For you young-guns, there was once a series of escalating political tensions referred to as the Cold War, during the late seventies and early eighties. It was an era when the doomsday clock ticked and the world lived under the ever-present threat of nuclear war.
Peace was maintained thanks only to a strategy known as MAD; each side knew that, if push came to shove, each side could guarantee the destruction of the other - Mutually Assured Destruction. It was a time of near misses and much military tension. This was particularly true of the German Border, where the Warsaw Pact countries were determined to protect the Communist ideals while the fledgling NATO alliance sought to contain the spread of communism.
Vast armies were drawn up in Central Europe, with each side developing strategies and contingencies for all sorts of possible conflicts; but, ultimately, both knew if there was any chance one side was looking like losing, it was more likely than not that the MAD would come into play.
Covert and proxy wars were the name of the game, and conflicts in Africa, the Middle East and Asia generally had one or both of the superpowers feeding technology, supplies, and resources into the warzone to further their own global aspirations. Wargame: European Escalation sits firmly in the middle of this period, exploring some of the "what if" scenarios created as a result of the many border incidents in Northern Europe.
Based on the R.U.S.E engine and developed by Eugen Systems, European Escalation is a very well put together combat real-time strategy (RTS) game, designed to challenge your command skills as you attempt to navigate your forces through these critical times.
Towards the end of World War 2, the cut and thrust of armored warfare had waned, and the real deal-breaker for armies was the theory of combined arms. The tank was no longer the darling of the battlefield, but rather an integral part of an integrated army where each arm had a vital part to play. This change in tactics is very much at the heart of European Escalation, and no more comprehensively described than in our first battle experience...
It's a simple mission to clear out some advance enemy columns, who have made it across our border. We gathered up our unit of four tanks and it was "tally ho!" as we waded into them. The result was best described as having ones clock cleaned. Hitting an infantry screen, we were taken out at range - not just by the well hidden anti-tank weapons of the infantry, but also by the well positioned tanks set at extreme range. From this first encounter, we learned that Wargame: European Escalation is a wargame in its truest sense, rewarding you for playing a tactical game based on the strengths and weaknesses of your units.
The basics of the gameplay mean that you are allocated a certain number of scenario-based units to start with, and have the flexibility to spend points on additional units of your choosing as the mission unfolds. The units gain experience and are persistent throughout the various battles of the scenario, as are your unit losses. You have to carefully balance your force make-up to ensure you are capable of completing the scenario. Going tank-heavy without a reasonable recon component will ensure defeat from well placed infantry.
The battles are fought over well-detailed maps, even if they are somewhat sterile in appearance. The game engine can deliver an incredible number of objects, and you have the ability to zoom in and out of the map at will. Moving units is a simple affair, and combat will take place as soon as they are in range of an enemy (or when commanded to shoot if you have set them to hold their fire.) Damage is based on historically accurate information, including weapon type, armor type, facing direction, and ammunition used.
What we particularly liked was how realistic the combat ranges were. With battlefields of up to 150 square kilometers in size, tank-to-tank combat usually takes place at extreme range. One of the tricks of being successful in the game is, wherever possible, to maximise any range advantages you may have or to ensure you only expose your units when the enemy is well inside your killing zone.
There are a large number of units available in the game and, with this particular era, the balance between the factions was reasonably good, with no one side having a significant overall technology advantage. The menus and controls are reasonably intuitive, and you can easily set it up so you can get quite detailed mouse-over popups that show you the health, ammo, morale, and fuel status of your unit.
The solo scenarios are well done. They evoke the tension of the era and unfold as you play through the tactical missions into a battle. This style of an unfolding battle is something we enjoy, and is a vast improvement on the loosely connected missions common in other games of this type. There is also a good amount of variation in your set objectives, with bonus objectives on offer as well.
The game plays well, with good animations and weapon effects. Everything flows, and units respond well to commands, positioning themselves to their best advantage once arriving at a destination, and tanks will turn to face any flanking units. The simplistic command interface, however, belies the tough AI you have to compete against in solo games. Despite winning a game, you often find yourself wanting to replay it so you can do it a little better... That said, the pace of each scenario never felt hectic, and there was always time to micromanage the units when required.
Visually, the game can feel sterile - as alluded to earlier. There is, however, a lot of detail in each map, from individual trees to woods and even whole forests. There is a myriad of different buildings that form small villages, industrial areas, and whole cities.
If you don't fancy playing against the AI and prefer the more unpredictable challenge of a human opponent, there is also a well thought-out multiplayer component that includes both friendly and ranked matches.
There are some issues though. Aerial combat is largely through helicopter and ground-based anti-air units. Doctrine at the time had the attack helicopters playing a pivotal role in tank engagements, whereas today total air supremacy has a lot more influence. We would have liked to see more variety in the air to ground combat units. The game would have also benefited from a system of standard unit formations.
There is a lot for Wargamers to like about this game. It's not just challenging from a tactical sense, but it's ease of control and its scale also make it a fun game to play. If RTS games are where you get your kicks, you won't be disappointed with this one.