Without a doubt, there are a whole lot of World War II-based action and strategy games out there. However, most of these games tend to focus on the most popular campaigns and battles, such as the D day assault and the Battle of the Bulge. Save for a few serious wargames, there is scant coverage of other pivotal events, such as the Fall of Singapore or the German invasion of France. This is where Blitzkrieg: Burning Horizon comes in. This stand-alone expansion pack to last year's real-time strategy game will focus of the accomplishments of German General Erwin Rommel in France and North Africa, in addition to some Pacific theater battles, including the Fall of Singapore. We played around with a build of Burning Horizon to see what developer Nival Interactive has planned.
Like its predecessor, Burning Horizon is actually a real-time tactical game. You do not gather resources, nor do you build a base or construct a gigantic army like you would in a conventional real-time strategy game. Instead, you're given a fixed number of assets at the beginning of the mission to accomplish your goals, much like a real operational commander in war. From that point on, it's all up to you to orchestrate your infantry, armor, artillery, and air units into an effective combined arms force. Send your tanks in without infantry, and they'll get decimated by ambushes to their vulnerable flanks and rear. Forget to call in fighter cover and enemy fighter bombers will disrupt your attack. It's up to you to use realistic tactics to close in on the enemy to destroy him.
Burning Horizon will include more than 28 new missions, 18 of which are dedicated to the Rommel campaign. These cover his battles during the invasion of France, which brought him to prominence, as well as the North African battles that gave him the nickname "The Desert Fox." The developers conducted extensive research for the Rommel campaign, even going so far as to interview the few remaining survivors of his Afrika Korps. As a result, they've included tactics in Burning Horizon that Rommel and his men actually used in the desert.
There are a number of stand-alone missions as well, including Norway, Singapore, and Burma. To flesh out the new Pacific theater battles, there are also more than 50 new units, including Japanese Chi Ha tanks, Zero fighter plans, US Marines, and Australian infantry. Like they were historically, the Japanese tanks are very vulnerable, especially compared to Allied tanks. However, they have excellent infantry, air support, and artillery. And the European theater gets some new units as well, including the Panzer IV H tank and Blenheim bombers. Apparently, your computer-controlled enemies will be much smarter in Burning Horizon than they were in the original game. Enemy units will now probe for weak points and will then exploit them. Enemy units will also adjust tactics when needed. We saw our opponents effectively use counterfire to demolish our artillery, and then they waited until our own fighters withdrew before calling in their bombers and fighters to pound our positions with bombs.
Though the game still uses a 2D graphics engine, much like Microsoft and Ensemble's Age of Empires real-time strategy games, Burning Horizon does allow for a huge amount of interactivity with the environment. Virtually everything can be blown up, including buildings and bridges; it's just a matter of providing enough explosives. Trees and forests can be flattened by tanks or artillery fire, and the ground can become pockmarked with craters. This is the kind of game where you'll have to destroy a village to save it, and it seems surprisingly satisfying to do so. As with Blitzkrieg, the units in Burning Horizon can gain experience over time, so it's important to try to keep them alive instead of throwing them into the grinder. The more experience a unit has, the more capable it is. Furthermore, high-level units will unlock special upgrades. Burning Horizon will support up to eight players in multiplayer, but the designers aren't including any new multiplayer options because the expansion focuses mainly on the single-player campaign. The single-player campaign should have about 20 to 30 hours of content.
There's a huge amount of depth in Burning Horizon, which translates into a huge number of decisions. Unfortunately, based on what we've seen so far, the amount of micromanagement remains considerably high. There's usually a half-dozen things clamoring for your attention, and thanks to the improved AI, if you fixate too long on one area, you'll be in trouble in another area. Thankfully, you can pause the action to issue orders, but hopefully, the final game will have a better sort of alert signal to inform you of major developments. For instance, unless you're paying careful attention, the first warning you usually have of enemy aircraft is when they're dropping bombs on your position. And at that point, it's too late to call in fighter cover.
With that said, fans of fast-paced World War II combat may want to check out Burning Horizon when it ships this spring, since the game seems to defy the conventions of standard real-time strategy and has some excellent tactical combat.