Antietam is a real time wargame set during the American Civil War, recreating the bloodiest day in American military history, in which around four thousand men were killed and another seventeen thousand wounded.
A single battle might not sound like much, but the battlefield is enormous and the game features a whole range of scenarios, from short skirmishes involving a handful of units in a little corner of the map to replaying the entire battle, something which takes up to twelve hours to accomplish.
There are also a number of variations on the historical battle, allowing you to play "what if" scenarios where one or both generals act more aggressively, giving you scope for even greater bloodshed.
The battlefield over which you will be fighting has been recreated in great detail, with every wood, field, fence and farm placed according to maps of the time. The units you will be commanding all arrive according to their historical orders as well, though this can be infuriating as it means you have no control over when your reinforcements will arrive.
According to the blurb on the back of the box, "In 1997, Sid Meier's Gettysburg! revolutionized war gaming".
Whether or not that is true, it is now Y2K and the gaming industry has moved on somewhat. Unfortunately Antietam has not, as it essentially uses the same creaking old graphics engine that powered Gettysburg, with a few AI and interface tweaks, and some new terrain features to keep it wheezing along.
The game is locked at 800x600 with pitiful 256 colour graphics, and bizarrely it seems to achieve this by actually changing your Windows desktop settings every time the game is loaded. So if you are hoping to duck back to Windows during a game for any reason, you can forget it...
The units actually look surprisingly good given the archaic graphics engine powering the game, especially viewed close up. Animations are slow and clunky though, and the terrain is truly horrible, speckled with black dots for some reason. The game also starts to look rather messy when you zoom out far enough to get a good view of the battle.
The sound is competent enough though, with cannons roaring and officers shouting to you when new units arrive on the battlefield, and units letting rip their battle cry as they charge into close combat. But there is no music apart from an annoyingly repetitive drum that plays while you are using the main menu, and in the end I resorted to playing the soundtrack from my favourite American Civil War movie, "Glory", to keep me in the mood.
Of course, wargames have never been well known for their stunning graphics, and fans of the genre will no doubt argue that it is the gameplay that counts.
Sadly Antietam doesn't exactly shine here either. The game is overwhelmingly complex at the best of times, with a huge battlefield to watch over and dozens of seperate units to control in the full battle scenarios.
The basic infantry unit in Antietam is a regiment, with four or five regiments forming a brigade. As there is no unit grouping facility you will soon discover that the only way to play the game is by giving out orders to the brigade commanders, and then adjusting the positioning of individual regiments where necessary.
Unfortunately your officers show little or no initiative, and unless an enemy unit strays within firing range they will just stand there. This means that you have to constantly move your regiments around to make the most of them, and it's not unusual to see many of your units inactive while a battle rages just outside of their effective range.
And all of this must be achieved in real time, without many of the interface advances that the real time strategy genre has accomplished over the last decade. Luckily you can give orders and move around the battlefield while the game is paused, but this really defeats the purpose of making the game real time in the first place...
It's not all bad news though. Antietam does feature some fairly useful in-game tutorials that will teach you the basics of the game, which makes things just that little bit less confusing. I would certainly recommend playing through all of the tutorials and a few of the smaller scenarios before attempting a full battle.
The sheer variety of scenarios on offer should keep even the most avid wargamer happy as well, assuming that the game's poor graphics, mind-numbing detail, and finicky controls don't put you off first. There is even a random scenario generator which can create new scenarios for you, ranging from a "small skirmish" or "minor altercation" to a full scale battle which can rival the real thing.
There is also a history of the battle written by one of the officers who took part in it included with the game, which should please American Civil War fanatics like myself, although unfortunately it is only provided in-game rather than in printed form.
The game also features art by the ubiquitous Don Troiani for the menu screens. If you know who he is you will know what to expect, if you don't the chances are you won't care. It's just a pity that the menu puts the rest of the game's graphics to shame...
Antietam is a wargame that only hardcore wargamers could love. Historically accurate to a fault, vast in scale, unnecessarily complex and poorly presented, it isn't going to win any new fans for the genre.
Which is a shame, because lurking under the excessive detail and dated graphics is an enjoyable game trying to break out. If you can forgive Antietam its flaws you may come to love it, but for me it was just too much work for too little reward in the end.