Published on 6/14/2007 by Scott Parrino.
If the true measure of a great wargame is the balance it strikes between realism and fun, then SSG's Battlefront has found the sweet spot between the two. By making just a few subtle, albeit resonating, changes to their venerable Decisive Battles of WWII series, the folks at SSG have crafted a remarkably different playing experience. Thoroughly immersive, reasonably challenging, and more fun than the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot, Battlefront is what wargaming is all about.
Battlefront is a turn-based, 2D, top-down, wargame that depicts battalion level operational combat in four distinct theaters of World War Two. Saipan in the Pacific, Gazala in North Africa, Market Garden in Western Europe, and Novorossisk in Russia, are four very diverse battles presenting unique challenges that stem from differences in opponents, objectives, terrain, and force mix. There is something here for everyone.
Now, my personal experience of wargaming is deeply rooted in board games. I have fond memories of pushing cardboard counters around a foldout map to the sounds of small arms fire, painstakingly recorded from reruns of Combat!, punctuated with the occasional "Kirby, Caje, Littlejohn . . ." and "Checkmate King Two, this is White Rook, over . . . ." Nevertheless, I made the transition to computers willingly, and without a backward look (no doubt made easier by hordes of two- and four-legged creatures with no respect for boundaries). I was more than happy to let the silicon do the tedious staff work and accounting, and while I wouldn't go back if I could, I always find myself measuring games of this sort against those wonderful experiences of maps, unit counters, charts, tables, and rule books that had all the charm of the tax code.
Some games measure up pretty well: the V for Victory series from Atomic Games, Talonsoft's Battleground series, and SSG's Decisive Battles of WWII series. Others, even though they are good enough wargames, just don't capture the magic: Talonsoft's The Operational Art of War, and all of John Tiller's games for HPS. Battlefront has come the closest of any game, so far, to recreating the ambiance of board gaming, but more importantly, it recreates the fun.
Installation from the approximately 170 MB ZIP file downloaded from Matrix Games was quick and painless, installing the game, two PDF versions of the manual (including a printer friendly version with a white background to save ink, toner, or whatever), and the usual array of links, licenses, and readmes. For an additional sawbuck, Luddites, collectors, and the bandwidth challenged can order the box which includes a full color printed manual. Personally, I prefer the instant gratification, lower price, no shipping, and the ability to play without the CD that downloading affords, but I don't suppose everyone can be impatient, cheap, and lazy.
At the time of this review, two updates have already been released, both dealing with fairly minor issues and available for download at the Matrix Games Web site. Too many developers prefer to wait until they have accumulated a huge list of fixes before releasing an update, cost-effective to be sure, but hardly user-friendly. SSG has a history of releasing updates quickly and for continuing to support their games long after release. Each update must be applied in sequence as there is no attempt to consolidate them into a single application, lamentably an industry standard.
The game's PDF manual is better than average, being reasonably complete, logically organized, and apparently written by someone who at least gradgiated the sixth grade. There are few glaring errors (the most notable being references to tutorials, which do not exist) and anything not found there can be obtained on the forums at Matrix or SSG. The organization and layout of the manual suffer from the usual, minor, problems (exacerbated, no doubt, by time constraints) which is unfortunate, but endemic in the industry.
There are no tutorials included with Battlefront, despite the above mentioned manual references. I didn't feel the lack, finding the smallish Saipan game to be a sufficient introduction. For those that feel the need, a tutorial and walkthrough can be found on the Matrix forums. (I advise anyone contemplating the purchase of, or having purchased, a Matrix game to visit their forums. The obvious cranks and malcontents aside, the denizens there provide a tremendous amount of insight into the games, with major contributions from the developers.)