Star and the Crescent, The (PC) Review

Developer: ProSIM Company | Publisher: Shrapnel Games || Overall: 2.5/10

Some guy in some movie with guns and really handsome actors pretending to be ordinary soldiers once said “war is hell.” Which, as I’ve been told, is pretty accurate. I mean, sure, it looks good when Matt Damon shoots some guy in the face, but any soldier who has been there will tell you that war is long stretches of boredom broken up by brief moments of sheer terror. Kinda like spending Thanksgiving with your girlfriend’s family: you can’t really remember why you signed up to be there, the person next to you won’t stop yelling, and some morbid part of your brain hopes that a lunatic in a fighter jet will drop napalm on your location and end your misery.

But I digress.

The Star and The Crescent is ProSIM Company’s newest tactical simulation for the die-hard war-game aficionado. Published by Shrapnel Games, it comes with the brazen proclamation that the realism of their game is such that both a helmet and flak jacket ought to be included in the package – fortunately for my local postal carrier, there’s just the manual and the installation CD. It zeros its sights, compensates for windage and bullet drop, leads it target, and shoots for realism: is The Star and The Crescent a hit?

Set in the Middle East, The Star and The Crescent offers players the chance to step into the boots of an officer in the Israeli army, commanding platoons, companies, and brigades of tanks and infantry in epic battles against a variety of foes. When you first start the game, you can begin one of the four campaigns ranging from the historic (like the Yom Kippur War) to the future (now try to imagine that there might be a war in the Middle East sometime this century). In keeping with the other Armored Task Force-engine games, when you’ve completed all the missions the game comes with, you can import new scenarios and continue the carnage; similarly, the included mission builder gives the game virtually unlimited re-playability.

The actual game boasts unparalleled realism. Before you even move your tanks, you have the option to set no fewer than eleven different formations, nine different ammunition types, and commit each of your units to ten different varieties of fire mission from “company attack to breach” to “platoon breach.” Your troops are arranged quite authentically in heirarchies denoted with real military abbreviation like “2/3 Bde / 11th Ugda,” and instead of graphics for any of the tanks or jeeps or soldiers, the actual N.A.T.O. symbols are used.

Cartographically speaking, you get your choice between a topographical or geographical map. You have your pick of eight different Standard Operation Procedures, governing how your units react to enemy contact. You can control each platoon separately, plotting out assigned paths down to the individual tank if you choose, or create custom hierarchies among your companies with brigades of units hand-picked to compliment one another, taking into consideration seemingly obscure factors like the reverse speed of a T72 Main Battle Tank, or the turning radius of a jeep when affixed with a 104mm rocket launcher.

Now, this next part is important. I have absolutely no idea what I said in those last two paragraphs. None. I spent hours trying to decipher the manual enough to follow along with the tutorial, but there’s a certain level of knowledge that is presupposed by the game designers. For instance, I had no idea which was bigger, a platoon or a company. The manual doesn’t bring it up at all. Further, that whole military abbreviation stuff, like “2/2 Bde / 12th Ugda” – I haven’t a clue what any of those numbers mean. I’m pretty sure that Bde stands for “brigade,” but the rest of it’s a mystery.

And while Wikipedia can be of some use for simple questions like whether a platoon is made of companies or vice versa, and while I don’t mind a game that’s going to teach me new things about stuff I’m not knowledgeable about (hello Gran Turismo), there’s only so much you can excuse from being absent in the manual. In a game that touts the ability to devise your own companies out of platoons and units from other companies, please, guys: don’t skimp on the explanation. Some of us didn’t go through boot camp. Now it’s not like these are all arcane concepts that are beyond comprehension: no military designs a command structure to be incomprehensible to those within it. The manual is, to put it bluntly, woefully inadequate.

If you’ve ever played one of ProSIM’s games on the ATF engine, you’ll be pretty well-prepared. For one, you may have already called your local armed forces recruiting office for some much needed explication. Or, if you’re halfway through a furious email to me, explaining the difference between an all-out enfilade and an entrenched defilade, you’re probably sleeping with a loaded AK-47 under your pillow more than ready to play this game. And hell, the manual isn’t completely useless – like the Rosetta Stone, someone of a keener intellect and sharper wit than myself could probably make use of it. But a game of this magnitude and complexity absolutely needs to have a much better helping hand for new players.

But really, you don’t play a game with your nose in the manual forever, so let’s move on to the other travesties of The Star and The Crescent. The next sentence is one that all the die-hard fans and the designers and the publishers and my grandmother who can’t even turn on a computer will see coming. The graphics are horrible. Now, I spent the better part of my afternoon today playing Final Fantasy for the original NES. I prefer the original X-COM to any other title in the series. I prefer an obscure and graphically sub-par boxing game to any Fight Night on any console. My last review was a glowing endorsement of a 2D side-scroller without a polygon in sight. I am not a 16x AA/AS diva, nor do I thump my chest and cry for HDR and the omnipresent Bloom in today’s titles. My point is that I firmly believe in gameplay superseding graphics. But oh. My. God. These graphics are horrible.

ProSIM has always focused their effort on creating sophisticated AI (more on this later), a ridiculously robust damage modeling system, and simply the deepest military sim I’ve ever seen. It was a monumental task, and all Armored Task Force-engine games bear the proud heritage of the process. But the graphics are unbelievably dated and present a further challenge in surmounting the already steep learning curve that poor documentation creates.

Blue boxes are the good guys, and red boxes are the bad guys. Got it. How do I tell all my blue guys apart? Some of them have ovals, some of them have ovals with dots, or ovals with a slash, or ovals with two slashes. Some other ones have three dots above the box, which probably means they’re captains or corporals or commanders or something. I dunno. To add to the realism, and so that the player may further appreciate the skill of the commanders in the actual historical battles represented in The Star and The Crescent, the icons you’ll use are the real N.A.T.O. symbols. This means they don’t make any sense.

Eventually, I got it down, but I’m a gamer. Call me a prima donna, but ever since 1988 or so, I’ve been spoiled by software that tries to represent an object’s function with its appearance. The Star and The Crescent thumbs its nose at this convention, and the learning curve suffers for it. That’s okay, right? Just remember that you’re the blue guys and you want the red guys to die, right? Sadly, no. Because the unit/formation icons, as unwieldy as they are, actually look good compared to interface. Graphically, the interface is a series of all but unintelligible 16x16px buttons lined up in a single bar that grows and shrinks when you press certain buttons. Confused? Wait till you actually try using it.

Firstly, as I said, the buttons are too small. The minimum requirements for this game are a 700 Mhz processor, 64 MB of RAM, and Windows 95. On a computer that old, the screen resolution would be adequate for 16x16px buttons. But on a computer built in this millennium, you’ll want to turn down your resolution while playing so you can actually see the buttons. Of course, you’d probably do about as well squinting like Great Aunt Gertrude doing needlepoint at the buttons: they suffer from the same sort of graphical malaise that your unit icons do. When you can see them, however, the buttons do a good job of representing functions for the most part. And really, I can’t blame ProSIM for not knowing how to express “defilade” in 256 pixels. Hell, I didn’t even know what it means, so even if they could represent it in a tiny little icon, it’d be lost on me.

This brings me to the least excusable facet of The Star and The Crescent yet: the interface. Say for the sake of argument, that you actually figure out which blue boxes are which, and you’re the world’s greatest tactical genius, who could actually pull off a land war in Asia. None of that matters, because the interface to this game feels like an afterthought. It’s a brilliant piece of work, really: there’s a whole hell of a lot going on behind the scenes, and I’d love to take a peak at the source code and see what this tactical orchestra of precision calculation is doing while it’s busy destroying my tanks over and over. But when you play this game, you get the sense that all the programmers signed up to design the game engine, and afterwards, they realized that one of them might actually have to design and interface and they all drew straws to determine the unlucky sod.

Simply put, I have never played a game with more than sixteen colors that has a less intuitive interface, full stop. At some point, it’s probably true that I’ve played a game with an even more incomprehensible means of controlling the action, but I find it hard to believe it was in either of the last two decades. Here we are in the year 2006, I have 104 keys on my keyboard, I have 8 buttons on my mouse, and I have almost two million pixels of screen real estate at your disposal, gentlemen. Please, please, please spend more than an afternoon designing and implementing an interface.

I love the idea of being able to custom-craft missions for my units, and the ability to copy-paste unit paths amongst all your units is mercifully well thought-out, but the actual implementation feels like a cold, uncaring spouse that has slowly grown apart from you over the years; she no longer cares about what you want, because fifteen years ago you forgot to call before you were going to be late coming home from the office, and now she’s convinced you’ve been cheating on her, so she goes out of her way to “forget” that you asked her for whole milk, and not this skim milk bullshit every week for the last decade.

If it seems like I’m harboring a grudge, I am. The interface is beyond counter-intuitive, the manual was crafted in an alien tongue, and the graphics looked bad when I was still in puberty. If you’ve been paying attention, all of these are not problems for real generals experienced players. But if you’re new, by now the learning “curve” is about as curvy as Lindsay Lohan on a coke binge running the Boston Marathon (i.e. not), and you’re banging your head against your monitor, screaming “Why?! Why didn’t you shoot? Why did you just drive up to them? Oh god the agony!” And the game has one last brick through your living room window for you.

The A.I. is vicious. While you’re trying to learn how to actually play (not how to win, how to actually play), the computer is going to make the strongest possible case that you should never be drafted and put in command of anything more complex than a dishwasher. And a damn fine case it is. Remember that “land war in Asia” crack? I think the computer could do just fine where Napoleon and Hitler failed: there is an absolutely savage beatdown that it’ll place on your units. Get ready to write thousands of letters home to some very distraught ladies, and tell them why Little Johnny is coming home in a box, because this game is hard. Having defeated poor gameplay design, lackadaisical (at best) graphics, a manual that’s little more help than a solar-powered umbrella, and the toughest A.I. this side of Deep Blue, the satisfaction you get from beating even the tutorial is unparalleled.

The bottom line? This game is not for you unless you have never played a strategy game worthy of your clearly superhuman tactical forebrain. This game is not for you if you’ve ever put down a strategy game for having too many damage tables to remember. This game is not for you if you do not seriously entertain notions of enlisting for the armed forces and studying four hundred years of tactical theory and practice. But if you’ve played ProSIM’s games before, and you know what you’re getting into, this is more of the same (unpolished) gem that you know and love, with an authentic historical vibe that can’t be beat. Of course, if this is your first foray into the world of ruthless military sims by ProSIM, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

Horse and Musket 2: Prussia’s Glory (PC) Review

Developer: Boku Strategy Games / Publisher: Shrapnel Games || Overall: 5.5/10

Does anyone remember Prussia? Well, besides the fact they’re not a country anymore, Prussia was a really powerful nation back in the 1700s, the era in which Prussia’s Glory takes place. Prussia’s Glory focuses on five important battles of Frederick the Great, a “military genius” who came to power in Prussia in 1740 and fought battles such as one against an Austrian army that outnumbered him severely, but still came up as the victor. Okay, so enough of the history lesson, time to talk about the game.

Upon first booting up Prussia’s Glory, the first thing I said was “ew.” To put it simply, the presentation of the game is horrid. The game just comes off as looking way too archaic for its own good; its in-game graphics aren’t pleasant to look at by any means. The game’s visuals give you this cluttered feel, especially when one unit is actually like nine-or-so indistinct people with flags and drums. Additionally, the font used to display various pieces of information is difficult to read. However, it should be noted that games like Prussia’s Glory don’t rely on their graphics to sell themselves to strategy fans as much as they do on gameplay… as for the gameplay itself, you may find out that it’s not up to snuff either.

It would’ve been a lot more fun if the game wasn’t so slow-paced, but it’s something to be expected in a strategy game that isn’t in real-time. The game moves in “phases,” starting with the bombardment phase in which you use artillery units to hit your enemy. The command turn phase, which occurs every four turns (which translates into an hour of game time), a command phase, and an activation phase among others. The last three phases basically boil down to this: you attempt to “activate” a group of units that are attached to a particular leader so you can move them. Sometimes the activation will fail, resulting in you not being able to move the units at all until the next turn where you can attempt to activate them again. This sort of methodology for moving units just seems to be kind of ridiculous, especially when it takes so long to even move your units into position in the first place to attack.

There are a lot of menial gameplay factors in Prussia’s Glory that aren’t too clear in how they affect any of its battles significantly, such as terrain, morale of the troops, leaders, cavalry, and stacking. Learning how to use all of them effectively will probably be the greatest time absorber, but if only the game made you feel compelled to truly understand them. Terrain will either limit or dictate the kind of moves and attacks your units can do. Cavalry can charge, morale of troops affects their performance — it’s all pretty complicated if you choose to really go into it.

Where the game really suffers is in its all around archaic-feel within the genre of strategy gaming. Mostly attributed to the user interface not being all that friendly, the game forces you to really have to look through the accompanied manual to learn how everything basically works. Instead of being able to attack with a unit in a traditional strategy-game way, you have to wait until the game allows you to use your units to attack where they stand (if they’re able to, to begin with). Seemingly unnecessary things like that bring the game lower.

There are a couple of multiplayer options, including play by e-mail to get some more longevity out of the investment in the game. For those who don’t know what play by e-mail is, it’s a gameplay mode which allows for two players to play a round of the game little by little, with the game sending an e-mail to your opponent after every move so that you don’t have to spend a large amount of time playing a round in one go. However, in the end, the gameplay just wasn’t fun enough for me to really want to put this mode to use. In fact, the game as a whole isn’t the type that will be redeemed by its multiplayer modes.

My experience with the Prussia’s Glory wasn’t very delightful. It didn’t appeal to me on any level, not in concept, gameplay, visuals, or really even sound. Prussia’s Glory is a very underwhelming strategy game, and most people would be ill-advised if they’re told this was a worthwhile game to sink their time into. Although, those interested in recreating history of Prussia in videogame form may want to give this game a chance.

 

winSPMBT (PC) Review

Developer: The Camo Workshop / Publisher: Shrapnel Games || Overall: 7.0/10

WinSPMBT, otherwise known as “Windows, Steel Panthers, Main Battle Tank” is a PC turn-based strategy game with a simple premise: capture points on the map, and beat the crap out of your enemy… strategically, of course. WinSPMBT isn’t necessarily a bad game, but it has a horribly outdated feel through and through. Everything, including the user interface, the gameplay mechanics, all the way down to the graphics feel this way.

WinSPMBT feels like a trip taken in a time machine set to 1995. The game looks on par with the first Command & Conquer. There is a reason behind this, as winSPMBT is the Windows version of a mod for a game called Steel Panthers 2: Modern Battles. SPMBT was originally a DOS game, but it has been ported to Windows for compatibility’s sake and resolution. Fans of the original SPMBT would certainly appreciate this, since they can now play the game on modern-day operating systems. What’s even better is that people can download the game for free from the Shrapnel Games site, so it’s not like you’d lose anything by giving it a shot, but you can also buy the enhanced CD version for $39.95. Both versions are the same, but the CD comes with a printed quick start guide, higher resolutions and a map editor.

Gameplay is a bit less than enthralling, to say the least. When you’re not directing units around on the hexagonal map, you’re watching units attempt to destroy each other with tiny animations of flying lines, little orbs, smoke, and sparks all from a top-down aspect. Sad to say, but that’s about it. There are more advanced commands and different ways to go about it, but you’ll have to play out your strategy without any exciting explosions or things of that sort. There are many different types of tanks, infantry, artillery, and the like to use during the game, and each is accompanied by low-res picture to represent it. To win a battle you need to occupy as many “V points” as possible while eliminating your opponent’s units and keeping your units intact. V points are basically points of interest on the map that help your side if you hold, or at least occupy them at some point. At the end of eight turns, the battle is over and the results are shown to you.

The sound is boring and can even be annoying. All that’s heard are the gun and explosion sound effects with absolutely no music to accompany them. It gets irritating when you hear the same sound effects over and over. One of the worst cases was fifty seconds worth of air strike sounds in one mission. There’s also no music. The graphics follow the sound — as I said before the game looks like it’s from 1995 (in truth, it’s from 1996). Still imagery far outweighs any animations or any real noticeable movement, and really promotes the idea of the game being just another boring strategy game. The maps you play on can look quite complex in texture, like one level in Germany, but the map’s graphics can collide with the sprites of your actual units, making it hard to see where or what your units are, making you wish for a desert level with no textures at all.

WinSPMBT will really only appeal to nostalgic gamers, fans of the original game, and hardcore strategy gamers. I’d be hard-pressed to believe that anyone who isn’t in one of those niche crowds would have an interest in the game, but the possibility is greater since it is available for free. WinSPMBT really would have done well with a major overhaul, but in its current form it’s in the awkward position of being an outdated game made available again. But because it’s obvious that they wanted to keep the integrity of the original game intact as much as possible, winSPMBT is all it is and nothing more.