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Look at that Russian ship. Stately, majestic, deadly. If Wargame: European Escalation can do such an awesome job adding planes (read the review of Wargame: Airland Battle here), imagine what they can do with ships. Only you don’t have to. You just have to play Wargame: Red Dragon.

Developer Eugen has gone this route from land to air to sea before. Their debut RTS, Act of War, was Command & Conquer with a new take on airpower. Rather than including airplanes on the map, taking off from the airports you build and then flitting a few screens over to bomb something, Eugen modeled airpower as an offmap asset controlled on a separate panel. It was one of the many ways Act of War was better than Command & Conquer for tuning Westwood’s trademark loosey-goosey gameplay. When Eugen added ships with an expansion, things got loosey-goosey all over again. The engine couldn’t quite handle the expanse of sea alongside the intimacy of a land-based tactical RTS. The ships did that standard RTS thing where they swiveled and banged into each other and jostled each other like a mob instead of a fleet, generally making a mess of a finely tuned game. Like the aliens in Signs, RTSs rarely survive contact with water. Naval combat tends to compromise an RTS, so don’t even think about hosting the game on a water map. In fact, I can think of only two games that did a good job of integrating ships into the overall game: Rise of Nations and Age of Empires III both had a really smart approach to what happens when an RTS goes to sea. And now that Wargame: Red Dragon is out, I can still think of only two games that did a good job of integrating ships into the overall game.

After the jump, sailing takes me away.

If you’re an aficionado of the classic Harpoon games and their love of naval hardware, Red Dragon’s diagrams of firing arcs will get your heart racing. Check this out:

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You get a sense that Eugen wants to take this naval stuff seriously, with long-range Harpoon missiles and offshore shelling and the glorious fart-like braaaaaap sound of defensive guns shooting down incoming ordnance. So what if the water effects are bad, the damage model is glib, and the scale is nothing at all like actual naval warfare. At least they’re trying, right?

But the more you play, the more you get this:

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Ships that trip over each other and bumble around islands and pivot in the water and soak up an indeterminate amount of damage and, worst of all, relate poorly to the rest of the game. This is not the naval counterpart to Eugen’s smart implementation of air power. Why couldn’t they come up with a similarly graceful way to head out to sea? Why is Wargame: Red Dragon yet another RTS added to the wet heap of naval systems worth ignoring?

Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to ignore the naval combat. There are only a few water maps, and the campaigns that shunt you into naval combat aren’t worth playing in the first place. These new campaigns are small, constricted, overscripted, simple, and single-player only. Airland Battle included an ambitious strategic shell to model a Soviet invasion of Scandinavia, and you could even play it multiplayer, or as either side. It was one of the finest campaigns I’ve ever seen in an RTS. There is little sign of its brilliance in these four scenarios, which are mostly races against time limits minus any cool strategic trappings. You won’t be dropping tactical nukes or implementing sub blockades or dropping commandos to disrupt supply lines. You’ll instead just play a set of linked skirmishes, most of which begin with you having to hold out against overwhelming odds. This is still better than the average RTS campaign, but it falls far short of what Eugen accomplished in the previous game.

The maps have a nice Pacific vibe which doesn’t really come through until you zoom in to see the palm trees and villages and discreet patches of jungle. There are new units in Red Dragon, but a shortage of units, new or otherwise, was never an issue in these games. The deck building — you build your own orders of battles into “decks” — is basically the same. The game modes are basically the same. The superlative graphics are basically the same. The gameplay — once you resign yourself to ignoring the messy naval combat — is basically the same. So you’ve paid $40 for an iteration of a game you presumably already have. Because you do have Wargame: Airland Battles, don’t you?

Two meaningful innovations prevent Red Dragon from being a complete boondoggle. The first is the option to change the game speed during solo games. A handy dropdown menu — which isn’t as handy as hotkeys, but hotkeys were never Eugen’s strong point — lets you speed up, slow down, and even pause the game. This makes it a lot easier to wrap your head around what’s happening, which newer players should appreciate. The second meaningful innovation is the option to assign decks to AI players. Previously, the AI could only use certain sets of units. Now you can tell the computer to use a specific army, including one you’ve built. If you want to pit one deck against another deck, Red Dragon lets you do it. If only Eugen were to patch these features into Airland Battle, I don’t think I’d ever need to boot up Red Dragon.