Back in 1998, TalonSoft lined up a host of wargaming heavy hitters like Bob McNamara, Charlie Kibler, John Tiller, and even James F. Dunnigan himself to headline what was to be a blockbuster new game called East Front. Unfortunately, the game released with a completely inadequate manual and a host of bugs that rendered it almost unplayable. But TalonSoft was undaunted by the game's poor reception, and quickly made much additional documentation available for download from its web site, just as it soon issued the first of several patches. This kind of product support and improvement has helped restore a good reputation for TalonSoft and its wargames. TalonSoft's Rising Sun shows that the company has continued to refine its wargames even more, and the result is very impressive.
Rising Sun is the third piece of the TalonSoft tactical wargaming trilogy called the Campaign Series. After the release of East Front, the game engine underwent a significant overhaul for the subsequent West Front, and it's the West Front engine that has been improved on for Rising Sun. Because Pacific Theater combat differs so much from that in Europe, there are a lot of additional rules in the game. For instance, since it was common for Pacific Theater combat to occur at night, there are extensive night rules. Rules for caves let players re-create the bitter fighting on islands like Iwo Jima and Okinawa, while banzai attacks are a fearsome weapon unique to the Japanese arsenal. Pacific Theater terrain, such as dry and flooded rice paddies, jungle, and even kunai (elephant grass), is also well represented in Rising Sun.
The game mechanics will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played serious wargames in the past. Rising Sun is a platoon-level game that plays out over a hex grid. Movement and combat are carried out simultaneously, as players alternate turns. Each unit has 100 action points, which can be spent moving, firing, or a combination of the two. The number of action points required to perform a certain action depends on the type of unit involved, the terrain, and sometimes even the weather. Scenarios can combine a wide range of units, as armor, infantry, mortars, artillery, and air support all play a part in the battle. The game's database accurately models the performance of just about every weapons system in use in the Pacific from 1941-45, so if an engagement took place there in that time, it's probably possible to re-create it within the game.
Though there's a lot of detail involved in the game mechanics, the user interface is actually very manageable. A combination of simple mouse clicks and keyboard shortcuts is enough to perform almost any game function. The map can be viewed from both 2D and 3D perspectives, and the latter can be helpful when you're trying to determine line of sight. Unfortunately, the game doesn't let you view a prospective computer-calculated path before moving a unit more than one hex. A closer 2D view, with combat values displayed directly on the units, would have been helpful as well, but for the most part the game does an excellent job of both displaying information and letting you manipulate units.
Traditionally, wargame artificial intelligence has always had the burden of having to handle very complex situations, and thus has tended to come up short against capable human players. Given wargamers' lowered expectations, the Rising Sun AI isn't necessarily excellent, but it does manage to hold its own in most cases, and seems to understand how best it should handle Allied troops (which typically have high firepower) compared with the Japanese troops (which are better suited to close assaults). In fact, if the AI has a specific weakness, it's the computer's reluctance to break from its patterns; the AI ought to actually assault with the Allies when the situation demands it (such as in beach landings), rather than just sit and exchange shots in unfavorable circumstances. Playing against the computer tends to be more challenging if you stick to the suggested side in the solo scenarios. Even with the AI's occasional shortcomings, the first couple of times you play a scenario can be very intense because of the fog-of-war option, which prevents you from seeing more than your troops can see, since you'll only have the vaguest idea of what to expect from the enemy. Reinforcements can show up in unexpected places, and the enemy can appear out of nowhere. Despite the fact that it's a traditional turn-based game, Rising Sun actually exhibits much of the thrill and suspense of real-time games.
However, players who have the luxury of a living opponent to compete against will find the game even more enjoyable. Rising Sun can be played using all sorts of connection protocols, as well as by e-mail. The e-mail game lets you view everything that happened during the opponent's turn, which makes the game progress almost as though all the players involved were sitting across from each other at a game table. The game plays fast over a network and supports up to 16 players, who can be divided up between multiple commanders for that extra element of command simulation. Wargames are a very different experience when your forces aren't all under your control.
There are plenty of individual scenarios in Rising Sun, and they range from dense jungle encounters in Malaya to beach-busting Marine landings on rocks like Peleliu. If the scenarios are exhausted, the game also has both dynamic and linked (or fixed) campaigns, as well as a scenario editor. Because the game system has such an extensive database, it is relatively easy to design a scenario based on any historical situation after doing a little research. This flexibility has led to a proliferation of user-designed scenarios, most of which are available for free download from various web sites. The open-ended nature of the Campaign Series is a significant selling point, as it means the game has almost infinite replayability.
While everything about it may sound too complicated for novices to master, those who take the plunge will actually find in Rising Sun one of the best sets of documentation available in any game. Those new to the series can follow along, step-by-step, through an extensive tutorial, while veteran wargamers will find all of Rising Sun's concepts and mechanics spelled out clearly and comprehensively. The manual is superbly written and indexed, and it even has extensive internal cross-referencing that makes it easy to see how various parts of the game fit together. Most importantly, the game explains clearly how combat calculations are made, which lets you get the most out of your units once you learn the game mechanics. Rising Sun isn't easy to master, as there are many layers of complexity at work that are necessary to portray tactical combat with so much detail. But for those willing to put in the time, the game is eminently accessible.
It's very simple: If you're a fan of World War II tactical wargaming, you must own Rising Sun. In addition, if you've ever had any interest in wargaming but were afraid to give it a try because of its reputation for being overly complex, Rising Sun would be the best way to overcome that hurdle. Rising Sun accomplishes something rarely seen in gaming, as it gives the veteran gamer all he could ask for, while it stays accessible to the novice.