and lighter armour they can be absolute demons. But you don’t want them to get stuck in a valley or town with enemy infantry. Or what will you do if a jet comes after you? You’ll only have seconds to react and due to the sluggish movements, it likely won’t be enough. Instead what you should have done is gathered enough intel before you launch an attack to be prepared. Use the forest and hedgerows to get anti-aircraft guns into place, send some elite infantry into the buildings to provide cover, and then send your column of tanks through. Of course this is all moot when the whole thing goes to hell and you’re frantically scrambling your own jets to provide enough time for your men to get back to a supply depot from the burning chaos behind them.
This can be exhilarating, but it also means matches can have incredibly dull moments. Ammo and fuel are counted, so you need to be aware of who’s got which types of ammo left. Too many times I’ve sent infantry after some hiding artillery only to find that they’ve used up all their AT rounds. If I can’t get a humvee to go pick them up they can easily get stuck behind enemy lines with only their wits to protect them. (Disclaimer: Wits do not protect them from anything). It can lead to some drama, and with good planning it can be avoided, but it’s often an annoyance trying to get supply lines set up when the battlefield is constantly changing.
Online there is a community who have accepted this game and become one with it. They know the ranges for every weapon, they know the armour values for each part of each vehicle, and they will exploit this and use it against you. Much like the other widely played multiplayer games on PC (Starcraft, DOTA) you need someone on hand to show you the ropes or you’ll be utterly decimated. This isn’t in itself a bad thing as there comes a certain amount of satisfaction when you finally start working things out and turn into a productive member of your team. Just be aware that it’s a trial by fire.
Your assortment of units comes from a ‘deck’ that you can decide upon in advance. This adds a whole new layer of strategy to the game and so far Eugen have done a good job of constantly releasing updates in order to keep everything balanced. New tactics and strategies are emerging all the time and thanks to the 10 v 10 multiplayer, games are never predictable. I hate to imagine what it will be like once you get established 10-man teams taking to matchmaking as this is a game where communication will be king.
Graphically, the game isn’t anywhere near as pretty as it’s closest comparison, Company of Heroes 2, but then it’s much wider in scope. There are jets flying above and entire platoons fighting on the ground, and the excellent particle effects combined with the surprisingly discreet and sleek UI lead to a good-looking game in motion. Attacks look spectacular and I’ve lost more than one battle because I was too busy zooming around trying to take screenshots of the action.
There are a number of unpolished edges to the game and while it strives to be realistic, there’s still so much missing. While a game like Battlefield can get away with a lot because it never pretends to be very realistic, games like this can struggle because they’ll always be missing something. Jets clip through each other, buildings often fail to get damaged even when huge things explode next to them, tanks in plain sight can be tagged as hidden as so be completely invisible to your troops. The enemy AI often does strange things too, sending lone units across the map which can be frustrating when your goal is to eliminate every single one.
Whether you like this game or not is going to come down to how much time you’re willing to dedicate to a military-sim RPG. If you’re already into reading about modern military strategy and weapons, you’ll love commanding the 750 units and 8 sides along with your friends. You can lose hours to strategising and analysing the strengths and weaknesses of each unit, and there’s enough realism to make everything feel authentic.
If you’re a bit like me and more of a casual gamer when it comes to RTS, and you just like building up massive armies and then carving a path of destruction across the map, you’re going to be frustrated by this. There’s immense power at your fingertips throughout, but you need a lot of knowledge and practice to use it effectively. This is a game you need to commit to in order to get the most out of it.