PC Game Review: Commander: Europe at War Grand Strategy 2.0
Tag along with Chris Steelgrave Mohon as he takes a look at Commander: Europe at War Grand Strategy 2.0 and dusts off some memories.
Also sprach Zarathustra (theme from 2001)
From the time I was 12 or so until I graduated high school, much of the money I earned went towards two things….plastic Revel models of warships and airplanes or Avalon Hill board wargames. On some Saturdays my mom would drop me off at the mall in the company of my best friend; when she picked us up hours later it was a near certainty that the plastic bag in my arms contained one or the other, or on those very special times when I had extra cash from birthdays, both. I have fond memories of countless hours spent playing PanzerBlitz with the same friend, or Midway, Panzer Leader, The Russian Campaign, Blitzkrieg….these were the days before electronic magic brought wargames to your computer screen, back when the family cat could stop the Nazi march on Stalingrad with the same cruel efficiency as the icy Russian winter if I left my bedroom door open.
I remember with great fondness when on my 14th birthday my uncle took me to the store to spend my new found wealth, and I walked out with a copy of a new and shiny Avalon Hill offering, Third Reich. I could hardly wait to get the wrapper off, and within a short time I realized that I held the Holy Grail of wargaming in my young hands. Over the years I probably played more Third Reich than anything, wearing out the counters of at least two games.
Nostalgia aside, as the years went by I embraced computer wargaming, appreciating the fact that I could play a game without having to find the ever elusive partner, rearrange the dining room table, or protect my board from small grasping hands eager to eat my game pieces, a barbarity that even my family cat had not engaged in. I’m a modern man. I can change. I own a phone without a cord. And the ever-growing number of computer games and AI opponents scratches that deep itch that I’ve always had, fills that void, the one that says “I’m a wargamer, feed me.”
For all of the great computer games out there, one of my biggest disappointments was the computer version of that same Holy Grail, Third Reich. It…just…didn’t…cut it. A bitter disappointment it was; born in the earlier days of the computer game revolution, it just didn’t have “it”. So for years, I kept my eyes open for a WWII turn based grand strategy game that was playable in a reasonable amount of time, that gave you lots of options, a game that felt historic without being chained to historical outcomes, one that made you feel like, darnit, if only you had been in charge, things might have turned out differently. Finally, a few years ago the wargaming community grew abuzz about just such a game….Commander-Europe at War. The early reviews were good, so with much hope and anticipation, I bought a copy.
Drum roll please…
And my first reaction was “eh, good but….not quite all that”. There were some flaws. No doubt, the game was fun, you could send your armies crashing into each other, evaluate and assign leaders, tweak your tech tree, choose what your factories produced, push your tanks towards Moscow, fight for the Suez, bomb and be bombed, but the naval aspects were poor and there was a noticeable lack of chrome….I kept it on my hard drive, but it was somewhat forgotten after a couple of games. Decent, but nothing special….I remained haunted by that boy who had ripped the plastic wrapping off of the Third Reich box so many years ago. He was disappointed.
But then….a good thing happened.
Some companies could give less than a fig about a title after it’s released.
Maybe issue a patch or two in order to quiet dissenters, to hush the mob, then
get to work on the next
But CEAW continued to evolve. Iain McNeil from Slitherine commented that the evolving was led by fans: “The Grand Strategy expansion was led by a group of dedicated fans and Slitherine was pleased to publish their efforts to support our gaming community. Their effort has been 100% professional from excellent coding for PC & MAC, outstanding historical realism, top-rate graphics and tremendous documentation.” The naval aspect of the game, a grave weakness at first, tightened up. Little tweaks here and there led me to fire it up again and play another game or two. A much more satisfying game awaited me. I was interested again. And now…
Cue the encore...
And now we have Commander-Europe at War Grand Strategy 2.0. Recently released, CEAW is at last showing its full potential, with all the chrome, bells and whistles, options, units and playability that I was hoping for all along. The list of changes is huge, with more geo-political outcomes possible, airborne drops, elite SS and Soviet Guards units, more Commonwealth units and leaders, the ability to swap positions on a line, HQ units, German volunteer units, enhanced Fog of War, a more realistic Axis situation in North Africa, the list goes on and on.
Some of the biggest enhancements are in the geo-political line. Spain and Turkey are more in play, Romania and Bulgaria are more self-interested than before, and there are more options regarding Vichy France. Allied aggression against neutral targets, such as Ireland, now has consequences. On the map, synthetic oil industries help to grease the German war machine, but the oil fields of the Caucasus remain vital for German success. There have been quite a few map changes all over the globe, from the north American east coast to the Persian Gulf, the fjords of Norway and the Russian Motherland, with mines, swamps and cities appearing or moving somewhat in order to tighten realism.
On the battlefield, elite SS Panzers may be threatening Stalingrad, only to suffer a counterattack from tough Russian Guards units, while a breakthrough on another front may be spearheaded by crack paratroopers. At sea, the cat-and-mouse game between convoys and U-Boats continues, with the naval aspect being far less of a weak point in the game and U-Boats now having some capacity to refit at sea. Convoys are smarter and can re-route themselves if in danger. Amphibious invasions have been revamped as well and are now much more workable.
In gameplay, things ran smoothly as they always have with CEAW. This is as bug-free as a game gets. The gameboard is uncomplicated and functional; reminding me in a good way of those cherished Avalon Hill wargames. You can still chose to have your units appear in either standard NATO symbols or as icons, turn the fog of war on or off, set oil use, etc….the options have only grown as CEAW matures.
Playing the grand campaign, once Poland was overrun and my forces turned westward, the many options available began to manifest themselves, as my imaginary general staff debated attacking Norway or an early invasion of the Low Countries. Perhaps an early and unexpected invasion of Yugoslavia, to get Romania and Hungry involved? As the war continued, these options increased, making me a very happy gamer. Accept the surrender of France and the creation of Vichy France so that I can point my greedy armies elsewhere? Or plow France under, taking every kilometer of good French wine country to sate my thirst? Maybe…maybe earn points in Berlin by renaming French Fries…Fuhrer Fries perhaps? The dreams of a conqueror….
As my campaign played on, the ever competent AI thwarted a plan or two, and the Russian Army reeled under my furious attack, losing Moscow and Leningrad but holding the south, and with their ally General Winter and their new tank divisions rolling out of factories, I knew time was running short as they built towards a counterattack. In the West, the Allies were bombing me relentlessly, and my U-Boats, despite some initial success and the sinking of a British carrier, were starting to wear thin under allied pressure. The Americans had finally succumbed to the British propaganda and joined the Allies; American combat divisions were boarding transports even now.
In short….in short, I found myself immersed in the most playable, enjoyable grand strategy game of World War II that I had experienced since that boy I described ran home with a wargame tucked under his arm.
Take a curtain call…
No game is perfect, and had I written a review of the original Commander: Europe at War I would have described an adequate but underwhelming wargame, a Big Mac with fries and diet Coke, a game worth your money but not worth your love. Not the kind of game that a grown man remembers fondly years later.
Now? I repeat, no game is perfect, but for my taste, for the part of me that was searching for a spiritual successor to a bona-fide classic, for the me that yearned for the simple pleasures found on a summer afternoon playing a worn and cherished copy of a favorite wargame, I find that I simply have nothing negative to say. Yes, the naval system could still be tweaked a little more. Yes, I can legitimately make my usual complaint about boring, generic wargame sounds and music. Bleeh! The game does still have resolution problems at the higher end of the scale and I had to lower my resolution somewhat. Towards the end game, when you are dealing with lots and lots of units, the game does slow down somewhat. But truthfully, for a grognard such as myself who simply does not have the time to be a true grognard but loves his wargaming hobby nonetheless…..I have to pronounce myself satisfied with this game.
But uh….feel free to keep tinkering with the game and adding that little thing or two that just didn’t make the production deadline. Polish your chrome a little more. No hurry, I’ll wait. The game will be on my hard drive for a long time.
Steelgrave’s inner child is happy. Yours can be as well, since if you own a copy of CEAW, you can get CEAW Grand Strategy 2.0 as a free download.
Review written by: Chris “Steelgrave” Mohon, Staff Writer