Well, finally! The WWII French battle theater is now getting the quasi turn-based, squad tactical attention it deserves. Eric Young, the strategic mind behind the voluminous Close Combat series and other WWII tactical combat games, has focused his attention on France in Freedom Games’ newest effort, Squad Assault West Front. Squad Assault deviates very little from its predecessors in content, as the adversaries and allies of WWII circa 1944 are pitted against each other in a slew of scenarios and landscapes, some of which are based in real life, and carry with them wartime authenticities.
If I ever wanted to get really good at squad tactics, I’d probably want to play something that allowed for the huge margin of stupid mistakes and martial blasphemies that I make during any pivotal stand in battle. Squad Assault is amazingly simple on the battlefield, considering the logical prowess needed to attain any given goal. Rounding the enemy into a killing pool, or simply driving them back from a strategy point takes a great deal of patience and organization, which Squad Assault all but forces you to do. Throughout the sections of singular battles, whether it’s from a list of free choices or part of one of the larger campaigns, operating under persistent consideration is one of its many charms and doubles as a frustrating vice.
Supposedly, Squad Assault is turn-based, though I found little reason to employ that particular portion of gameplay. There are options available to switch the game pauses on or off for command events, or simply after a certain period of game time. As soon as I had the initial movements of my soldier groupings mapped out and hit the “start” button, everything happened on the fly for me, and I left the turn-based options off. This is a matter of preference, but I think it’s mentionable as a very workable battle structure – ultimately this means that the fast-paced impulsive thinker can enjoy the same game as the uber-efficient pondering strategist. Since the pacing didn’t make me uncomfortable, I was able to take greater notice of the interface, which has obviously developed from years of refinement and ergonomic mistakes. There’s a simple layout for my squad and their individual components, which included their health, psychological state, weapon type and ammo stock. A pop-up selection of group activities, like attack, defend, hide, etc, is viewable at the click of one of your soldier groups. And of course, there’s the obligatory mini-map and a seven button master menu which remained unobtrusive and accessible. Nicely done, and sorely needed in a game where chaos reigns supreme if those squads get away from you.
Overall, the battlefield segments felt pretty rounded, but there were a number of details that added up to a jilted play experience, and ended up shooting Squad Assault in the kneecaps – not lethal, but definitely noticeable and sometimes painful. Pathfinding AI and collision detection skirted the edge of loopy. Soldiers that were supposed to creep in a beeline across an area with no obstacles would sometimes veer far from the course towards the nearest tree or house, just in case you wanted them there by chance. I’m not sure what supernatural powers my allied troops had, but some of them could walk through the walls of the incidental houses, such was their spectral skill. I would have traded that apparitional ability for some good battle AI, so that they wouldn’t stand around getting shot in the midst of a hail of German gunfire. Squad Assault also makes use of terrain variations, which affect how quickly the soldiers and vehicles can move. It’s a nice feature to add to an already quite factual game, but it comes off looking like a game deficiency. Soldiers would go from a smooth gait to a choppy frame-by-frame that actually looked like my video card was having trouble handling the 17 polygons that made up their bodies. It’s a practical movement variance, but sloppy in its execution.
There’s a simplistic build-out of what Freedom Games calls a “psychological engine”, which basically means your men will freak out if they’re not hardened, decorated war machines that see just a bit too much traumatic material. Freaking out means that they can get pinned and unmovable, or break and bolt, becoming uncontrollable and rejecting orders. If they’re given enough space and time, they’ll eventually come around and can be maneuvered anon – patience is, once again, the key. This can get frustrating, but it adds a dimension of tactical security that wouldn’t otherwise be present. After a few rounds of my hysterical soldiers sprinting across the Frankish plains following inept encounters, I found that I got much better at providing cover and securing my positions, and consequentially, their peace of mind, with diversity, stealth, and strength in numbers. What started as a temperamental drawback to the human condition in wartime became the emotional glue to the whole operation.
Before you even enter a battle, you’re “expensed” a certain number of points to spend on units for a particular scenario, and a selection of recommended units is placed in a queue for use on the present mission. The units are all interchangeable with separate listing of available alternate units for purchase, and the point system ensures that the strength on the field is pretty much the same; it’s simply numbers and unit types that change. With choices like that, there’s quite the volley of play options for any one battle. Once a battle has been completed, there will sometimes be rewards in the form of medals. These can be personally doled out to the soldier grouping that you thought presented itself very competently in combat.
And speaking of variable play enhancements, the multiplayer option will certainly lure LAN and internet strategists to the table. The human component is always the trickiest to outflank, out-maneuver, or, if your skill level is anything like mine, outrun. I only marked it a bit lower than the single-player experience, since I think map layout and AI would make human-on-human play more frustrating than fruitful.
What this game could really have benefited from was a more robust environment in which to hold these projectile forays. Bland texture mapping really didn’t draw the eye into what should be the lush green bean fields and vineyards of France. Anything that did sprout from the ground lacked the “life” the moving fields of soldiers could have used as a backdrop, like grazing livestock, or a rudimentary sea of tall grass. This really does affect how the game feels during play; some maps become downright boring to look at after the initial recon sweep. That being said, there are some good alternatives to how you view the action on the map, whether it’s the fully pivoting isometric camera with effective scalable zooming, or the mini and micro maps, both with their own levels of detail, and both very functional in their design. Also in the listing of attractive features was shifting weather conditions and night and day missions, though the changes are barely noticeable.
I did notice a very distinct lack of music during the missions. It’s not that I need a score to excite that dramatic front line champion in me, as I march towards an arbitrary goal. In the end, I considered it a mark of the atmosphere Squad Assault was trying to create for the real-world clashes of wartime foes. This made the climatic soundscape stand out and really shape the experience on the ground, with commanders screaming orders, or panicked soldiers just screaming. Weighty gunshots from the battling units created a dire mood, while the muffled clap of distant gunfire played in the background when I wasn’t in battle. One of the quirkier sound options I encountered was a choice between ambient gunfire or birds chirping, but not both. Not detrimental, but odd that these two natural extensions of a world at war can’t exist together in harmony.
Superficialities are paid mind in Squad Assault West Front by offering detailed uniforms and soldier designs – in fact, a great deal of Squad Assault’s marketable features are the accuracy of the period portions. What really hurts Squad Assault the most is a combination of the other surface elements, such as the lackluster maps, glitchy sounds, and a gameplay structure that could still use some smoothing out. However, I cannot deny that the menu and command interfaces are some of the most intuitively employable I’ve ever come across in a squad-based tactical game, and this makes for ease in entertainment. A mild learning curve might keep casual players at bay, but moving beyond the hazing of the tutorials and persisting in changing the approach will yield satisfying results, and head-nodding victories.