My relationship with real-time strategy games is somewhat mixed. As much as I love commanding their armies, from Command & Conquer to Homeworld and Starcraft, I've never been very fast with my fingers. I just can't build armories and mine metals as quickly many other players, and so my matches often end in defeat. Losing as much as I have can be frustrating. As many of them as I play and as hard as I try, I've come to accept that I'm not very good at the genre.
But every so often a game comes along with a tighter focus. Wargame: AirLand Battle is the latest such title, developed by Eugen Systems as a sequel to early 2012's Wargame: European Escalation. Rather than an emphasis on base building and resource gathering, those mechanics have been stripped away in favor of the second to second, minute to minute tactics of combat. It's a focus I greatly enjoy – particularly because it grants me the possibility of victory – and Eugen manages it with aplomb.
A multiplayer beta is currently available preceding the May 22nd release, and so I dove back into a Cold War turned hot after having been away from the series for more than six months. It didn't take long to get reacquainted, as the core of the game hasn't changed dramatically, but its new additions alter the pacing and even the makeup of the battlefield. After all, you can't have AirLand Battle as your subtitle without the inclusion of additional aircraft, specifically planes.
As with its predecessor, each player has a starting pool of resource points that they use to select units of their choice from pre-configured or customized decks. Every unit has a cost associated with deploying them, of course, and there are several categories all with different capabilities, strengths and weaknesses. A small amount of resource points is returned about every five seconds, with more being gained through the capturing of zones and the destruction of enemy units. Captured zones also earn players additional deployment lanes closer to the fronts.
And capturing zones and destroying enemy units is vital in the beta's two multiplayer game modes, Destruction and Economy. The former is all about earning a set amount of victory points through the destruction – hence the title – of enemy units. A captured zone may not add to that total, but the extra resource points and deployment lanes can allow a team to get reinforcements to the battle faster and in greater numbers. Economy, on the other hand, is all about hoarding resource points to reach a set amount in order to win.
Focusing the action on the battlefield and the units themselves is actually quite freeing. Speed isn't quite as important, but that doesn't mean the game isn't challenging. In fact, Wargame is one of the more tactically stimulating real-time strategy games I've played in quite some time.
A large part of that is its attention to detail. There are hundreds of units to deploy, ranging from logistics, reconnaissance, infantry, tanks, anti-tank, artillery, anti-air, helicopters and planes. AirLand Battles has added four new nations to the mix – Canada, Denmark, Norway and Sweden – up from the original eight in European Escalation, bringing the total number of units between the NATO and Warsaw Pact factions to over 750. That's a lot of toys to play with.
However, it's more than just the choice of how to build one's deck. The Wargame series is very technical. Its soldiers and vehicles are represented realistically, with a large variety of armaments, strengths, weaknesses and statistics. For example, every unit has different ratings for the range of their weaponry, accuracy, damage against armored and non-armored targets, rate of fire, hit points, size, locational armor values, terrain and road speeds, chance of being detected, and even ammunition and fuel capacity.