Roving reporter Dan Griliopoulos has left Alec in Cologne and is heading deeper into Europe, writing up the best of Gamescom as he goes.
We're driving through the Black Forest when my thoughts turn to Wargame: European Escalation. Germany's Schwarz Wald might be famous around the world solely as the origin of an outrageously opulent cherry cake – the schwarzwaldkirschetorte – but it's also at the heart of the country that's borne the brunt of European warfare for twenty centuries. That's notable for us, as it's also the central area that the two factions of the Cold War would likely have fought through and over if the war had turned hot, as the overwhelming Russian conventional forces pushed towards France. Wargame, the new title from the creators of RUSE, explores this area and the war that never happened, but which the world braced itself against for forty years.
Alexis Le Dressay, founder and creative director of Eugen Systems, took me through the game back in Cologne. “The idea about this game is that, it takes place during the decade 1975 to 1985, during the Cold War. During that period, thankfully, nothing happened, but the two blocs were arming themselves with tons of tanks, helicopters and assault infantry, ready to fight to spread into the middle of Europe, especially Germany.” So, taking this premise, Wargame's idea is to create alternative histories. “For example, in 1983, Ronald Reagan was shot by a madman, but was not killed. Imagine what would have happened if that bullet had hit the heart; the CIA would have blamed the KGB and... So all the different campaigns are set in an alternate reality, where the two blocs will hit each other with conventional weapons, not super-weapons.”
On first sight, Wargame is quite obviously a form of the superb R.U.S.E. engine, but heavily improved; due to improvements in the tech, they've been able to build this game on a realistic scale, meaning that vehicles actually fit in the landscape correctly. “As you know with Ruse, we had the technology to display a really-big zoom” says Alexis, “but with Wargame we can go much, much closer and have a 1-1 scale world.” This also has consequences for how vehicles interact in the world, and how you control the units. “If I select the tank, I can follow the unit to see the different elevation” Alexis explains.
For example, now that the game is 1:1, the team can use canonical distances. This means things like weapon range, fuel capacity and vehicle speed can reflect their real-world equivalents. This, in turn, means, that they can just pull all the data about vehicles in easily, as much of it is now public domain, meaning this game has a huge range of real world vehicles, accurately represented, all with their individual foibles and problems.
It also affects how the vehicles interact with the world; they can use cover effectively, but also impact the environment accurately. Comparing the gentle trails infantry leave in long grass, with the wheeled impression of a recon vehicle and the flattened, crushed earth of a M1 Abrams tank's passage raises the possibility that players will be able to track each other's movements and estimate forces using the landscape alone.
Notably, vehicles also use fuel in different ways depending on the terrain they're passing over. Grassland is fairly good going, but not as good as keeping to tarmac roads. Travelling through dense woodland is extremely-fuel intensive, and some vehicles simply can't do it; others, like tanks, can but make slow progress and knock down trees as they go, but have practically no visibility. (We also saw a tank de-track when pushing through a hedgerow, indicating there's some sort of dynamic breakdown system from rough ground.”
Cities meanwhile are also completely to scale and units can hide inside any building; “we tried to create the best visual battlefield...” says Le Dressay “We have a much more complex and rich vision system than in R.U.S.E.” The buildings are, of course, completely destroyable, as Alexis demonstrates by unleashing a huge artillery strike on some infantry ensconced near a wood; unluckily for him, the inaccuracy of the strike means not a single building is actually hit..
Finally, as they've brought so many of the other simulation elements in, they've also introduced the ability and necessity to manage your ammo on each vehicle; you don't want your T72 using its main cannon, with its extremely limited ammo, against infantry if there are Abrams tanks prowling around. “For example” says Alexis, “my Abrams tank has stabilisation system, optical system, different kind of armour on the front, back, top, specific engine, specific track that's more reliable when you pass through streams... a lot of parameters. It's like you are playing an RPG.”
Each vehicle also has experience and is named, for ease of identification, as well as a stress status; if they get too stressed, they'll attempt to flee or at least retreat. “R.U.S.E. was more boardgamey; this is like if you are building an Airfix model, you want it to have and use all the characteristics of the real thing, but very simple to play with.” Is this more for hardcore gamers then? “We want the game to be really easy to play with, for all the units.”
Le Dressay demonstrates on an unfortunate enemy T72 that a recon unit has spotted. The Abrams has to move through a hedgerow to get a clean line of sight to the T72, but as soon as it spots it, it stops moving and fires, stunning the enemy tank with a direct hit; “it is like, one of the crewmen has been killed”, says Alexis. “Even if I can't penetrate the armour, I can distress them a lot, making them retreat and destroy them finally.” The experience of the Abrams crew speeds up the reloading process (as well as aiming and repairing) and it gets its second shot off whilst the T72 is attempting to turn and retreat, destroying it. We could have forced the Abrams to shoot earlier, without sighting the tank, but it would have been very inaccurate. Also, if we'd left a stunned or malfunctioning tank alone, the crew would have themselves taken the time to repair the problem, be it a loose track, fuel leak, or general malfunction.
Alexis goes on to demonstrate helicopters, with guided and unguided missiles (which give you percentage chances of hitting) meeting a bunch of anti-air units (flak vehicles and surface-to-air missile units), with predictably gruesome results on both sides. There are more than 320 units in the game; playing on the NATO side, for example, you can deploy German, US, British, and French troops. On the Communist side, will be Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, Czechoslovakian...
In the multiplayer or skirmish scenarios, you pick up to 25 units from the 320 available, with up to 5 from each category, and use them to compose the army you're taking into the field; once that's done, much like Ground Control or End of Nations, you have a limited number of points to buy units or upgrade them to veterancy. More points are garnered by capturing and holding different areas of the map. Key facilities such as power stations give more points and reinforcements can be brought in at certain points on the map's edge. “In Ruse we had six or seven armies; here in Wargame it's infinite, as you build up your own army. Less is made using base-building or economy, but more here is the terrain and cover.”
After RUSE's fascinating board-game style mechanics, it's a little odd to see the developers move back towards something more directly simulation-oriented, towards the space occupied mainly by Men of War. Yet, where RUSE's innovation was in the board game elements, Wargame's fiction is in its world-view. We're still glad that the Cold War never turned hot – that these great, ancient trees weren't run down by tank tracks and that Germany didn't turn back into the warzone for most of European history – but we're intrigued to see where Eugen take us on their alternate history tour. An open beta will be available in September.