When was the last time you bought an isometric RTS and what was the game?
Hard to remember, isn't it? Me, I think my last pre-polygonal RTS must have been purchased around three years ago. The game was either Nival's Blitzkrieg or this game's grandpa, American Conquest. AC wasn't a bad way to spend a wet winter weekend (basically it was Age of Empires II with wigwams, colonists and loads of military detail) but I skipped the Fight Back add-on that came six months later, and would, to be honest, have skipped this standalone expansion too, had a complimentary copy not been delivered to my door by one of Eurogamer's winged monkeys.
The reason I wasn't going to buy Divided Nation was that I suspected it was going to be nothing more than an unimaginative dollop of new scenarios and units for a game that probably should have been euthanized a couple of years ago. Now I've actually played the thing, I can see that my judgement is failing me in old age. Divided Nation is in fact an unimaginative dollop of new scenarios and units for a game that definitely should have been euthanized a couple of years ago.
There's very little here to catch the eye of a modern strategy gamer, although diehard American Conquest fans might wring some pleasure from the nine new campaigns. Linear and set mostly against the background of the American Civil War (two recreate the spat between the Texans and the Mexicans in 1836) they are reasonably diverting if you can put up with the annoyances associated with of the ancient game engine.
My first few hours with Divided Nation were spent instinctively stroking the mouse wheel and depressing the right mouse button. The game features one of the most primitive cameras imaginable. The lack of rotation isn't a major inconvenience, but the two-step zoom is a royal pain in the arse. Zoomed-in it's so close to the ground that you're lucky if you can see five percent of an average army. Zoomed-out and you can barely see your soldiers, let alone recognise what type they are or what formations they're arranged in. This might sound like a nit-pick, but really it isn't. The constant camera yo-yoing and mini-map jumps sap most of the spectacle from what should be the game's primary attraction, its colossal set-piece battles.
One of the draws of the original American Conquest was the subtlety of its combat modelling. GSC went to a lot of trouble to endow their minute troopers with a sense of self-preservation. Flank attacks, the death of comrades, the loss of colours, it would all chip away at experience-related morale. Eventually you'd find yourself looking-on helplessly as half your lily-livered army legged-it for the metaphorical hills (ridiculously there aren't any real hills in the game). I remember enjoying this unusual bit of realism at the time. Today, combined with the management problems caused by that useless camera, the tendency of troops to run just seems annoying. If you could tell at a glance which formations were losing their bottle then things wouldn't be so bad. Regrettably you cant so you end-up trusting luck and weight of numbers a lot of the time.
Fortunately enemy commanders are no Bill Tecumseh Shermans or Robert E. Lees. They understand that, in defence, it's wise to sit tight in trenches and treelines until the attackers arrive. In more mobile battles however, they fail to take full advantage of the various available formations or exploit obvious gaps in your lines. Mugs.
Random acts of kindness
As a wargame Divided Nation isn't much cop. As a traditional base-building RTS
it's slightly more successful. A highly customisable random-map skirmish mode provides an opportunity to engage in the traditional RTS economic activity that's largely left out of the campaigns and single missions. There's nothing startlingly original about the blend of building, farming, mining, researching, and fighting on offer, but games have that pleasing momentum that helped make classic like Age of Kings so moreish.
Four factions (Union, Confederacy, Texas, Mexico) are playable. GSC has made an effort to distinguish them with unique structures and units but ultimately differences are fairly superficial, especially when compared to the differences between the civs in the original AC (there you could play as various European powers or Native American tribes). Yes, it is quite cute the way that Texan recruitment relies on wagon circles, while Union and Rebel army enlargement relies on railway stations, but basically they are all just dressed-up versions of the old barracks...
I wish I wasn't in Dixie
...which is DN's fundamental problem. I wasn't particularly flattering about Ensemble's spirit of adventure in my Age of Empires 3 review, but at least they pushed the boat out graphically, told a good yarn in their campaigns, and gave us handsome Home Cities. GSC makes them look positively avant-garde with this release. There isn't the tiniest nugget of novelty here. If the big engagements had been engaging then that wouldn't necessarily have been a problem. Because the battles are bothersome, the unoriginality is as lethal as a cannonball to the cranium.
Don't waste your money on Divided Nation. In fact, even if a winged monkey alights on your doorstep one day and offers you a free copy, think twice.