Shattered Union Hands-On Say Hello to a House Divided
The United States is no longer united, so we take charge of one of the factions to check out Shattered Union.
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Take the turn-based combat of the popular Advance Wars series and combine it with a Tom Clancy-style techno-thriller plot, and the result would probably look very much like Shattered Union, the upcoming strategy game from 2K Games and PopTop Software. Shattered Union promises to be a throwback to the popular turn-based PC strategy games of yesteryear as well as an effort to build on the popularity of current turn-based combat games on consoles and handhelds. After all, many console gamers are familiar with turn-based gameplay, thanks to Advance Wars, as well as role-playing games such as Final Fantasy. We got our hands on the PC version of Shattered Union recently to see how it's shaping up in advance of its shipping date later this year.
The premise of Shattered Union is that a controversial presidential election polarizes the country (like that would ever happen). To make matters worse, a nuclear weapon vaporizes Washington DC, taking out the nation's leadership. In the resulting power vacuum, the US splits apart into six factions, organized along geographical and cultural lines. For example, the South rises again with the Confederacy, California and the Southwest form the California Commonwealth, the Pacific Northwest forms Pacifica, and so on. To make things even worse, those meddling Old Europe nations deploy military forces to the ruins of Washington DC for "peacekeeping" purposes. Your mission in the campaign game is to choose a faction and battle it out to reunite the country by force.
The campaign is split into two different modes. The strategic map divides the US into more than 20 territories, and each faction starts with approximately four territories each. In the strategic map, you can purchase and repair units, not to mention invade neighboring territories. When you invade, you select which units to deploy in the coming battle, and then you switch down to the battle mode to resolve the combat. Win, and you gain control of the territory. Lose, and you'll have whittled away precious units in a losing cause. It'll be important not to commit all your units to an invasion (a mistake we made early on), because you won't have any in reserve if another rival invades one of your territories. That's right--once a unit has been used during a turn cycle, it can't be used until the next turn. Capturing territories is important, not only to win the game, but also to generate cash, since each territory generates revenue. Thus, the more territories you control, the more cash you have to purchase and repair units.
Shattered Union is set in the near future, so the vast majority of military equipment that you get to play with should be familiar if you're a military buff. There are plenty of high-tech weapons, like Abrams tanks, Apache helicopters, Joint Strike Fighters, and more. Meanwhile, to represent a lot of the older equipment that gets handed down to National Guard units, there are M60 tanks and other obsolete units in the game. There are even some fictional superweapons, such as next-generation tanks, and each faction has its own special unit.
Additionally, Shattered Union keeps track of your "political reputation" during the game. This is important, because it's how you're viewed by the rest of the world. If you tend to flatten cities in battle, your reputation will take a hit. Or if you drop a nuke, your popularity will plummet faster than a lemming off a cliff. How your reputation translates in the game is in the form of partisan units, which appear to either fight for or against you in a battle. Though weak (these partisan units consist mainly of civilian vehicles with weapons mounted on them), these units are free, and they serve as useful scouts, or, more cynically, as cannon fodder to make a unit waste its moves in battle.
Tomahawks Are Your FriendThe combat system in Shattered Union is fairly simple, yet deep as well. You'll have the option of letting the computer automatically place your units, or you can manually place them on the map yourself. Your deployment zones are highlighted in yellow, and you can place only one unit in each hex. Generally, it's a good idea to place units in defensive terrain, such as woods or cities, as that can grant them a bonus should the enemy start nearby.
Once your units are set, the battle begins, with the attacker getting to move first. Simply select a unit, and its movement range is highlighted in yellow. Each unit can fire only once per turn, so you have to carefully manage your firepower. In other words, don't waste a powerful artillery strike on an almost-dead unit, especially if there's a much more dangerous unit nearby. The maps in Shattered Union are fairly large, but units have a large amount of movement per turn; that's especially important, because each turn represents a single day, and battles have a limited number of turns to keep the game flowing. Generally speaking, most battles last only a couple of weeks at most, which means you'll get only about 14 turns to resolve a battle. If you're on offense, you essentially have to seize your objectives or crush the enemy before the time limit is up. And if you're on defense, you must survive and hold out, or crush the enemy, since the best defense is always a good offense.
There's a lot in Shattered Union to remind you of older PC games, notably the classic Panzer General games from SSI. We've had the opportunity to play a number of battles in Shattered Union thus far. The action is fast-paced, and the gameplay mechanics are simple to understand; this is crucial, since Shattered Union will also appear on the Xbox. It doesn't take too long to start picking up on the rocks-scissors-paper balance between the units, either. Artillery can smash infantry; tanks can crush darn near everything, but are vulnerable to air power; antiaircraft units can shred helicopters and incoming bombers; and so on. As we mentioned earlier, terrain plays a role in the game, so you have to worry about maneuvering to keep your units in defensible terrain for their bonuses--a unit caught in the open is at a serious disadvantage against one entrenched in a city's streets.
You'll also have access to special power-ups and bonuses; some of them are unit-specific, while others are area effect in nature. For example, if a Tomahawk cruise missile delivers a low-yield nuclear warhead, it'll pretty much take out anything it targets. It'll also cost you reputation, especially if it takes out a city. Another power-up is DU (depleted uranium) munitions, which make a target vehicle more powerful, though once again, at the price of reputation. On the flip side, there are "good" bonuses, such as strike force, which air-drops in reinforcements, and medic, which heals up infantry units.
The visuals of the game are also fairly strong for the genre. They're not cutting-edge, but the graphical style is simple and appealing in its own way. Factor in the multiplayer gameplay on the PC or the one-on-one multiplayer battles over Xbox Live (which we didn't get a chance to test), and there could be a considerable amount of replay value as well. All in all, we came away from Shattered Union impressed; it's shaping up to be a lightweight, beer-and-pretzels-style wargame that is user-friendly and simple enough to be played by anyone. And the game's premise of a second American civil war fought with modern-day weapons is certainly appealing. With luck, Shattered Union may bring about a revival in the turn-based PC wargame genre. We can expect Shattered Union to ship on the PC and Xbox this fall.