Making History – Recon (PC)
I don’t know about you, but I think learning is fun. Most especially when I’m learning something I’m very interested in. I remember way back in the early days of PC gaming, spending many hours with games like Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and Oregon Trail. These games were a treat to play, and though they were geared towards teaching, they were also fun, at least to me.
Which makes me wonder about wargames. Think about it; how many of us actually think about what a wargame can teach us about the military and military history? Is it a requirement that a wargame must teach you some historical fact in order for you to play it? Probably not, right? Now, for those of us who were introduced to wargames via some old classic boardgame, like Axis & Allies, Stratego, or anything by Avalon Hill, did you not learn at least a little something about military history there? For many of us, I daresay that is answered with a resounding yes. Of course, you may have been having way too much fun playing like games to notice just how much you were learning. And therein lies the key!
Well, I’m here to tell you, Muzzy Lane Software has found that key, and have made it their main instrument in reopening the doors of computer edutainment with Making History: The Calm and The Storm, a multiplayer strategy game developed over the span of three years through constant research and guidance from tech-savvy teachers, students, and professors. The blood running through The Calm and The Storm was specifically engineered "with strict academic guidelines under the supervision of well-known professors of history", and during my time spent with the pre-release version, I found all that to run through a respectable wargame at heart. I don’t think it is pumping at its full potential yet, but it is still very young. To top it all off, it’s fun!
As more educational and e-learning games begin to show themselves in the commercial market1, it also seems natural that this genre would take roots in world history, leading, of course, into the thought-provoking discussions inherent in military history and warfare. When Muzzy Lane Software announced The Calm and The Storm, the first release in the Making History series, back in 2004, it quickly caught the attention of gamers, game-makers, and people in the educational field. As mentioned above, similar games have melded computer technology and gaming together, but never to the degree displayed in The Calm and The Storm. In this preview, we’ll be looking closely at the wargaming aspects of the game, but it should be very easy to also see why Muzzy Lane Software’s Making History series has taken point in leading other edutainment titles back into the mainstream market.
It’s again important to note that the previewed version is a pre-release build, so not all of the features are intact like in the final commercial release. However, there was enough for me to get a really good feel for The Calm and The Storm’s gameplay. From a strategy gamer’s view, this game has some mechanics much like any other wargame, such as infantry, armor, air, and naval units. Each unit has a measurement of Combat Power, Strength, Morale, Experience, and Maintenance. Forces may be Added, Split, Reinforced, or Disbanded, giving players a wide-range (albeit basic) choice of options to employ. Combat is resolved at the start of your turn, and, like The Operational Art of War (TOAW), merely gives the results in a text briefing. Unlike TOAW, though, players have to make a few mouse clicks to get to that briefing. All military actions must of course be balanced with any political implications, and the AI here does a rather smart job of handling both in unison and fairness.
Play is turn-based, with each turn in The Brewing Storm scenario I played through representing about two months of real-time. As with any strategy game worth its salt, play should follow key paths, and some of those paths here should include reading the full Briefing at the start of each turn, making solid note of any and all Goals, clicking on each Policy Icon (World Summary, Military, Diplomatic, Domestic, and Economic) to bring their respective events up on the Main Game Screen for a players’ review, and then setting about making and working a plan to accomplish said Goals and in response to any World Events which require attention.
Your own Party support is falling quickly in your country. Find out what Group Concerns are foremost in the minds of your constituents, like unemployment and wages, then click into the Economic panel and use the sliders there to increase / decrease spending on those concerns. German forces are violating the Versailles Treaty (again), but you yet have the military might to enforce in kind. Should you click into the Diplomatic panel and request another New Agreement, or simply choose the Make Demand option and try to browbeat a peaceful resolution to the problem? Maybe it’s a good idea to also click into the Military panel and create a new Army unit or two somewhere near the Rhineland. Wait, does your country have the proper Industry & Infrastructure in place to create a quality military unit there? These are just a very few examples of the gameplay depth in which a player can be immersed. That’s also only scratching the surface on a single player game; with the included Multiplayer option, facing and making these decisions may bring home to a player some semblance of the mindset the actual historical persons were in during this era. And that should be considered mission accomplished by the folks who created The Calm and The Storm.
Graphics & Audio
Graphics and the areas to follow are where The Calm and The Storm fall short, at least in the pre-release build, and if it were to be fully compared to other top strategy and wargames in today’s market, like Rome: Total War, for example. However, I feel it would be quite unfair to think in such manner, because that would be ignoring the educational aspects built in here. When’s the last time you happened to crack open a high-school geography book? Maybe you remember just how plain and colorful the maps in those tomes are? Better yet, take another look at that old Risk game board that may be close by. That’s what you’ll see in The Calm and The Storm; map and color association that, by design, is there to provide "predictive reinforcement" of geography, and does a great job at being simple and effective. Encircled white stars represent the capitals of countries, battles are dictated by an explosion emblem, incoming treaties appear on screen as a document with a wax seal, tanks represent armor units (infantry, naval, bombers and fighters have their respective icons), and a Greek building icon is used to show domestic issues. All of these and more are some of the best, most intuitive icons I’ve seen in a ‘lite wargame’, thus confirming the quality of gameplay here.
Sound, on the other hand, has been deafened. Seriously, I had the passing thought I had suddenly gone deaf when I first entered gameplay. I checked to make sure my headphones were plugged in correctly, adjusted every volume slider I know of, and even rebooted my computer, all in an effort to fix whatever the problem was. Alas, the only sound my version of The Calm and The Storm has is a resounding ‘click’ when using the mouse to choose an in-game item. I’m guessing that since this is made for classroom use, sound was not added to help alleviate teacher headaches from trying to yell over the echoing of armor engagements and bombing runs all day.
Aside from my personal itch (don’t worry, I’m on medication) about having to click through one or two too many menus and panels to get to the exact item needed, the Interface in The Calm and The Storm remains a strong factor in keeping the game positive. Two main points here: the creators have made excellent use of the tooltip, and almost everything on the game screens can be clicked to open up more information. Combined, these bolster the intuitiveness and help greatly decrease the learning curve, making it that much more fun to jump right into a game from the start. I did click myself seemingly into another game once or five times by losing my place amongst the array of panel options and menu choices. Thankfully it was very easy to click out and start over, with no fear of accidentally wasting funds or sending a declaration of war to an ally. I received a handy dandy Quick Guide with my version, to which I glanced at many times, and I hope that also made its way into the full version.
Europe is a large place, with a lot going on …
… thankfully, keeping up only takes a click or two to get to what you should know!
So, is it a ‘lite wargame’ trimmed of many of the complex details that sometimes sink a player’s enthusiasm for playing it, or is it a history lesson trying very (too?) hard to rise to something greater? I see it more as a your-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter / your-peanut-butter-in-my-chocolate kinda case, and I also think that they both taste great together in this game. Making History: The Calm and The Storm is one computer game I sure hope graduates from the classroom to the shelf space at my local gaming store soon!
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Stay Alert, Stay Alive!
Jim H. Moreno
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