Wargame AirLand Battle: A Review

By Matthew Flanigan 13 Aug 2013 0

Wargame AirLand Battle

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If war had broken out in Europe during the Cold War it would have been on a scale the likes of which the world has never seen. Tens of thousands of tanks, thousands of fighters and bombers, hundreds of warships, millions of soldiers and millions of civilians would have been caught up in the most destructive and devastating conflict ever seen. Quite possibly it would have acted as the grand finale of the wars of the 20th Century, ensuring that humanity would never again wage another conflict in the future, if there even was a future. Wargame AirLand Battle is a real-time strategy game which includes over 800 unique unit types and more than a half dozen nations; it attempts to capture the horrific beauty, and the epic scale, of this imaginary conflict.

Overview

Wargame AirLand Battle is the sequel to the 2012 title, Wargame European Escalation. To the casual viewer, the games are nearly identical. The biggest addition to AirLand Battle is, as you might guess from the title, the inclusion of air units. European Escalation included no air units other than helicopters. AirLand Battle adds the use of combat aircraft though, despite their inclusion, the game does not have a fleshed-out air combat model. Instead, the air units operate primarily as helicopters did in the previous game, for close air support. In addition the game also expands online play from a maximum 16 players in 8 vs. 8 battle, to up to 20 players fighting out massive 10 vs. 10 fights.

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Game Modes

The game includes two different game modes and a tutorial. The tutorials are effective, yet brief. The first mode of the game would be the campaign game, which includes four different campaigns. The first campaign is very small and almost feels like a tutorial of the campaign game, while the larger campaigns have the potential to last many hours and eat up a good deal of time. The second game mode is skirmish mode, which would be accurately described as a sandbox mode, where you generate random or player-defined battles in a single engagement.

Gameplay

Gameplay is almost like a melding of more traditional RTS's in the Age of Empire vein, and more tactical based games such as the Combat Mission series. Battles start with a deployment phase. Players are given a set number of initial points with which to purchase various units and place them on the map. Once the battle is underway, a player slowly accumulates more points. This allows the player to call in new troops once the engagement is underway but, unlike most traditional RTS's, there is no resource gathering or base building. The only user-created building of any importance is the FOB (Forward Operating Base), which allows units to resupply both ammunition and fuel. Unlike more tactically- oriented real time games, such as Combat Mission, you are able to call in reinforcements on the fly using your initial points as you see fit. The game has no scripted reinforcements, and in this sense you are able to adjust your strategy based on how the battle unfolds. Reinforcements can only be called in from certain parts of the map. The battlefield is split up into numerous hex-like regions and, while these areas have no impact on movement or game play, like in a hex-based game they do handle how reinforcements are allowed to enter the field of play. Reinforcements can only be brought into a battle from a region that boarders the edge of the map, though not every boarder region is allowed to bring reinforcements in. Sections that can are annotated on the map with arrows pointing from the outer part of the map inwards. This appears to be an attempt to simulate the impact that roadways and other transportation systems have on a battlefield.

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Typically each army will start with one or two regions along the borders, with which they can deploy forces into and call in reinforcements through. Reinforcements can only be called into a region that a side controls and in order to control a region, a player must have at least one stationary command unit in the region.  Command units come in various sizes and capabilities and represent senior officers on the battlefield. These units can vary between lightly armed and largely helpless jeeps, to command tanks which are more than capable of defending themselves against enemy units. As already stated, reinforcements can only be called in from the regions on the edge of the map and, similarly, each side almost always starts in possession of a region capable of calling in more reinforcements. With that said, if you command an airborne unit you will start with a region in the middle of the map, and would need to push out to a bordering region to call in reserves. This does a nice job of simulating the unique difficulties that airborne units often face when fighting behind enemy lines, but it can also be frustrating during campaigns when your airborne unit is no longer dropped behind the lines, but instead is advancing alongside your other units at the front. But more on campaigns later.

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When maneuvering your army terrain plays an important role: wooded areas provide concealment, open fields are death traps for infantry, bridges can become fatal funnels, buildings provide useful defensive cover for infantry, and rivers provide natural barriers and should be used to provide protection to your flanks as you advance down the other side of the map. With that said, height fields don't seem relevant. Apart from some buildings, you rarely see a chance to get your troops higher than the enemy. Tanks may get slowed down by trees and mud, but they rarely have to navigate mountainous passes or hills. The map has some nice eye candy along the corners, but despite the theater of operations being Scandinavia, most battles still feel far more like the open plains of Germany rather than the mountainous terrain of Norway. The terrain is an improvement from European Escalation without a doubt. Towns have more variety, there are a few hills on the battlefield, and tanks can't move everywhere, but still the battlefield is far too flat. Also, while you have multiple choices for setting up skirmish battles, all the battles still feel like meeting engagements with defensive lines with other defensive tactics having only a limited importance. Sure, defensive tactics can still be used, but it's less relevant to holding the line or strategic location, but rather for the purpose of destroying the enemy.

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Whilst the impact of elevation and engagement variety might be somewhat limited, what the game does have in spades is units. There are over 800 units included in the game from a seemingly endless list of nations: Polish, East German, Russian, British, American, the list goes on. AirLand Battle's biggest addition in terms of gameplay and units from its predecessor is the inclusion of air units. While European Escalation had helicopters, it had no fixed winged aircraft. AirLand Battle, as you might guess, addresses this issue with the inclusion of dozens of aircraft, from tank killers like the A-10 and Su-25 to multi-role fighters like the F-16 and Mig-29. With that said, the air units are limited mainly to close air support roles and air-to-air fights. While they occur they are mainly a side show to the ground pounding. AirLand Battle has no real air superiority struggle, though for an RTS that's not much of a problem, since the battles are land battles with air units acting in support. Though this limitation does feel more detrimental in the campaign game, it's really not much of a drag in the individual battles which make up the heart of the game.  Battles can be won in two ways: every unit is worth a certain number of points and each battle will have a points threshold for the battle. If you hit this threshold before the enemy, then you win the battle. The second way to win a battle is by destroying all the enemy command vehicles.

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Campaign Mode

Instead of merely being a series of linked battles like most RTS campaigns, AirLand Battle's campaign mode is a dynamic. Victories, losses, and casualties all carry over to the next battle.  The campaign game plays out on an operational map of Scandinavia, which is broken down into hexes. As commander of either NATO or Warsaw Pact forces, you are given the choice on which hexes to send your troops into, though you do have certain hexes which must be taken for you to win the campaign. In the campaign, if a friendly unit and an enemy unit meet in a hex, a battle results and the game transitions into the battle phase already discussed. It's more than just picking what hex you want to go to, however, and the game does a good job of adding a bit of variety to the campaign. On each turn (1 turn = 1 day) you earn a certain number of political points which you can use to call reinforcements onto the operational map, call in air strikes, tactical nuclear strikes, chemical weapon strikes, combat air patrols to keep the enemy air units off your back, and even naval bombardments. All these results are simulated off the battle map and have very different impacts on the game. They will keep each battle fresh as, for example, the impact of a friendly naval bombardment could seriously hamper an enemy defensive by lowering their initiative, and thus their deployment points. That weakens the enemy before the battle even begins.  This brings up another important part of the campaign initiative. An Initiative point rating determines how many points you get to deploy forces before each battle. Each unit has its own inventory of equipment to carry over, and each unit is also given an initiative rating. Defeats and various events such as airstrikes, can lower that. R&R can raise the initiative. Obviously, the higher the initiative the better as it allows you to bring more troops to bear at the start of a fight. Another factor in planning your strategy for the campaign is units. As previously mentioned, each unit gets their own type of men to deploy, and each unit has a set number of units. So a tank unit might start with 20 M1A1 Abrahms. Another example of the dynamic campaign is that casualties carry over. If a unit loses 10 tanks in the first battle of the campaign, then they will only have a maximum available of 10 more tanks. By the end of the campaign, regiments which seemingly start with an abundance of equipment may be running low on everything and, regardless of your imitative points, you might find yourself struggling to deploy a competitive force in a given battle with a unit that's suffered heavy casualties.

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Multiplayer

Multiplayer is where AirLand Battle really excels. While the campaign game feels a bit limited the game feels very tailored toward a strong and vibrant multiplayer experience, especially for those who may be interested in an eSports-type of competition. Speaking of eSports, AirLand Battle has ranked games, a leader board, and the ability to create custom army setups by creating decks for various pregame army setups. In addition, AirLand Battle allows players to play, 1 vs. 1, 2 vs. 2, 3 vs. 3, 4 vs. 4, and even 10 vs. 10 online games. If that isn't enough options, AirLand Battle allows players to play the single player campaign games online against human opponents.  While the Single Player at time feels a bit limited in scope, and battles feel very rushed, multiplayer adds an immense value to the game by its sheer scale of 10 vs. 10. The biggest negative to the multiplayer in AirLand Battle is the learning curve, which is steep. If you're a veteran of European Escalation then you will do fine, but if you're new to the series it is highly recommend playing extensively against the computer before considering online play, and even then you'll be in for a rough awakening. Rush attacks which work pretty well against the AI will fail miserably against a human opponent, and building a balanced force is far more critical in multiplayer than in single player.

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Conclusion

Wargame AirLand Battle is a compelling game which feels more RTS than faithful war-game. It's biggest flaws are a limited time of 20 minutes for single player battles, poor AI, which makes single player games  a rush fest with limited options for real military tactics, and lackluster geographic representation. The game's strengths more than make up for its weaknesses, however. The game rates high as a fantastic multiplayer, which is perfect for any competitive player, and has a wide unit and nationality selection. Also, not mentioned previously, but game's graphics are another strength. While the graphics alone wouldn't make this a must buy game, it definitely adds to the immersion factor, with the terrain and units all popping off the screen. If you want a hardcore military simulation, this game isn't for you. However, if you want a fun, immersive, good looking, Cold War hot game with a focus on multiplayer and replay-ability, then this game is definitely worth a look.

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