It’s a bit of a cliché in video-game reviewing, but Eugen Systems  Wargame: European Escalation really did come out of nowhere. One day we were all happily playing Company of Heroes, or hunting leathers in Skyrim, when a friend links us a YouTube video of a CGI Apache flying through an open field to attack a platoon of T62′s among a pallet of vivid and earthy greens and browns. That’s a vision of war we can all relate to. Did it spark our interests? Oh yes, it did. But what with the so-so World in Conflict, and UBI’s Tom Clancy’s EndGame not really living up to the hype, we weren’t exactly perched on the edge of our seats awaiting its release.

But man, if I’d known what the game was going to play like, I would have been anxiously nail biting right up to release.

Set during the Cold War, Wargame focuses on strategic and tactical unit management, either solo or pvp–or, as of the 14th of April–with friends vs the AI.

Featuring NATO (including the USA, France, UK and West Germany) and the Warsaw Pact (Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany) Wargame takes players on a journey through gritty, bassy and intense battles along two campaigns for each faction.

Before I go into detail about the game-play, I’m going to talk about the ‘decks’, as these are both vital aspects of both campaign and online play. Although independent from one and other, the decks in Wargame are basically the boy’s toy’s equivalent to a deck of cards. You’ll thank me for explaining this later, I promise you! Basically, playing either the campaign or multiplayer will earn you stars. Stars can be used to purchase units. Both NATO and PACT have their own deck of units, of which you may chose 25 for each side. You can create and save as many decks as you like, but I personally find it beneficial to stick to units you know how to use (more on that later!) Decks are split into: logistics, recon, tanks, infantry, support, vehicle, helo. From this GUI, you distribute points according to your taste, or any tactic you have up your sleeve and wish to unleash on your enemies. In the campaign, stars are granted upon completion of each mission; with multiplayer granting starts alongside XP when a player levels up in rank. It’s important to note that you cannot earn multiplayer stars by playing the single player campaign, although I believe you earned reduced XP playing vs AI.

Before I move onto the units and multiplayer gameplay, I’ll explain what the campaign basically is. In short: it’s either a punishment for wanting to love the game, or a really brutal way of getting yourself ready for multiplayer. Now, don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a bad thing per se; many games are rewarding to play precisely because they’re punishing, but Wargame has it’s own philosophy when it comes to a campaign experience.

In Wargame, you’ve a gracing period at the start of each mission/multiplayer game to purchase and place your units. This isn’t so much a strategic placement, as just dumping your much loved military hardware at the start, ready to send them off into the void.

The upper left corner displays your purchasing UI. It’s simple and functional and works really well under pressure. Each unit costs a proportionate amount to the points set either by the campaign mission or multiplayer admin. As you’ll note from the screenshot above (aside from that fact that Putin appears to be a member of NATO… but that was my mistake), you’ve an FOB which acts as a station for replenishment for damaged units or support vehicles. In the window I currently have open, you can see a support vehicle (AOE repairs and replenishes ammo), a support Chinook and a command Jeep and helicopter. The other tabs include vehicles from your pack from within the other categories.

Command vehicles are the heart of  Wargame in that they provide the lifeblood.

By now you’ll have noted sectors spacing across the map. A command vehicle is a pre-requisite to capturing command points, and thus increasing your income. Without these, your income will be too slow and you’ll be stuck if you come under heavy attack. The problem is: command vehicles are expensive; anything from 200-300 points, and that’s almost twice the cost of an Apache attack helicopter.

Regarding the single player campaign, though, although derviative of the multiplayer experience, you’ll find yourself heading to set waypoints within certain amounts of time. Most punishing of all is mission two, where you’ve to defend one of the sectors until a peace treaty is signed. I’ll tell you what, I don’t think I’ve ever been so anxious for a piece of paper to be signed. I’d feel cooler getting a check from the Lotto. The campaign is lengthy, challenging and entertaining. It does feel as though it serves as more of a tutorial, or distraction from the scrutiny of online players, but it is fun none the less and an really gives you the knowledge you need to play the game at a level that’d give you enough comfort to handle yourself with and against strangers.

So therein lies the basic principles of Wargame: European Escalation. Capture sectors, cut off reinforcements and take out the enemy. But wait, I hear fans of the game say – you’ve left out the most important aspect! Indeed I have.

Why multiplayer is significantly different to the campaign

I always knew my friend was interested in military technology – but I had no idea the loss of a single Apache could cause our friendship to falter. “MOVE THAT APACHE OUT OF THERE.” Words burned into my mind. I didn’t know what I was doing. There was something I hadn’t caught onto, something (again) you’ll thank me for pointing out, later – and the single most distinguishable feature of Wargame: points mean prizes.

As we’ve discussed, each unit costs a certain amount of points – but it’s not quite as simple as that, because the cost of the unit is transferred directly to the opposing team in the form of points. I lost an Apache, as well as a friend, that day – and at that time that was 175 points to our enemy.

Although there are two multiplayer modes, what the game usually boils down to is who has the most points at the end of the timer. Usually there’s a cap limit, often around 3500-5000 points (so an Apache goes a long way) which is reached first. Why is this such an ingenious feature? It forces people to play cautiously. Long gone are the days where we click 100 click per minute on our most expensive unit, setting a way-point in our opponents base – no, in Wargame strategy and prediction are the key. A well placed ambush, or even a well structured defense can either gain you, or lose you, enough points to forfeit the game. There’s simply no use trying to blitz through the enemy gates – not when there’s Tunguska’s and Shilka’s in the trees waiting for your arrival.

This really is the feature that makes Wargame shine about all others – you have mechanics that are written to stop you from using old exploits and habits.

Let’s talk about units and tactics – and how they’re used

Whilst I’ll discuss various criticisms later in the review, I can’t help but tie this one in here: if you don’t know what these units do, by name, and how they perform into relation to something else, then you’ve a long and steeplearning curve in front of you. This is simply an unavoidable fact of Wargame. Each unit is written to simulate it’s respective real life self down to speed, armour piercing, accuracy and even things like stability and ammunition. Although unfortunate for some, and indeed a legitimate concern, you will be out-smarted by someone who has a better knowledge of the units that you. That’s not to say that Eugen Systems have created some

sort of elitist machine, churning out players who look down on you for not knowing your Zhalos from your Marder, it just means that if you’re coming from Bohemia’s Arma II you’ve got the upper hand on someone from Call of Duty. Granted, with around 300 units (including their variants) Wargame is a little overwhelming; whilst I have basic knowledge and understanding of most of the units by name, I didn’t, for instance, know their ranges and variations of weapons on the revision models etc. These are things I learnt by playing it, and I had a damned good time.

Don’t fret, though, because Wargame often features multiplayer lobbies especially for level 1-10 players which provide the necessary breathing room.

If you’re used to picking out the right piece of tech for your favorite strategy game, then you’ll fit right at home in Wargame: European Escalation, but if you’re coming from Star Craft or Red Alert looking for something with similarly themed rock-paper-scissors style of gameplay, then you might find yourself overwhelmed to the point of underwhelmed. But you need to understand that Wargame rewards your patience with big, powerful and boomy battles that shake your desk and make you grit your teeth.

Multiplayer trends and criticisms

Whilst Eugen Systems have equipped you with the necessary means to emulate real and proper warfare to a pseudo-realistic degree, the game is invariably plagued with people who either cannot, or will not play ball. I’m not saying everyone has to be general Patton to partake in the punishment, but more often than not you’ll come across some guy who simply says: “Tell me where to arty, you will have your victory.” Yeah, cheers guy. Let’s get this out of the way because I know it’s something other people have had problems with too, arty from base isn’t exactly the best way to win a war. Whilst I put this down to a lack of confidence to fathom and carry out a plan–a legitimate reason–it is annoying in that it lets the team down and doesn’t offer as much as you’d think. Artillery inWargame, unlike CoH, is more for suppression than it is direct offence – and suppression only gets you so far.

My second niggle with the online aspect is that there are exploitative trends. Two of these, one more of a problem than the other, are as follows: dumping 2713782 infantry in a forest and driving their heavily armed BMP’s at the enemy. Whilst in any other RTS you wouldn’t sniff twice at this tactic, in Wargame it’s a problem. A good tank costs about 120 points, whereas an infantry filled BMP costs anything from 15-40. The infantry can be placed in forestry, and the BMP’s just used as either suicide scouts or as fodder so your AI gets confused and makes your friends rage at you over Skype. This isn’t what I’d call ‘good sportsmanship’ and is a problem for a reason I’ll talk about in a moment. The second issue is with rushers. What this entails is basically either buying 3000 points worth of helicopters, or tanks, and driving them at the enemy. Whilst this has about a 30% chance of success, it sort of wastes a game by removing the strategic aspect. This, along with artillery folk, is detrimental to the overall experience of the game – but there’s nothing you can do about it. “Don’t rush” will get you silence in return. “Don’t just artillery” will get you an equal amount of silence.

So whilst Wargame is not perfect, it does supply you with the means to have meaty, violent and epic battles that require thought, strategy and a clear head; the problem is, it doesn’t provide the people.

Visuals and sound

It’s been said that Wargame is basically war on Google maps. Not a bad description, but I liken it to Arma II from the sky. If you’re familiar with how Arma II works, you basically go from town to town emptying each area or AO of the enemy and capturing that area. Whilst not exactly the same, it’s a pretty good description. And if you’re fond of the Arma series, I’m confident you’ll feel right at home in Wargame in that respect. Information is key, and it has a lot of it – lathered all over the place in a clean and fuctional GUI.

Graphically, Wargame has taken a little bit of a beating from reviewers online, but I’m not sure it’s justified. The game is bright, vibrant and gritty with clear and smooth visuals. The particle effects reflect reality well, which, although the world is a slither of geography with visible strata along the sides, really immerses you in the battles. Each unit is meticulously modeled, and, close up, look stunning and well crafted. Infantry looks a little card-board boxy and jagged, but they’re so small you rarely see them. The lighting effects are beautiful and add to the atmosphere well. Grass flattens as units drive over, which remains that way for the entire game. Eugen Systems have covered a lot of ground, and all that they have covered, they’ve covered well.

That said, the menu UI is about as easy to navigate as M.C Escher’s stair case, on two occasions requiring a Skype call to friends I wanted to play online with. Once you learn where everything is, though, especially with regards to the deck system, muscle memory will kick in and you’ll fly through configurations without a problem.

There is a visible screen shake with each boom of a cannon, and firefights through headphones feel like someone is trying to break into your skull and borrow your brain. It sounds amazing. Whilst the booms and rattatat from the turrets and machine guns tend to blend with no real difference between them, the atmosphere and action completely negates it and excites the player, aiding in the immersion.

In conclusion

Wargame is a truly great RTS that deserves the attention of all fans of the genre, and anyone with a penchant for military technology. Most of my niggles with the gameplay are down to player cooperation so, as ever, if you’ve a group to play with or if you’d like to create a clan you’ll have the upper hand with audible tactics and cooperation; almost to the point where any exploit or nonsense will be negated by your game-play. It’s not without it’s faults, though, Wargame does have a steep learning curve, and you will probably feel overwhelmed with the difficulty of the campaign and complicated nature of the deck system and units – but that’s all part of the charm. This is truly an RTS for those who believe that an RTS shouldn’t be simple – and, as with Arma II, have learnt that a little patience goes a long way to a rewarding gaming experience.