Z - Article

Battle Of The Wargames

Warner Interactive Blows Away Command and Conquer

Will wargames be the genre of 1996? And if so, how are we supposed to get any work done around here...? NB. This article first appeared in Computer Retail News magazine.

"I love the smell of rocket fuel in the morning," growls robot supremo General Zod as he cracks open a can of wickedly strong brew. He stops for a moment to survey the devastation and horror of war all around him and then he smiles to himself. His work here is done. That's the scene you'll be watching when, after hours of tireless addiction, you complete Time Warner's superb real-time wargame Z. Initial previews from the specialist press are warning punters that Z is going be an essential purchase when it arrives (after much delay) in June 1996, and they speak wisely.

Similar in design to the blockbuster hit Command & Conquer, Z has been three years under development by the Bitmap Brothers and the results are stunning. If you think C&C is good, you ain't seen nothin' yet. With consummate style, the Bitmaps have taken the real-time wargame format and tossed in their trademark action and humour to complement some very slick programming tricks. In entertainment terms, C&C is The Bridge Over The River Kwai, but Z is the Star Wars trilogy.

The fascination with games of war dates back thousands of years. Playing with lives has always been a compelling pastime for the armchair general, pushing painted lead figures around on a big table covered with little piles of sand. However, it is not a game style which is instinctively associated with computer game buyers. There is very little high-speed, trigger-twitching action. Rolling dice, yes; consulting tables, certainly; waiting while your opponent takes his turn, naturally. But heart-stopping adrenaline overload? Not really. Until now. With the benefit of technology, it is possible to take the complex elements of wargaming - planning, timing, resource-management and so on - and mix in the elements of arcade gameplay - violence, visual impact, sound and, most importantly, pace. Early experiments like Dune II and Warcraft proved that it could be done, but the new phase of wargaming has only come to fruition in this quarter.

The first product to win over press and public is, of course, Command & Conquer and VIE have not been shy about promoting the fact. Their sensationalist billboard poster featuring mugshots of tyrants like Hitler and Khaddhafi was designed by the people who stopped traffic with Wonderbra's "Hello Boys" and the game's initial ship-out topped the 160,000 mark across Europe - the biggest ever for a CD-ROM, they say. For once, it's nice to know that the hype is justified, because C&C is a sterling product. After a number of appetite-whetting postponements, HMV Level One in London shifted 20 copies in the first 30 minutes. The look of the game is seductively state-of-the-art (even the installation routine is pretty sexy) without requiring top-of-the-range hardware and the gameplay is highly addictive. We're talking dusk-till-dawn. C&C offers the now-obligatory network link-up option and offers extra longevity by allowing the player to play either "good guys" or "bad guys". Each mission is a variation on the last and the experience is punctuated by some first-class rendered animation sequences which might explain the need for a the second CD-ROM, all adding to the perceived Value for Money.

However, the competition is hotting up and Time Warner Interactive is confident that Z is going to eclipse Virgin's success. The first Bitmap Brothers CD-ROM takes everything that they have learned from 8-bit arcade action and marries it with high-end technology and wargame strategy. "No one did any research on wargames," explains Bitmap Brother Eric Matthews. "We just did what we thought would work."

With ruthless instinct, the Bitmaps have stripped away everything "boring" about the wargame genre. In Command & Conquer, like its predecessor Dune II, you are required to spend endless hours collecting raw "tiberium" to refine at your home base in order to raise funds to build troops. Meanwhile, you have to send out squads to reconnoitre, in order to discover the whereabouts of the enemy. It might take you as long as an hour - possibly even more - to ready your army. In Z, however, all that changes. You have a fully functioning army from the first, plus complete freedom to examine the map and spy on enemy defences. The tedious preliminaries are gone, but your ultimate aim remains the same - seize the enemy base using your wits and strength. You can even use traditional wargame tactics, like the basic "pincer movement". "When you try those wargame strategies, it really works," laughs Matthews. "But when I programmed it, I didn't know what a pincer movement was!"

Z also benefits from smooth-as-silk multi-directional scrolling while Command & Conquer can be annoyingly jerky, even on high-spec machines. The sprites are bigger and more colourful than C&C and Matthews even promises a Super VGA graphics mode which "will be faster than any other game out there."

For strategists, much of the classic wargaming stuff is still there. The Z play area is divided up into territories - anything between 6 and 30, depending on the complexity of the level - and the player progresses by capturing these areas and commandeering their resources. It's standard stuff for the hardcore tabletop gamer. Your individual personnel respond to orders, but also use their initiative. If you set a robot infantryman to destroy a building and he comes under attack, he will respond to the threat immediately. The opportunities to recreate a "realistic" ambush, seige or lightning charge are ample and, like C&C, the control system is simple to master. However, there is far more to it than the cold, mathematical approach of a wargame. According to Eric Matthews, Z is more fun than any wargame for three reasons. "They've got real personalities!" he claims. "People actually sit there and talk to them. They'll sit there shouting 'Go on! Go on, ya bastard!'. When the troops get into trouble, they don't just pop out of existnce, they scream for help. That's the first thing. The other thing is the intelligence - we've spent three years developing the AI, not to mention all the experience we've had with games like Gods and Chaos Engine. The third thing is the madness of war. When you're in a battle in Z, there's smoke everywhere, shrapnel flying, people screaming, flares going off. You're right in the thick of it. It's as close as we could get to being there on the ground. That's what we wanted and whether it's a true wargame or not, I honestly don't give a fuck!"

Also competing for a share in Virgin's wargaming goldmine is Microprose, with the ambitious Windows-based This Means War! (a 41-level action wargame with a Mad Max storyline). However, we're still awaiting its arrival. The only head-on competition for C&C right now comes from the little-known (in the UK anyhow) Blizzard Entertainment with the launch of Warcraft 2, a real-time wargame set in a medieval empire in which the player can choose to be human (noble and good) or Orc (evil and much more fun). The original Warcraft was a huge hit in the USA but went largely unnoticed in this country. The good news is that W2 faces up to comparison with C&C very well. The gameplay is almost identical; the graphics, sound effects and music are equally excellent - the only significant difference is that Warcraft exchanges tanks and helicopters for dragons and griffins. An added factor is the (now obligatory) option to play head-to-head via network or modem, which you can do with only one copy of the game.

For some players, of course, this new breed action wargame will stray too far from tradition and it is worth remembereing that there is a die-hard market for "true" wargames which is often overlooked. Products like the recent 1944: Across the Rhine prove that there is money to be made from highly complex, long-term games which eschew the shoot 'em up element (or relegate it to secondary importance) in favour of historical authenticity. Steve Green, the programmer behind Fields of Glory and The Civil War, points out that history is the wargamer's greatest passion. "Historical accuracy is essential for the real enthusiasts," he explains. "People never write in to complain about low graphic detail, but you'll get hundreds of letters if you show someone wearing the wrong hat. In many ways it's a big drawback. It's hard to balance history with gameplay - sometimes in a real battle an army will spend two weeks regrouping and then one day fighting - in a game that can be pretty boring."

The historical element is also represented in the game's accessories. With Perfect General II, Mirage supply two hefty volumes of full-colour maps; Across The Rhine has not only a 158 page manual but also a brilliant 184 page book documenting the history of the Northwest Europe Campaign and the artillery involved; The Civil War also comes complete with history book and large, fold-out, full-colour map of the American Eastern seaboard. These expensive additions, however, are essential if the game is going to appeal to the buyer.

"They've read all the books," says Ben Wilkins, a wargame designer who not so long ago was working in Virgin Megastore selling tabletop wargames. "They've painted all the figures, they've seen all the appropriate documentaries - if the game isn't right, they will know right away. To an extent, they prefer good history over a good game."

Jay Littman of Alliance Interactive, developer of the budget-price WWII simulator The Big 3, illustrates the potential satisfaction to be gained from an historically accurate scenario. "You play the role of a commander," he enthuses. "You ask yourself: What if the USA remained neutral? What if I was Eisenhower? What if I was Hitler? Could I have succeeded where he failed? He tried invading a very cold country, the Soviet Union, in the winter, and it was his downfall. But in The Big 3, if you can take Stalingrad before winter sets in, you've practically won the game. Then you can wait till spring, move down through the Middle East and then invade England. Or you can add historical variations - like, you can invent the jet engine half way through the war."

"Wargames are a niche market, because they're hard to get into," admits Steve Green, who is trying to get over the hurdle of heavy-going gameplay by increasing graphic detail. "In Civil War you can zoom in and see soldiers and horses moving around in real time. I think that's the way forward if we're going to keep up with technology." "Games like Command & Conquer will certainly open up the market," says Ben Wilkins. "They don't look intimidating, they're exciting and they look like a game. When people see a wargame and they're faced with all those hexes, they just think 'This is not for me'"

With the arrival of C&C, Z, Warcraft and This Means War!, wargames are about to become the property of the mass market. Action wargames give the player the best of both worlds with superb playability, great graphics and long-term entertainment. General Zod may soon become a gaming hero - and one thing is for sure, he could definitely flatten Mario in a fist fight, even after a few cans of Rocket FuelŪ.

Jon Ewing

This article first appeared in Computer Retail News magazine.