There's a game we've not said much about in the past few months. And, well, that's a shame, because it's a great game, albeit with a forgettable name: Wargame: European Escalation. It's the Cold War sequel to the RPS-beloved RUSE, and Wargame is – perhaps surprisingly - one of the strongest contenders for RTS of the year. And so it was with some urgency that we sent RPS chum Joe Robinson to investigate its workings, and to talk to its creators, Eugen Systems.
You know, there wasn’t as much wargaming in the 1983 film WarGames as I thought there would be… just a lot of running around and dramatic cuts to a countdown clock. Nor did videogames have many wargames in 1983. In all, it was a disappointing year for wargamers. Arguably the first ‘true’ war videogame was actually the 1984 title inspired by the film, but the genre itself didn’t truly kick off until a hundred years later, in the Nineties.
The “Nineties” was the time where all those classics that wargamers cherish began to appear: Close Combat, Panzer Generals (even People’s Generals), Steel Panther… In many ways that was a
golden iron age for strategy games, as you also had the first Civilization (and other 4X) games, Westwood working their magic with Dune 2 and later C&C, Blizzard’s Warcraft and Starcraft, Total Annihilation and many others, lost to the mists of time.
Anyway, our subject isn't the peculiar lineage of the base-building RTS, but the wargame: stupidly in-depth affairs with cryptically-named units and surprising emergent immersion, wonderfully grand in scale (usually), and often worryingly ugly in their low tech production. Wargames made anyone who could get to grips with them – which, let's face it, wasn't everyone - feel like true armchair generals. Wargame: European Escalation (released back in February) is an attempt to recapture some of that glory, but in a form rather more recognisable to the contemporary eye.
“Wargame stands in the old tradition of the wargames (that's why we've chosen that name). This means, a game with a tremendous amount of units, with a huge quantity of stats for each one,” explains Alexis Le Drassey, Co-founder of Eugen Systems.
All of the classic wargames listed previously would count as Alexis’ favourites, and all have contributed to the design DNA of European Escalation. As a real-time game, it’s closer to Close Combat than anything else, but the ‘scale’ is definitely on par with Panzer Generals, with maps that can span anything up to 150 square kilometres. Enormous! If you’re looking for a more modern comparison, try thinking of Men of War but again on that much larger scale, which is actually quite apt, considering Alexis’ view on the turn-based formula:
“Turn based games are kind of old fashion now and inappropriate when it comes to multiplayer, which is maybe a reason why they have declined. A more dynamic, tactics-lead experience appeals to a larger audience.”
The recent successes of franchises like the Men of War series would seem to support that, but it’s hard to argue that the genre is in decline, especially with companies like Paradox Interactive around. Wargames may not be mainstream, but there are just as many attempts at the genre as there was back the exotic Nineties. Bizarrely, Alexis also thinks that modern wargames are more “too hardcore” compared to fifteen years ago. Hard to argue when you look at, say, Company of Heroes, perhaps but Hearts of Iron on the other hand... Yes. He might have a point.
Eugen System's angle of attack is not all about nostalgia though – like any keen developer they want to innovate and improve on the foundations of their genre as well. Even the studio’s previous game, 2010’s R.U.S.E., was about doing things differently, and something that was not quite in-line with current trends, as Le Drassey explained:
“RUSE was more about creating a new way to play a traditional RTS. In RUSE, the base building is central to the gameplay, because it's a way to look at your opponent… The traditional RTS also compresses time and distance in order to create a very dynamic experience. [With RUSE] we've kept the whole RTS formula and changed the way players look at the game and deal with the pace: You don't need a big APM (action per minutes), which is not the case traditionally.”
RUSE veterans will recognise what he's talking about here: it was a game with a slow pace, where reconnaissance and planning amounted to more than clicks per minute. In this sense it echoed wargames, while nonetheless playing out satisfyingly in real-time – making for super multiplayer.
“Indeed,” says Le Drassey, “a good RTS player has to play the fastest. We think that our pace, based on analysing rather than pure speed opens a lot of possibility to create new strategy experiences. That is exactly, what we've done with Wargame: European Escalation. We've dug into the wargame genre.”
Wargame is a multiplayer focused title – Eugen were clear on that from the start, but the main draw for me personally, and the thing that helps me get invested in it the most is the ‘deck’ set-up of choosing your armies. The game is set during the Cold War, specifically the years 1975-1985, and there are three hundred and sixty-one historically accurate units in the game. From Panzergrenadiers, to Green Jackets and Spetznaz, from Apache’s to Soviet Mi-xx gunship helicopters, Sheridans, Challengers and T-62 battle tanks… each of the eight nations (four for NATO, four for WARSAW PACT) has a range of units in their rosters that reflect their historical combat doctrines – a good mixture of the mass armies of WW2 but the cutting edge of modern combat. Impressive stuff. And it can all be folded into the armies you choose for the battlefield.
Sadly you don’t get access to everything at once, but we can understand why multiplayer games use progression systems and unlocks. It's because it's deeply fashionable. Anyway, you earn “command stars” through single-player and multi-player, which are then used to unlock whatever units you want from the game's library. When you unlock enough units though, that’s where the real strategy begins. In multiplayer, you have a limit to how many units you can take with you in a ‘deck’, and even then units are split in categories (Support, Tanks, Infantry, etc...) and there are additional limits there as well. With all those units though, and all those different doctrines, you can really create armies that suite your chosen play-style. I’m partial to airborne infantry myself, with a focus on mobility and precision strikes as opposed to raw armoured muscle.
Wargame only really has a couple of differing game modes, but the eleven currently available maps more than make up for it as each one is very different. The basic gameplay revolves around controlling control zones dotted about the map, which net you points to requisition more units and thus provide natural focus points for conflict; however each map is vastly different, and so each needs different tactics – more so than what you would normally see map-to-map in other games. My favourite example, in one map all of the control zones are in one half of the map, leaving the other side completely open – I’ll let you mull of the strategic implications of that one. Another is a map divided by impassable rivers, where you can only cross via bridge and all you need is to set-up an ambush in the forest next to it…. And of course there was that one time where I set up in the forest next to a spawn point, but I admit, that one was a little cheap.
There’s a lot more you can deconstruct here that we haven’t even begun to talk about – the supply and logistics elements, realism vs. simulation, persistent armies, Wargame’s surprising lack of environment destruction – which is a bizarre considering how good the technology behind the game is, and in my opinion a must for a wargame of this day and age.
But it's not exactly complete. Le Drassey said we can expect a content update mid-April with new maps, modes, upgrades and even a more fleshed out CompStomp offering.
Yes, it’s been a long time since Close Combat and Panzer Generals – the strategy genre has lost and gained much over the past twenty years, but I like to think Wargame serves as a beacon – a beacon to a lost age of 2D hexes, and beacon towards a new wave of titles that can capture that ‘purer’ form of strategy. Don’t get me wrong, I love Total War, and I have great affection for Company of Heroes, (Space 4X’s are my secret crush…) but if I were in the mood for asinine marketing phrases – I don't know, something like “the thinking man’s strategy-game” - then I’d apply them to Wargame. And – unlike so much hyperbolic rubbish shovelled from the mouthpieces of publishers - it would actually be true.
(Here's some random internet dude's video of the artillery in the game:)
And to finish off as I started - as if anyone is actually interested - there was a 2008 Direct-to-DVD sequel made of WarGames, called WarGames: The Dead Code. It’s terrible and doesn’t quite make sense, but the tongue-in-cheek references and subtle homages to the original film were kind of amusing, and you at least got to see the main character playing a wargame... as well as a build of Stargate Worlds, apparently. Also, Claudia Black. I was watching it for research purposes.