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Tacticular Cancer reviews Commander: The Great War

Tacticular Cancer reviews Commander: The Great War

Review - posted by Trash on Fri 25 January 2013, 15:11:43

Tags: Commander: The Great War; Review; The Lordz Games Studios

The First World War isn't a setting we hear too much about in gaming. Principally, because there is an almost unshakable stigma that the war was a pointless slaughter of “lions led by donkeys”. Culturally, it is solely held as a grim and depressing lesson in the futility of war and the idiocy of nationalism. Popular images of incompetent tea-sipping aristocrats reclining in châteaus as the youth of Europe are slaughtered in a tangle of barbed wire and mud have remained largely unchallenged. Upon hearing of a strategy game using this setting, the reader likely wonders how on Earth could The Lordz Games Studio create an interesting, challenging and, well, fun turn-based strategy in a war known for its complete lack of mobility and dreary fortification-centric, attrition-based stalemate? Both the preceding Napoleonic era with its colourful uniforms, line and column formations and bold battles of manoeuvre and the following Second World War’s aggressive lighting-paced armoured spearheads and dramatic ideological struggles seem far more exciting and brimming with strategic potential than ‘All Quiet on the Western Front: The Game’. After all, how many of us played ‘Trench Warfare’ with our toy soldiers?

Upon closer inspection the First World War is far more interesting than it seems. Unlike the Second which was virtually decided by 1942, the First World War could have swung either way even as late as 1918. By its end it had largely spelt the end of the grand imperial age of Western monarchy, as the long-decaying Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires finally dissolved into feuding and unstable states, the Tsar was murdered and Russia locked in a civil war between communists and reactionaries and the Kaiser was forced to flee to the Netherlands with an unstable and impossibly burdened republic taking his place. All results that none would have predicted a mere four years earlier and results that have had strong reverberations on how the world is structured today. The Great War gives you the chance to alter history. Shall Germany reverse the Schlieffen Plan, stand defensive on her border with France and devote all effort to finishing Russia before she can mobilise her great man-power? As Britain will you attempt the Gallipoli landings or proceed with a slower but less risky advanced through the Levant? The ‘what-ifs’ are plenty and ought to give the player a new-found respect for the strategic dilemmas that confronted the generals and politicians on both sides of the trenches.

Commander: The Great War admirably succeeds in staying true to the nature of warfare in this era and being a fun, accessible game that keeps you on the edge of your seat cursing as your offensive peters out of steam and manpower shortages begin to cripple your industry. The hex-based map will feel instantly familiar to anyone who’s spent time with Panzer General (and really, who reading this hasn’t?). What stops this game from being just another Panzer General clone is its well-thought out research and economic components. The tech tree simulates the doctrinal and technological advances that over the course of the war sapped the seemingly insurmountable advantages of the entrenched defender. The game correctly debunks the misconception that the entirety of the First World War was static, with innovations such as the tank (a laughable failure at first but quickly to become the heavy cavalry of the modern battlefield), gas warfare, dedicated fighter and bomber aircraft, creeping barrage and infantry assault tactics opening up eventual effective offensive possibilities. This isn’t to say that offensives are suicidal before these are researched, but beyond the opening turns of 1914 and against backwards foes such as the Ottomans and Romanians the attacker will often have a very difficult time of it in the absence of skilled commanders and heavy artillery support.

Some generals with a less than gleaming historical record such as Field Marshal Haig's confer both bonuses and penalties to men under their command.

The First World War isn’t known as the first industrial war for nothing. Another difference between Commander: The Great War and Panzer General is that here deciding where and when to barrage is of vital importance. The game accurately simulates the woefully inadequate industry of the First World combatants, who were unprepared for the vast quantities of ammunition and shells that would now be required in war. This seemingly mundane administrative issue was actually of key importance to the war and saw many states turn to desperate measures such as rationing, government-led economic central planning and the introduction of women to the industrial workforce. Ammunition is a quantified resource in The Great War that your mighty artillery, the key to any successful offensive, cannot effectively function without. For instance Germany will be forced to make some painful decisions regarding whether to convert that manpower into sorely-needed infantry divisions to help Austria hold off the Russian hordes or to make a long-term investment in the ammunition production or even take the gamble of attempting to starve out Britain with U-Boat raids upon her commerce routes which may have eventual repercussions with a certain North American nation if one’s raids stray too deep within the Atlantic.

Investing in ammunition production, railways and naval transportation will allow you to more frequently call upon your artillery and rapidly redeploy men, but industrial resources are scarce and the player will be faced with hard decisions upon how to best use them.

This, more than shuffling around units and making bold hex movements, is the crux of the strategy and planning element of this game. Do I focus my research on new infantry sturmtruppen tactics or take the gamble of investing in the late-game offensive might of the tank? Do I send the new division to help deliver the knock-out blow to Russia or shore up the Western Front against the increasingly potent British offensives? High manpower losses will see both your infantry quality (as you are forced to dig deeper into reserves and conscripts) and economic production decline, meaning that being cavalier with your soldier’s lives will eventually punish you. As there is only an Entente and a Central Powers campaign (opposed to individual British, Serbian, German, Russian, French or Italian playthroughs) all fronts feel interconnected, and satisfying the requirements for success in one front will often leave another short-handed. For instance whether the seemingly unimportant Serbia successfully holds against the initial 1914 Austrian assault, ripples through the entire game as the Serbs tie down Austrian soldiers that could be assisting the Huns up north which in turn forces Germany to divert men from that offensive that was showing so much promise in France to stop the Russian steamroller from treading its boots across Prussia (you get the picture). This game must also be given kudos for implementing the oft-neglected (but of vital significance) U-Boat and commerce raiding theatre of war. Games set in both World Wars often forget how close these campaigns came to bringing Britain to her economic knees.

Infantry comes in two flavours, regular and garrison. Garrison divisions are made of reservists and conscripts and thus only take a single turn to recruit and deploy. However they are much poorer attackers than properly trained men and are generally only useful as a stop-gap in the case of a sudden breakthrough that desperately needs to be halted or to hold the line in unimportant hexes. The game also features a wide variety of other units such as armoured cars, railway guns, tanks and even zeppelins!

However this game is not quite perfect. Firstly the AI frequently makes some bizarre decisions (why are the Italian divisions manning the trench line of the Western Front while French soldiers are pushing into the Alps from Italy?) and the game seems a bit sparse on events. I couldn't help but feel a bit disappointed when after seizing Paris and Verdun the game didn't seem to even notice, with the war continuing like nothing had happened. I have to fight all the way to Marseilles for France to come to the negotiating table? Yeah right. Thankfully The Lordz Games Studio has shown a proactive and very commendable approach to patches and appears to be paying close attention to the gripes and suggestions of fans on their forums.

At USD $40 a download, this game is not cheap. Comparable games in the genre such as Unity of Command and Alea Jacta Est are downloadable for under the $25 dollar mark. The form of warfare depicted also forces the player to think more in terms of logistics, manpower and attrition than rapid breakthroughs and glorious victories. Commander: The Great War certainly (and rightly so) feels more like arm-wrestling than a graceful sword duel. Yet for anyone who has grown tired of years of panzers, blitzkrieg, Stalingrad and Normandy, this game should be just the ticket.

- - Clean and functional map and interface
- - Accessible and well-documented, without sacrificing challenge or strategy
- - Rarely explored setting (not another Second World War game!)
- - Accurately captures the dilemmas confronting every nation in the war
- - Diligent patching and support

- - Some questionable AI behaviour
- - The Panzer General-esque hex-based combat may be a little simplistic for some
- - Heavy on the wallet
- - Barebones diplomacy and too few events

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