Premature Evaluation – Ultimate General: Civil War

Every week we dispatch Brendan onto the battlefields of early access alongside a battalion of eager troops. This week, he attempts to become a renowned tactician for the Union in Ultimate General: Civil War [official site].

I don’t know much about this period of American history, except that Abraham Lincoln was the goodie and Clint Eastwood won the war by blowing up a bridge with a Mexican friend. But I do like a good strategy game, the practice of shunting little toy soldiers about and watching as long bits of geometry engulf other, smaller bits of geometry. So come with me if you want to see what it’s like to “draw” a war.

Although the same developer has already seen some praise with Ultimate General: Gettysburg, the series is new to me. I won’t be able to tell fans and history gluttons what is new or what subtle and accurate nods to the era it houses. I’ll leave that to Tim. But I can give you a general idea. Ha ha ha. A general idea.

To start with the ins and outs of battle. Your troops are forged into Total War style divisions, and although they are represented as sprites on a mostly-static background it somehow manages to look handsome. You can’t zoom in so far that you can see what’s happening between clashing soldiers, but this works in the game’s favour, keeping you from being distracted and noticing the tiny gaps in any sprite’s animation.

Orders and movement are simple. Left-click a unit and drag to draw a course – a blue or red line that can swoop, slalom, curve or loop as much as you like. Alternatively, right-clicking and holding will let you place the unit facing a particular direction. The whole idea, as ever, is to get your warhouse in order, line up your troops and watch your flanks. A flanked unit can be torn to shreds by an opposing infantry unit, harassed and maligned by opportunistic skirmisher troops or wrecked by distant cannon fire. You may not lose everyone in a flanked unit in one fell blow, as in faster-paced strategy games, but they will quickly make the decision to fall back, taking all control away from you and forcing you to move your commanding officer to intercept them and boost their morale. Anything within this officer’s circle of influence will get a boost.

There are environmental things to grasp. Certain terrain gives you bonuses to other stats. You can hide skirmishers in woodlands for a big stealth bonus, or put your infantry men in a wheat field for a small boost to their cover. There are emplacements to garrison your men, depending on the map – farms, camps, dugouts. And crossing a river slows your men down to a stressful crawl, making them easy targets. This last hazard often has the effect of making both sides line up on either side of a river, each taking turns to shoot the other, like gentlemen, because neither side is brave enough to storm across the water and get heroically slaughtered.

It feels good to get your men into a position of strength, and worrying when you see unbeatable odds marching toward your haphazard defences, or an enemy calvary unit looping behind you to charge your vulnerable artillery division. One of the best missions I played involved being outnumbered 2 to 1 and attempting to scramble together a decent defence out of skirmishers, cannons and horsemen. It did not work.

But this was one of the game’s multi-part “grand battles” as part of an ongoing and personalised campaign. Each time I was overwhelmed, the script said: “and now you fall back”, opening up a new part of the map each time and forcing me to retreat the units as best as possible, often leaving whole companies behind in fortified positions just to buy the cannons and other slow units some time to escape. Eventually, we got back to a river landing, where reinforcements arrived and two gunboats pounded the attackers over two days of fighting. The confederacy stormed the battlements time and time again, always getting scared and running away, until finally the game decided I had earned a draw. Why the AI didn’t decide to charge me in an all-out assault, using every unit at once, I don’t know. If it had, I would have definitely lost. If there’s one thing I noticed about the battles it’s that the AI sometimes does not know its own strength. But this might be different on a higher difficulty.

As for this campaign mode, you can craft your army with limited resources as you go from battle to battle on a yellowed map of the US. At the start, it gives you the chance to create a commander with different specialisms and attributes. Pump up your logistics stat and you’ll have a higher supply of starting ammunition (your units can quickly run out of ammo, and need to be resupplied by a slow and vulnerable wagon unit – and this too can run out of supplies). And a higher politics stat will let you recruit more able-bodied men. I came out of West Point Academy with a higher training statistic than anything else, meaning I could recruit veteran fighters (rather than your default greenhorns) at a much cheaper price than normal.

As you fight, you gain skill points to dish out and increase stats as you please. But you also get reputation points and cash, which let you buy more divisions or new guns for your warchumps. You can also hire fresh officers. Like your general, these too gain bonuses after fights, increasing discipline, stamina, and other soldierly characteristics. Meaning your men are less keen to run away at the first sight of cross-looking rebel, and less prone to becoming exhausted and being unable to run.

All the components of a good strategy are there. It’s handsomely-made, often difficult, and smugly satisfying in that tactical sort of way. At the same time, I wish some of the menus and mechanics were more understandable to a newcomer. The odd tutorial message box pops up and gives a very summary explanation of mechanics like cover or morale, offering links to a more detailed guide. But this being early access, the guide book has not been filled in, which leaves you wondering how the machinery and number crunching is done [Guess what! They just added this in-game guide in an update, scant moments before going to press]. It’s likely understandable to anyone whose stuck with the penultimate Ultimate General, but for me there still seemed to be a lot unsaid, a lot of clever things happening inside the simulation that I couldn’t take into account.

As a result, you can probably enjoy Civil War on two levels: the first, as a devotee of the genre, the history and the series. The second, as an experimenting newcomer. Even if you don’t care about the statistical difference between a Colt Model 1855 and a Springfield M1855, there’s still plenty of hurrahs to be had fighting for your life against overwhelming odds in the more-scripted scenarios. I repeatedly found myself swearing at the screen, telling that sniveling coward colonel Rousseau to “get the fuck back to the line”, or ordering my heroic Brigadier General to waltz up and down encouraging the men, while also taking part in absolutely none of the fighting.

It’s likely to make a lot of people very happy. From what I understand, it expands a lot on what the previous entry did and offers much more variety in terms of locations and historical battles. The previous game focused on one important battle, but this covers four years of WAR and lets you approach it with a sense of military continuity. Yet, while I like the battling, and the way you can draw or lose a fight and just keep on going (a campaign win gains reputation and cash, a loss reduces it), I still sometimes feel lost while playing it. What’s going on underneath it all? In short, if you already know what the deal is: you have a treat. But if you don’t, you may have to embrace some unknowns [or learn things] to have the best possible time.

Ultimate General: Civil War is available on Steam for £22.99/$29.99. These impressions were based on version 0.66.

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28 Comments

  1. klops says:

    It looks wonderful! Most likely this is also a game I will never touch, since I already bought the first one with a real pricemoney (not in a bundle) and have never even installed it, although I believe I’d like the game.

    • hamilcarp says:

      Why do people leave comments like this? Who cares?

      • Pendragon says:

        Why do people reply to comments like this ? Who cares ?

      • klops says:

        It’s called communication. It’s what humans often do, and in this case I stated how much I liked how the game looks. Then I added a realistic point of view to balance my enthousiasm about the game.

        Very often this sort of communication doesn’t bring much information value, so it must be frustrating if you’re expecting to benefit or to gain emotional response from every line of comment.

  2. Gothnak says:

    I’ll definitely get this when it is a bit cheaper. Mainly because i have so much to play the moment with Warhammer: Total War… Grim Dawn and Grimrock 2 from the Humble Bundle, Motorsport Manager and my wife is forcing me to play the free version of Guild Wars 2 pretty much every night.

    This has been a good year for bearded gentlemen.

    • Aetylus says:

      Your wife. Is forcing you. To play video games.

      Speechless.

    • Neutrino says:

      I tried Guild Wars 2 the other week. I couldn’t get past the fact that the starting village was full of identical villager clones, and all the soldiers appeared to be pole dancers on their day off.

      Does it improve later on?

      • Gothnak says:

        You know what, it’s alright. I say ‘forcing me’ because it wouldn’t be my first choice, but it is her first MMO. It does everything i remember WoW & LOTRO and Everquest did when i first picked them up, but it looks nicer, has better world events, has an interesting world exploration system and a good crafting system. It also has a lot of different builds for each character class so there is a lot of depth there.

        The combat however is still click 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 4, etc… And it’s not been very difficult so far, apart from legendary bandit encounters i think we have died once or twice and we are just hitting level 40.

        In short, for a free game, it’s bloody good, biggest annoyance, you can’t trade items with each other in the free mode.

  3. Blastaz says:

    Haven’t had a good ACW game since Sid Meyer someone tried to get me into the previous one but this looks like it might scratch the very faint itch. At least till wood elves come out…

  4. Michael Fogg says:

    The previous UG was a pretty cool toybox, but I find something wrong with the idea of a serious wargame which gives you a perfectly reliable real time sattelite view of the battlefield and direct command of each unit like they were part of a psychic network.

    • Kolbex says:

      Hell yeah, Scourge of War series.

    • froz says:

      It’s not really a serious wargame though, is it. Keep in mind the guy was a modder of TW series (his mods were hugely overrated IMO, but that’s a different story).

    • Zenicetus says:

      Most of us play strategy games like this for fun, and not for perfect simulation.

      The historical Total War games have an option to force the camera view in battles to the General’s location and height. It doubt many people are hardcore enough to fight every battle that way because it’s frustrating and not much fun. The AI general you’re fighting isn’t limited the same way, so that defeats the realism arguments.

  5. timmins says:

    There’s a lot to like about this game, but I hate how many games are built in real time that almost NEED to be turn based.

    This is a game about skirmishers. Infantry are super vulnerable in the open, and the campaign is mostly “okay, here’s your 3000 men, now delay the enemy’s 15,000 men until reinforcements arrive”.

    So you send out skirmishers. Skirmishers are GREAT at not dying to bullets, while hiding in cover, and doing a lot of damage to infantry trying to march across an open field or down a road.

    And then the enemy charges you, but of course, 200 men do not do well in melee combat against 2000 men. So when the enemy charges you, you retreat! and then you both run for a while, and end up exhausted in the middle of a forest. And 200 men tired and lost in the woods is much less bad than 2000 men tired and lost.

    Great idea for a game, and I really like ultimate general when it’s good. It’s a neat game that rewards looking at the neat animations and just relaxing, while you make the decisive calls the game is about.

    AND THEN YOU START THE SECOND CAMPAIGN MISSION. And all of a sudden, the battle of bull run takes place across multiple screens.

    So you can either play the game in 3 second increments, constantly pausing and unpausing, or you can frantically scan back and forth across the battlefield and not enjoy the pretty spectacle, or you can just watch one front and then look back at the other front just in time to see what happens to 200 men in the woods when 2000 tired and more than slightly angry men catch up with them.

    I HATE these real time pausable games about watching stuff take place across multiple screens. It’s basically the same sin as hearts of iron 4, all over again. These guys need to figure out what they want to do. EITHER make a turn based game, OR make a game that all takes place on one screen.

    Because it’s just tedious to pause the game every 4 seconds just because IF the enemy charges, you need to right click the other edge of the forest, and if you don’t, a persistent campaign until you spent your hard earned money on will cease to exist just because you didn’t do an incredibly routine, incredibly simple think like issue a retreat order.

    • bills6693 says:

      I haven’t played this (own the first one but didn’t really get into it, mostly due to the fixed mission rather than a campaign where you choose units, come up against other random armies etc). I just wonder – is there much automation? E.G. a skirmish mode where you can tell your unit to retreat if an enemy approaches within a set distance etc? As this kind of thing may take a lot of this out of the game – you know that if the enemy charges, your skirmishers will retreat. You can tell you cavalry to intercept any other cavalry in a set area (to defend your cannon) etc etc. You can set your units with orders to react to situations without you constantly watching every part of the battlefield.

      I don’t know if this game has it, would be curious to know. This would be welcome, if not.

      • timmins says:

        None. That’s basically what the game is: dancing around with your units, staying just out of harm’s way while running in to fire a nasty volley at someone.

        It’s not HARD, it’s just incredibly punishing if you don’t do it, and it makes the game feel a bit more like starcraft than majesty 2, when I suspect the pretty civil war strategy gamers would far rather play a game that plays like majesty 2 than a game like starcraft.

        • Remnant says:

          Use the report bug feature, because you must have a problem with yours. The skirmishers WILL run away from the enemy. That’s what they do. If anything, I have more trouble rounding them up and keeping them in a good, solid position because they’re so keen to shoot and run away (took me a while to realise the value of the Hold command).

          Although it seems like your criticism of the game is that you keep sending 200 skirmishers to fight a 2,000-strong infantry brigade? Yeah, the reason the enemy keep charging you is because you’re sending 200 skirmishers to fight a 2,000-strong infantry brigade. They know that they’ll beat your guys in a melee, and they know that your guys will shoot them to shit if they stay in the open. That’s why they charge. Pro tip – use the Detach Skirmishers command to break a group of skirms away from an infantry brigade. This way, you can basically double your line, flank the enemy (they can only take the infantry or the skirms, not both, so your brigade can essentially double its strength), and stop leaving your skirms in a position where they’ll be rushed. They should be scouts, they should be a reserve to plug a hole in your line, they should be snipers to pick off artillery crews, but if you’re asking them to fix bayonets and each of them kill 10 men apiece, then you’re not playing the game right, and that’s kind of your fault, not the game.

    • Replikant says:

      Thanks for the warning.

    • ItAintNecessarilySo says:

      Also, there is losing a lot of cannons simply because of a sudden (mission) order to retreat. Weapons and men are really expensive and after a few dumb cavalry charges & then losing my cannons I thought myself to weak to keep fighting this campaign.

      Actually liking the basics and time pressure, though the controls and positioning could really use some work from the early build

  6. Shiloh says:

    I’ve said before, I came back recently to UGG after a fairly lengthy lay-off, and I’ve been enjoying it a lot more than I did previously.

    Anyway, the ACW is pretty much my favourite period of history, so I reckon I’ll be pulling the trigger on this one fairly soon.

  7. Pravin Lal's Nuclear Arsenal says:

    How does the sequel handle elevation? Those white lines they used in Gettysburg were generally readable but they gave me more than a few headaches in hilly and uneven terrain.

    Also, is the cover system reliable? I had to make up new curses whenever the original game decided that no, I’ll have your troops advance 10 cm further than you intended. Which doesn’t sound like much until you realize that the cover drops from like 75% to 30%.

    • wackazoa says:

      On this point, my biggest problem was that my artillery couldnt use the elevation properly. So I would put them on a hill over looking the field and yet, for some reason unknown, be unable to see the enemy that was clearly in a position to be fired upon. Perhaps the game engine had some coded written in for firing in proximity to their own troops, but many a time I attempted to flank infantry, that itself was trying to flank my own infantry, with artillery only for the artillery to not be able to target said infantry. Frustrating.

    • timmins says:

      There are no elevation lines yet. Presumably coming. At the moment, it’s very much guesswork, but it’s still early access. I personally have trouble figuring out where some of the valleys are, especially when those valleys or hilltops have trees on them.

      the cover system is reasonably readable and very communicative, but it’s still a bit finnicky. A lot of units are larger than the cover they would like to hide in, which drastically lowers their cover, and especially in forests, it seems like each tree is considered seperately. If you are running through what all looks like a light woods, your cover will quickly fluctuate between amazing and not very good.

      Doesn’t bother me personally, but you can’t just say “stand in that homogeneous block of not getting shot”, because those aren’t really in the game in sufficient quantity. Especially for 1500 man infantry units.

  8. Auldman says:

    Well there is probably a lot I could say about what works for me with this game but I’ll focus on one aspect that’s really impressed me.

    Something I’ve always wanted in the Total War series was to role-play as a commander and rise through the ranks and build the rep of just one general and not have to focus on economy or geopolitics. This game gives me what I’ve wanted from Creative Assembly for years! It’s fun to grow your own rep and strength from battle to battle.

    I’ve also noticed it’s a bit more realistic than Total War in that you will find that sometimes it’s better to lose the battle and make the decision, that real historical commanders have made, to save your army and leave the field to a stronger enemy in order that you may fight again later.

    The AI is tough and hats off to the developers for creating one that never does the same thing twice!

    If there is a CON or something that frustrates me a little it’s the little advantages given to each side that don’t feel historical. I’ve been playing as the Union and it seems to me that I’ve been given advantage of rate of fire and accuracy but the Rebs have a melee advantage so It’s been baffling when 700 rebs are able to easily rout a 1500 man brigade in seconds. Perhaps that issue of balance will be addressed later?

    Great game and one of the better battle tactics games I’ve played in recent years. Here’s hoping that they will expand into other eras soon (Seven Years War, Napoleonic etc).

    • timmins says:

      You sure that’s not just starting equipment? I have only played union up to the battle of phillipi), but I noticed…. they start with carbines instead of revolvers and cavalry sabres, and they also start with those 200 man units carrying carbines, not muskets. If you go to the info panel in game, you kind of get a warning, because the game shows you a terrible melee skill, largely because carbines suck in melee.

      Also, as I recall, I started with my main unit of yankee infantry (zook), started with… I think the springfield 1842? which I think is quite an advanced musket, which would explain the firepower.

      As confederates, I really don’t feel like the union outshoots me at all. For example, in the battle of newport news, I noticed that I seem to mostly be capturing rebored farmer rifles, which are not an adavanced weapon. In the battle of bull run, I felt that I significantly outranged the enemy with my missisipi rifles.

      There is a HUGE effect of experience on how good your unit is at civil warring, but I think most of the differences in the army feel to me like a result of different starting equipment and the game’s system for awarding improved capabilities in doing the things you did before. i.e.: my first go round, kemper did most of the melee, and thus became noticeably better than sigfried at melee, in spite of them having the same equipment. (the early springifeld rifle, not the 1855, but the 1841 or 42 or whatever).

  9. mariandavid says:

    I have the earlier game and greatly admired its fluent mechanics – but it was blemished for me by its pick of subject, Gettysburg being the most commented on but probably least interesting battle of the Civil War with very few sparks of genius, or even cleverness on the leadership of either side. Which makes it memorable for sacrifice but much less so as a game. The best (frankly few) scenarios of UG-Gettysburg were those where there was some element of surprise and lack of predictability. Hopefully with the Eastern US campaign to play with such will be the norm.

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