Civil War II: An Artisan Achivement27 Sep 2013 0
The era of the Civil War always fascinated me. Ever since I had the privilege of watching the movie Gettysburg back in middle school I had been intrigued by the romance, carnage, glory, horror, and crisis of the American Civil War. The strategic aspects of it were not lost on me, either. Although I hadn't developed a taste for the proud and fun tradition of re-enactments or tabletop gameplay, I had always respected this particular conflict as one of the bloodiest and most strategically important in the American psyche. I wasn't sure what to expect from Civil War II since I had never played any AGEOD game before, and this was also going to be my first real foray into an American Civil War scenario with any real pedigree attached to it.
As I loaded the game, it was already an encounter in immersion. The awesome soundtrack, meticulously chosen, accompanied the loading screens and permeated out into the space around me. The simple menu interface was easy to understand, respectful, and unassuming instead relying on the vast artistic menu screen depicting cloudy skies reddened by an afternoon glow which evoked an almost ethereal setting. This was rather appropriate considering that the grievous wound of the American Civil War was sacred territory for the American ethos.
Entering into the tutorials and learning this game from the ground up was an undertaking. One is transported onto a gorgeous and gigantic theatre-wide map of the United States where hundreds of zones dot the landscape from the Rockies to the Atlantic shore. Dozens of icons like flash cards representing the various armies and divisions spread across the map sport imposing portraits of Union and Confederate gentlemen ready for warfare. At first it can be very overwhelming, and for me it was, but I would even dare to say that it was a glorious kind of imposition. The fine attention to detail and massive scope of the whole field tantalizes any serious wargamer. Rivers finely demarcated; roads and towns faithfully reproduced, and positioning properly researched drops any player right into a world which feels more real and more complex than most games out today. Sure, this massive map and thousand-piece period jigsaw puzzle may not be for a casual or average gamer, but I cannot help but be impressed by AGEOD's fidelity and boldness to offer a gaming experience which dares to be rich in texture.
It is difficult for me to stop praising the map not only because it is a triumph of historical verisimilitude, but also because of its sheer size. There are no ?fillings? in this serving of historical battlefields: hundreds of towns proudly shine forth their representation ready for a general's plucking. The geography lesson itself is indicative of the level of craftsmanship in this work. Even cities in the Caribbean and Mexico are fully populated as they fall within the massive rectangle of the map zone. This uncompromising love for the map is one aspect of the game that any strategy gamer who also loves history will be more than pleased with.
The immersive triumph doesn't end with mere geography. The units and generals - all with their own personalized portraits - also demonstrate the almost obsessive attention to detail that AGEOD has successfully employed to provide depth of character to their game. I consider this an absolute success in catering to the kind of audience that would be interested in strategy games centering on the American Civil War. The level of historical fidelity can be seen in the long list of generals that can be accessed in the ledger, complete with personalized statistics.
The gameplay that issues forth from the combination of the map and units is appropriate for the scope of this game. Orders are issued to ?stacks? of units with several special options available such as the ability to attach corps to an army, create divisions, or even maneuver through rivers or other special moves. Once orders are given the player then proceeds to ?end? the turn, and all moves from both factions are processed simultaneously- similar to the mechanic in the board game Diplomacy. This feature, which is pitifully absent from the Total War type games, ensures that a real and true narrative is being developed rather than disconnected ?moves? from each player. Instead it feels as if actions occur, a pause is imposed, and then a complete reaction occurs. This is much more realistic than the idea of different factions completing objectives only to wait idly by while other factions make their moves. The simultaneous dynamic of Civil War II also ensures that surprises may crop up (which they often do) and the Fog of War is given due honor and respect.
I find the gameplay itself to be what I would expect from a game of this caliber. The rich inclusion of different options for each unit adds flavor and depth to the individual units. There are no fully rendered battles like you would get in other games, but that is because Civil War II is properly understood as a strategy rather than a tactical game. One trades in the thrill of moving individual regiments around on a battlefield and pulling off flanking maneuvers for the more abstract calculus of commanding entire corps throughout an entire continent. This may put many people off, especially since many American Civil War buffs tend to enjoy re-enacting famous battles, but I don't believe that it is to this audience that Civil War II was made for. Instead, this game was made for the ?God's-eye-view? general who enjoys the epic motions of moving elements on a massive scale and not just confine himself to one particular battle or scenario.
In fact, the game itself borders on the Grand Strategy genre with the inclusion of several political, historical, and regional decisions. Things such as printing money, issuing embargos, moving the national capital etc. all become available to the player at different times. This national-level decision making helps to add a political head to the otherwise purely militaristic focus of the warfare. One feels, with the addition of these features that one is truly at the head of a national destiny, and is aiding to bring forth a glorious future for their nation. The regional decisions as well are an amazing addition. Everything from economic to tactical decisions can be imposed on a region controlled by a player which has different consequences depending on the action. Although this would not be necessary to learn in order to get a fun and good experience, they provide an avenue for a player who wishes to fully immerse himself into this game.
Aside from these particular decisions, the player is also expected to manage money, manpower, resources, and political capital (especially from foreign powers). Such things as taxes, unit production, unit deployment, and foreign aid can all be micromanaged by the player. I found the production mode especially, to be realistic and smart. Instead of merely constructing an army anywhere each state can support a certain limit of armies, and those armies can only be formed in those particular states. While they are being trained the armies are vulnerable to enemy raids or attacks and do not simply ?materialize? out of nowhere like many other games. This level of realism not only adds an accolade of fidelity to the development team, but it also provides for fun and excellent strategic considerations. If we can break through a particular formation, for example, we might be able to disrupt enemy reinforcements being created before they become a major threat.
Keeping in line with this theme of micromanagement, the army itself is a machine to be impressed with. Unit commanders have their own command rating and therefore have a limit on how large their forces are before becoming inefficient. This is not a new concept and certainly we see it in other games such as Hearts of Iron which has a similar strategic focus, but I am very pleased that this feature is implemented as it should be de rigueur for any strategy game of this scope. This mechanic synergizes with the corps and divisional structure of the game which allows a real and organic chain of command to be constructed out of the various elements presented on the map. You can have General Grant's Army with General Grant as the topmost piece of a pyramid of fully fleshed out officers beneath him at the corps and division level allowing a player to fully customize his armies. Strengths and weaknesses synergize between commanders which provides a unique playing experience every time. The commanders themselves will evolve as the game goes and will ?learn? lessons through different engagements. This adds to the organic realism of the game and provides another gem to this well crafted engine.
I was very glad that the scenarios are turn based. At this level of fine detail it would be almost impossible to undergo a campaign in real time. Some gamers who are more used to fast paced games might be put off by that, but more refined wargamers who enjoy spending long hours looking over a map and planning out every detail of the next season's actions across a thousand mile front will find this offering by AGEOD to be irresistible. The tutorials are also well dressed and will more than easily decompress most feelings of intimidation from the sheer size of the game. It is no wonder, too, that there are three tutorial scenarios considering all of the various details of the game before moving on to the five campaign scenarios offered.
The overlay system for the map is also an excellent addition. Aside from demarcating political control, it is also helpful in designating supply and production points which help to individualize the different zones and cities. These overlays ensure that the map is not just a piece to be admired aesthetically, but is an actual and real tool for the discerning strategist hoping to make use of every tool in his command to orchestrate and execute a war.
There are a few areas, however, that I would recommend for AGEOD to address about the game. For one the interface for battles being fought goes by too quickly. I understand that it would be impossibly long to add in cut scenes (not to mention expensive) or other amenities to simulate actual warfare, but a simple ?U? shaped bar with relative strengths on either side before a battle report is issued is boring. I wish they had an option where we could enter into ?long battles? where perhaps a facsimile of the relative sizes engage in an abstracted map combat that may only be three images wide. I know this is an almost impossible request to the coders, but I would direct them to the PC version of Risk which had ?tactical cards? that would show simplistic animation of a battle. Even Europa Universalis IV has small representations of individual units engaged in combat. I fully understand that the audience AGEOD is going for is not interested so much in the ?graphics,? but it would help if we could feel some of the impact of the massive and epic battles that may happen because of our intricate plan-laying.
There are even some other alternatives to graphics such as a text based After Action Report generator which provides a template-based report in text after a battle was won. For example, if two massive armies clash it could list the various engagements on which day and how each commander fared against the other. It might even say something as romantic as ?on the last day of battle, General George Pickett led an unsuccessful charge.? A code to match names with various triggering factors such as location of battle, relative sizes, etc. would greatly enhance the immersion factor.
Overall, I am impressed with the craftsmanship of this game. I am sure that the mod community will also have a field day considering the generous mechanics that this game has and its openness to expansion. Again, I cannot see this as a game for many people, but those with particular sensibilities that center around this level of strategic control will be impressed. Just as some people prefer the precision and meticulous attention to detail of a German engineered sports car over the lumbering bloatedness of offroaders, so do some of us also prefer the intense micromanagement of Civil War II over other games.