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Posted on May 18, 2006 in Electronic Games, Front Page Features

TOAW 3 – Pre-Release Thoughts

By Brian King

TOAW3_Box_170x220.jpg

Matrix Games recently acquired the rights to work on a plethora of old Talonsoft titles (The Operational Art of War series, Campaign Series, Battleground series, etc.) which has some people asking whether Matrix was looking backwards rather than toward the future of wargaming. While we await the release of the first Matrix Edition of The Operational Art of War (dubbed TOAW 3) let’s examine this question in a bit more detail.

I’ll begin this piece as I normally do when writing about The Operational Art of War (TOAW for short); I am a huge fan of the series, a longtime member of the TOAW community, and I walk up to the table of TOAW 3 wanting to like this game. I’ve also had an opportunity to watch the development team over the past six months and I’ve seen this game go from "stock" to "highly modified" during that period. I certainly make no claim on being an innocent bystander, but I feel competent enough to provide a relatively objective viewpoint. Keep this in mind as you read on, in case you want to say "Horse Hockey!" to me.

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One question many people will be asking is why take an old game (and yes, this game first arrived on the scene in 1998!), invest a bunch of money into it, etc., instead of spending that money on developing new material? There are many possible explanations I could give you;

First, this title (under Talonsoft) had the unfortunate fate of being bought and sold to various game companies who for a variety of reasons did not take an interest in further development. Thus, over the last four years we saw virtually no improvement to the game. Despite repeated pleas by a variety of concerned parties, no one could touch the code because of the complexities of the legal web spun around it. Even Norm Koger, the original developer and "father" of TOAW, was unable to make updates because of the legal snarls. Removing the game from this mess, and exposing it to the light of day is one of the most important reasons why this needed to be done. Similarly, because of this period of relative hibernation, one could argue this game has been cryogenically frozen in time and really isn’t as old as one may believe…and hasn’t run its full course yet.

Second, there are some titles and series which wargamers just plain enjoy, despite their age. In discussions with David Heath at Matrix Games, he has told me several times that he acquired the Talonsoft titles because he enjoys playing them – plain and simple. While he would like to make enough money to cover his costs to update them (both now and in the future), I don’t see any evidence this was done purely to cash in on the popular titles. He stated he wanted to remove them from legal limbo, invest a modest amount of money to bring back the original developers where possible, bring new coders on where needed, fix long-standing bugs, add oft-requested features, and make these games even better and more accessible to a new audience of gamers. I believe it would have been a lot easier and cheaper to just re-release the exact same games in new boxes… Kudos to Matrix for not taking the path of least resistance.

My personal view is that this game really deserves to remain in circulation – being one of the most complete packages in operational gaming you will find anywhere. In my previous review of TOAW: A Century of Warfare I outlined some of the features which make this game great, as well as some that have consistently turned off other players. Matrix Games is looking to plug many of the holes in this title and make a great game even better. In my view, that is as good a reason as any to tackle this project.

The second question many of you will be asking about this time is why you should pony up a FOURTH time (TOAW I, TOAW II, TOAW:ACOW, and now TOAW 3) for this game? I’m not here to try to convince you that you should, but here are some reasons which have convinced me. Matrix Games and the TOAW 3 development team (known more formally as the TOAD Coding Team) have worked almost constantly for six months to improve this game over the ACOW version. While the changes out of the gate aren’t going to have people comparing this to the best things since the slicing of bread, there are enough tweaks and bug fixes to make this as significant as any of the previous incarnations. This is not just a new coat of paint. However, the real gem in the rough here is that the door has now been opened to further development by a company and team dedicated to bringing new features and options to the TOAW community (something that has been lacking for years). This simply puts the Talonsoft titles into a nurturing environment, in much the way other game companies develop and care for their "babies." For my hard earned dollar, this is what most appeals to me as a wargamer.

But what about new players, or fans of other operational series out there? Is there enough to get second looks from those who may have turned a nose up to TOAW in the past? In my view this will be the real test for Matrix Games. Clearly efforts are being made to improve the previously cryptic documentation as well as introduce some simplifications into the combat system for those who want them (TOAW has always had a difficult time explaining its own combat system). Graphically the engine does show some fraying in her skirt, but overall the graphics have withstood the test of time remarkably well. In many ways, if the graphics and maps could be customized in high resolution, TOAW could become a chameleon of sorts – mimicking a host of old hex based operational wargames. Perhaps that is something for a future update? At the end of the day there should be enough change to warrant consideration by many gamers, old and new alike.

Last but not least, it is worth noting that Matrix has rounded up a large group of TOAW grognards to volunteer to help beta test, update scenarios, discuss modifications, and function as an ad-hoc development team to make this new version of TOAW everything that past and current players have wanted for a long time. Without the tireless efforts of these people (my part was very minor, and unpaid), it would have been impossible for Matrix Games to hone this title to what it has become in TOAW 3. While Matrix Games has a financial stake in the success of this title, I can honestly say that I would pay for the game simply to say thanks to the volunteer team and the many many man hours that went in to the improvement of a game I enjoy. This would probably mean less to new people, but long time TOAW players will appreciate it.

In closing, and again noting my pre-existing enjoyment of this series, my experience working with the TOAD Coding Team and talking with Matrix Games has given me some insight into the evolution of TOAW 3 to where it is today. In my view, there are enough changes to justify calling this a major revision – and while I won’t flatly tell you to run out and buy this game, I do believe you should check it out and make up your own mind if you enjoy wargaming at the operational level.

In coming weeks we will have additional features about TOAW 3 as get closer to release.

Discuss TOAW 3 on the Armchair General forums.

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