We’re going to have an inherently awkward time, you and I. You’re one of two people: a hardcore Wargame fan since European Escalationor you’re someone intrigued by the style, perhaps a fan of R.U.S.E, wanting to know what the game is about. Wargame AirLand Battle isn’t problematic because it’s inaccessible, it’s problematic because it’s so bloody good that covering it in the appropriate detail would make this a very tedious read for most of you. That is by no means a bad thing.

AirLand Battle is the sequel to Eugen Systems’ cold war RTS, European Escalation. The first question for fans of EE who haven’t yet checked out the extensive beta is: “is this just a content patch for European Escalation?” This is a point of contention. Whilst much of the game remains the same in dynamic and structure, the plethora of both aesthetic and technical changes and additions have so far planted massive grins of those who’ve gotten their hands on the game. In short, AirLand Battle improves upon European Escalation in pretty much every conceivable way possible, throwing more than double the content on top of that, as well as what is supposed to be a proper campaign, which is now even playable in multiplayer. Its brilliance renders European Escalation obsolete – that’s how I’ve chosen to look at it.

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What is this illusive, under-the-radar release? Wargame is an RTS series that, to some extent, offers exceptional macro-style gameplay that we really don’t see in many RTS games now’days. This isn’t rock paper scissors, and it’s not about sending a few guys onto a control point and defending against three types of units with the only units suited to do so. You won’t see this in eSports bars, and you’ll likely not come across many AirLand Battle posters on your way to South Korea. It’s not without micromanagement, but if you’re a war enthusiast interested in strategy and authenticity, then Wargame AirLand battle is the sandbox RTS environment you’ve been waiting for. There’s nothing like it.

With an increase of over 400 units over its predecessor, bringing the total number of playable units to over 700, AirLand Battle brings tangible choice to the RTS genre. Units are split into their respective nationality, and even their respective decade if you so wish. The units you play with in multiplayer depend on the ‘deck’ (pack of units) you choose, from a range of preset decks for each of the nationalities under PACT and NATO. In short, units are split between PACT and NATO, and then between the nationalities within each strategic arrangement. You can mix and match, or you can stick to a single nationality, and a single strategic type (for example armored, or air) for various bonuses.

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Pick your bonus – although I can’t vouch for their strategic relevance. It all feels very academic to me, but it’s nice you’ve a choice.

Bonuses you say? Why, yes. You wouldn’t have over 700 units without any tangible choice. This choice is made evident in the totally essential albeit quite overwhelming deck creation system. Your deck is a little part of you, in game, which is either decided by how you play, or decides how you play. The process of picking which units you want to use in game is made easier by the inclusion of an extensive armory, which lists and displays every single unit in the game, showing variable such as armor penetration for the ammunition, to ammunition types, their ranges, and all of the armour thickness and positioning. The armory serves as a sort of Cold War war-porn magazine, where a little study goes a long way. The best way, however, is to use some of the pre-made decks to see what does what, and what you’d rather use or not use.

As previously stated, you can create your own decks. You can mix it up for choice if you’d like, or stick to a single nationality within the PACT or NATO groups. I personally prefer to get the first bonus by sticking to one nationality: French for NATO, and Russian for PACT. I could choose mobility type for an added bonus, and even the era of the vehicles for another, but I find this superfluous and academic rather than practically useful. Using a partisan deck allows me to use some of the strongest units that nationality has to offer, but some of the weaker nationalities will leave you with some limited tactical choices – but you’ll be allowed more of their unit types.

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Be sure to invest in some good anti-air units, though, this is AirLand Battle after-all. The armory is incredibly impressive, and good fun to tinker around with, and the deck creation system has been substantially streamlined – it’s much easier to see vehicle progression, and navigating each line/unit type is intuitive and self explanatory, a far cry from European Escalation‘s convoluted albeit manageable system.

So you have a deck prepared, but what’s it all for? That really depends on what kind of player you are. Wargame AirLand Battle is a potentially fantastic experience in multiplayer, but there are times where community nattering has lead to some underwhelming gaming experiences. In European Escalation we saw the over-use of artillery, rushing with helicopters, and planting cheap infantry in bushes with view to rush with their cheap armored vehicles. I’m happy to say that much, if not all of this has been fixed. Artillery seems so much more balanced. It is costly to keep in service since ammunition depletes rapidly, and its suppression effectiveness is much more apparent than previously, where it seemed mostly used for offensive purposes. There are rarely any artillery spammers, and never any helicopter rushers.

The beta saw a return of a few of these tactics, primarily shoving a bajillion unwilling men into a bushline and tossing their vehicles into the fray, but you’ve now many more options as to how to handle that. For instance, dropping napalm from a plane is a good way to flush out any pesky – however cheap – enemies. You can also napalm roads for a strategic troll, even if there’s nothing on them, knowing the enemy will be using them, which is always fun. It’s no more about annoyingly ineffective t55’s with flamers, you’ve white phosphorous, napalm, and effective artillery to sort out some of the problems that we saw in the games predecessor.

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What of the aforementioned problems in this installment, then? AirLand Battle is immensely complex on the balancing side of things, but Eugen Systems have done a phenomenal job at balancing it. It’s far more balanced than EE, but a couple of things seem to have been overlooked – if you can call it that. For example, when a player drops, their units are passed onto another player… the problem is, it seems that only one player inherits the dropped players’ units from the game. In other words, one player inherits all the units from all of the players who drop, rather than giving one player another’s units, and then the next player the units of the next guy who drops. I don’t know if this is intentional or a bug, but it’s problematic when it causes one player to be overstretched in an unbalanced battle.

A second issue I have is with the way that the planes evacuate. You can issue orders to your planes to evac if they’re in trouble, or out of ammo, or for any reason you see fit, but their directional turning arch to get off the map isn’t something you can really decide. Often, they’ll make a considerably larger than necessary directional arch that might take them over enemy AA that you knew was there. They could have gone left instead of right and survived, but there’s no way to, say, drag the direction of their intended evac to avoid known problems. This can be quite trying if you’ve sent out five or so Mig’s to deal with a problem, which they solved, only to inexplicably evac through an enemy AA field because, for some reason, they took a left instead of a right. It’s true that, possibly, you can solve this by directing them to a safer area before you tell them to evac, but we’re trying to move away from micromanagement as much as possible.

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No more micromanagement in urban areas is genuinely a relief.

I don’t say that without substantiating my claims – there are examples of how micromanagement has been quelled. The way units are managed in clusters of buildings is one such example. In AirLand Battle you tell units to enter cover in general areas outlined, if a village, by a white grid along the peripheries of the cover. The unit does the rest – maneuvering round to get line of sight, or moving from building to building. You no longer have to worry about which way your units are facing in urban clusters, which is a good thing. It’s also essential.

This means that carelessness rewards the enemy. 

The dynamic of combat remains quite similar. AirLand Battle is about capturing the most with as little as possible, generally. You spend points collected over time, increasing with the amount of command areas held, to buy units to strategically take over the map. Supremacy isn’t the only condition for winning, with most games hitting the point limit set by the host, or earning the most amount of points before time runs out. The catch with Wargame is that finishing blows will earn you the amount of points that unit you just murdered cost. This means that carelessness rewards the enemy, which is fairly unique in the RTS genre, at least in this very literal way.

The wonderful thing about Wargame AirLand Battle is that a well structured defense is just as lucrative as a winning offensive. Yes, it’s true that without an offense you can’t hope to capture further points, but if you manage to stand off a large army with very little units, you earn enough points to counter-attack against, inevitably, a very weak one. The exciting thing about all this is that it makes games balanced, and almost never one sided. There are ample opportunities to redeem yourself and go for the win, which means that most players stay with games right until the end. It’s possible to win with a single tank left, if you’re near the point limit, or if the time runs out in our favor.

It's sometimes funny to have a stack of helicopters ready for a counter attack.

It’s sometimes funny to have a stack of helicopters ready for a counter attack.

Eugen Systems have done a substantial amount of work to ensure that players are sporting in how they play, but your enjoyment is still determined by the strategies employed by other players. There are formulaic ways to do things, and if you’re aware of them, you’ll employ formulaic responses. This can be a little tiresome given the fact there’s an astonishing opportunity to experiment, but I find that the more I play over time, the less I see of European Escalation favorites returning, with more unique and risky tactics being employed.

Things aren’t all technical, though, you’ll be drawn in by the realistically rendered, totally authentic Scandinavian backdrop of war. Whether you’re zoomed all the way in, or out, AirLand Battle is a beautiful game. Sound is magnificently designed, with the addictive boom and clatter of tanks and rifles surrounding you at all angles. Watching the screen shake up close in tank battles feels authentic and exciting, but AirLand Battle really is a chaos that demands your attention in the overview view.

The addition of 10v10… superficial chaos for the sake of it?

AirLand Battle has the same 1v1, 2v2, 3v3, etc, game types, but this time Eugen Systems have included a 10v10 mode which I was promised to be chaotic. The strange thing is, it isn’t particularly chaotic. If anything, 10v10 is where AirLand Battle most shines. The competency of the players often means that 10v10 matches are brilliantly orchestrated tactical displays, where 10 players all pull together over, currently, a single map, exploiting and counter-exploiting all the tactically advantageous points. Why is 10v10 the best experience? It really allows the added planes to come into their own. On some of the smaller maps, the speed in which the glass-cannon planes intercept often made them sort of throwaway decisions. Interceptors aren’t much use when the maps are too small to actively go and intercept them. In 10v10, among the chaos, it’s possible to spot things coming and plan a viable counter attack. That, and you can’t expect your jets to make it to your target right away, so you have to plan in advance. The massive scale feels much more natural than some of the smaller games, and they’re more tactically enriching and rewarding at times.

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If this is overwhelming to you, Company of Heroes 2 will be out soon.

One might argue that 10v10 can be quite formulaic, since points of occupation are sort of obvious on the map. If you’re on the right, you know exactly where you must go every time, and if you’re on the left, it’s the same. The middle can offer some reaction and diversity, but many matches follow a stringent design. That said, it doesn’t weaken the experience at all, because with over 700 variable units you still have to react to what you’re getting, even if you’re trying to do the same thing every time.

For me, 10v10 AirLand Battle is the best RTS experience you can possibly have.

Is the campaign revamp a success?

Eugen Systems aren’t happy with European Escalation’s campaign – that’s no secret. They’ve made a substantial effort to take the Scandinavian region and offer context this time around, with a strategy map we’re seeing a lot more of recently. Not a complete clone of Risk, but with some similarities, AirLand Battle offers a range of campaigns with different objectives, over different amounts of time, along the same Scandinavian region. You start with few units, clicking on parts of the map you want to travel to, clicking ‘Send Orders’ to effectively end your turn and allow your units to act. If you land on a tile with enemy units, you can either avoid battle or go right into it – you can’t retreat at that point.

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It’s like an RPG! With genocide and international law! Yay!

Choosing to fight will throw you into the standard Wargame style game, but depending on the strength of the unit on your tile, and the enemies, the victory conditions will change. You won’t start with the specific units you have on your tile, but the strength of the unit on your tile will dictate how many points you have to spend on the preset deck in game. The amount of points you need to earn for victory changes depending on the amount of enemy units on the tile, too.

The campaign features maps not seen in the multiplayer game, so that’s novel, but essentially you’re just doing a skirmish against the AI. If you don’t enjoy ‘comp stomping’, you probably won’t get much from the campaign. Behind all the contextual pomp, it’s essentially a consecutive chain of skirmishes that reset every time, with different variables for each battle. The AI is much improved from European Escalation, but very quickly I found myself just camping the main roads, upon which the enemy AI seemed to just drive back and forth. Playing against AI definitely loses some of the games charm.

Just camping this street, and all streets like it, seems to be the best way to rack up points until the clock runs out. Game breaking?

Just camping this street, and all streets like it, seems to be the best way to rack up points until the clock runs out. Game breaking?

Upon victory, which is almost always based on the amount of points you have when the clock runs out, the enemy will usually retreat until the game decides you destroyed the entire battlegroup. If so, you’ll likely have to repeat the 20 minute match against an enemy with a smaller amount of deployment points, on the same map. I prefer Total War‘s system of being able to chase a very weak enemy down and automatically fighting the game for you if it’s clearly going to be a victory. You can’t do that here, and that’s annoying because every match is the same: deploy FOV, spend deployment points, go and find the enemy. There’s no consistency, for instance, whilst I get to keep the control points I earned the last time I played it, I have to purchase all my units again, including command vehicles (if I wish to keep the control points I captured), and guess once again where the enemy might be. Setting up all your defenses in this manner, when you planned for an enemy that might have been at another part of the map, is a bit of a pain in the arse – it feels like an oversight.

The campaign is certainly an improvement on the original’s, and it does offer some interesting features such as tactical decisions that show up based on contextual situations. For instance, the PM of Finland stepped down, which caused some variable instability I could or couldn’t exploit. Other, off-screen decisions are also made which I can either allow or decline, which changes the position of units at times. There are also storms which can jeopardize reinforcements. It’s not all about what you do in the battle, though. Picking which tile to send units too, and their reinforcements, is of course of great tactical importance, and you can even bring nukes down on tiles to weaken the opponent. The problem is, everything you do on the campaign map is staggered by battles which really aren’t all that fun. The campaign doesn’t have the depth of something like Victoria II, or a comparable Paradox game, although it looks similar at face value, and everything you do is a means to another tedious and repetitive battle that feels just like another. The AI isn’t intelligent so much as random, and fighting it isn’t anywhere near as fun as fighting in multiplayer.

I know where some of these places are... thank you Millennium series.

I know where some of these places are… thank you Millennium series.

Because of this, whilst there is context to the campaign, I don’t really feel like I’m working towards anything important. You’re given objectives, and certain things mix it up a bit, but all this prettiness of GUI and grid-layout merely masks what is essentially formulaic and pre-determined compstomps with decks you mightn’t enjoy. If you enjoy the victory variables and historically contextual tile variables that appear, however, I believe that some of you will ‘get into it’, but on its own I’m not sure it’s quite as grand as Eugen would have hoped. There’s really no way to fix the problem that is AirLand Battle shines in multiplayer. 

If you want to fight the AI, you can run skirmish matches which are, this time, included from release. The inclusion of a campaign, which I was very much looking forward to, mind you, seems like a ticked box, which is a damn real shame. It lacks drama and nuance, but it’s a valiant effort when it comes to the tone and context. It’s not something I particularly care about, though, and I don’t plan on punishing them for adding something as an extra. It feels very… irrelevant. However, you can play the campaign against people online, similarly to drop in enemies in other games. Doing this, though, is a sure fire way to distance yourself from campaign progress, once again asking myself: if I want to play multiplayer, why don’t I just go ahead and do that?

Moving away from European Escalation

Things in Wargame AirLand Battle change rapidly. When exploits or balancing issues are talked about, they’re almost instantly repaired. This is a supremely well maintained game, and Eugen System have even taken the trouble to host 10v10 games on their side to prevent issues with hosts being a bit shit. This is their baby, and it’s clear they all care about it. It shows. It’s a superb RTS, and in my opinion remains unmatched in the macromanagement scene. I was worried that planes would be over-powered, but in practice they’re glass cannons that require knowledge and strategy to efficiently strike. Things can go two ways: point fodder, or sharply orchestrated strike. As with everything in Wargame, it’s just a matter of experience through playing.

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Visually, technically, and strategically, AirLand Battle is sublime, and any niggles I have with the multiplayer side of things are highly academic. It’s easy to be nit-picky and claim X unit has Y problem, or that A unit is afflicted with B issue. None of that really matters when it comes down to the enjoyment factor. AirLand Battle remains a primarily multiplayer experience, and I expect the campaign will be more of a learning experience. However, the AI plays almost nothing like players seen in the multiplayer, so prepare to relearn once you’re done there. The authenticity, technicality, and scale of AirLand Battle completely blows aside my issues for the campaign, which secures a victory for this series as my top RTS of the moment. I gave European Escalation a solid five stars, and AirLand Battle improves upon it in every single way – including the campaign, although it’s still not to my taste. It doesn’t deserve anything less than the five stars it’s most certainly earned this time around, too.

Check out our deck creation tutorial below: