Although the box reads "Avalon Hill's Squad Leader," MicroProse's new tactical-level World War II computer game has nothing in common with the famous tabletop wargame except the title. The original Squad Leader is a wargame in which the basic unit represented is a squad of 12 men; however, in MicroProse's Squad Leader, each unit represents one soldier. The computer game has none of the detail or complexity of its namesake, although the basic idea behind the computer version of Squad Leader is a sound one. It's a turn-based World War II combat game with a variety of missions and a cast of characters you're supposed to grow fond of. Unfortunately, its developer, Random Games, apparently just took its nearly 3-year-old game Soldiers at War, made some minor adjustments to it, and slapped a new name on the box. The result won't appeal to fans of the board game. At the same time, Squad Leader is also much too cumbersome and outdated to appeal to those who like the concept of tactical-level World War II combat games.
Squad Leader lets you lead American, German, or British soldiers through a variety of missions that comprise a campaign, or through individual scenarios. For each mission, you select a squad - actually, only five soldiers plus several leaders - from a pool of available troops that include specialized units, like medics. Squad Leader makes an attempt to give these men distinct personalities, but without any unique voice-overs, they end up simply being an amalgamation of attributes with an uninteresting portrait. Unlike in the Jagged Alliance series, none of the game personalities ever becomes memorable.
The game is turn based. Each side moves its units in sequence. Soldiers can walk, kneel, crawl, throw grenades, and perform all the actions you expect of them by spending action points. It's very similar to the system found in the X-COM and Jagged Alliance games. Battles are fought over a variety of terrain that ranges from beaches to dense forest, but the bland 2D graphics lack any sort of visual impact. In fact, they are more than ugly: They're intrusive and detrimental to gameplay. The color scheme is too homogenous, and it leads to difficulty locating units, difficulty deciding if movement paths are blocked or not, and difficulty evaluating lines of sight. The unit animations are jerky and awkward. The game lacks basic features like dynamic path indication; you have to actually click on your destination to learn what path your units will take to get there. And finally, the very outdated square movement grid is often very limiting, particularly in the way that it restricts vehicles.
The end result is that Squad Leader is really a chore to play. Rescuing buddies trapped behind enemy lines or making it ashore in a beach assault may sound like a good premise, but Squad Leader somehow manages to strip most all of the enjoyment out of what could have been a good game. You'll be constantly reminded of something about the game that could have been improved, or you'll be disappointed with the poor animations, graphics, and sounds. To top it all off, the game crashes enough to suggest it could have stood another couple of weeks of debugging.
Squad Leader was originally scheduled to ship with the same mission editor used by the designers to construct the campaigns and scenarios, but this was cut at the last minute because it supposedly didn't have an adequate user interface. There is a random-scenario generator, and the editor is supposedly going to be released later as a free download, but games like this often rely on the initial enthusiasm of players to help generate a large number of user-created files right after release. Squad Leader misses out on this, and there's no guarantee that the work on its mission editor will ever be completed, especially if game sales are poor.
Squad Leader really should have been called Soldiers at War 2, and, as such, it still should have been more than just a rerelease of Soldiers at War with a better interface. But as it stands, Squad Leader is clunky and unpolished. What's especially unfortunate is that while the basic gameplay fundamentally works well enough, it's buried in so many problems that you couldn't possibly appreciate it. Squad Leader had the potential to be a great mix of wargame elements and turn-based tactical elements. Instead, it ends up being a missed opportunity.