The Emperor Returns! - NORBSOFTDEV gets its inner Grog up with a new take on the battle of Waterloo

By COL Bill Gray 31 Jul 2015 0

. . . the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life. His Grace, Lord Wellington

Unless your current residence consists of living under a rock somewhere, you likely know that this year, 2015, is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. And as expected there have been more than a plethora of books, films and games gracing the public to honor the event. It is within this environment that NORBSOFTDEV (NSD) has thrown its hat into the ring by expanding its very well received Scourge of War (SOW) series to include Wellington and Napoleon doing battle on 18 June 1815 once more near the sleepy hamlets of la Belle Alliance and Waterloo. In doing so they have taken a plunge into the unknown as the Napoleonic Wars were vastly different in almost every conceivable way than the American Civil War. Thus there were undoubtedly many opportunities to stumble

So, BLUFF - Bottom Line Up Front, or to translate, “how did they do?” I am pleased to say they stumbled very little. Though not perfect, the transition from one type of war to the next has spawned Scourge of War – Waterloo (SOWW) quite possibly the best computer simulation of this battle in quite some time, or perhaps at any time.

Thus as I prepare for my yearly journey to Mecca (aka Historicon), I have been asked to pen a few words about the game. So with glass in hand containing my favorite libation - Courvoisier, Cognac of Napoleon (seriously, you were expecting something else?) - and inkwell within reach, let us begin.

 

Installation

Oddly enough, this was the one area that actually gave me a few fits with the game. Try as I might, every time I clicked on a specific battle scenario, what I saw was a screen with images and text missing, and one which would not let me launch the battle in question. NSD quickly fixed that little glitch within a day or so, but that allowed another problem to surface. The graphics of the battle were skewed, broken or something. Again easy fix as all I had to do was run my Windows 8.1 machine in Windows 7 compatibility mode. Now to be fair, this is specified at the beginning of the User’s Guide, but hey, I’m a guy so getting me to ask for directions or read instructions seems to be a bit much (though on a positive note, it did give me an excuse to imbibe in more Cognac). I do recommend, however, that this point be given a little more prominence.

Regardless, after these two nits were fixed, the game ran and continues to run with no problems at all. Below are the minimum specs for this game, with my rig’s data to the right in parenthesis:

OS: Windows XP SP2+, Vista or 7 (Windows 8.1)
CPU: Dual Core 1.5 GHz CPU or higher (AMD 64 Quad Core Turbo APU 4.2 GHz)
Memory: 2 GB RAM (32 GB RAM)
Video: 256 MB Dedicated Video Card with DirectX 9.0c or higher. Video card should NOT be integrated on motherboard, but should be separate, no shared memory (AMD Radeon HD 8570 D, up to 2 GB)
Sound: DirectX Compatible Sound Card (same)
Hard Disk Space: 2 GB Free (4 TB)
DirectX Version: 9.0c Included (Direct X 11.1 +)
Resolution: Variable, 1024x768 minimum (1920 x 1080)

 

Speed is the most important thing in General Staff work. Marshal Louis Alexandre Berthier

On running the game, one is greeted by a nice rendition of Lady Butler’s The 28th Foot at Quatre Bras. At the bottom of this page are six buttons labeled Multiplayer (for online play against other gamers, which will not be discussed in this article since I do not imbibe in this luxury), Single Player, Modifications, Options, Resign and Credits. Most buttons are self-explanatory. For example, the Resign button actually quits the game and carries the player back into Windows.

 

 

However, at this point I would like to chat about the Options button and the three menus it opens up. Normally I don’t discuss this part of the game. After all, such administration is pretty much the same in all the types of games we play, what with options such as screen resolution, volume, level of detail for foliage, line of sight rules and what not. But be careful, for there are some hidden gems (or poison ivy as the case may be) lurking where you may not notice. Specifically, I am talking about the HITS (Headquarters in the Saddle; sounds decidedly Joe Hooker doesn’t it?) system.

If the player chooses Historical or Grognard as the difficulty level, the game automatically institutes HITS. This means that the player can no longer see an overhead view of the battlefield. In fact, what the player can see is only what can be seen at ground level by the historical character the player represents. Thus if you are Lieutenant General Graf von Bulow, commander of the Prussian IV Armeekorps, and you are sitting to the east of Plancenoit, what you can visually see on your PC screen is what Bulow can see on the ground. Even if the entire French Guard Cavalry is approaching from beyond the next hill over to the left, if you pan the screen to the left you will see nothing and you can’t move your game camera in that direction to check things out. Want to take a better look? Then you have to move your character commander to that location or pray someone sends a courier your way.

And simply clicking on a unit or subordinate commander in view isn’t going to get him to do anything. This is because above Normal difficulty HITS also institutes a relatively complex courier system that forces the character the player represents to send couriers to issue instructions or obtain information. Otherwise you rely on your minions’ original orders, personality (it’s generally unwise to deliver bad news to Marshal Ney if a loaded pistol is nearby) and hope the AI does its job.

Folks, this is just about as close to reality as you are going to get, and if you are really looking to be immersed in a Napoleonic command experience, or are simply nuts and forgot to take your meds, this is the way to do it. It simply does NOT get closer to REAL than this. I know, because as a retired Army officer, I did this for real, and even when radios are working well (most of the time they didn’t) or you have one of those nifty German motorcycle courier companies attached (not nearly often enough), maintaining control from the inside of an M-577 command track and a map is many things, but easy is not one of them.

On the other hand, the ability to choose how many actual soldiers a sprite represents – the default is six - can result in some really big units and this does look spectacular in game play. Be advised, however, that your PC will take a substantial hit (no pun intended). But on the other hand if your PC is one of those that can regularly change the orbit of the International Space Station, I say give her a whirl.

Otherwise, when you click on the Single Player button, where I usually hang out, another eight buttons appear at the bottom of the screen. They are Waterloo Battles, Sandbox Campaign, Sandbox, User Scenarios, Tutorial (highly recommended if you have never played an SOW game before), Load Saved Game, Load Replay and Back to Main. Self-explanatory for the most part, the two Sandbox buttons deserve mention. Here the player can create his own mini campaign and battle scenarios aided by the computer which will provide a list of terrain, available units, command and similar options. The campaign only covers the area in Belgium around Waterloo and its environs. Just for fun, I did play a mini-campaign and just beware that if you are commanding the Allies, the French move God awful fast and the AI is aggressive.

 

 

For this review I chose to concentrate on historical engagements so I clicked on the Waterloo Battles button and was presented with a screen containing a sub-window with two tabs. One tab lists 10 scenarios where the player is a French commander, the other 10 scenarios where the player is either a Prussian or Anglo-Allied commander. Each choice indicates the size of the unit the player will command, such as a brigade or corps. To the right of this box the information continues with a short briefing, the historical start time, how long the scenario is in terms of historical time as well as a small battle map showing unit positions at start. Commands range from a brigade all the way up to commanding the entire Armee du Nord at Waterloo for those who just have to channel their inner Napoleon.

Then you just click the Start button at the bottom, and you are off to the races, or hopefully Brussels if the French win the day.

 

 

 

The battlefield is a scene of constant chaos. The winner will be the one who controls that chaos, both his own and the enemies. Napoleon I

The folks at NSD have really done a fine job as regards the terrain upon which battles are fought in this game, though I still think the actual ground representation could use a bit more granularity. Foliage and buildings are top notch, however, and seem a bit more detailed with a higher degree of sharpness. Unlike Napoleon Total War, a game whose generic tactical system will undoubtedly be compared to the NSD product, foliage is not sparse per se, even in open terrain, and the towns and villages all seem a bit more complete with accoutrements like walls adorning various areas.

I’ve been to Waterloo and I’ve also lived four years in Germany on Uncle Sam’s dime. With that in mind I was very pleasantly surprised as to the amount of detail with the way villages are portrayed. How good is it really? When I first started getting used to the game and how the mouse became part of the process, I used the mouse wheel to move across the battlefield so I could look around. I went a bit too fast and found myself nearly nose to nose with a Belgian stone cottage. However, initially I thought I had gotten too close to the graphic and the software had kicked me into some sort of historical module about the battlefield to include contemporary photos of houses still standing. Yes, that good.

For veteran players of the SOW series, be ready to for some “this ain’t Kansas anymore” game shock. Europe has been around for a bit longer than the US, so far more of the land has been cleared and cultivated. To that end SOWW is going to look as open as a bowling alley when compared to battles fought at, say, Chancellorsville. This is typical and it does make the forces deployed seem as if they have all the room in the world to maneuver. Looks can be deceiving, however, and remember that the commanders were more or less professionals who were acutely aware on how to avoid traffic jams with troops in the heat of battle. Keeping enough space to deploy from column into line, or the real estate necessary to deploy a battery of eight cannon was of paramount importance, and these guys were good at it.

 

 

Finally, I do like the haze effect the game seems to have as you move further away from terrain, formations or other objects. Move very close to a unit of infantry or a village and you will see the sort of pixelated blurred depictions which Total War (TW) does avoid given that franchise’s emphasis on eye candy vice reality. Move further away and the formations and towns become crisp and very sharp graphically. I can’t give you an exact distance where viewing is best, but I will say the rule of thumb when playing with 15 mm miniatures is a distance of two to three feet gives the best aesthetics. Here the visual impact is the masses of troops in serried ranks of bayonets, not the button color of the 11th Hussars.

 

 

But the best is yet to come. Move further away still and it seems that you actually might be looking through a haze, whether from ground level or using the map camera from above. To me this looks quite realistic based on my experience on the ground “over there.” I’m not sure whether this was intentional or not, but it does a good job of mimicking what a general might well see at a distance on a muggy, humid, summer day after a rainfall the night before. Line of sight does not necessarily translate into detection and identification in real life, and the hazy atmospherics for long distance viewing in the game portrays this well.

 

 

 

Ours (our army) is composed of the scum of the earth - the mere scum of the earth. His Grace, Lord Wellington.

I have noticed on the NSD community forum several posts expressing concern about the historical accuracy of the flags and uniforms depicted. The NSD folks have responded that they are fully aware of these issues but have had to make compromises, not to dumb down the game (for which TW is often accused), but to insure the game doesn’t become digitally overloaded and crash.

Just my two shekels worth, but I think the NSD folks’ point is well taken, while the expectations of some forum members are a bit over the top unless you have a Cray computer submerged in water. Unlike the American Civil War (or ACW), the Napoleonic period is uber complex when it comes to visuals and spectacle. In the ACW the Confederacy has cavalry. In the Napoleonic era the French have Chasseurs a Cheval, Hussars, Dragoons, Cuirassiers, Carabiniers, Chevauleger-Lanciers, Gendarmes d’Elite, Horse Grenadiers of the Guard, Chasseurs a Cheval of the Guard, Empress Dragoons, Dutch Lancers of the Guard, Polish Lancers of the Guard, Eclaireurs, Young Guard squadrons for the senior Guard regiments and a whole bunch more the editor wouldn’t let me list because of article space limitations. Often each of these cavalry types had their own unique uniforms, and for the Hussars, this was true of each regiment. Having a game engine with enough horse power to run exact duplicates of these lads is likely asking a bit much.

So no, you will not find French trumpeters in reversed color uniforms on white or grey horses. No the French 1st Chasseurs a Cheval is not wearing that spiffy Greek helmet given them by King Lois the Unavoidable. Yes, Prussian Jaegers and Schutzen do carry flags. And no, the Prussian batteries that used imported British guns are not depicted as such.

What you will find is balance, almost perfect, as I noticed when I reviewed the game Pike & Shot. What I mean by this is that all the nations that fought at Waterloo (such as the overlooked Dutch, Brunswickers and Hanoverians) have their armies represented in accurate depictions of their national uniforms about 90% of the time. Where dupes had to serve as stand in for other formations, colors where changed to bring the sprites as close to the real thing as possible. Thus Dutch infantry are in dark blue, British in red, Brunswickers in black and those pesky Nassauers in rifle green. Likewise British cannon are single trail and painted blue-grey, Prussian double trail and medium blue and the French the same but an olive green hue.

In this regard I was wondering how NSD folks would handle the variety found in the Prussian and French armies and I am happy to say the effort, though not perfect, was admirable. For the French we are talking about an army quickly trying to reconstitute itself after being demobilized, with equipment shortages all around. For the Prussians in particular we are looking at an army trying to mobilize a regular army by the use of reserve formations as well as volunteer formations (Freikorps such as Lutzow’s). Rounding out this mob were units from conquered territory previously allied with Napoleon. For example the Prussian 8th Uhlans (lancers, from Theilmann’s III Armeekorps) were actually formed from the Hussars of the Russo-German Legion, still wearing their Russian uniforms and supported by a battery of Russian guns. What they did not have was lances. Likewise, the Kleve-Berg contingent (von Zeiten’s I Armeekorps) to Blucher’s army supplied infantry still sporting the white faced blue uniforms they used when allied to France.

 

 

Judging by the “That Damned Village” scenario, NSD seems to have  solved things by creating a sprite for each type of unit within the Prussian army. The artillery has the regulation uniform, while the regular infantry, former reserve foot and the Landwehr have uniforms of various shades with grey being predominant. Light infantry, to include the Fusilier battalion of the line infantry wear dark green. Dragoons have their traditional light blue garb and so on. The purest may cringe, but it should be noted that this army, even the regulars, was so hastily formed from so many disparate components that it was not unusual to find different uniforms within the same battalion. In some cases, the exact uniform worn and by who remains a mystery to this day. Not perfect, but pretty close and it does convey the worn mish-mash appearance this army presented.

The French likewise, but here the real treat is that uniforms are actually varied within a single unit. Take a close look at a French Ligne unit and you will see some soldiers in overcoats, some not. Some have regulation shakos, others have brown or tan covers. It really gives a nifty, raggedy and realistic, flavor to the visuals of the game.

The sprites themselves are crisp and sharp unless you are very close, with uniform colors a bit bright for some, but colors were very dark back then (according to the Musee de l’Armee dark blue was actually more navy) yet would often quickly fade to a lighter and brighter palette. The sprites also seem to have a lot more of the accoutrements of war hanging off the soldier than I’ve seen in the TW series and this makes formations look even more massive. Animation and movement is quite good, even though not up to the sparkle standards of the TW games. I did find it interesting that both SOW and TW have yet to solve the constant unit moving through other units problem, but since I have a copy of the French 1791 Regulation this may well be another software horsepower problem.

Flags are pretty much the same way and constitute another well executed compromise. Historically the flags of many units, such as Prussia’s Landwehr, remain unknown and we have only sparse written descriptions, many that often conflict. Whatever they had, they were forced to turn them in prior to Waterloo anyway, and many units were never issue flags at all. This includes former reserve units and any light formation such as Jaegers, Schutzen, Hussars or Uhlans. The concern was that such units often fought dispersed, making their standard too vulnerable to capture.

In SOWW all Prussian units have flags, not only because of some well-conceived historical glitz, but also because the bobbing flag is what the player clicks on to select a unit and have it do something. The Prussian army has each unit type with its own “historical flag,” whether it carried one or not. Thus the Landwehr carry the black and white flag with iron cross while Landwehr cavalry uses what could conjecturally be a Silesian standard. The old regular units of the army, however, actually carry their unique historically colored regimental standards. Thus the 1st and 2d Silesian Line Infantry carry standards of mid-blue or deep reddish pink, just as they did in 1815.

 

 

The same can be said for the Anglo-Allied army under Wellington or the French Armee du Nord. Gone are the days when the entire army sported Union Jacks (though only a minority of the army was British) in a PC game. Instead, the Dutch have their own flags, the Bruswickers theirs. As an additional bonus, British infantry not only carries the Kings Color Union Jack, but its actual regimental flag as well. Only when the information is unavailable (Hanover) was a conjectural flag created. French flags are the 1815 pattern and even have battle honors embroidered on the white center. I’m not sure if NSD actually matched the flags to the regiment as my battle honor list does not go past 1812, but regardless, it is a nice touch.

 

 

 

First we give battle, and then we see how it goes. Napoleon

Actually playing the game is deceptively simple, sorta an easy to play, difficult to win paradigm. Game units are infantry battalions, cavalry squadrons or artillery sections. Each has a national flag, to include the artillery which I must admit does look a little odd for the historian in me.

To move a commander or a unit, simply left click on the accompanying flag and it will begin to bob up and down to indicate its selection. Then right click on the destination you wish your unit to move to and it will become marked and also bring up a small context menu. This menu indicates what functions the unit may execute as part of the march process, such as swinging into double time. To move an entire, larger unit such as a brigade of six battalions, Do the same thing, but when the context menu comes up click a formation button such as column or line. At this point the entire brigade will change into that formation and move to the point selected by its commander. Waypoints are available for selection for players who have longer, more circuitous routes in mind. Units will begin to issue fire on their own if they contact the enemy.

 

 

The point is that when you right click on an object, a context menu will pop up and the context bar will display a larger menu. Here you will find the actions available to the unit or information about the unit such as morale and how much this may have decreased if an enemy unit is on its flank. The menus contained in the game include Standing, March, Destination and Fighting. There is also a small pop-up menu that gives available targets for the friendly unit as soon as any enemy unit comes into view and range of its weapons. A pop up grand tactical map is included for planning and more accurate placement of friendly commander and unit destination points that might not be visible on the main battlefield screen.

The game also allows for the use of commander Stances. If you really want to play that big battle, some of your formations will have to be run by the computer itself. To that end a player may lock any commander into specific orders such as Hold to the Last. Be advised, however, that even while under a particular Stance, the commander’s personality may reflect how well he follows his instruction, or not. Thus giving a Hold directive to Marshal Ney may well be an invitation for him to assume a defensive position in beautiful downtown Brussels.

 

 

And supporting the entire process are timely bits and pieces of Napoleonic flare. I’m sure I’ve not found all of them yet, but from what I’ve seen so far my heading is nodding in approval. Here are a few things I’ve noticed:

  • Cavalry will not attack squares and seems to keep formation when charging vice the all out “Hell for leather” approach of TW. For a good video as to how such things worked back then, click here for a YouTube video featuring the French Garde Republicain.
  • Artillery pieces unlimber at the proper distances.
  • Infantry rarely crossed bayonets with the enemy during the Napoleonic era and it is difficult to execute a charge within the game. Even successful charges by foot in particular can leave a unit useless for the rest of the game. Also it seems relatively common for one side or the other to bolt before contact is made, and if battle ensues, one side or the other will break and retreat. There does not seem to be a fight to the last man mode as in TW. Kudos for this one.
  • Units are able to split and detach skirmishers.

The game is over when the software declares that one side or the other has met its victory conditions or game time expires.

 

May the pens of the diplomats not ruin again what the people have attained with such exertions. Field Marshal Gebhard von Blucher.

I really like this game and it’s not impossible to believe that NSD has a future classic on its hands. My only real concern is that the game may be too good at what it wants to do – to be the seminal historical simulation of the battle of Waterloo within the digital world. The game is a niche product, albeit a damn good one. Most gamers, however, seem more the casual type and they may well balk at a product that effectively destroys their “Hollywood History” understanding of the great contest between Wellington and Napoleon. The action doesn’t include muskets that spit fire as if they were a Warhammer 40 K Stormbolter, and units don’t fight to the death as they do in the TW series. Instead there is a lot of black powder induced smoke, and getting any two forces to cross bayonets is damn hard (indeed, Baron Jomini noted that except for towns, fortifications and the like, he NEVER saw two bodies of foot go face to face and hand to hand).

But for those interested in history as much as they are in competitive entertainment, this game is a real treat, allowing both the newbie and the grizzled old veteran to adjust the dynamics of the battle to his knowledge base and experience level. Additionally the HITS system provides the ultimate experience. This is where all SOW games shine, and this is why if the game is not THE best digital depiction of tactical Napoleonic combat ever (the ill-conceived les Grognards game duly noted), it certainly is unbelievably close.

There are certainly other reasons why this game is a must buy, but many concern not what it is now, but what could be in the future. Some of these include:

  • Blenheim
  • Hohenfriedberg
  • Zorndorf
  • Austerlitz
  • Salamanca

You get the picture I’m sure. The success of this game may well bring in sequels from other horse and musket wars such as the War of Austrian Succession or other Napoleonic battles. Hell, I can hardly wait to sharpen my Pallasch Austrian cuirassier sword. So keep your fingers crossed, and drop a note or two to NSD and tell them what you think. The ball is in their court.

“Avancez les tambours mes braves! A la bayonette! En avant!”

 In other words, very, VERY highly recommended.

 

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