2nd Manassas Preview
By: Sean B.

MadMinute Game’s Take Command: Second Manassas is named after a single, near-run Civil War engagement, but the historical encounter is merely the hilt visible above the scabbard. Once they unsheathe this game, players will find a combat simulator that will immerse them in a 3D, real time experience. To win -- or perhaps just survive -- they will have to struggle with the same kinds of tactical problems that confronted Lee, Jackson, and Pope for three hot days in the August of 1862. While the action takes place on topographically accurate maps populated by historically accurate leaders and armies, the game is easy to learn, so expertise in 19th century tactics is not required to have fun. Noobies may not win at first, but, as they fight their way through several engagements, the experience of battle will school them in effective tactics, just as it did for most Civil War generals.

In Second Manassas, players can take command in historical and “Open Play” battles. For both types of engagements, virtual generals will try to achieve the highest possible grade by taking and holding objectives and by inflicting casualties while avoiding excessive damage to their own units. The historical scenarios will break the narrative of the 1862 battle into episodes focusing on the trials individual commanders confronted throughout the actual engagement. Open Play scenarios (my favorite) are engagements that have been run through a battle generator that randomizes objectives and initial deployments on one of the game’s five maps. Even in these more open scenarios, players can choose to fight at any level on the historical orders of battle, so if they decide to lead a division instead of an entire army, the game’s powerful and pervasive AI will assume overall command. Second Manassas deepens the Open Play possibilities even further by allowing players to choose between different kinds of battles (attack, defense, and meeting engagements) with different kinds of goals (take and hold objectives vs. seek and destroy enemy forces), so these new options will engage generals in new battles for a long time.

While tactically complex, Second Manassas is easy to play. Using either keystrokes or their mouses, players can elevate the free-roaming camera high above the action or descend to a ground-level view of the fray. If they want to strap themselves fully into the game’s simulation, they can even lock on to any leader and experience the action from a first-person point of view. Moving a unit, be it a regiment, battery, or brigade, is as easy as clicking on a leader’s flag and then selecting a formation after clicking on the desired location, a process greatly facilitated by the easy-to-access 2D overview map. While there are only a few hotkeys, the game’s menu, which runs unobtrusively along the screen’s lower edge, is easy to bring up and use, so generals can focus on tactics without excessive key mashing. Most importantly, generals can have their formations perform all of the actions they would expect of Civil War units; there’s even a “Lay Down” infantry command allowing players to use “reverse slope” tactics to protect their troops from artillery fire.

Once players climb into the saddle of their chosen commander, they will fight against -- and along side with -- AI generals who will act and react like the 19th century commanders they have read about in history books. Players can expect to be attacked, counterattacked, and opposed in a variety of tactically sound ways, depending on the immediate situation and on the other combatants’ personalities. Good generals will not only have to keep an eye on their flanks, they will also have to watch their subordinates closely: those subordinates have “minds” of their own, and, as in real life, they will not always make the most prudent decisions. If generals find themselves under- or overwhelmed, they will be able to change two AI settings, difficulty level and AI performance. Instead of activating unrealistic morale or firepower bonuses, the higher difficulty level will only add more troops to the opposing forces, while the AI performance setting will determine how many decisions the AI can make in a given time frame. Thus, a high difficulty setting with a low performance setting might create an AI-version of McClellan, while a high-high difficulty-performance setting could very well pit players against a Grant. A substantial Fog of War will also require generals to make decisions based on their imperfect knowledge of the larger situation. That hill may look like a weak spot in the enemy’s lines, but unless friendly units can somehow establish a line of sight on the opposite slope, a general will not know for sure. Taken together, and staged beautifully on the game’s huge 2.5 square mile maps with rolling hills and hazy tree lines, the game’s AI and Fog of War will provide players with some vivid insights (some pretty, some harsh) into 19th century generalship.

Finally, Take Command generals will be able to lead on a grand scale: playing as Lee, for example, they will be able to command a total of eight divisions comprised of 50,000 men (since the sprite-to-man ratio is 1:10, that will mean about 5,000 sprites). Watching such large formations move across the hazy landscape, their flags waving in the air, players will begin to understand Lee’s famous statement, “It is well that war is so terrible, lest we should grow too fond of it.” The spectacle will unfold in a scalable level of graphical detail: terrain elements such a grass and wheat fields are fully 3D, and players can opt for high-res unit graphics that will make those sprites seem more substantial and lifelike. These more detailed flourishes will require a fair amount of computer power (the development team recommends two gigs of RAM for play on high settings), but the game’s list of video settings should allow more modest machines to run the game fairly smoothly. Another well-conceived graphic feature will be the ability to determine at which distance trees will become translucent, so those slug fests in the woods will be easy to watch.

The measure of a good historical wargame is how much it can teach us about the challenges of a given arena of conflict, no matter how unfamiliar the subject matter may be to us. Since Take Command: Second Manassas adeptly balances playability and realism, it easily qualifies as good. A great wargame, however, is one that simulates that experience -- that impresses those lessons on our memories by making the experience seem real, providing even experts with new insights into “what it must have been like.” If my preview build of Second Manassas is any indication, then I can report that this game is well on its way.