Ignore the fact that there's a Roman numeral in the title. East Front II is not a sequel, but rather a "gold" edition. Basically it's all the original East Front scenarios, the campaign disc, and 50 new scenarios upgraded with the advances found in West Front. Yes, that's right, Talonsoft has gone the Sierra route and rereleased a game that originally suffered from severe bug infestation. Yet even Sierra would at least have included a rebate if you already owned the original game, something you won't find in East Front II's box. Instead, as a concession, you can order East Front II through Talonsoft at a discounted price, but tough luck if you've already picked it up at a retailer - you're stuck with full price.
So what's new in East Front II? Well, imagine all the improvements of West Front, applied to the original East Front. This means better graphics such as contoured terrain features and vehicle camouflage schemes, several optional rules such as armor facing, a linked campaign mode, and a thick manual. Of course, everything you didn't like about West Front is still present, such as the annoying supply rules (supply in a game where most scenarios represent an hour of real time? Come on, at least make the rules optional!). And oh yes, don't forget that 50 new scenarios have been added. While veterans of the original East Front might have to take a long hard look into their wallets, picking up East Front II is a no-brainer for green recruits.
If you're a newcomer to the world of computer wargaming, but grew up on board games, East Front II plays a lot like Avalon Hill's Panzer Blitz or GDW's Blood and Thunder. Turns represent six minutes, with most scenarios lasting from one hour to two hours of simulated time. A single unit represents a platoon, with individual strength points equaling half an infantry squad, a full MG team, an artillery piece, or a tank. The game is played out on a hex grid (each hex is 250 meters) and conforms to the standard "side A moves and fights, then side B does the same" style of play. Victory levels are derived from the control of certain hexes and the destruction of enemy forces while preserving friendly forces.
Because East Front II is a computer game, technology eases some of the burdens found in board wargaming. For example, true fog of war is possible without any convoluted double-blind system. The pain of setting up hundreds of cardboard counters is eliminated, as is trying to recall dozens of arcane rules and tables. The game is very user friendly, with plenty of online help, but most importantly the control scheme is very intuitive. The basics can be mastered in a few minutes, and the manual (weighing in at a nice 239 pages, and it even includes an index) does a good job of laying out all the tables one could want.
The graphics are pleasing to the eye, with a choice of three 3D views and two 2D views. In the 3D view the maps are laid out in an oblique manner, with terrain resembling that found in a diorama and units looking like hand-painted die-cast miniatures. The only downside is the poor sense of scale; tanks are as big as buildings, and the soldiers are all descendants of Paul Bunyon. The 2D view portrays the more traditional view found in board games, looking directly down on the terrain with units represented by icons. Unlike The Operational Art of War, the 3D view is actually playable and doesn't detract from the player's battlefield awareness.
One of the most impressive features of East Front II is simply the sheer size of the game. There are 150 single scenarios, a random scenario generator, an editor for crafting your own scenarios, and several campaign games. The dynamic campaign mode of the original is still present, but a linked campaign mode has been added. In the linked mode, the scenarios follow a "tree," with the number of scenarios you branch into depending entirely on how well you fare. If none of that is enough, there's also the slew of multiplayer options to extend gameplay, including the ability of 16 players to play over the Internet in one scenario! Imagine trying to get that many gamers together around your kitchen table!
While there's something to be said for gaming against organic intelligence, another advantage of computer wargaming is simply the ability to provide an opponent for you. Many wargames make up for the lack of a decent AI by creating scenarios that are actually puzzles. In these puzzle scenarios, good tactics are always overshadowed by trying to figure out the proper use of your units in the situation. East Front II's artificial intelligence puts up a good fight, and because of that, the scenarios are winnable by good strategy, not following a walk-through guide.
The biggest problem comes from the aforementioned supply rules that are totally out of place in a tactical game. Considering the background most of the scenario designers have with board wargaming, it seems strange that they allowed the supply rules to remain in the game. Some other problems include the inability to cancel an artillery attack and the console style of saving in a campaign. You can only save after a campaign scenario and never during the scenario. The rationale is to prevent "cheating" by retrying a scenario until you get the best score. Not everyone who wants to save during a campaign scenario is interested in cheating though; sometimes we just don't have enough time to sit down for an entire session.
East Front II is everything the original East Front should have been when it was released. It's big, engrossing, enjoyable, and true to its board game roots. It's just a shame that Talonsoft would make it appear like it was a true sequel, and not including a rebate is just as shameful. Still, East Front II is the best tactical level wargame to come out in a long time. If you have the original game and the expansion CD, you'll have to decide if the new features are really worth the money (and also take two points off the value score). For the rest of the world, dress warmly and expect to spend quite some time in those harsh Russian winters.