Say you go to your favorite restaurant and buy yourself the hamburger you’ve always ordered. The burger that’s been there for you, through tough times, in celebration, in confidence and shared amongst your friends. It’s the best damn burger you’ve ever had, and veritably defined the burger experience for you. Now imagine that you’ve decided to go to a different restaurant and you must, as a consequential rule, order a burger that contains the same structural attributes of your definitive burger, but can never stand up to the lofty tier of your expectations.
Legend Studios has created a “surrogate burger” experience of their own with an initial, and very competent, effort called War Times. As a World War II RTS, it fills a rather pointed void in a genre where the explicit movement of real-time weapons and soldiers is largely relegated to fantasy landscapes or legitimate historical conflicts of lesser fame, like StarCraft or No Man’s Land, respectively. You could tick off the games which influenced or take part in War Times’ mechanics – it’s not even an option to ignore the similarities and direct comparisons to RTS exemplars. Aside from some simplistic elements in the interface, Legend Studios should feel proud of their vision and execution of this first project.
The period, as I’ve mentioned, is the European theater. Starting in 1939 with some of the first aggressive German movements into Eastern Europe, the missions progress through the different stages and years of WWII to whatever end you make as a player. At the onset of a campaign, a simple choice of Axis or Allies is given, with Germans at the heart of the Axis and the usual composition of Allies that include Britain, the USSR, and the USA.
Amongst these separate factions, unit types are varied as would be expected, and stand on diverse strengths and weaknesses that create a different experience depending on which side is chosen as the player. Germans are generally stronger, tougher henchmen and produce astoundingly robust and destructive tanks. American troops come as the most specialized, and possess the most explosive air-to-ground attacks in their bomber planes. Britain players will see much more defensive strength, and the USSR touts a very versatile army that includes, of course, their pounding tide of able tanks. In a game without the creative license of a fantasy realm, the play styles actually do vary depending on the faction chosen, which is a catalyst for War Times’ marked addictive quality.
There’s really not that much deviation from your run-of-the-mill campaign setup. Choose Axis or Allies, and you’re on the way. Each mission is prefixed by a shaky info-film regarding the motives and/or posture of the current situation, and perpetuates the feel of a 1940 chalkboard room briefing. After the prologue, you’re dropped into the terrain map and can begin whatever objectives are set for you. Not all of them require establishing a base and building up a tech tree (which lends to a satisfying mission diversity), but most of them will, starting with a headquarters, producing workers to gather minerals (one of two resources in the game, the other being oil), and constructing various buildings to open up your offensive/defensive potential. One minor misgiving here – the buildings provide little info in the construction menu as to what exactly they’ll produce and what possible upgrades they’ll allow. This little aside information would not only have been helpful, but also added a sense of depth to the developmental aspect of the realtime play.
As interface conventions go, things are kept simple and easy on the eyes; map on the left, overview map and construct menu on the right. At the top, you’ll find the usual counters for resources, as well as a selectable listing of your groupings. Mission objectives are easily accessed, but I found that I too often missed small informational tidbits that would pop up at a whim and disappear while I was mowing down a gaggle of Nazis. There’s no place to review this message history, and while it’s not crucial, they’re there to enhance the play experience and are ineffective as flash-in-the-pan ghost bulletins.
In battle, the compound elements of everything from character and destruction animation to weapon fire and explosion audio truly add weight. No pop and fizzle here when a Panzer IV round strikes its final blow on a T-34. The blistering strafing runs of Britain’s SpitFire become more than just a sweep of gunfire after hearing the ascending whine of the engine and the muffled crack of the cannons. Despite the very flexible nature of 3-D environments and the inhabiting entities, the basic visual design of War Times doesn’t really dress to impress. It’s certainly functional, but much of the detail and layer contrast – say, between the trees and the ground, or even the units and their varied surroundings – end up getting washed out and blend together. While Europe wasn’t a very colorful continent during WWII, fleshing out the precision of the aesthetics would have really hit it home for this title.
One of the hardest things to iron out in any RTS is pathfinding and enemy AI. Legend Studios did a fantastic job, considering their freshman status in this genre, working out how battles take place. If your units are being attacked, there’s no way they’re going to stand around and take it. Specific targets are charged and pounded until they’re dust, while an attack on a general locale directs fire to the most convenient or deadly targets once your forces enter the area. Pathfinding AI hits a stumbling block though, sending units willy-nilly in some areas where the path seems clear, and often running into defensive blocks that are best avoided. It’s a frustrating inadequacy that ends up costing time, energy, and sometimes precious soldiers.
As usual, Multiplayer is where it’s at. There’s just too much good stuff balled up into one package here not to have two or more humans at the helm, bashing their heads against one another in an RTS royale cage match. Soldiers, riflemen, tanks, light vehicles, bombers, planes... even blimps! I mean, how much more closely aligned can one get to pure martial entertainment than a game featuring the movement of overwhelming forces and stalwart defensive bunkers in a historic world war setting? The online and LAN component of War Times will provide congregates of players with a multitude of player maps and infinite outcomes, certainly adding some replay spice to War Times since the overall game seems to lack a satisfying length.
On the surface, War Times is really nothing more than a collection of the greatest aspects of RTSes past. Everything from developmental progression down to how a user-created grouping is brought to center-screen on the map has roots in some other notable game. But innovation was not the aim here. While not visually stunning, the graphics ride the side car along the much stronger structural foundation of War Times. In going the trodden path of those before it, Legend Studios has not faltered in implementing and combining gameplay, interface, and real-time strategy entertainment to the backdrop of one of the most famous wartime struggles in history. If you like RTSes, and War Times looks even remotely interesting, pick it up. You simply can’t lose.