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Posted on Mar 6, 2007 in Electronic Games, Front Page Features

Theatre of War – Recon (PC)

By Brian King

Have you ever been in a great relationship with someone, broken it off – and then started to date your ex’s younger sister? It’s pretty convenient, as you find her mannerisms are similar, you both already know the same people, you go to a lot of the same places again, and of course you’ve already met her parents. But then comes the inevitable misstep on your part when you accidentally compare her to her sister, followed by remonstrations of innocence and professions of undying love. “You are nothing at all like your sister!” Then, by chance, you all end up in the same room – and there is an awkwardness which is difficult to describe. You realize sheepishly you are in danger of being compared by THEM!

Theatre of War (ToW) is Combat Mission’s younger, prettier, sister. As you know, the sisters HATE to be compared – at least by the likes of us. But, since everyone and their brother is going to be comparing these sisters, we might as well address the elephant sitting in the room; “Is this game like Combat Mission (CM)?” The short answer is…*insert dramatic drum roll*…no. While Battlefront has avoided marketing it as such, it seems many gamers secretly harbor the notion ToW will surprise everyone as a Combat Mission “lite.” Having played and enjoyed all three of the original CM games, I admit I had some of these same secret desires, which made it hard at first to objectively appreciate this new game.

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This much I can say without equivocating, Theatre of War is much prettier than her older sister! The graphics in ToW are, in general, very good; the vehicle modeling though, is stellar. This will make a lot of gamers very happy. The thrill of watching a wedge of Tigers seek out and destroy their quarry is shown in every grimy detail, with exhaust smoke billowing, trees getting pushed down, and gobs of mud being thrown from tracks. Of lesser importance to a tanker like me are the infantry, which I’m happy to report are also very well done graphically. Finally, the terrain and buildings are highly detailed and in some cases photorealistic (the rustling dandelion fields are particularly attractive).

But can terrain and landscape be too pretty? Despite the beauty and detail, every map seems to have similar “lay of the land,” which is best described as an idyllic, undulating, countryside motif which is probably pretty rare in the real world. You may feel deja vu while fighting in Russia, when things look similar to the landscape in Normandy. We can assume there are limits to what this engine is capable of displaying, and probably explains why most maps have lines of trenches sitting in wide open fields, rather than on the edges of woods or in villages.

While a full review would be necessary to address everything flowing through my head right now, let me shoot some impressions based on this preview code. I’ve got a weekend of gameplay under the belt, so I might as well make good on it!

ToW is heavily geared towards single player, including a handful of standalone missions, as well as five campaigns (play as Russians, Germans, Poles, etc.). Each campaign features a series of battles through which your troops (who survive) improve in skill and hardware as the war progresses. This makes it important to conserve your men and avoid such follies as “click, lasso, attack.” Thankfully, for the most part, you will need to manage your units in a tactically sound manner (attack flanks of trenches rather than full bore down the middle), and use your armor, artillery, and infantry together to crack the tough nuts you’ll encounter. In this respect, there are echoes of Combat Mission here. Like CM I have some concerns about the AI performance, but I’ll need to see the final product before I’m ready to voice an opinion. I’ve reported some issues to Battlefront, so there is no telling what will show up in the final code. [Ed Note: After speaking with Battlefront we are pleased to report this code represents about 70% of the final game. AI and mission design are recognized as the two most important items still being finished.]

The pausable real time gameplay can be as frustrating as it is exciting – and this is something players will either love or hate. Real Time Strategy players will appreciate the frenetic appeal of finding the point of contact and feeding men and materiél into the breech until the enemy is destroyed. Turn-based gamers used to the quiet interludes of planning between turns can find some respite in the pause feature so they can observe and enhance each unit’s position, formation, cover, field of fire, weapon type, and a dozen other details. There is a real risk of overdoing it though, as you can play this game riding the pause button without ever enjoying the big picture. Either way you approach this, I think you will find most of the missions really tough to beat on almost any skill level. I haven’t decided if this is because I’m really bad at real time games or if the missions are that hard!

The scope of this game is by necessity much smaller than your typical RTS fare – so much so that it really doesn’t do the game justice to call it Real Time Strategy, even though it will probably be labeled as such. There is no production, no resources, no bases, no miners, or any of those elements. You have a set of forces, the enemy has his, and you meet on the field of battle. You will have a few squads at your command and usually only a handful of tanks. This encourages you to plan according to the strengths of your units and the weaknesses of your enemy – and it is hoped by the designers you will use bona fide tactics with units, rather than lasso fodder. Despite these good intentions, this preview code still had the occasional tank charging in alone, men running in weird patterns as they struggled with route finding, and a few other “RTS-isms.” Similarly, the game has multiplayer which more closely resembles the RTS model – providing up to eight players a way to face off against each other in a free-for-all battle royale.

As sisters go, these two games are definitely from the same stock, but are clearly very different. Can you call Theatre of War a Combat Mission lite? Perhaps you can, but you have to be ready to accept that this means some features which are very definitely part of one game (useable buildings, riding outside tanks, immense battles, etc.) are not necessarily going to be part of the other. By all appearances this game was designed as a refinement of the RTS genre using tactical elements, rather than a refinement of the turn-based tactical genre using RTS elements. Seeing the two as individuals will help shape your expectations, and unquestionably will help address which one you’d like to date. I plan on doing the impossible, and dating them both!

[Apologies to my wife.]

[Note: Gameplay was on an AMD 3000+, 1G Ram, ATI Radeon 9800 Pro and was smooth and fluid. Screenshots represent all the highest settings in video options.]

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