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Shattered Union

Jim's split down the middle about this one.

It goes like this: the United States is no more. Disagreements about who gets to be Mr President ends in the American Civil War Mk 2 and the greatest army of all time becomes confused and starts to shoot at itself. The Europeans have - for some reason - captured Washington, and everywhere else has gone to the dogs (of war). Texas, California, The Old Confederate States, New England, The Central Plains and er, the Microsoft Zone (not really), are all at each other's throats. They must wrestle, if tanks and helicopters can be said to wrestle, to bring mega-death and vicarious entertainment to our tired gaming souls.

Your war, should you choose to spend your cash on it, is one of turn-based strategy. Yup, there's more to Shattered Union than some thinly-veiled swipes at Mr Bush and chums, even if that is enough to justify its existence to spineless liberals like me. Sure, the United States probably should be balkanised to bring about world peace, but if it doesn't make a decent videogame then it's really not doing anyone any favours.

So is it any good? Mmpf. S'okay. S'pose.

The campaign consists of boardgame-style rounds, and is played out on a 2D map divided into strategic regions. This portion of the game gives you time to fix battered Humvees and to make decisions about where to invade next, and also to admire poorly-directed cut-scenes about events in this farcical Yank war.

The battles themselves involve hexes. As all gamers know, there are two kinds of hex. One is the fun kind: useful in witchcraft and voodoo amusements. The other is the tactical kind: a geometry versatile enough to divide terrain up into lots of useful little segments. If it weren't for the hex then the turn-based strategy of Shattered Union would be significantly less interesting. It would be positively square. With hexes present, you are able to make tessellated tank war across the American terrain maps, which are of the muddy kind familiar to wargamers of any era.

Stats! Tanks are heavy, slow and moody. Jeeps meanwhile are light and friendly.

Upon these terrains you must deploy, move, and capture, one unit at a time. That in itself can get a bit tedious, which is a shame, because tedium doesn't mean prizes. Whilst on the theme of tedium I'll mention the camera controls: they aren't good enough, and don't allow a decent overview of what's going on. It's annoying, in ways that will induce mild cussing.

Anyway, Shattered Union sits right in the middle ground of turn-based gaming, failing to do anything that would be unfamiliar to gamers who have squatted in this hexagon-based territory during the past decade or so. With each battle you have access to a basic 40-odd units, which inflates as you spend money on new death machines. These units must be selected pre-battle, and must be deployed and used to capture a number of hexes across the map. The fact that there's no default attack force can be a bit annoying, and you'll find yourself entering battle with a single jeep if you're not paying attention. This, regrettably, is representative of Shattered Union's generally crappy interface. It never looks much good, and nor does it make many suggestions as to what you're supposed to be doing.

But if you do remember to bring your tanks, and if those tanks actually capture something, then you'll accrue victory points. Enough of these allow you to hold aloft your mug of Horlicks and proclaim righteous victory over your AI and/or human opponent.

Pick a side and then make with the warfare. I chose to be Jesusland.

The units themselves are all 'real-world' Yank fighting machines, from Jeeps to 'Warthogs', and each has a small mound of statistics associated with it. They're not particularly important, but will ultimately determine the usefulness of any particular in various situations. As will common sense. Jeeps cannot defeat M60 main battle tanks, engineers are crap compared to commandos, and so on.

Of course it helps if you're familiar with contemporary American military hardware, and know your Paladins from your M1s, but ultimately the tactics are rather thin. Defending against air attack is, predictably, a right old bastard, and you can lose large numbers of units without ever being able to withdraw from a fight. This is partly because of the heavy fog of war. Scouting is tricky, and fast moving units invariably end up dead rather quickly, usually killed by something large that only tanks or artillery really have any chance against. Or you can use planes, which will inevitably get shot down during the enemy's turn. So you end up scouting with tanks. Which seems silly, but is really the only effective way of operating. Spend all your money on heavy stuff and anti-aircraft units, and you stand a chance. It is, for want of a better description of the situation, a bit of a tank-rush.

If you're going to be producing a game which is little more than an excuse to play with real-world military hardware, then wouldn't it be a good idea to actually make use of real-world tactics? Even if we forget about the satellite and drone tech that the Americans are so pleased with, what about a pair of binoculars? Having so little idea where the enemy is becomes ridiculous rather quickly. This is a fog of war that fogs the fun, rather than just the battlefield.

Actually most of the game looks like this: a pseudo-3D tactical map. It's hexy.

Despite all these grumbles, it's fairly easy to pick up and play. Despite the intimidating appearance (which I suppose the ludicrous C&C-style story was supposed to dissipate) there's nothing here that even old Grandpa ShakyBrain couldn't pick up after a few minutes. The handful of video-tutorials aren't really a substitute for in-game help, but they dole out procedure with reasonable clarity. A couple of missions in (after getting totally hammered by the smart AI) you'll begin to develop some tactics of your own. Simple stuff, but effective: like moving in loose formation. Once you've found out what works, Shattered Union, like all simple strategy games, becomes fairly compulsive. It's easy to get into that trance state of not-ever-quite-managing-to-be-bored, as you laboriously click your tiny artillery and miniscule infantry across the map.

Ultimately it's tough to argue that a turn-based game needs to be more complex than this, but it does need to have some kind of extra depth or sophistication, and a mere glance at Advance Wars give you some idea of what I'm talking about. General ugliness, poor presentation, ropey tactics, and a general lack of charm all doom Shattered Union to that bargain bin in the sky. The plastic CGI storytellers and the fuzzy, characterless maps just leave you with the sour sense of wasted-time rolling around in your skull. It will engage you if you're willing to shrug off that sense of hollowness, but, with that in mind, I'm not sure why anyone would have bought this in the first place.

6 / 10

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Shattered Union

Xbox, PC

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Jim Rossignol