Version tested: PC
Tom, is it too late for me to turn down this review? Now the disc is in my hands I realise there's been a bit of a misunderstanding. Because of a typo in your original email, I was expecting a startlingly original wargame all about the seventies fishing disputes between Iceland and the UK, not a bog-standard RTS about a fictional fifties conflict between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.
If I'd known how painfully familiar and disgracefully trawler-free Cold War was going to be, I'd probably have avoided it. Hungarian studio Stormregion (now transmuted into Innoglow) has been peddling versions of its likeable WW2 debut for the best part of five years now, and the formula is beginning to fester. Codename Panzers: Phase 1, Codename Panzers: Phase 2, Rush To Berlin, and Rush For The Bomb... They've all been basically the same game - a handsome, tank-heavy tactical romp with a few interesting quirks like unit carry-over and sound-spotting.
Cold War adds some minor embellishments, but come to it as I have, in the grip of Men of War and Empire: Total War infatuation, and it all seems achingly ordinary. Ditching WW2 in favour of a make-believe Soviet-Chinese assault on Western Europe has promise on paper. Play through a couple of missions, however, and you quickly realise all it really means is that the tanks are a slightly different shape, and aerial ops are carried out by swooping jets and gawky (Gorki?) helicopters rather than Stukas and Fieseler Storks.
The devs haven't even bothered to shift the fighting to a fresh front. Because Stalin and his cronies have decided to grab Germany first, then trundle towards The Channel (I must have missed the cut-scene that explains why NATO fails to nuke his pudgy Communist behind) we end up skirmishing in the kind of locales we've been skirmishing in for years. Rubbled Berlin, the ravaged Maginot Line, windmilly Dutch towns on the Rhine... God, haven't the blighters in these poor burgs suffered enough?
A bolder designer would at the very least have let us choose the order in which we contested these well-stamped stomping grounds. Cold War's eighteen-mission campaign sequence is as linear as a varnished eel and equally unpredictable. Despite the presence of numerous optional and secret objectives, most scenarios boil down to tactically simplistic tank rampages. Though there's no base-building or resource-gathering as such, capturing strategic buildings and 'prestige flags' allows you to summon reinforcements. Amass a sufficiently ferocious gang of armour and support vehicles, and the world is your speed bump.
Tank forces are so good at exterminating the Red Menace, you wonder why the devs bothered with infantry at all. Yes, engineer squads can transform into handy repair depots, and grunts will happily man any vehicles the enemy has foolishly left unoccupied, but most of the time the armed pedestrians in your army still feel like fleshy liabilities. It doesn't help that there's usually a scenario-critical personality amongst the squads. It's the Third World War for flip's sake, why should my fun be cut short by the demise of one fairly low-ranking commander?
To be fair, foot soldiers are a little smarter than they used to be. Now enemy infantry only rush suicidally towards your tanks about half the time. The other half, they lurk in pretty structures (Stormregion always did architecture well) or take advantage of a new, fairly crude cover system, squatting behind conveniently placed crates and concrete pipes. It's not Men of War or Company of Heroes, but it is progress.
Usually in a review like this, I'd squeeze in the odd war story, the odd battle anecdote illustrating the game at its most dramatic or unique. With Cold War that's going to be tricky. Thinking back over many not-unpleasant hours of play, I'm struggling to pluck even one noteworthy event from the murk. The first time I saw reinforcements fast-roping down from a hovering helo was moderately memorable I suppose. Oh, and my first napalm strike made me smile. Capturing that howitzer bunker then using its artillery piece to pound an enemy base, yes that was good too. What I can't recall are any occasions when the AI or scenario designer wrongfooted me, or the spectacle had me reaching instinctively for the screenshot key. Hmm.
Part of me wishes the Magyars had just let rip with the post-war fantasy tosh. Inclusion of vehicles like the Trojanov heavy tank and the M50A1 Ontos - an AFV mounted with a calliope of recoilless rifles - prove they weren't afraid to mess with the history. An overblown War Front: Turning Point-style approach, complete with absurd units and tongue-in-cheek humour might have distracted us from the tiredness of the engine. Give me a few Caspian Sea Monsters, the odd poison-tipped umbrella wielding Bulgarian assassin, and freshly drafted Elvis Presley hero unit, and I'll give you an enthusiastic review. Probably. The massive comedy potential of the former Eastern bloc is, strangely, something that game makers are only just starting to tap (see Stalin Vs. Martians).
Or maybe the developers could have gone the other way and ramped up the realism. After the essentially credible delights of Men of War and Empire, the warfare here feels decidedly bogus. Tanks chip away at each others' hitpoint bars at pointblank range, air support arrives instantaneously, depleted infantry squads magically spawn new manpower when close to aid stations... there's nothing wrong with any of this shorthand, but it does conspire to create characterless combat. Had Innoglow quadruped the size of its maps and forces, and stretched the shrunken LOS bubbles to enable longer engagement ranges, Cold War might have attracted some curiosity from the Close Combat fraternity. Throw in a relatively neglected conflict like Korea and, bingo, you've got yourself a gritty and unusual pop wargame.
As it stands I'm really not sure who this game was intended for. Anyone with RTS sympathies will be able to wring some pleasure from it, but no-one's likely to enjoy it enough to recommend it to a mate, devote a fan-site to it, or have its logo tattooed in a private place. We're fortunate to be awash with fabulous strategy titles at the moment, and unadventurous solidity like this, really doesn't cut it. If you must have fifties flavour with your real-time strategy, try playing World in Conflict on a black-and-white monitor while smoking a pipe, and wearing a knitted tank-top and a worried expression.
5 / 10