First, there was Wargame: European Escalation. Now, almost exactly a year later, there is another one of it. Since I loved the first Wargame I’m more receptive than I might otherwise be to a sequel that’s been turned out in such a short period of time, but if it were another developer and another series I’d probably be inclined to assume that AirLand Battle was a low-effort attempt to cash in on the original game with another made using the same assets. AirLand Battle asks for the full £30 on Steam (although it was 25% off if you already owned the first Wargame and you can pick up a disk copy on Amazon for just £20) and so it was going to have to do more than be a slightly shinier iteration on the Wargame concept in order to justify its asking price. Fortunately – and actually somewhat surprisingly – it delivers in spades.
AirLand Battle does not deviate from the winning formula established in European Escalation; dozens of vehicles and hundreds of men duking it out over a hundred square kilometre battlefield in a Cold War showdown. If you want to get an impression of how AirLand Battle is going to play you could do worse than go back and read my review of EE, especially since I’m not going to waste any time repeating myself here, but at the same time there are a very substantial number of gameplay features that have undergone a drastic overhaul. Many of these changes are seemingly minor things, like attaching an icon to the nametag of each unit that describes its broad function (artillery, tanks, gun AA, missile AA, radar AA and so on) that allows you to identify them at a glance and obviates the need to obsessively memorise what each the 800 units in the game do; however, what they’re actually doing is papering over all the accessibility gaps – and let’s face it, there were a lot of them – that existed in European Escalation. The game is much smoother and easier to play now, and the tempo of the thing has also increased from the sedate pace of EE, thanks largely to the game’s signature improvement: aeroplanes.
It was always a bit odd that a game about modern warfare on a grand scale did not feature aeroplanes in any capacity whatsoever. Helicopters were the only aerial combatants of the European Escalation battlefield, and if you wanted to deny the surrounding airspace to your opponent all you had to do was stick a couple of AA launchers into a hedgerow somewhere and wait for them to blunder into it. It ensured that the focus was firmly on the units on the ground, and since ground units crawl across the battlefield at a relatively glacial speed that’s what set the pace of the game. It also meant that players had no real rapid response options to sudden enemy breakthroughs; even helicopters would take a minute or two to reposition themselves usefully to head off an advancing tank column. This meant that European Escalation, for all of its grognardy historical verisimilitude, ended up being rather more gamey than I suspect the developers wanted since players were denied a key tool – possibly the key tool – of modern warfare.
AirLand Battle changes all that by implementing the best aircraft I have seen in any RTS game ever. When you buy some fighters or fighter-bombers they won’t immediately appear on the map. Instead they’ll appear in the aircraft panel in the lower left hand corner of the screen, where they can be selected and given orders just like any other unit. Once you’ve given them an attack order they’ll fly in from off-map through your air corridor – every map has one or more air corridors per side, usually in their starting sectors – move to wherever their unfortunate target is, and then fire an assortment of hideously pretty ordnance at it. They can loiter on map for a limited amount of time until their fuel or weapons run out before evacuating into the sky and back to your aircraft panel, where they’ll be unavailable for a brief period until they’re refuelled and rearmed. Then you can call them in again.
This both gives jet aircraft a reasonable degree of realism and ensures that they’re not too powerful; while their weapons are amongst the strongest in the game if employed correctly they only have enough fuel and ammo to make one or two attack passes before they have to retreat off-map to recharge. Aircraft are therefore used for temporary advantage to blunt advancing armoured columns, weed out annoying support units like artillery and to clear the skies of enemy aircraft. Even if there are no enemy planes in the area, though, calling in a fighter-bomber can still be a high-risk strategy — especially if it’s a pricey one – due to the expanded role ground-based anti-air units have in AirLand Battle. It’s worth going over the aircraft/AA interaction in a little more detail, because it’s the perfect example of how AirLand Battle focuses on broad strategy over micromanagement.
There are three main types of AA in the game, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. First there’s the gun AA, which consist of heavy skyward-pointing autocannon/gatling guns mounted on a vehicle chassis of some kind. Gun AA is cheap, plentiful and can also be used against soft ground targets like infantry and transports to great effect. However it’s also short-ranged and staggeringly inaccurate, and unless a plane sticks around for a while right above the AA platforms you’re not going to score a kill unless you have a lot of them; the plane will simply drop its bombs/missiles and then evacuate off-map, and all you’ll have done is delay its next call-in time by a small period while the damage inflicted is repaired back at the airfield. Gun AA has its niche – it’s devastating against helicopters and is a cheap way of getting an opponent to think twice about sending in airstrikes because just watching it open fire from your lofty god-like perspective above the battlefield is terrifying – but it’s not going to solve any plane problems you might have on its own.
No, if you want to score kills you need to rely on missile AA, which comes in two varieties. Infrared missiles can be both vehicle-mounted and man-portable, but they have a relatively short range and inferior accuracy. Radar-guided missiles are much better, able to hit an incoming bomber before it drops its payload and packing enough punch to destroy it in that one hit, but all radar AA has to watch out for the dreaded SEAD planes. SEAD stands for Suppression of Enemy Air Defence, and SEAD planes come equipped with long-range radar-seeking weapons that can see and kill a radar AA battery long before it ever manages to lock on to the SEAD plane. If your opponent has SEAD available you need to be very careful with your radar AA assets because they tend to be rather expensive and you don’t have many of them available, so if they make enough successful SEAD runs eventually you won’t have any AA umbrella left.
Setting up an effective AA net is no longer a matter of simply sticking a pair of Rolands in a bush somewhere near your attacking force and leaving them to get on with it, then. You need multiple AA vehicles of both types – radar and infrared – dispersed over a wide area so that no one airstrike can take out the lot, but with overlapping ranges so that if the worst does happen and you lose an AA battery the others will have a good chance of killing the offending plane and you won’t have any suddenly gaping holes in your AA coverage. The AA-aircraft dynamic demands that you focus on force composition and clever positioning over actually telling the things to fire (they’ll do that automatically anyway) and to a large degree the battle for air superiority is going to be won or lost on your ability to correctly deploy the AA assets at your disposal. There’s no soft or hard counters here – any AA can take out any aircraft if used properly (I once killed a very expensive Nighthawk stealth fighter through the simple expedient of having my recon spot it visually on the way in so that the 12 unguided ZSU-Afghanskii guns they didn’t know I had just behind my lines could open up on it, stun it and eventually bring it down through sheer weight of shells) and the reverse is equally true — simply an ongoing mindgame between you and your opponent which I think always produces the best kind of strategy experience.
The force composition thing is aided by a dramatically overhauled deck system; you still assemble a force out of decks of unit cards before taking it into a game and trying it out against your opponent’s deck, but it’s far more nuanced this time around. Rather than having a flat five picks per unit category, with each pick giving you access to all sub-variants of that unit and all veterancy levels for an increased cost, you instead have greater flexibility in how many units you can stuff into a category but need to think carefully about what exactly you’re going to bring because each pick is exactly that: one pick. When you start a new deck you’ll have a certain number of activation points available, and the deck will be split into the normal categories – logistics, recon, support, infantry and so on. Picking the first three infantry units for your deck will cost one activation point each. Picking infantry units four and five will cost two points each. Six and seven will cost three points, eight costs four points, and suddenly you don’t have any activation points left to spend on tanks or artillery. If you want to go all-in on one type of unit you can do it, but at the cost of having a very lop-sided army. There’s also the question of availability to consider: for example, for one pick of infantry you’ll be able to get 22 Rookie Motostrelki, but depending on your deck bonuses you might also have the option to take just 8 Elite Motostrelki instead, who could potentially be a lot more effective if you use them correctly1.
Ah yes, the deck bonuses. Here we come to the one significant question mark that’s hanging over all of the improvements AirLand Battle has made, and to be fair I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing, just one that’s not particularly well-balanced at the moment. When you create a deck you’ll have the option to take certain restrictions on what exactly you can put into it, with the payoff being a bonus like increased veterancy or availability for a certain unit category. The most basic restriction will be limiting yourself to the units of one specific nation, followed by a particular type of army specialisation – air assault, mechanised and so on – and then finally a time period specialisation. This last one actually works pretty well thanks to AirLand Battle’s phenomenal attempt to at least broadly balance the 800 different units in the game; a deck made out of 1975-era Soviet equipment will be of decidedly inferior quality to a 1985-era NATO deck, but it’ll be cheap and you’ll have twice as much of it. The other restrictions seem half-baked at best: there might be four new nations in the game but they’ve all got severe deficiencies in one or more categories of their national unit choices. For example, Sweden has next to no AA that can hit planes worth a damn, making playing a Swedish deck against an opponent who knows how to exploit this an absolutely miserable experience unless you have a teammate with units that can plug the gap. The army specialisations also hobble you in areas that are usually quite critical; it might seem logical for an air assault army to have crap armour choices, but it means they have next to no staying power or offensive capability on the battlefield.
So most of the specialisations end up being gimmicky at best and useless at worst, but I don’t think it’s a massive problem – you don’t have to use them if you don’t want to, and there’s more than enough flexibility in the system as is to spend hours poring through the unit database wondering whether it’s better to spend those last two activation points on some vehicle ATGMs or another card of mortar carriers. It also helps that the command star system by which you unlocked units in the original, which I utterly loathed, has been completely stripped out of AirLand Battle2. All units are unlocked from the start and everyone is on a level playing field from the off, and it’s absolutely fantastic.
I’ve spent all this time talking about multiplayer mechanics and how you would implement a strategy against a human opponent without once mentioning the new dynamic single-player campaign system. There’s a very good reason for this: it doesn’t strike me as being particularly finished yet. It’s functional and the dynamic campaign map is very nice, and if you get stuck in a multi-day battle over a particular territory it can produce some very memorable encounters as opposing battlegroups are slowly ground down by attrition. Unfortunately it’s hamstrung by two things: the schizophrenic campaign AI — which is worse than the excellently psychotic skirmish AI3 due to its inability to cope with the specific goals of campaign battles – and the relative unimportance of seizing and holding sectors on the battlefield. Each sector you gain will get you just one point of income per tick, and so unless you’re engaged in attritional warfare you end up just ignoring sector control in favour of hunting down and destroying the enemy forces – and since the campaign AI has no imperative to take and hold sectors itself battles can become very passive and very defensive. AirLand Battle is a game of strategy and maneuver, and I think that having a campaign that sabotages both of these key elements is a spectacular own goal that’s going to drive away anyone who isn’t particularly interested in multiplayer. It wouldn’t surprise me if the campaign didn’t undergo some significant changes in the near future, and what is there certainly has some promise, but for now if you’re looking for a fulfilling single-player experience I think there are other games which do a much better job of it.
The final change I should mention is the complete graphical overhaul the AirLand Battle engine has undergone in the year since its predecessor’s release. It’s an odd thing to say since you spend nearly all your time looking down on things from the stratosphere, but AirLand Battle is a ridiculously pretty game. It never dawned on me just how flat and ugly the terrain looked in European Escalation until I went back to have a look at my review, but the difference between the two is like night and day. There’s mountains covered in forest, detailed towns to be fought over by individually-rendered infantrymen, a hell of a lot more colour other than various shades of dull green, and the planes. Oh dear god, the planes. You know when I said AirLand Battle’s planes were the best aircraft in RTSes today? This is due in large part to the way they look and sound and move. Watching a fighter-bomber coming in for an attack run is a sickeningly beautiful thing. Watching the napalm bombs it drops incinerate whole squads of infantry is even better. But the best thing is when an aircraft opens up on an armoured column with its cannon; the A-10 is best for this as it’ll get several vehicles in one pass, with the roar of the cannon and the tracers and the pyrotechnic explosions as the shells find their mark. Look, just go and watch this video because they really aren’t kidding when they say it’s all ingame footage; that is precisely what AirLand Battle looks like when you zoom down to ground level. It’s stunning to watch, and there’s a replay feature which automatically records every skirmish/multiplayer game you play so that you can go back and wallow in just how amazing the battles are without actually having to fight the things.
As ever, there’s a whole bunch of stuff I haven’t mentioned – balance tweaking, point income increases, improved infantry garrisoning in cities – that makes playing the game faster and less fiddly. Because there’s more points to go around in terms of resources and score multiplayer battles are both more spectacular and rarely last for more than twenty minutes. While it looks like the same game, and while the list of big improvements isn’t quite as long as what I’d normally expect from a sequel, literally every single aspect of the game has undergone some level of change which ensures AirLand Battle is a whole new experience that easily justifies its asking price if you liked the original. I have had more fun with it than any other game this year, and I suspect that might not change any time soon – which is really saying something considering there are some very strong candidates pencilled in for the latter six months of 2013. As excellent as European Escalation was, AirLand Battle leaves it choking in the dust.
- Or you could just take both, and use one for garrison duty and the other for assaults. It’s entirely up to you. ↩
- This was a decision that seemed to be made very late on during AirLand Battle’s development, as they were only removed from the beta about three days before release. All units had been unlocked during the beta for testing purposes and I think Eugen noticed just how well this worked for them and adopted it as a feature. ↩
- Whilst it’s pleasingly aggressive the skirmish AI cheats shamelessly; you had better guard your command vehicles well because it will always know where they are and likes to sneak squads of infantry all the way across the map to kill them. ↩