PC Game Review: War and Peace: 1796 - 1815
"...if you can just relax and enjoy War and Peace for what it IS, instead of scorning it for what it isn't, you might get sucked into its eccentric, richly textured vision of what the Napoleonic world might have been."
Choose a Historical Period, or Fight in a Fantasy World
There are eight historically based campaigns, corresponding to the major chapters in Napoleon's rise and fall. The 1796 game reflects alignments and conditions during the immediate post-Revolutionary period; the 1809 game centers around the Spanish duel with Wellington; the 1812 game concerns the invasion of Russia; and 1815 takes us to Waterloo. Diplomacy and early strategic choices can make these games play out considerably different from the historical sequence of events, and that gives War and Peace a great deal of its inherent charm and replay value. (Diplomacy, by the way, is handled as simplistically as it usually is: I'll give you "X" if you'll give me "Y", but alliances and enmities do not always follow the historical pattern), and that makes this element of the game more interesting than expected.
I particularly enjoyed the two fictional campaigns, in which pretty much everything is up for grabs, including total conquest of the world. These are free-form exercises of the imagination, and it is perfectly possible to wipe the French empire off the map or to revive the tottering Ottoman Empire and carry the Banner of the Prophet to end ends of the earth.
Sea power is secondary to land action, but can still play a big part in global strategies. Nelsonian dreadnoughts are still monarchs of the seas, but like the real battlefleets of that time, they are horrendously expensive and represent a major diversion of resources that might better be spent on beefing up your less spectacular conventional land units. But even a modest investment in naval power can bring disproportionate benefits, either by providing an amphibious reach, or by harassment and reconnaissance of enemy fleets with inexpensive, elusive "corsairs".
The Inevitable Minor Quibbles
The global map is useful for quick reference, but it is almost worthless as a MAP per se. Since the 3-D landscape fades into milky murk in mid-distance, and the towering mountains often obscure large stretches of roads, the game would be greatly enhanced by a simple top-down topographic sketch map (it's not like they didn't exist in the early 19th Century, after all!). Unit deployment would also be more controllable with such a viewpoint - many a time did I lose track of artillery formations because, a) they're very tiny except on maximum zoom, and, b) they're about the same color as the forests and it is quite easy to overlook them when the rest of the army moves ahead to more open terrain.
There is also one small but crucial omission in the manual: the rocky areas along many rivers? Well, they look like obstacles, and for all but the smallest ships, they are. But what they really are is shallow fords, and discovering one can provide a golden opportunity to outflank an enemy-held choke point such as a vital bridge or a narrow mountain pass. Since this fact is not mentioned in either the manual or the "read me" updates, I discovered the true nature of those rocky areas much too late to make use of them in several of the most interesting games I played.
Worst of all - astonishing, really, at this stage in the evolution of PC gaming - is the inclusion of a code-key that unlocks the game! I haven't seen one of those damned things in years, and I can't imagine why Microids decided to revive a custom that was universally hated even when it was routine practice. Be careful when you open the box - your key-code is printed on a little slip of paper about the size of a shirt label. I almost didn't notice it, and if a stray gust of wind had blown it into the Sargasso Sea of detritus under my desk, I would not have been able to play the game - or even known the reason why! It's safe to say that this archaic "security" feature is going to tick off a great many customers before they even install the game.