As odd as it might seem, there are virtually no traditional real-time strategy games based on modern real-world conflicts. Gamers can battle shape-shifting monsters on the sands of Arrakis in Emperor: Battle for Dune, wage war against outlandish creatures straight out of a fantasy novel in Total Annihilation: Kingdoms, and even take on futuristic communists in the Red Alert line. But they can't invade Normandy or restage the first Battle of the Somme yet. Aliens and elves we've got plenty of, but we're a little short on Axis and Allies.
Stepping into this gap earlier in the year was Sudden Strike. The CDV-designed title was arguably the first old-school RTS based on the Second World War. Although it eschewed resource management and base-building to concentrate on straightforward tactical engagements, all the other elements expected in games inspired by Command & Conquer were included. For the first time outside of a hard-core wargame, you could become a virtual Patton or Guderian and guide troops across the realistic terrain of 20th-century Europe. This was a far cry from the extraterrestrial landscapes that most strategy fans were accustomed to, so many purchased the game for the sheer novelty of the setting.
Unfortunately, novelty was the biggest thing that Sudden Strike had going for it. A lot of its promise and intriguing premise was wasted on a confusing overall design that lacked an identity. Despite the realistic weaponry, vehicles, and aircraft, the game played more like Risk than a true simulation. Infantry units could take out tanks, for example, and proper antitank guns could do a number on infantry. Tactical considerations came down to simply accumulating units of virtually every type and then hurling your force en masse at the enemy. Other problems involved some significant omissions. Specific British forces were dumped in favor of a generalized Allied army. Campaigns were set solely in Western Europe, so the terrain from other theaters of the war was unavailable. No skirmish play was available--neither was a mission editor. These absences seriously limited the appeal of the single Internet multiplayer mode, which was in any case further crippled by the lack of dedicated server support. Given all these negatives, one began to long for aliens and some resources to gather after just a few battles.
That might not be the case much longer. CDV, Fireglow, and the companies' North American publisher, Strategy First, are about to release Sudden Strike Forever, an expansion pack that promises to correct many of the miscues inherent in the original game. Although you still won't be able to mistake Sudden Strike for a more realistic World War II simulation like Close Combat or Combat Mission, it should provide a more complete experience in nearly every way. In some respects, this is more of a sequel than an add-on, with the caveat that you need the original to play it.
Axis and Allies
Perhaps the most obvious change involves embracing the wider context of the war. Britain joins the conflict specifically this time around, and each of the four new campaigns takes place in different regions of the world at different times. The Brits, for example, do their part for the Allied cause in North Africa, facing off against the German army amidst the sands of Egypt. Germany and Russia, on the other hand, battle one another in their respective campaigns on the snowy hills of Eastern Europe. Only the Americans remain in the Western Europe of the original game, and even that familiar landscape has been altered by a change of seasons to autumn. The tilesets are remarkably detailed, incorporating a wealth of little touches, such as ruined mosques in North Africa and snow-covered farmhouses in Russia. It's a shame that the campaigns aren't somehow linked, though at least the prospect of moving on to diversified terrain should keep players intrigued.
Each of these new campaigns features just three missions, though you can't say that you're being shortchanged here. Like those in the original game, each episode in Sudden Strike Forever takes an extremely long time to play. Battles are generally large-scale operations involving a lot of hardware. Only the truly superb players will be able to get through the average mission in less than four hours. And when you've completed the campaigns, you can move on to the seven new one-off missions. These take some advantage of the new tiles, particularly the two missions set in North Africa.
Mission goals are just as diverse as they were in the first game. They force you to embrace different tactical viewpoints and look at ways to gain victory that you might not have originally considered. This can be a bit of a problem at times, however, and can lead the game design away from strategy and into the realm of pure puzzle-solving. At certain moments, particularly in the mazelike "Saboteurs" mission that opens the German campaign, the game resembles nothing more than Commandos. Some paths are so deadly that they might as well be labeled as certain death. Actually, labeling them would be a pretty good idea, as without such handy road guides, a few of the adventures turn into rather frustrating sessions of trial and error. Some will undoubtedly find this to be a welcome new dimension to Sudden Strike, though, judging by the success of the burgeoning Commandos series.
Multiplayer mode has been expanded and improved in nearly every area. Some 20 new maps have been included, along with adjustable parameters that allow for the creation of different types of multiplayer games. This is further enhanced by an editor that lets you create maps and missions for Sudden Strike. The program is the same one used by Fireglow to create the missions for the add-on pack and is very easy to use. All the features are accessible via icons and basic drag-and-drop principles, and the manual provides a helpful walk-through for guiding would-be designers through their first efforts. Topping all of this off is greater Internet functionality, thanks to GameSpy Arcade support. The inclusion of the popular service should make it a lot easier for gamers to find online opposition.
The overall Sudden Strike experience has been deepened with the inclusion of many more options. Three difficulty levels let skilled players and newbies tweak the game to their own particular skill sets. Realistic line of sight has been added with the ability to peer through binoculars in a set direction. Officers now provide their charges with an experience boost in the field, adding welcome strategic depth and giving you a good reason to keep the boys with the bars alive and well. Vehicles can now drive in reverse. This lets you withdraw from sticky situations without exposing yourself to added danger, particularly in the case of tanks that have lighter armor in the rear than in the front.
More than 30 units have been added to all four warring nations. This includes new specific models, as well as new model types. Howitzers have now been split into heavy and light classes, with the former gaining more firepower and the latter retaining the maneuverability of the howitzer from the original game. Along the same lines, there are now heavy mortars and portable mortars that can be carried by a new type of infantry unit. Other infantrymen in Sudden Strike Forever can be equipped as medics--a nice alternative to the "moving bullseye" ambulances of the earlier game. And finally, German infantrymen can carry charge carriers. These mobile bombs explode as soon as they are attacked or an enemy unit moves into close range.
Many aspects of standard gameplay have also been altered. The interface has been streamlined and the overall game sped up. Scrolling across the map is now lightning-quick, and unit orders can be snapped off instantaneously. Unit pathfinding, the bane of the original game, has been improved some, though you'll still waste a lot of time baby-sitting wandering trucks and tanks. Minelaying is less suicidal than before, with the command now letting you right-click on where the explosive is to be set. This is a big improvement upon the previous option, which saw the unfortunate soldier place the dangerous device right at his feet. In a similar vein, vehicles ordered to fix a bridge no longer have to drive onto the structure (and make themselves a tasty target for enemy fire) to effect the repairs. Individual units can now be taken out of vehicles or buildings. Just click on a loaded troop carrier, for example, and the infantrymen that it is carrying will be displayed in icons to the upper left of the screen.
Because it adds to and enhances the original game in virtually every way, Sudden Strike Forever looks like it could be a letter-perfect expansion pack. At the same time, however, it doesn't seem to alter the core elements of the gameplay and maintains the winning atmosphere of its predecessor. Along with entertaining fans of the first Sudden Strike, this add-on could very well win over some new converts who felt that the earlier effort missed the mark. Look for it to arrive in stores on August 15.