E3 2002Sudden Strike II impressions

CDV's Sudden Strike II won't please critics of the previous two releases, but there's plenty for the series diehard.

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Sudden Strike II is a real-time strategy war game that seems to pick up right where its predecessors left off. The setting is World War II, and you have command of one of five different armies: German, Russian, British, American, or Japanese. Unlike traditional RTS games, like Age of Empires, Sudden Strike II does not have resource management or unit creation. The goal is to properly manage the units you're given, capture enemy units whenever possible, and elevate the experience level of individual units within your army.

GameSpot originally gave Sudden Strike Forever, relatively mediocre evaluations. Ambiguous goals, an excessive number of units, and a lack of resource management did not sit well with many critics. Still, both games sold very well--so someone out there obviously enjoys a series that is purely battle tactics.

Sudden Strike II continues along the same path--but seeks to improve upon the formula. There are now more than 150 different vehicle and troop units, some of which include hellcat tanks, jeeps, spy planes, infantry, flamethrower troops, tank hunters, and pilots. Transportation plays a greater role in Sudden Strike II: Landing boats let you transport infantry across lakes and down rivers, while cargo aircraft can be launched from airfields to perform parachute drops. Some maps even include working railway systems. All of this is a far cry from the previous games, where the only parachute drops were incoming reinforcements.

The interface itself is mostly unchanged from that of Sudden Strike and should be familiar to Warcraft veterans. A mouse pointer and rotating cursor let you highlight and move troops and vehicles, while hotkeys let you command your units to move, attack, wait, or perform a handful of appropriate commands. When you're near an unmanned mortar, for example, you can right-click on it to order a soldier to control it. Sudden Strike II has a few new commands compared with previous installments, including combat march, which tells tanks to move with machine-gun hatches open, as well as crawl, which tells infantry to move from a prone position. Another nice new feature is a command to make infantry and vehicles march at an even pace--handy for situations when tanks need to provide cover for pilots and crew.

Some of the new commands and mission objectives may take some time to get used to, however. In the version on display at E3, landing ships don't empty their entire payload with the unload command. If you want to debark the last half-dozen troops, you have to quickly enter the unload command, followed by the command to move the boat. As far as quirky goals, one task in the demo was to capture an airfield and land a couple of C-132 Cargomaster transport jets. The game doesn't do anything to inform you that if the airfield garners just one pockmark, the planes can't land until you fix it. You can use a repair jeep to patch the runway, but this too is an aspect that only trial and error--or a quick reference card--can elucidate.

Although the lack of resource management and factories is a fair complaint, the missions in Sudden Strike II tend to give you plenty of troops to command. The few short missions in the E3 version equip the player with approximately 100 different troops--machine-gunners, pilots, tank crews--and gathered a few dozen more in parachute-dropped reinforcements. Along the way, these units managed to accost and commandeer a number of weapons and vehicles, such as M3A1 artillery and M-18 Hellcat tanks.

As in previous Sudden Strike games, the units under your command gain experience in battle. The E3 demo didn't reveal any new enhancements in this vein--but battle-hardened officers still acquire better vision and greater speed, the deeper they survive into the mission.

In keeping with this innate nervousness, damage is more realistic in Sudden Strike II. Landmines and heavy artillery will rip tanks, infantry, and other artillery units to shreds, while a gaggle of machine-gunners can wail away on an M26 Pershing tank for hours to little effect. We learned about this the hard way when a couple of those tanks, along with a few support infantry, obliterated the troops operating our commandeered M3A1 antiaircraft units. Although unseen in the version at E3, later missions apparently feature advanced AI, where the CPU-controlled troops will take over your weapon placements and then protect them with their own landmines and grenadiers. Sudden Strike II also includes antipersonnel mines--so infantry aren't always free from underground peril.

Graphically, Sudden Strike II continues the series' reputation for gorgeous 2D visuals. The playable missions here at E3 were "merely" islands, but these islands featured asphalt, sand, gravel, mud, swamp, and mountainous terrains--as well as plenty of palm trees, jungle growth, and shrubbery. One of the game's key selling points is that you can destroy almost everything--and that's very true. Artillery and tank shells leave pock mocks on the ground, while buildings caught in the line of fire are reduced to splintered rubble. If you happen to lose a C-132 transport due to fuel loss, you'll be reminded of that failure when the charred skeleton of the jet comes to rest in the jungle below.

Sudden Strike II also includes dynamic weather. Not only does it gussie up the scenery with dew and mud, but it can also hinder your progress, since mud and fog are murder to movement and visibility.

Sudden Strike II comes out this August for Windows-based PCs. The system requirements are relatively moderate--Pentium II 333 with 64MB of RAM--and the game doesn't require a 3D accelerator. Solo play consists of five campaigns, each with approximately eight missions per nation. The game will support online and LAN multiplayer competitions with up to eight participants, and a level editor will be included for further added value.

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