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Baptisms don’t come much fierier than the Battle of Sidi Bou Zid. On February 14, 1943, in the shadow of the Atlas Mountains, the US Army got its first taste of Blitzkrieg. The results weren’t pretty. Panzers + experience > Shermans + naivety.
Developers 1C uses Sidi Bou Zid and the rest of Operation Fruhlingswind (Rommel’s last-gasp lunge in North Africa) as the backdrop for this slim but pithy Theatre of War sequel. If you remember, ToW was the pretty WWII RTS from 2007 that thought it was a wargame. Big battlefields, credible ballistics, men with minds of their own... not since the Close Combats had a real-time tactics title treated WWII so tenderly. Oh, and the silly spotting and lack of tactical smoke, on-map mortars, and building interiors. The good news is that ToW2’s houses are hollow, its battles smoky, and its troops can’t spot camel fleas through undergrowth at a thousand yards.
The bad news is those campaigns are still as lip-curlingly unimaginative as ever. Instead of exerting themselves by turning Tunisia into a patchwork of conquerable cantons, 1C have divided fifteen too-similar scenarios between three sequences and called it a day. Attack this pretty hill-ringed town, defend that one... after a few missions a beige mist descends. You have to go look at a friendly tank to remind yourself whether you’re playing as the Brits, Yanks or Jerries.
If ToW2’s take on WWII combat wasn’t so unusual, the game would be in serious trouble. It keeps you playing in spite of the samey, over-scripted scenarios, by offering things its peers don’t. That 88 way over there just nailed my Valentine tank! Lovely, one of my grunts just scavenged a bazooka off that dead GI! Endearing echoes of Combat Mission, Men of War and Close Combat combine to give ToW2 the character it needs to stand out from the Sudden-Codename-Blitzkrieg brigade.
A bit more of Combat Mission: Afrika Korps wouldn’t have hurt, though. CMAK offered Italian and French forces, soldiers that surrendered and tanks that reversed when nervous. Here we get a bog-standard AI, and a surprisingly shrunken unit roster (where are the Churchills and the Crusaders?). And the skirmish facilities and framerates are nothing to write home about either.
Once again we’re forced to proffer a guarded recommendation rather than a fulsome one. The Theatre of War engine has a lot to offer, but until its creators present it to us in a more imaginative form, it will remain under-appreciated.
Jun 17, 2009