As an erstwhile wargamer — Wait, don’t go! We’re going to talk about real time strategy games, I promise. As an erstwhile wargamer, I love statistics about armor thickness vs penetration values, visibility profiles, morale ratings, operational range, and so forth. One of my first computer games was a turgid turn-based affair called Mech Brigade, released at the height of the Cold War and detailing all those terrible toys that would come into play in any Red Dawn scenario I might personally experience. When the Soviets came to Little Rock, Arkansas, I would know a Hind from a Havoc, a BRDM from a BMP, a Spandrel from a Sagger. And don’t get me started on Harpoon, which was my first real-time spreadsheet game. Fortunately, Arkansas is landlocked, so all that stuff in Harpoon was strictly hypothetical.

You might not be able to relate. So let me try this angle: when people talk about the sports, they use a lot of statistics, such as how many RBIs Manning Payton scored, a basketballer’s average speed per inning, and Pete Holmes’ stamina rating. In fact, I have it on good authority that entire sports games consist of nothing but statistics, much like how Paradox makes entire history games. And that’s where the unfortunately named Wargame: European Escalation will eventually get its hooks into you: as an almost grotesquely detailed catalog of Cold War hardware.

After the jump, gotta catch em all!

But first, you have to experience Wargame as a mostly good RTS from the guys at Eugen Systems who made Ruse, another mostly good RTS. Ruse was a simplified presentation of the greatest hardware hits of World War II, but with a complex layer of rusing powers on top. Wargame — seriously, what a terrible name — removes the rusing so you can really groove on the hardware. In fact, this is one of the main selling points over the similarly themed World in Conflict. That game all but overwhelmed the hardware with flashy god powers like air strikes, SCUD attacks, and even tactical nukes. Wargame: European Escalation is focused entirely on the details of Cold War war machines.

Don’t worry, this isn’t as daunting as it sounds at first. Whether you’re playing NATO or the Warsaw Pact — just hearing the phrase “Warsaw Pact” sends a pleasant shiver of nostalgia and childhood fascination up my spine — you start with a basic set of units whose names you don’t even have to know. One tank, one artillery unit, one recon car, a handful of various infantry squads, a helicopter. Shuffle these around and you’re playing a cool RTS with nifty rules for supply, morale, and road movement, all sneaked in from more serious wargames without compromising the RTSness of it all. There are rules for capturing territory, earning resources for more units, and a whole lot of cat-and-mouse. You can enjoy it zoomed in for maximum boom/pow graphics value, or zoomed out for maximum Supreme Commander strategic overview value.

But what really drives Wargame: European Escalation… Wait a sec. Come on, this game deserves a more exciting title. Did no one think up Soviet Lightning: Red Assault along the Rhine? That’s not taken, is it?

Anyway, what really drives Wargame: European Escalation is what happens between the missions. Here’s where you spend the points you earned to unlock your choice of hardware and then include it in your army. Whether you just want better variants of the same tank, or whole new tanks, or older cheaper tanks. Whether you want powerful but frail attack helicopters or long range missiles to shoot those helicopters down when the other guy brings them out. Whether you want elite special forces for airborne insertions behind enemy lines or masses of cheap troops spraying inexpensive anti-tank rockets. Whether you want armored command vehicles to hold territory; or big fat supply helicopters to ferry in fuel, ammo and repairs; or batteries of rocket launchers; or cheap recoilless rifles on cheap jeeps. Every single unit is modeled after real world hardware, and every single one of them details specific stats for specific weapons in easy-to-understand gameplay terms. This is the ultimate salad bar buffet of Cold War toys.

The result is a Reagan era gotta-catch-’em-all collectible game for hardware dorks who might appreciate the distinction between a BMP-2 and BMP-3 (the -3 has a 100mm cannon , duh!). Except that it’s not a dry boring wargame about moving units on a hex grid. It’s a fluid exciting RTS that can easily hold its own next to Company of Heroes for cinematic spectacle, gameplay smarts, and historical sex appeal.

Unfortunately, Eugen stumbles in some important ways. You can’t unlock units by playing skirmishes against the AI. And you can only get a limited number of stars by playing the single-player campaign missions. This unlocking conceit — one of the game’s most effective unique selling points — is mostly built into the multiplayer game. If you’re an offline or solo player, Wargame looks down its nose at you.

Ironically, this same unlock system is anathema to multiplayer. The guys who play more get the nicer toys, and therefore a match already starts partially decided. Ruse avoided this with a built-in system for upgrades during a match. You know, like every other RTS. But Wargame puts a priority on the allure of persistence. I can gripe about this until the cows come home, but I also have to admit that I’m a sucker for it. And, really, it’s entirely possible to win with masses of cheap starting units. At least there isn’t any sort of tree. Play a few online matches, do a couple of single player scenarios, and you’ve got the stars you need for the units you want.

This level of detail and the breadth of choice is also anathema to RTSs because it’s almost impossible to balance. I don’t normally comment on balance issues, because that’s rarely something one person can suss out. But I will go on record as saying that I will eat my “Mind the Fulda Gap” hat if Eugen has successfully balanced a game with over 350 unique units. By just dumping them into a box together, they’ve also missed some grand opportunities for game settings involving nationality or time periods. That might have further complicated the balance issues they’re already sidestepping, but at least it would let us use units that are otherwise useless.

And while I’m bagging on the implementation of this mostly cool feature, the “deck building” is wretched. So if I pay to upgrade my tank, I now get even more tanks than if I were to buy a brand new type of tank? And what’s more, it doesn’t even require a slot in the tank allocation of my deck? And I get the same number of slots for helicopters, logistics vehicles, and infantry? The terrible terrible interface doesn’t help. If you’re going to call a feature “deck building”, at least look at how other games have done it.

But if you can stomach some clunkiness in a mostly great feature, Wargame is a good RTS from a company with a lot of experience making good RTSs. Before Ruse, Eugen did a slick Command & Conquer clone called Act of War. And now they’ve come full circle, bringing that same level of spirited presentation, spectacular graphics, and sleek gameplay to a distinct historical period, presented with an addictive collectible gimmick. And they’ve even folded in the sort of features you don’t get in the usually glib action RTS genre. So it turns out that Wargame: European Escalation isn’t just good. It’s also unique.

4 stars
PC