Blitzkrieg, a pretty good 2003 tactical real-time strategy game set during--wait for it--World War II, is spawning a pair of expansion packs in 2004. The first of these releases, a stand-alone add-on called Burning Horizon, has been cranked out quickly by developer Nival Interactive and partner La Plata Studios, and it provides more of the same gameplay with the noteworthy absence of multiplayer modes. Solo missions here are so similar to those featured in the original that they might as well be outtakes from that game. But this isn't necessarily a bad thing, since Blitzkrieg's captivating blend of real-time mouseslinging and realistic handling of WWII combat tactics still holds up.
There still isn't any economic model or resource gathering to be found in Burning Horizon, so you just take the troops and hardware provided at the beginning of a mission and try to complete objectives with what you've got. Occasionally you'll be rewarded with reinforcements, but play overall is focused on making do with the starting allotment of soldiers, tanks, artillery, support units, and aerial support.
The big difference here is the subject matter. Where the original Blitzkrieg missions saw you fighting across European battlefields that have been depicted in so many strategy games that they've practically lost all impact and relevance, here the main focus is on an 18-mission single-player campaign fought by German General Erwin Rommel. You fight with the Desert Fox from the beginning of the war in Belgium to the North African campaign and then back to Europe for the D-Day aftermath. All of the key battles in Rommel's career are featured, including Ardennes, Tobruk, El Alamein, and Sicily. There are also a number of one-off missions in other regions, including some in the Pacific that pit the Americans against the Japanese.
In all, there are over two-dozen big missions in the expansion. These missions can provide a good several hours of gameplay, which is impressive for an expansion pack. However, it must be weighed against the complete absence of multiplayer modes. Nival and publisher CDV have excised all multiplayer options in Burning Horizon, presumably to make buying the somewhat inferior original game still an attractive option.
Along with the new theaters of war comes around 50 new units. Most are just variations on familiar themes, like the Panzer IV tank and some new German artillery types. Others, however, are brand new. The US Marines, Japanese infantry, Japanese Zero fighter planes, and troops from nations such as Australia add a lot of spice to the original complement of 300 or so units; they also expand the scope of the game to encompass more of the war.
Missions follow the same lines as those in the first game. It's vital to use units efficiently and effectively. Combat is much more realistic than it is in traditional RTS games. Despite the name of the series, in Burning Horizon you can't blitz the opposition or fight battles of attrition. You have to match units and send them into engagements that they will have a good shot at winning. This means that you can't band-select a mass of infantry and throw them into battle with even a small tank column--unless you want to see your troops splattered across the landscape.
To avoid this fate, you have to appreciate the complexity of the combat engine. All units have appreciable strengths and weaknesses. Tanks, for instance, are powerful, but vulnerable to individual soldiers with grenades in close combat. Artillery pieces, even the mobile ones that don't need to be towed into place, are very slow moving and take forever to rotate into firing position. So while the artillery pieces can decimate single columns of advancing soldiers and armor, pincer movements take them out quite easily. Even the effectiveness of air support is limited by the ready availability of antiaircraft guns and the vulnerability of low-flying planes.
Artificial intelligence appears improved over Blitzkrieg (a good thing due to the MIA multiplayer), although enemies are also placed in more intelligent locations on the maps. Most missions play out like intricate and incredibly difficult set-piece ambushes where you have to figure out where to place your infantry, artillery, and tanks. You then have to work out a sensible order of advance so that you'll be able to stand a chance of surviving a withering enemy barrage from dug-in enemy troops, machine-gun nests, and armor.
It's impossible to surprise the enemy, too. You have to come up with impressive tactical approaches to each engagement, as there are no gimmicky back doors where you can show up unannounced and demolish an unprepared column of troops (this is particularly true in the later stages of the African campaign). The British have superior numbers and positioning in nearly every battle. If the real-life battle of Tobruk contained as many British tanks as the game portrays, it would be truly amazing that Rommel was actually able to win the day there.
Often, there isn't much for the computer-controlled opponents to do aside from counter your attacks. Yet even in this limited manner these opponents show a great deal of cunning; they always sit back and wait for you to expose yourself. Computer units typically go on limited forays, usually to counter whatever offensive moves you might make. Once you've been beaten back, computer forces withdraw behind the fog of war and wait to see what you'll try next, or they will send in reinforcements if needed. For example, if you don't quickly seize artillery pieces after killing their operators, you often find the enemy trucking in fresh troops to man the abandoned weapons.
Missions evolve like chess matches where you have to probe the enemy to decide on a plan of attack. A lot of tension is developed, although some of that is lost after you get about a dozen missions into the game and discover that all objectives are pretty much the same. These are mostly historical conflicts taken from the history books, so it's hard to complain about the realistic nature of the goals; however, there just isn't enough variety. At least the designers made some attempt to liven things up. The African mission where you have to hold the line against four successive British tank assaults is a standout, as is the intense El Alamein retreat under fire.
Speaking of similarities, Burning Horizon looks and sounds exactly like Blitzkrieg. The developers didn't even bother to include the "Burning Horizon" subtitle on the main menu screen. Still, this isn't really a negative thing, because the graphics engine features extremely detailed units (tanks lurch to life and belch clouds of diesel dust, for example) and fully destructible landscapes. Audio effects include a bombastic musical score and lots of great incidental sound clips. There is a tremendous amount of German dialogue in the Rommel campaign, adding to the atmosphere and giving you the impression that you really are leading troops into battle like the famed Afrika Korps.
Unfortunately, the fact that Burning Horizon so closely mimics its predecessor also means that Nival hasn't addressed some shortcomings. The control interface remains far too small, with tiny buttons crammed into a cramped panel that make it too easy to click the wrong function in the heat of battle. There isn't enough notification that units are under attack. Battles often end before you realize they've taken place, especially on the larger maps where you are forced to fight on more than one front at once. And battle sound effects are disappointingly flimsy, especially when you consider the amount of carnage depicted on most maps.
But that's about it for the disappointments. Save the strange decision to remove multiplayer modes, Blitzkrieg: Burning Horizon is the ideal expansion pack. It amplifies the core concepts of the original game and ramps up both the AI and the difficulty without straying from the tactics-first philosophy that allows this series to stand apart from the RTS crowd.