Quite often a game company comes across or develops a game engine that can be used for a great many things equally well, requires little real maintenance, and can be expanded. You see it all the time with first-person shooters like Quake and Unreal and to a lesser extent in strategy and war games. Interactive Magic had one such engine, which was designed by Erudite and originally used in the Great Battles series. After producing three Great Battles games, Interactive Magic ended its collaboration with Erudite, and I-Magic could do anything it wanted with the versatile engine. Originally, rumors indicated that the next game to use the engine would involve Attila the Hun, or Genghis Khan, or even Napoleon, but that was not to be. Instead, we got the eastern theater of the American Civil War in North vs. South.
To put things in perspective, I-Magic adapted a game engine suited to the rigors of ancients-era warfare to a time period roughly two thousand years later and hoped all the game mechanics would turn out right. Of course some changes were made, but in all fairness, the engine simulates Civil War warfare about as well as a round peg fits into a square hole.
The engine provides a bird's-eye view of the battlefield, which is divided up into hexes to facilitate movement and combat. The map shows terrain differences by height; terrain features like forests, bridges, and rivers; and has three different zoom levels. Battles are fought in hourly turns, where a commanding general can "activate" a specific number of officers under his command. (How many times this can be done depends on the general's statistics.) These officers can then give commands to their troops within a certain command radius. The idea is that the game's phases help create momentum shifts and concentrations on certain intense areas of battle, since a general can be activated any number of times (but can leave other troops just sitting around), and you won't know which side will get to go next.
Another facet of the game engine is the concept of morale (converted from unit cohesion from the ancients period of warfare) - units take damage and deal it out in the form of shifting morale for that unit. When the unit's morale reaches a certain level, it routs, and unless rallied in time by a general, it permanently routs and is considered destroyed in the context of the game. Generals can also restore morale if the conditions are right. Battles are typically won by the side that can rout the designated allotment of opposing troops. This allotment is buoyed somewhat by certain geographical victory locations.
Graphically, North vs. South has its good and bad sides. The maps look decent, but because of the way the terrain is shaded, it is rather difficult to tell some of the height differences - and worse, the highlights used to indicate command radii are barely visible. The unit size is typically an individual brigade, which can take up to two hexes in length. Units can march in column formation and then form a line; artillery can limber and unlimber; and cavalry can attack either way, depending on how you want to use them. Units can engage in ranged fire (as a bit of a holdover from the ancients period, it is still referred to as "missile fire") or go straight into melee.
North vs. South comes with ten battles from the eastern theater, some of which have rarely, if ever, been simulated on the PC, which is a good thing. The battles included are Antietam, Brandy Station, First Bull Run, Second Bull Run, Cedar Creek, Cedar Mountain, Five Forks, Gaines' Mill, Gettysburg, and the Wilderness. At least one variant is given for each battle, providing some extra variety.
You also have the option of engaging in the campaign, which lets you choose a side and start at the First Bull Run battle and work your way on from there. The campaign progresses as you win or lose; the order in which the battles are fought completely depends on how you do. For instance, if the Confederates win at First Bull Run, they go on to Gaines' Mill; another win moves them on to Cedar Mountain. A loss would bring the Confederates to Five Forks, where a Union win would capture Richmond and hence lose the war for the Confederates. The campaign also lets you refight the same battles over the same territory - theoretically, if you were unlucky enough, you could fight an endless loop of battles in the same three areas over and over again. The idea behind this is understandable - the eastern theater narrowed the choices of battle locations and areas of maneuver for armies, thereby providing the opportunity of fighting battles in roughly the same locations. In North vs. South, however, the implementation of this concept is fundamentally flawed.
For instance, the history as given by the game's campaign table is wrong. The only way to fight at Gettysburg (in 1863) is to fight the battle of the Wilderness (in 1864), which only provides the possibility for the victorious Confederate player to choose the Brandy Station scenario (1863), which is the only way to get to Gettysburg. This almost makes sense if you ignore the dates, but unfortunately, none of it translates into the campaign game between battles. Let's say you manage to kill off Stonewall Jackson at First Bull Run. Guess what? You'll still run into him later on at Cedar Mountain.
Then there are the battles themselves - they just feel weird. The system just doesn't work - by the time of the Civil War, and even somewhat before, units like brigades could operate somewhat independently of command and not completely suffer for it. In North vs. South, a general may have units in his command spread halfway around the map, making you play hopscotch with your general to get them in the general's command radius. Units in combat leave behind scores of dead on the battlefield, but can magically rejuvenate to essentially prebattle condition via the elixir of morale.
While the Great Battles series' emphasis was on hand-to-hand combat, you'd expect the Civil War should have an emphasis on ranged combat, right? One problematic holdover is that the Great Battles games would pause after resolution of melee combat and let the player ask for more detailed reports. North vs. South allows the same thing, but only for melee combat - missile combat, where the emphasis should be, happens almost without notice. Your units could be under fire and you'd never know it because the game won't tell you until after it happens.
North vs. South has bugs as well as design flaws. The running commentary window tells you what's going on and who does what to whom, but it sometimes manages to say that it is shifting control to you before resolving combat. So while you mistakenly think you can give orders, combat is just being resolved on the screen. The combat animation is nice, but manages to look silly when half of a two-hex brigade is fighting while the other half has already run away - or worse, a unit appears to fight nothing but thin air. I've run into a number of graphical and sound bugs as well as one that crashes every time I progress one battle in the campaign. Other players have not reported the same technical problems, however. The scenario editor, while less buggy than the one shipped with the Great Battles of Hannibal Collector's Edition, still manages to crash every once in awhile. The AI is passable at times but can be easily confused and won't react well to adverse situations, if at all.
Lastly, one of the nice things about the Great Battles games was the historical and battle documentation that came included - great resources available on the CD-ROM in the form of Windows Help files. This time around, Interactive Magic skimped on the extras. Try looking up the history behind one of the battles, such as Cedar Mountain. You'll soon find yourself back in Windows, with your choice web browser accessing a search engine for, you guessed it - Cedar Mountain. Now that's just plain cheesy.
North vs. South has plenty of other minor problems. It might be worth a look if you are really desperate to play some American Civil War battles (or play them with a friend via the multiplayer options), or at the very least to create your own. However, keep in mind that the game engine was not meant to, and in fact does not, work well with modern warfare.