As a Veteran, Radio General's 'All-in-One' approach to WW2 command operations is kind of hollow - but that's ok

By Bill Gray 03 Jun 2020 0

I will admit right out of the gate this was one of the most rewarding articles to write. The reason is playing and researching not only taught me an awful lot about Foolish Mortals' Radio General, a fortuitous counter-point to Serious Sims' very popular Radio Commander, but also about the people who play it. It also taught me an awful lot about myself as a wargamer.

If the comments on Steam are accurate, consensus is Radio General (or RG for this article) is insanely good, one of the best computer games ever. I, however, was not nearly as impressed and I think the primary reason is that while Radio General scores high points as a warGAME, the Vietnam-based Radio Commander (RC) is much more of a WARgame. From a personal perspective, I lean towards the latter.

The primary goal of RG is the same as RC; to kill the player’s helicopter’s view of the battlefield by forcing him to make decisions only by what he hears back from his units via his radio and, accordingly, what he orders his units to do via the same radio. He has no idea of the strength, location or other status of the troops under his control – or the enemy - unless they inform him, and he must manually update his map based on this information to run his little part of the war. Because of time lag, having too many things on his proverbial plate and simple miscommunication, mistakes are made, and critical information is often lacking. 

As a retired US Army colonel, I can tell you that this is reality, and it works well for RC because of the unique nature of the Vietnam conflict. This was not typical warfare, but rather, guerrilla or asymmetrical warfare, where senior commanders often directly managed small units such as platoons or even squads. These were the default size forces employed, scattered all over Hell’s half acre and direct, and this necessitated change. Also, advances in radio technology made this possible, and commanders took the hint.

Radio General Gameplay

Armchair Generals

Radio General changes things in two very important ways. The first is the historical environment of the game: The player finds himself in World War II, European theatre, as a Canadian army general. In the British, Canadian and other Commonwealth armies, this would be no lower than an American major general (or two-star). Foolish Mortals is a Canadian firm, so I assume they know their own army and thus understand that a brigadier (not a brigadier general as in the US Army) is not a general officer. Given the first scenario in the game is the Dieppe Raid, this would mean the player is sorta a generic copy of Canadian Major General John Hamilton Roberts sitting in his tent (and not HMS Calpe), all alone, trying to run Operation Jubilee remotely.

The second big change is the addition of actual voice interaction with the game. You can hear your units report to you over your computer’s speakers, and you can issue orders and directives, request reports, etc. by speaking into the computer’s microphone. This adds an additional level of the fog of war not only due the normal, historical problems using radios back then, but also because the voice command aspect is kinda wonky - it just doesn’t work perfectly. Some of this can be remedied, such as flipping the switch from US English to UK/Australian English, but distortion and confusion seems unavoidable. Indeed, the one and only thing that caused the very, very few negative ratings about RG on Steam was that the voice control didn’t work correctly. I don’t think this was an intentional design aspect, but nevertheless, it was quite historical. I know, because I used to do this for a living and I really think it’s what makes the game.

Oddly enough, you can actually remedy the situation and seemingly defeat the unique selling point of  RG. Using voice is optional anyway and to keep getting up to date information you can manually or hot key (R) requests for status reports continually. Likewise, check a box and both enemy and friendly units “slide” to their actual locations based on information coming in from the field. Given the raison d’etre of RG, I am not sure why you would want to do that, but you can do so if you wish... until the developers stop that, which may be in the works.

Radio General Unit Management

There are, of course, a few other things that differentiate RG from RC. You can design your own scenarios and customize your forces at the beginning of each scenario except for Dieppe, which serves as a tutorial. There is unit veterancy, co-op mode and interspaced between missions are copies of World War II Canadian military news reels. Also, the game often calls upon the player to write a sympathy message to parents back home if their soldier-son is killed. This does hammer home the point, but in reality, generals rarely did this. Instead the process fell to the soldier’s immediate commander, someone who likely knew the deceased personally and could therefore convey a more intimate message to the family.

The interface seems cleaner and simpler than that found in RC, with very simple map plotting, for example, on a very sparse, very low-resolution map with oversized terrain symbology. By contrast, the RC map mimicked actual military maps from Vietnam, and those in World War II were nearly identical. Units can be 3D NATO icons or figure sprites and contact erupts in gunfire animation. Otherwise, the general’s accommodations are quite Spartan and of much lower detail than in RC’s Vietnam fire base headquarters. Residual animation such as UH-1 Huey’s landing or US Marine 105 mm howitzer’s firing from behind sandbags doesn’t show up in Europe for the Canucks.

Play was quick, smooth, nearly effortless and the learning curve was exceptionally mild. Quite frankly, the biggest training headache for me was remembering what the small status and order icons referred to when you right clicked on a unit. Also, the combat and casualty model seems quite accurate for what I know of this period of history, and given I clocked 63 hours of play and replay at both Dieppe and Pachino (Sicily), you correctly assume it held my interest. Also of note was my using a PC actually below minimum spec to run the game (only half the needed video RAM), yet it worked like a charm with no animation lagging at all.

Radio General Controls

So, what’s not to impress?

What struck me with all the positive comments on Steam were how many people praised the game for finally allowing them to command their forces precisely the way a real World War II commander did, not like a computer gamer plays. Now yes, there were rare instances during that war where generals took direct command of low level maneuver forces due to special circumstances or personality quirks (cue Feldmarschal Irwin Rommel tooling around North Africa in his SdKfz 250/3 Greif command car). But what RG portrays is not the way it actually worked.

I have served on military staffs at battalion (1-51st US Infantry), brigade (1st/29th Light Infantry Division, 2d/1st Armored Division), division (same two) and corps (III and VII), and in each case the general officer commanding’s role is solely as a decision maker. He rarely ever talks to his units in the field, and then as an exception, no more than two echelons down. This means a division commander talks to brigades and battalions, not companies or smaller. In fact, he is much more likely to talk to his boss at corps than his own brigadiers and colonels in combat.

Radio General Tent

Further, an actual general has an entire staff to do about 90% of what is demanded of him in Radio General. Now, I wasn’t able to locate Lieutenant Colonel’s H. F. Joslen’s Second World War British orders of battle, but if the staff of a US division in World War II is even close, the RG commander should have another general, a colonel, three lieutenant colonels, three majors, a captain, a 1st Lieutenant, nine NCOs and 11 privates working right by him at headquarters. That’s a lot of folks for one tent as you might imagine. These soldiers are talking to their counterparts from the combat units, updating the situation map, providing supplies, medical support and painting as current a picture as possible for the commanding general to examine within his decision-making process. 

Thus, what we have in RG is placing the player in the role of the entire division staff, and not just the commander. This means while the player is rightly confused and uncertain as to what is going on with the battle, he seems to be (IMHO) far busier than he should be, and I wonder if this could tip the game from being fun to annoying unintentionally. I only played and replayed the first two engagements, so I can’t tell you if deployed forces grew with each additional scenario or if they remained relatively small. If so, it might well be because the designers were aware of the very issue just mentioned.

Radio General Campaign

But to me an even bigger issue was that none of the reviews on Steam noted any of this, very likely because few if any were aware of how command in World War II (or perhaps any conflict) actually got the job done. Wargamers, as opposed to strategy gamers, tend to be a bit more historically aware and realism oriented but I’d bet their knowledge portfolio does not include details about in the bunker command and staff operations. I do and that re-emphasized to me the care I must take when writing, ensuring I am talking to the typical gamer, and not to myself.

To sum up, for around $20.00, Radio General is well worth your while. It succeeds mightily in getting its central point across about running a battle within a perpetual fog of war. But similar to the Total War franchise, as an example, it does so in a way that is very light on detail and often contrary to historical fact. So long as the customer base does not care or realize this – and it seems they don’t – then that is perfectly OK, not to mention a solid business decision as well.

Radio General is available on Steam.

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