The game differentiates itself from the pack with one other unique feature not usually associated with the genre. Instead of being able to call in every available unit of your faction, you actually have to select a preset or build your own deck. This is reminiscent of how certain card games work. And each “card,” such as adding an M1A1 Abrams tank to your deck, has a limited supply of reinforcements. With over 700 units to choose from and a limited number of slots in a deck, there’s a huge amount for personlization. Part of what makes the Wargame series so fun is exploring this system, tweaking them after each battle to see what works and doesn’t. AirLand Battle has removed the star system of unlocking new units for use in a deck, however, which also removes some feeling of progression as leveling up doesn’t appear to offer any actual rewards. But it’s more of an ambivalent change rather than an unwelcome change due to the huge assortment of units available.
Its concepts, while robust, are not too difficult to grasp but it does have a fairly steep learning curve. It takes more than few hours to completely understand how those pieces fit together. In smaller, competitive matches, it can also be extremely difficult to rebound after an early loss. Their more limited resources often means a loss gives the enemy a decent lead that’s hard to catch. Thankfully, the community is generally forgiving and helpful. And because what you do matters more than how fast you do it, it’s easier to get acclimatized to the game’s mechanics and feel like you can succeed rather than victory appearing as a distant dream.
Players from Wargame: European Escalation will certainly have less trouble adjusting to how AirLand Battle is played, but its additions do change how its engagements are fought and planned. Planes add a new dynamic to the battlefield. These are units that are fast, can come out of nowhere and decimate forces on the ground with their rockets and bombs. As a result, army composition requires a great deal more thought. Anti-aircraft defenses, which had felt somewhat lacking due to helicopters being the only aerial threat in European Escalation and the ability of other units to bring them down, now are the bread and butter of a solid defense. There’s a synergy and balance across the breadth of unit types that didn’t quite exist before.
While those new toys are welcome, the new 10v10 multiplayer mode can be less entertaining for those that enjoy meaningful mistakes and hard, tactical decisions. Those elements are still present, but they’re muted by the sheer scope of its battles. Losing your initial forces won’t cost the team the game. With so many players and higher deployment points available, there’s room for loss. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to see certain units being spammed, a strategy that can’t quite be done with success in the more tightly competitive modes. Don’t be surprised if you’re constantly being bombarded by artillery strikes and a dozen jets.
Even in defeat, the game lessens that sting with its gorgeous visuals. Every tank and plane and piece of artillery is just as detailed as the statistics that rule them. You can zoom all the way down to view the world from a soldier’s perspective, to appreciate the high resolution textures and lush European landscapes, or all the way to the clouds to take in the absolutely massive scale of its maps. Battles are fought across kilometers; and though 10v10 isn’t as rewarding for the brain as smaller matches, they light up those long stretches of land in a glorious spectacle.
A single-player campaign returns with a new take in AirLand Battle. Gone is a structured, linear story in favor of a more open design similar to RISK. There are four missions split between NATO and PACT objectives, but “missions” is too strict a word. The ultimate goal of each is to simply conquer specific territories on a map consisting of Norway, Sweden and Denmark with the armies you’ve been given and in a certain amount of time. It’s an interesting direction, though one that comes across a little too thin. The pure focus is on the battles, which are no different than a simple skirmish against bots, with few other mechanics to enhance the campaign.
Even with its additions, the package as a whole does feel a bit more like an expansion pack than a true sequel. There’s not much in it that doesn’t seem like it couldn’t have been added to the original game that was released little more than a year ago. It still largely plays and looks the same with certain changes eliciting a more ambivalent response than an excited one. But it is the definitive version of Wargame. New players will want to start here and veterans will enjoy all the new maps and vehicles.
Wargame: AirLand Battle is an absolute delight to play and behold. It gets to the heart of what makes the genre exciting – its battles – and eliminates micro-management that can often push players away while still providing an incredibly rich experience for deep-in-thought armchair generals. It may not feel like the perfect sequel, but it remains one of the more tactically rewarding real-time strategy games on the market today.