S.T.A.L.K.E.R. isn't the only long-awaited East European traveller arriving this Spring. Theatre of War - a real-time WW2 tactics title that first turned heads back in 2002 - should be with us sometime in April. For the last few days I've been sat in a ruined church tower with a pair of binoculars spying on the preview code. This is what I've observed so far...
March 03, morning.
"Crikey, would you look at those views! Its graphical foundations might have been laid down five or six years ago, but this game still looks Betty Grable-ravishing at times. The reason the battlefields have such an unusually spacious feel has a lot to do with the engine (a heavily adapted version of the one used for flight-sim IL-2 Sturmovik) and the ingenious way the developer (1C) has bordered each map with a broad apron of inaccessible but illusion-bolstering terrain. You can literally see for miles."
"Hmmm, not sure about the landscape variety though. Whether it's Belgium, Poland, Russia, France or Germany, the rolling real-estate has a slightly generic feel to it. Where are Normandy's shady orchards, sunken lanes, and formidable hedgerows? More importantly where's all the bricks and mortar - the bomb-blasted towns and cities?"
March 03, afternoon.
"Ever played Close Combat or Combat Mission? Conceptually and realism-wise ToW is somewhere in the middle of those two cult classics. With no base building, resource collection, or recruitment everything boils down to the clever, careful manoeuvring of a pre-supplied force (usually composed of infantry and vehicles). Sometimes the scenario designer will introduce reinforcements at points within a mission, but there's no guarantee of this so usually it pays to proceed with the utmost caution.
"The absence of repair trucks and vehicle hitpoints also encourage discretion rather than valour. Everything with wheels and caterpillar tracks has accurate armour thicknesses, and every shell has historical capabilities. This rare realism means you can lose a precious T-34 or PzIV to a single hit, or - almost as disastrous - see one immobilized or gun-damaged within seconds of exposing it to fire. With this kind of lethality tank-heavy scraps really should be over in minutes, in practise some of the armour duels go on for ages because most of ToW's gunners can't shoot for toffee. Hopefully 1C and its publisher-cum-collaborator Battlefront can make the marksmanship a little more realistic before release day."
March 04, morning.
"I've just watched a gripping engagement that showed ToW at its believable, dramatic best. A German assault on a couple of French held bridges began with a softening-up bombardment that turned the defender's trench networks into a boiling cauldron of death and destruction. Before the dust had settled, grey-clad infantry started streaming forward. With them crept light Panzers and halftracks. A couple of these bulletproof crawlers were brought to abrupt stops by emplaced field guns. The assault looked like it was going to bog-down until a gutsy group of grenadiers swept forward and silenced the cannons at close range with Schmeissers and grenades. Shortly after the bridges were taken, a small force of trundling H35 tanks appeared and things started looked dicey for the Krauts. It was only when the troops crewing one of the overrun field guns found their range that the objective was finally secured."
March 04, afternoon.
"I've just watched a rather disappointing engagement that showed ToW at its unconvincing worst. Yank tanks and infantry were advancing across a heavily wooded plain towards a hamlet occupied by a mixed Axis force. Shells start zipping back and forth at an improbably early stage (neither sides' vehicles seemed to have any problem spotting each other through the thick vegetation) A few damaged US AFVs decided to back off but most raced towards the centre of the hamlet like suicidal greyhounds (actually, one was a suicidal Greyhound). Within the settlement a couple of Panzerschreck rockets did some damage, but most of the Germans, prevented by code limitations from sheltering in the buildings, were quickly mown down by chattering bow MGs."
"Battlefront/1C have talked about adding garrisonable buildings in a patch. The fact they won't feature in the initial release is more than a little disappointing."
March 05, morning.
More mixed feelings. ToW comes with a generous range of sizeable historically-grounded campaigns (5) all of which are linear scenario sequences. There's some inter-mission input in the form of unit selection and upgrading (each soldier has ability stats which can be improved with the experience points earned from victories) but you never really feel like you're a leading an identifiable force. The episodes are just too dispersed both chronologically and geographically to provide a meaningful sense of place and purpose.
The positive side of this peripatetic approach is the variety of hardware available to commanders. Most of the British, German, and American materiel will be familiar to the seasoned military gamer, but there are machines in the French, Polish, and Soviet armouries that you won't have drag-selected too many times before. Frustratingly, as there's no skirmish mode, novel conveyances like the NKL-26 snowmobile and TKS tankette are only accessible when the campaign designers permit it.
March 05, afternoon.
As you will have gathered by now I'm somewhat torn by what I've seen so far. At times ToW's breezy command-and-control system, attractive visuals, and deep realism combine to create the kind of pacy, plausible recreations of WW2 combat that games like Company of Heroes - as wonderful as they are - just can't supply. At other times unlikely unit behaviours, and frustrations like those out-of-bounds buildings leave you wondering if Codemasters was right when it dropped the game back in 2005. Battlefront and 1C have still got a few more weeks left to tweak and pummel the code. Hopefully the next time I clamber up into this bell tower to watch the warfare, the view will be clearer.