Wargame AirLand Battle preview and Q&A with Alexis Le Dressay
Any PCGMedia reader knows that we love Eugen Systems’ Wargame European Escalation. The title made our 2012 Top 10 Games of the Year list at a satisfying seventh place, despite being one of the earliest releases for that year.
We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Alexis Le Dressay, the co-founder of Eugen Systems, to talk about the sequel: Wargame AirLand Battle at the Focus Home Interactive Showcase in London. We discussed poor tactics employed by players of European Escalation, what they can do to prevent people buying multiples of a single unit, and if there is a fix for ‘indestructible supply trucks’ and rushing with the BMP’s. I’m happy to report that Le Dressay had answers for all of these questions and more.
The closed beta for Wargame: AirLand Battle is coming in “maybe a couple of weeks.”
What we saw was a beautifully rendered and richly detailed map, similar to European Escalation, but different in that we now have a much more dynamic, three dimensional terrain. On top of that comes new graphical features differentiating the fields with flowers, wheat, grass, and anything else you’d expect in the Scandinavian region. According to Le Dressay, the largest map in AirLand Battle is “4x larger” than some of the maps in their 2012 hit – but this is because they wanted to “potentially create a 10 player map” whilst at the same time trying to stream-line combat, avoiding long travel times and awkwardly sparse micro-management.
This time, there’s also a proper campaign featuring an entirely new non-linear dynamic, allowing the player to play from both sides. Le Dressay expressed a little disdain for European Escalation’s campaign, saying that “the solo campaign mode was a very different experience to the multiplayer game. The campaign was much slower and not very strategic.”
“The solo part of the game is composed of several new dynamic campaigns, during which you will manage all aspects of the battle. Lead each squad of the Theatre of Operation, and make good use of your reinforcements and strategic support. Each decision you make has an impact on the tactical outcome of battles, and also impacts the evolution of the global conflict. Wargame: AirLand Battle still allows you to customize your own army in solo and multiplayer modes, thanks to the ‘Deck’ system, which is now being enhanced with an integrated ‘viewer’.”
Included of course is more content, where in European Escalation “we had more than 300 units, and now we have more than 700 units.” Whilst Le Dressay expressed concern over the complicated ‘Deck’ system, he went on to demo the new ‘Deck’ system, with an enhanced user-interface, showing each unit as an upgradable tree similar to an RPG. Another interesting change is Eugen’s views on partisan playing. For instance, Le Dressay stated that many players would only play with units from their country, which ultimately meant that some ‘Decks’ were underpowered. Because of this, subjecting yourself to a handicapped ‘Deck’ allows you more points to spend on units, since some units which do a similar job are objectively better at it.
“The idea is to have an RTS – it’s not a simulation – an RTS that is… we wanted something very different where it is about thinking, it’s about taking a decision. It’s not an “action RTS,” Le Dressay explained. “A lot of our players say there is a problem with the game: I should not be fast. There is a risk that someone beats me because he plays faster than me? It’s not about this, it’s about thinking, knowing the units, and having an RTS that is extremely rich in terms of mechanics.” The co-founder said that Wargame AirLand Battle is made for people “who’d like to have something of a different flavor” [than the usual rock-paper-scissors mechanics based micromanagement experiences.]
- IRISZOOM Engine (improved game engine over European Escalation).
- 750 vehicle and combat units.
- Four new nations.
- War planes with many different munitions.
- A new Urban Combat Interface (UCI) which makes buildings block the field of view of anything behind them.
- New dynamic single player campaigns
- New Deck user interface and upgrading system
- Fallout of munitions effectiveness – for instance, the distance at which point an AP (armour piercing) round will no longer penetrate.
- Larger, more detailed and fully realized maps with dynamic terrain.
- 30 different maps – some from European Escalation.
- 150 planes (including variations of each class).
Focusing on the terrain, “the landscape – the mineral elements – are in exactly the place in Norway, where we took this geographic blueprint from, to make a realistic place to fight.” The new zoom creates some breathtakingly beautiful landscape shots that quite literally made myself and the guy next to me look at each-other, thinking “I’m gonna’ need a new PC,” so Eugen’s focus on an increasingly realistic game world on a much larger scale has produced geographically vibrant and hyper realistic maps that out-do European Escalation‘s sense of authenticity.
When I asked about any changes to the physics or animations of the title compared to last years, Le Dressay said that “we improved the physics of the helicopter, and we changed the way the cars and vehicles can all together get into each-other, and it’s more… it works better. Otherwise, there are a lot of improvements [to physics and animations].”
On the multiplayer front, Le Dressay said that “we are proposing a 10 vs 10 game. We think it could be massive, very epic. For making this map, we thought how could we make it? But then we realised that: the game starts, and blam! You don’t need to have a map that is so big that your reinforcements take ages, and that there is a lot of boring moments,” implying an emphasis on more instant action, even on the large player games, than European Escalation.
Le Dressay also demoed the inclusion of clarity when it comes to the ability of units to destroy other units. For example: placing a Challenger tank in the open, Le Dressay had a T34, from a hedgerow, attack the Challenger. Because of the poor turret on the T34, at such a long range, the T34 didn’t have a chance to hit. Moving on, we learned that even if the tank did hit (based on chance, as everything is variable) the AP round lost effectiveness about 60% of the distance away from the Challenger tank. This means that the authenticity of the units, position, placement, and the rounds being used is as realistic as could be, despite the title not being “a simulation”.
You can now see the effectiveness of your ammo range based on a thickening of the line drawn between your target and your unit. The point where the line thins indicates ineffectiveness of ammunition. Hell bent on ruining the T34′s reputation as a reliable tank of the Soviet Union, Le Dressay showed us that the 85mm round couldn’t even penetrate a supply truck (although there was “about a 16% chance” to do so at that range).
Done with the T34, Le Dressay fired the Challenger and exploded the Russian tank with a single shot, showcasing its superior turret and ammunition. This time round, you can also differentiate between rounds by the color of the round as it’s fired on the map – for instance, AP rounds are visually red tinted.
I asked Le Dressay if he was aware of “tactic employed in multiplayer regarding supply trucks, and rushing with the infantry BMP’s,” adding “that was almost game-breaking for me,” to which Le Dressay replied “yes, absolutely,” acknowledging the multiplayer ‘exploits’ employed in European Escalation. “I thought it was very boring, because you didn’t understand a thing, it could be very messy, and players were using the supply truck, and they were resupplying the infantry, and it was like a bug.”
Explaining the new way in which urban combat is orchestrated, we’re shown that buildings are now clustered as a group, rather than each specific building in a block of buildings being its own structure.
“When you were using infantry in the city, it was a mess because what happened in the city is – you see those buildings? Every building hid the line of sight… so if your infantry unit is in the building on the opposite side of the closer building, he will be blocked by the other buildings. So when you are playing like this [scrolls out to the large map] where is my infantry? I don’t see the houses. The map is too big. So we had to fix this.”
We’re shown that infantry will now occupy a cluster of buildings, facing the necessary way to fire on targets. This means that units can attack from a 360 degree angle, meaning we no longer have to micromanage tanks at such close range in order to get them within line of sight of enemies using towns to hide. Of course, the infantry can also attack/defend from this 360 degree angle, making it also easier to manage the infantry side of things whilst keeping an eye on the over-all war.
Aircraft in Wargame AirLand Battle are both stored and repaired off-screen, which means they do not dock in, or near, any forward operation base. Each player is allowed up to 9 aircraft, and repairs or resupply (always off-screen) on any aicraft takes “a huge amount of time,” according to Alexis Le Dressay.
We were shown a demo of a Harrier attacking the Challenger with Maverick missiles. The AI is fully independent in terms of the turning arch required for second-runs, but the size of the arch depends on the size, speed, and maneuverability of the plane. There is of course a risk of planes being shot-down by infantry and anti-air who spot them, but players can call back the plane to the off-screen base at a push of a button, allowing the pilot time to try and escape enemy fire. It wasn’t made clear whether or not players can purchase planes if they are destroyed, but Le Dressay explained “you can have up to 9 maximum [aircraft] in one deck,” and unless anything has changed, that means you can purchase units so long as you’ve less than 8.
Tactically, it is “not good to make two passes,” emphasizing the strategic importance on keeping your aircraft alive. The aircraft we saw in the demo was able to sustain one rocket attack, but not a second one, indicating that a close eye on AA ground-troops is of vital importance in this release.
I asked Le Dressay if it was possible to drop napalm on infantry units in forestry, or in a town, at which point the developer did just that. Showing us a napalm drop on a cluster of buildings, a thick foggy atmosphere was created around the location of the strike. Interestingly, this fog and fire blocked the field of view of anything behind it – meaning that anything trying to fire either over, or through, the srike-zone, couldn’t see their targets any more.
I explained that, previously, killing Spetznaz in forestry was very troublesome given the only two real options: the T55 flamer, and artillery. Le Dressay replied “exactly, I remember,” showcasing some of the uses of aircraft strikes on forests, thereby setting alight all of the forest and units hiding within it. likewise, smoke artillery has been revamped, hindering vision much more, providing a greater strategic advantage to your allies for immediate effect and relief.
Le Dressay also shone a light on preventing people from purchasing too many of one unit, ruining the authenticity of multiplayer matches:
Me: “Did you do anything to stop… there are a certain demographic of player who simply purchase all of one unit in their deck – for example artillery – which ruins the dynamic and authenticity of some multiplayer matches, have you implemented anything to stop people doing that?”
Le Dressay: “Yes. Yeah – well, we stopped it, but in a particular way. I’ll show you a new way to create the decks. I believe it will stop this kind of thing. [Le Dressay goes on to explain the earlier complicated deck system, and how it confused people, making it "harder to get into it"] This time, when you purchase a unit, every time you purchase it again the price of the unit will slowly increase.”
This means that there should be no more Apache only, or Artillery only players in Wargame AirLand Battle.
“This time, there is a more dynamic campaign – where you will have to defend, or invade, Scandinavia. We have tried to re-create the strategic elbow… you know… where you are able to [on the tactical map, visually] block the UK, and block the US from reinforcements. So a major offensive from USSR would have been there [points north] with a major army there, and also, perhaps, in Germany [in the 60's and 70's]. So you decide whether you want to play NATO, or Warsaw PACT.”
Talking about the nationalities army division, Le Dressay said “each side, there is roughly 20 different divisions [referring to NATO's use of Canadia, French, British troops, etc,.] Sweden, US Navy, and so on.”
The revamped ‘Deck’ system makes it easier for players to pick and upgrade units. For instance, when you pick a tank – you get a “pack of tanks” which unfolds, revealing its upgrades. “Depending on how many you put in one category it costs more and more.”
“If you decide you want to have a national deck, you need a bonus, because you can only select British [example], so you have more activation points. If you select British, Germany, France, it’s not the same – so it’s not really fair, so you will get a smaller amount of activation points.”
Asking the important questions revealed that Eugen Systems really understood the problems the original game faced. The introduction of 450 new units increases the interest and play-ability of the title phenomenally, but it remains to be seen exactly how players will come to terms with so many units even with the new ‘Deck’ system. This time however I’m ensured the title will have a proper tutorial, and the introduction of pricing units per-type in the ‘Deck’ means that players have no choice but to learn how to play properly. This title was never intended to be an e-sport, but it wasn’t created to be a mess, either, so Eugen have clearly thought long and hard about how to get players thinking more, rather than rushing with luke-warm tactics, or whatever they think is the strongest unit.
The title didn’t seem entirely focused on aircraft battles, and by that I mean that a great many of the improvements brought to the game have been about making the European Escalation dynamic much better. Because of this, it feels as though the title runs the risk of feeling like a mere content patch (albeit with a hell of a lot of improvements), but I’m satisfied for now that there are changes enough to merit the additional cost. There is certainly a lot of new content, but it’s not all about the aircraft. This is probably a good thing. There’s a very “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” feel to this installment, and it seems as though Eugen Systems have put their resources into improving and perfecting Wargame the franchise, rather than taking it in a new direction. This is a good thing, in my opinion, and fans of the series will find it very difficult to object to many – if any – of the new features and tweaks. This is a product of user-feedback, and a success story by and large.
Wargame AirLand Battle reaches closed beta “maybe in 2 weeks”, and releases sometime in 2013.