Version tested: DS
'A serious World War II grand strategy game on the DS' is right up there with 'Peace in the Middle-East', 'Duke Nukem Forever' and 'A badger at the helm of a Premier League football club' in my Things I Didn't Expect To See In My Lifetime list. The PC is awash with them (serious WW2 grand strategy games, not badger managers) but none have made the scary leap to handheld. None until now.
Trail-blazing Commander: Europe at War is grand strategy not because its panzers have walnut dashboards or its generals swan around in mink pants (though with Goering, who can tell), but because its units represent entire army divisions, fleets, and airforce groups, and its one seamless map encompasses a whole continent. It's serious because it digs deep into the history, and works hard to deliver plausible scenarios and outcomes.
The premise of the game is as simple as the premise of the conflict it seeks to simulate. You either take the role of the goose-stepping fascists and endeavour to enslave Europe, or play as the Allies and struggle to 'free' it (obviously Stalin's version of freedom came with provisos). The first of a string of mild disappointments is the realisation that there's no option to fight the war as an individual nation. Want to be the pudgy-faced cigar-sucking Winston Churchill? Hard Cheddar, you have to be the pudgy-faced cigar-sucking moustache-stroking walking-stick-wielding composite of all three Allied premiers.
Play is chunked into month-long turns and unit movement is prescribed by that staple of wargame and beehive, the hex-grid. A few succinct text pop-ups help you through your first few turns, introducing mechanics you'll know by heart inside an hour. By genre standards this is a sleek and straightforward wargame. There's no elaborate turn phases, no fiddly unit stacking or baffling combined attack rules. To assault you simply move a unit into a hex adjacent to an enemy, tap to target, study the battle odds, then tap to confirm. The little time spent away from the map is spent on the research and unit purchasing screens. Cities generate industrial production points which can be frittered away on twelve different force types (assuming you've got enough manpower) or labs in six different fields. R&D isn't as colourful or deep as it is in rivals like Hearts of Iron, but it is a nice foil to all the military manoeuvring.
Sadly, what you don't get to indulge in is diplomacy. CEAW inherits from its PC incarnation rigid geopolitical scripts that after a few days' play can start to grate. Countries like the USSR, Italy and America are programmed to enter the war at roughly historical dates. There's a dash of randomness, but you never get to see what would happen if, say, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had held or Franco had thrown his lot in with the Axis. Minor countries such as Turkey and Sweden are there to be invaded, not schmoozed or bullied. The thinking behind this approach has merit: the more chance you give the player to mess with the history the less believable endgames are likely to be. Personally though, I would have appreciated a bit more freedom.
Especially with the AI as it is. Whether you're playing as Axis or Allies, you're guaranteed a good tough war. Robot Rommel blitzes into the Low Countries and France like he's got a Channel ferry to catch, and ersatz Eisenhower will storm into Fortress Europe at the drop of a hat if he thinks he's got a chance of gaining a foothold. The problem is the AI never seems to vary its strategies or consider clever circuitous routes to its goals. The southern half of the map - the Med - and the Northern portion - Scandinavia - rarely if ever seem to figure prominently in its plans.
With the PC version you could get round this unimaginativeness by finding a live foe. On the DS, however, that sadly isn't an option. For reasons someone on the official Slitherine forum might be able to explain, multiplayer has been lost in translation. Was the porting process rushed or done on the cheap? Maybe. The game itself feels very comfortable in its new shrunken stylus-driven surroundings, but there are some strange gaps. Presentation is extremely sparse (especially considering Slitherine had access to Osprey's and the Military Channel's wonderful libraries) and the fact that none of the DS shoulder or ABXY buttons have been utilised is downright bizarre.
With multiplayer gone and zero modding possibilities, the scenario selection really should have been larger. The '6 epic scenarios' described on the back of the box are certainly epic - take-on the full 1939-45 shooting match and you can expect to be playing for several days. The trouble is they're really just the same giant scenario accessed at six different points in time. Choose 1939 and you begin with Third Reich about to swell Poland-ward. Choose 1941 and it's the eve of Barbarossa. Surely there was room to add a few interesting 'What Ifs'. How about a 41 start with the UK crushed and Britain operating from its various possessions in North Africa? Or let's pretend the Germans won the Battle of the Bulge or managed to take Moscow and Stalingrad?
While CEAW doesn't permit rampant historical meddling there is room for intriguing experimentation. The research system alone offers many possibilities. Throw a lot of resources into U-boat development early in the war and you can attempt to starve Britain into submission. Hothouse Luftwaffe fighter research and maybe the Battle of Britain turns out differently.
Despite absent elements like airborne ops (bold Arnhem-style actions are out of the question) and fortress building, and glaring oversights like the lack of partisans in Western Europe (conquered territories can be left totally unoccupied) the game does manage to communicate a good few strategic truths. Pushing into Russia as the Axis, harsh winter weather and stretched supply lines quickly become a worry. Stalingrad and the Central Asian oilfields are there beckoning to you from the western fringe of the map but reaching them involves a massive commitment of men and machines. The folly of fighting a war on two fronts (unavoidable thanks to the heavy-handed scripting) is particularly starkly illustrated.
With a few tweaks here and there, a more flexible play environment, and a more imaginative AI, this could have been an incredibly solid strategy game. As it is I've sunk many contented hours into it and don't plan to put it aside for a while yet. If you're after a WW2 commander experience on the DS, Panzer Tactics is still the game to search out first (though fiddly, its Advance Wars-style intimacy, multiplay, and rich unit mix make it a more pleasing play). This ambitious oddity I can only really recommend to folk who read Anthony Beevor, know the Maginot Line wasn't a railway, and sighed when they heard the History Channel had changed its name to Yesterday. Even then, it would be a guarded recommendation.
5 / 10