Real-time Strategy games on home consoles have always been a risky venture. On PC they seem to feel at home, mainly due to the wealth of control options having a keyboard provides. Mapping these functions on to a joy pad has always proved more difficult, and often sacrifices have to be taken to squeeze them all in. But that’s not the only reason consoles and RTSs don’t go together as well as you’d like; are console gamers more fickle? Are they looking for more accessible wham-bam action titles, for instant gratification? And is there a fundamental difference between playing a video game at a desk where your PC invariably is, or on a sofa in front of the big TV where your console usually lives?
War, eh? Good God, what is it good for?
Well whatever your views, there’s no reasons why you shouldn’t try, and that’s exactly what Pop Top Software have done with Shattered Union on Xbox. The game is set in a near-future US, where civil unrest has got so bad that the country has been plunged back into a civil war. The intro explaining all this is surprisingly effective; first a guy gets voted into the Whitehouse in a fairly dodgy manner, and becomes the most unpopular president of all time. Then inland terrorist attacks are at an all time high, martial law is declared in many states across America (most notably California) and just to add insult to injury Washington is destroyed by a nuclear terrorist attack. With the country now plunged into chaos, Texas is the first state to step up and claim its sovereignty, establishing itself as the Republic of Texas and closing its borders. Pretty soon other states or combinations of states follow suit, and before you know it the old US of A looks like a giant Risk board. On the west coast you have the California Commonwealth and Pacifica (Seattle and San Francisco and what have you), on the east coast you have the New England alliance and the old Southern Confederacy, while in the middle you’ve got the Great Plains Federation and Texas like I mentioned before. This means the game is set, sides are chosen, and it’s time to start claiming land.
All quiet on the western front.
And it’s soon onto the game board. To cut a long story short, Shattered Union is effectively a turn based RTS played with tanks, soldiers, airplanes and helicopters on a large board made up of interlocking hexes. The battle fields are large, spanning several cities, and the idea of each skirmish is simply to take land and capture towns by moving your troops forward and occupying, thus allowing provinces to come under your control. Naturally, towns will be defended by enemy troops, tanks, helicopters and planes and a war of attrition soon erupts; you move and fire with all your units, they move and fire with all theirs and it’s back to your turn again. Eventually one side looses enough units for it to be time to run, the other side moves in, the town is theirs and it’s time to move on to the next map. Rocket science it’s not.
But is it any good? Well admittedly by my description the game does sound like a glorified version of Advance Wars, and that’s not to bad a basis for comparison. In many ways Shattered Union is Advance Wars for grown-ups, and I’m sure you can already guess the kind of implications that statement has. Advance Wars was an extremely simple game that actually took a long time to get good at, but since the games only had a finite number of parameters and the playing boards were very easy to understand, at no point did you ever feel overwhelmed or out of your depth. There was depth to the game, but the scale was such that you could always feel like you’re tactically in control. With Shattered Union the goalposts have shifted; the playing area is larger, the number of troops involved is much more and many more options and abilities are available to you to exploit, but all these added options add a certain overly confusing factor to the game which, to be blatantly honest, hinders the fun.
Whatever you do, don’t pick the pink army.
Take for example the cameras. You can zoom in or out of the action at any time, but if you zoom out to get the big picture, the scale of your units makes it difficult to identify what they actually are – tanks and supply jeeps look the same – so you end up zooming in to see what’s what. Of course, zoomed in you can’t see very much of the battlefield, so you end up yo-yoing, remembering who’s what and where to plan your attack, and it gets a bit confusing. Similarly when you’ve made all your moves and it’s you opponents time, the computer takes control of the camera and, swinging it this way and that to observe what he does, it goes all over the shop and you often spend a minute or two at the beginning of your turn reviewing what just happened by moving around the board yourself, just to check. This gets even more overwhelming when you think about the rather unique way that this game handles aerial combat.
Rather than treating planes the same as ground vehicles, air units are given the option to patrol areas, representing I suppose the much greater speeds available. Bombers and fighter planes can be allocated areas to patrol, usually say seven hexes across or something, and if in the opponents turn a ground vehicle enters that area (in the case of a bomber patrol, fighter patrols react to aircraft), your plane streaks across the battlefield in their turn and attacks. This adds that extra layer of craziness to the proceedings; not only do you have to look out for enemy units popping out of the fog of war near towns, you have to now watch for bombers appearing out of nowhere. Not only that, but the wild swingy camera often makes it hard to work out from which direction they launched their attack, making counter strikes even harder to put together. Sheesh; can you see how much work you’ve got cut out for you?
It’s best to pick the green army actually, you can hide in woods with them.
But despite all the rantings of how hard work this game is, it’s not all bad. The actual combat graphics of the map are more than adequate and the general feeling of carnage ensuing as buildings are shattered and terrain is spoiled is impressive, so real RTS nut cases will probably lap this up. The controls are confusing and encumbering but they’re not impossible to get used to so, given a bit of dedication you might just find that you budding generals out there might get all the right buttons pushed with this game. Personally, I think I might just stick to Advance Wars.