You knew it was wrong but you went and did it anyway. They were trouble, they weren’t quite right, but they drew you in all the same. You couldn’t help it - how could you? You fell in love, or something like that. Everyone has that person from their past who was less right and more right now. Gareth Gates had Jordan - Anthony had Cleopatra - and now gamers have Wargame: European Escalation (WEE).
The folks at Eugen Systems and Focus Home Interactive have somehow captured the essence of the so-wrong-it’s-right paradox and distilled it into game form. WEE doesn’t pull its punches - or even tell you when the punch is coming - but it makes victory all the more rewarding.
WEE takes the conventional RTS and adds a few unique touches which really change the dynamic of the genre. As either the forces of NATO or the Warsaw Pact, players embark on a fictional conflict between the East and West which begins in 1975 when the Cold War gets hot. For those readers who did not grow up during a period of imminent thermonuclear destruction, this period saw an escalation in sabre rattling between the US-led West and Soviet-led East. WEE plays out the “what if” scenario where the Cold War escalates into actual armed conflict, modelling its solo player campaigns on real-life flashpoints that nearly spilled over into all-out war. This offers a novel setting for a genre that has often lapsed into fantasy or sci-fi doldrums.
WEE sticks to RTS convention by playing out battles in a variety of locales across Europe. Players win levels by achieving staple objectives such as capture point A, repel attack B, and so on. Beyond the basic mechanic, however, WEE does away with RTS staples - including base building. Instead players construct decks of units for their NATO or Warsaw Pact army, deploying units for a given number of points during any mission. Points are accrued by killing enemy units and capturing zones on each map, which must be held with a static commander unit (think the King piece in chess). All units (including commanders) are bought with points and can be called in as reinforcements through (peripheral) zones you control.
As players complete primary and secondary missions on the solo campaign, they build up Command Stars; these are the currency for unlocking the bewildering array of units for both armies. These have been lovingly modelled and reconstructed to the last detail, including armour ratings for individual tank panels. This level of detail sets a high benchmark for realism which really adds to the game, as it is carried over into the game proper. Eugen Systems should be commended for this.
Levels are navigated through the slick IRISZOOM™ which veers easily between extreme close-ups and distance views. Buildings and landscapes are beautifully rendered - gardens house children’s slides and rolling tanks leave tracks in their wake as they pass through fields.
It’s great fun zooming from between the macro and micro level but having said that, the satellite view is most useful, allowing a strategic overview of the map with units and objectives clearly pinpointed. Notes appear for each unit and update players on fuel and ammo consumption, striking ranges and unit type. There are also random accidents which can crop up - such as vehicles getting stuck in the mud - but it’s clear when this happens and rarely feels like an AI exploit (hint: don’t drive tanks through bogs). Overall the good presentation makes frenetic battles easier to navigate, which is crucial to properly learning and exploiting the rock-paper-scissors mechanic. Sending units against their counterparts is suicide in this unforgiving game, but it’s usually simple to identify what each unit is.
WEE’s approach will certainly prove divisive. There are instances where it works great. The threadbare tutorial gives you a few pointers on the basics: movement, terrain and its effect on vehicles, and so on. Then, like a vengeful stepmother, WEE steps back and watches you run with scissors. I failed the first time horribly, sending tanks into the fog of war blithely. This was punished with instant death from entrenched units hidden in a forest. The second time, I scoped the same area out with recon units. These are essential to getting intel, but I was flanked anyway by armoured recon and infantry wielding rocket launchers. The third time, I cracked the nut; I was patient, thoughtful, unrushed. WEE each time gave a little, encouraging a tiny bit, without compromising its hardcore roots. There was always enough for one more turn - and then I realised two hours had passed.
In other instances things become frustrating. A few levels later, Command Units are introduced. These represent your generals and control zones of the battlefield when stationary within them. Controlling these zones allows you to deploy reinforcements so it’s important to capture these and hold onto them. The pop-up explaining all of this then asks you to move to one of these zones - naturally, you oblige. Slightly less naturally this sends you into an ambush and (unless you think fast) your Command Units are destroyed. You could of course plow on - bring in some more Commanders eventually - but it’s easier just to restart. And this is where the steep learning curve starts to grate.
With crushing reality, you will die in WEE and (less realistically!) you will restart. Campaigns become a paranoid game of cat and mouse as every forest or hill becomes a potential hiding-hole. You’ll inch forward, heart in mouth, and then realise you’ve been rushed elsewhere by the adaptive and intelligent AI. There are few instances where this reaches monitor-punching levels of frustration, but don’t expect an easy ride at first and be prepared to not use WEE for your casual gaming.
The AI does at least provide a challenge, which is often a big problem with solo RTS campaigns. Multiplayer is available for those more confident armchair generals; the plethora of deck combinations (and stats for those obsessives among us, ahem) keeps things interesting - although even something as detailed as WEE suffers from the dreaded complaint of unit spam too (helicopters, if you were wondering).
The appeal to RTS fans will be enormous - the change in pace is refreshing and the painstaking attention to detail is remarkable, as is the depth for anyone willing to put in the hours. To cap it off, at the time of writing Focus Home Interactive have just announced a free DLC with new multiplayer maps and a skirmish mode. However, casual gamers or those with less RTS experience may be put off by the steep learning curve. This will undoubtedly reduce the mass appeal of WEE but this does not a bad game make.