Summary: Got a few too many first-person shooters and RTSes on your plate right now? Looking for something new and different? How about a rock-solid turn-based strategy game from the makers of Railroad Tycoon, set in a fictional second Civil War? Admit it, you're curious. You can blame it on college experimentation...
As someone who watches national news quite a bit and closely follows politics, it is easy to get a little nervous, or at least disheartened, by the current state of affairs in America. To say that bi-partisanship is at an all time low would be an understatement – unless of course you think back to the 1860’s. Pop Top Software, known for quirky strategy games like Tropico or the Railroad Tycoon Series, has let their mind drift to just such a time and built a game around a disturbing future – a second American Civil War.
The opening cinematic of the game tells of a time not long in the future where dubious election results lead to the inauguration of “the most unpopular President in U.S. history”, David Jefferson Adams. Questionable Supreme Court decisions keep the man in office and cause widespread dissent giving him the excuse to declare marshal law and create a Homeland Security law. It’s a surprisingly polarizing and incredibly unsubtle repackaging of current events, at least one side’s version of them, that could potentially put off gamers in the country’s red states. But not to worry, during Pres. Adams next inauguration, Washington D.C. is leveled by a nuclear explosion. With no federal leadership, regions begin splitting off from the Union to form their own governments, and the different playable factions within the game. It is an amazing beginning to one of Shattered Union’s weakest elements – the story. However captivated you may be by the premise, the near absence of any meaningful continuation of it during the rest of the game will have you scratching your head, even if you don’t like Pop Top’s commentary about the current situation.
If you do choose to pay attention to what little of a plot there is, you may find out that the unrest in the U.S. convinces the European Union to send in peace keepers to secure its own interests and the Soviet Union decides to annex Alaska. All together there are seven different factions you can choose from each with stereotypical strengths, weaknesses and motivations. For instance, the game says of the Republic of Texas, “Though regarded as beer swilling cowboys, and gun toting rabble, Texans are also known to live by no-nonsense rules and take a dim view of traitors and bureaucrats. Texans are ferociously independent and live just one step away from anarchy.” If you live in another region of the country and are feeling left out, don’t. Other regions are painted with just as broad a brush. For example, citizens of the California Commonwealth are “shallow, but have an eye for color”, and those from the Great Plains Federation are “conservative dirt farmers.” If you think I am making this up, you just might be from the region of Pacifica (the Northwest) and be one of the “tree hugging technophiles with a weak grasp of reality.”
They are two huge hurdles that many gamers will have to get over to get to an experience that otherwise is quite enjoyable. Gameplay encompasses two elements – a large strategic map that shows the entirety of the United States broken down into different areas that represent faction territories, and a smaller map that shows the details of each of those 25 different zones.
The larger strategic map allows you to repair your vehicles, purchase new ones, and see the stats of other areas you plan on conquering, but contains nothing so deep as the strategic aspects of Rome: Total War. The real fun comes from the battlefield map where you get to manually place your units (there is a choice for automatic setup as well) and pit them against your unseen adversary.
Your adversary is unseen not just because you are playing him/her over the internet, but because each map has a very constrictive fog of war. If the nuclear inauguration disruption occurs in 2013, as stated in the game, why aren’t the units using satellite technologies to determine what is going on around them? It’s a design decision that’s made even more inexplicable by the presence of a power-up that allows you to jam an enemy vehicle’s sensors and communications capabilities for a number of turns.
Then again, in a military strategy game that does use such things as power-ups, perhaps you don’t need to question such things. The power-ups usually provide bonuses to a unit’s offensive or defensive capabilities, but sometimes arrive with more exciting benefits. For instance, you may find yourself in control of an EMP bomb, or even with nuclear weapons. Obviously some are more interesting than others, but your conduct on the battlefield will determine which ones you have the use of.
Pop Top added an interesting element to the game called “political reputation”. Essentially it is a measure of your popularity among the people of the world. If they view you as a tyrant because you wantonly destroy cities on every map you conquer, then that will determine what special powers and local support you will get to use on the next tactical map. For those of you that don’t care about collateral damage, that doesn’t mean that you won’t get any cool special powers, you just get those that are more inline with the type of leader you are playing as. To simplify it, those battling without respect for the civilian populace will get toys like nukes, while those who do give props to the peeps, end up with EMP bombs and help from local units called partisans. Partisans are basically civilian vehicles that have been converted for combat. Sometimes called “technicals” in the military, Pop Top chose to add a little character to them by having them look different depending on where you are fighting. So in the Southwest by Los Angeles, the technicals look like converted low riders and in the areas of the plains states they look like red neck trucks. Is that some sort of a statement again, Pop Top?
And speaking of the National Landmarks, they are features of most of the 25 different maps, along with their accompanying cities. Each map and mission has as its victory condition a certain number of points that you must earn by taking over the other factions cities or denying them your own. The more maps you control, the more funds you get to repair or add units to your army. These very simple objectives belie the incredible strategic depth that Shattered Union is capable of. You would think that after the criticisms I have leveled thus far that I didn’t have any fun, but that isn’t true. I found the game to be incredibly addictive, at least after wading through the first couple hours of trying to figure out what I was doing. After that I couldn’t stop playing it to pick up my pen and get the review in on time.
When you begin to see the interplay of the different unit types and their strengths, the game quickly changes from frustrating to deeply compelling and intricate. But like it did for me, it may take the average FiringSquad reader a lot of patience and a paradigm shift to get to the point were you can enjoy all that this game has to offer. One of the reasons for that is that it will come off as something of a dinosaur to most twitch gamers – it is after all a turn-based strategy game set atop hex-based maps. Yes, I said turn-based, not real-time. That means you move all your units, while the other team sits there, and then they move all theirs while you sit there and watch. If you haven’t supplemented your first-person shooter gaming with the occasional game of chess or Axis & Allies, Shattered Union’s slower tempo may take some getting used to.
The game adds to the problem by looking like a typical RTS game complete with terrain and units modeled in 3D. True, the graphics aren’t going to push your video card to the breaking point, but what is there doesn’t look like Advance Wars or even Panzer General. Instead it looks more like Command & Conquer: Generals. But Shattered Union, even on its tactical map is battle on the macro level. Each turn represents 24 hours time, and each single Abrams tank or Apache helicopter is meant to represent a larger number of them. And don’t expect them to be proportional either. If games like Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds chafe at your sensibilities because wookies are the same size as the AT-AT, you will find the same problem here. Infantry tower over skyscrapers like Paul Bunyan, and Humvees are twice the size of B2 bombers. If you can’t do the mental gymnastics to get beyond that, you will be missing out on an experience that may give you a much needed kick off of the FPS treadmill.
And perhaps you can kick a friend off as well. The most enjoyable part of Shattered Union is the multiplayer. Not only can you play online and over a LAN, (cue triumphant trumpet processional) but Pop Top has even resurrected Hot Seat play. That is right, spend a lazy afternoon battling with a friend while taking turns on only one computer. When you play this way yourself, you will wonder why you haven’t been doing it for years! (The answer – RTS games now rule the roost.) Unfortunately, the multiplayer is bitter-sweet. You can only play in skirmish mode and on the tactical maps; the strategic campaign is off-limits. It ends up being quite a torturous tease. When I found that out, it felt like being drawn to your mother’s kitchen by the sweet smell of freshly baked cookies only to see they are all on the floor. What on earth were they thinking?
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