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At first glance, Wargame: AirLand Battle might seem like a minor update to Wargame: European Escalation, the brilliantly Cold War RTS from the undersung RTS heroes at Eugen Systems who’ve been quietly innovating and polishing for over ten years (if you think they arrived on the scene with Ruse, you haven’t been paying attention). But this is no “just add airplanes” update. This is yet another instance of Eugen’s innovate-and-polish approach, this time applied to their own game. And AirLand Battle belongs on any list of the finest RTSs ever made for a few reasons, but mostly for one simple reason:

It does something that almost no other RTS can manage.

After the jump, the Cold War gets hotter

One of the harsh realities for developers of real time strategy games is that an RTS needs to be three separate games. It must be a single-player campaign with a narrative and some sense of progression. It must be a skirmish game playable against an AI that understands how to play the game as it’s designed. And it must be a multiplayer game capable of supporting a community of fans, balanced to allow different asymmetrical factions to play against each other, but also balanced for co-op and competitive gameplay. In short, an RTS needs to be three separate but related games, each with its own unique demands, all with top-notch production values (woe betide the RTS with merely adequate graphics) and a bitchin’ interface. Very few RTSs do all three things well.

Wargame: AirLand Battle does all three things spectacularly.

This is its greatest difference from European Escalation, a game that did one and a half of those things well. But the campaign, the skirmish, and the multiplayer — all either completely new since European Escalation, or reworked dramatically thanks to new features like deck-building — are all superlative in AirLand Battle.

I cannot overstate my gratitude to an RTS that finally does a campaign this well, with this much flavor, with this much replayability, with this many unique rules, with gameplay mechanics that inform the actual battles this dramatically, and even with the option to play it multiplayer without sacrificing any of the single-player features. There are four “scenarios”, all modeling a corner of World War III in Scandinavia. The first three are basically primers for the longer full campaign, in which NATO has to hold out against the Warsaw Pact flooding in from Finland to the north and Germany to the south. It hardly seems fair, but what a great nightmare scenario to accompany the traditional nightmares in the Fulda Gap and GIUK Gap.

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The formula is similar to Creative Assembly’s games, where you take turns on a strategic map and then fight tactical battles when units move into the same territory. The strategic level is packed with cool special abilities, random events, and reports from the wider world that affects you. Korea and Turkey still matter. You have to make hard choices about bringing in reinforcements, using special powers, or trying to interdict enemy special powers. You have enough points for a naval bombardment to assist the exhausted West Germans trying to hold Copenhagen. But should you instead maybe save up today’s points so you can bring in the US 199th Light Brigade to expand your foothold from Bergen tomorrow? In which case, you better hope the Warsaw Pact isn’t sending submarines into the Norwegian Sea, since you ran out of anti-submarine mines two days ago. Remember how Eugen played with strategic powers as the eponymous ruses in Ruse? Here are some of the same concepts, but as the trappings of World War III. It’s not tactical nukes just because. It’s tactical nukes because the Warsaw Pact made a decision somewhere on the other side of the world that reverberated through various chains of command, so now you can nuke Stockholm.

But the campaign is mostly about the drawn-out encounters between enemy armies, almost always over the course of several days, with each army’s morale and initiative determining the set-up for the battle, which then further determines the set-up for the next round of battle. It has a fantastic sense of persistence and stakes. When you lose your four best tanks or half of your infantry or your precious air defenses, you’ve lost them from them on. You’re going to have to fight later battles accordingly. Keeping your forces alive is arguably even more important than killing enemy forces. The encounters bring to mind Patton’s famous line about not dying for your country, but making the other poor bastard die for his country. Whenever you see that scoring figure float up over some unit you just killed — +30! — it’s got meaning beyond the current battle.

The interplay between the tactical and the strategic is similar to Creative Assembly’s games, where the strategic map provides a context for the tactical battles. But AirLand Battle uses this concept to put you into a variety of different kinds of battles with a variety of different kinds of units. As much as I admired Shogun 2, so many of the battle still felt like armies chasing each other somewhat ridiculously around an open map. AirLand Battle flexes the considerable range of Eugen’s superlative design. This is a new and nearly perfect expression of the series’ trademark gameplay.

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The AirLand Battle deck-building system breathes new life into the skirmish and multiplayer games. Instead of being a game about unlockable units — that was a lot of what drove European Escalation — now this is a game about making tough choices when you build decks. If you just want to load up on whatever units you feel like using, have at it. But if you want special bonuses, you can set your deck to a specific nationality, unit type, or date. This is exactly what Eugen needed to introduce a little order into their crazily generous toybox of Cold War hardware.

The decks are a significant part of the multiplayer, which is as good as it ever was, but now with more meaningful limitations on who you bring to the fight, as well as the option to broadcast to the lobby your cleverness or vulgarity when it comes to what you’ve named your deck. I don’t need a profanity filter, but I also don’t need to see some of the deck names I’ve seen. The new game modes that were eventually patched into European Escalation are here from the get-go. There aren’t as many maps as I would have liked, but there are certainly enough to sustain plenty of action until more come along. I question the need for a leveling system featuring experience points when there’s nothing to unlock, but I can’t deny that I enjoy seeing the bar fill up and the number increment, even if it’s not going anywhere.

A new ten-player vs ten-player option, readily populated with available games, lends AirLand Battle the kind of epic sprawl that made World in Conflict so good. It lets you jump online with a finely tuned deck without worrying overmuch about its shortcomings. If you want to bring a battery of powerful artillery into a target-rich environment, this is the mode for you. Or if you just want to provide air cover, join the crowd. But the guys who really clean up seem to be the ones providing air defenses. It’s pretty gratifying to play a massive 10v10 game only to clean up with a set of SAM missiles picking off expensive bombers flown by new players who want to play Air Force commander. It’s even more gratifying to watch it on the awesome replay feature.

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Airplanes are AirLand Battle’s sexiest difference from European Escalation for the serious magic they work on the moment-to-moment gameplay. They’re modeled much like they were in Eugen’s Act of War, the Command & Conquer clone that took Command & Conquer back to school. These offmap strikes — they’re god powers, really — can be used over and over after mandatory cooldown periods for rearming and refueling. You can’t ambush them on the ground. You’re never going to take an opponent’s air base, for instance. But aircraft are still vulnerable to being shot down, as frail as they are fast, as expensive as they are powerful, as much a target of opportunity for your opponent as an asset for you.

Airplanes upend the overall balance of power and reframe the question of how you spend your deployment points. They also invoke a new level of gameplay crucial to this period of history, which is part of the Wargame series’ appeal. A significant development in warfare during the Cold War was how anti-tank guided missiles trumped the previous interplay of armor and penetration. Germany’s Tiger tanks ruled the battlefield with their mighty 88mm cannons, which could punch through another tank’s front armor from ridiculously long ranges. But this didn’t matter one whit once a soldier hiding in the trees three kilometers away could steer a wire-guided missile with pinpoint accuracy, delivering a shaped chemical charge designed to easily punch through the thickest armor imaginable. In the context of a seriously wargamey RTS, European Escalation captured this dynamic beautifully, much to the chagrin of new players charging into battle with the most expensive tanks they could buy (probably the same guys feeding the enemy points by playing Air Force commander).

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But air power was modeled in European Escalation with a very low ceiling. It stopped at the level of prowling helicopters. This was fine if you wanted to suppose a battle where the real air power — namely, the jets that could slap down helicopters — was busy elsewhere. European Escalation’s battlefields were like an ecosystem where jackals were at the top of the food chain because the developers didn’t have an easy way to model lions.

And now here come the lions.

Eugen didn’t take the easy way out. This isn’t just an iteration of European Escalation with a god power to kill helicopters. It is instead a complete reworking of European Escalation with a rich layer added on top, a layer that relates to the rest of the game beautifully. Now air defenses are that much more important, and much more varied. Sure, radar is nice. Until it’s a bright shining beacon for a Shrike anti-radar missile, because those are in here now. Of course, air power depends on recon, which has always been a crucial element of the gameplay. Your choice of aircraft is an important part of the deck building. The decision to bring in aircraft — when, what kind, where, and how? — represents a huge shift in the victory options. If you do it wrong, you’re going to dump a ton of points into the enemy’s lap. If you do it right, you’re going to shatter the tactical calculus.

There is furthermore interplay among the aircraft themselves when you start buying airplanes to specifically counter the other guy’s airplanes. Sometimes Wargame: AirLand Battle is actually Wargame: Air Battle. Those tanks down there? A sideshow. Except for the fact that they’re protecting the surace-to-air missile launchers I’ve got in these trees to keep back his air superiority fighters. Of course, now the SAMs have launched all their missiles, so I need to bring in supply trucks to rearm them. But he’s sneaked a couple of helicopters around to pick off arriving reinforcements, so I have to divert my planes to attack the helicopters, and now his air superiority fighters are pouncing on me all over again, so my AAA cannons are shooting the helicopters, but now here come the tanks to head off the AAA cannons. Oh, what tangled webs we weave! Any good RTS will spin out an elaborate tapestry of combined arms. Only the great RTSs do it with this much flavor. And none do it with modern warfare, give or take thirty years, as well as AirLand Battle.

5 stars
PC