Just as the modern day RPG video game can be traced back to pen and paper games such as Dungeons & Dragons, today’s strategy games owe their existence to the board games of yore. Axis & Allies was indisputably the most well known of the strategy board games of the mid-eighties, commonly described as ‘Risk’s big brother’. This World War II game was easy to learn but difficult to master.
Now, Atari and TimeGate Studios, along with Larry Harris, the creator of the original game, have joined forces to interpret the original as a modern real-time strategy game. Can TimeGate successfully adapt their unique RTS formula to a more realistic setting?A World War II game doesn’t really allow for any flashy special effects or bright colors, offering instead a limited palette of drab grays, greens and browns, and a necessity for visual accuracy. Luckily TimeGate really stepped up the art production and gave us a vibrant but subdued environment, with enough realism to give it an edge, as well as plenty of eye candy to keep things exciting. While units can tend to look alike within each country (especially infantry units), their animations really set them apart visually. Destroying a tank yields a lovely bounce animation just before it falls to pieces, and watching your bomber fly in and blow large holes in you opponents forces is just exhilarating. I also liked the clever way the user interface was themed for each country. SFX in the game is pretty high quality- guns sound like guns, tank cannons boom very satisfyingly, and explosions resonate through the room. The score is pretty standard fare for a WWII game, with heavy emphasis on military marching music- very appropriate for the material, but nothing that really stands out. Voice acting came off as a little corny to me, and the Russian accents really get annoying, but nothing that makes you want to completely turn the volume down. Controls are pretty much the same as Kohan 2, with a highly intuitive interface that allows you to accomplish everything you need to in just a couple of clicks or less. However, this also means that, once again, a third of the screen is taken up by the interface. It would be nice to have just a little more play area onscreen to get a more tactical view, especially when air units are in play.
Let’s get one thing straight- this ISN’T the board game, and it was never meant to be. A direct translation would most likely not satisfy today’s PC gamer, while purists would probably stick to the red and white dice. No, this is a different game altogether, using much of the same gameplay conventions as TimeGate’s other recent title, Kohan 2: Kings of War. As the name suggests, you can chose to play any of the axis countries (Germany or Japan), or any of the allied countries (USA, Great Britain, or USSR). Each country has their own build structure and unit set, corresponding to that country’s strengths, i.e. Russia has superior tanks, USA has a superior Air Force, Great Britain a navy, and so on.
At first blush, the game feels just like K2 with a different set of skins and unit models. The interface is almost identical, units are grouped in companies, and resource gathering is simplified- the staples of TimeGate’s approach to real-time strategy. And while the similarities do continue, this isn’t just Kohan 2 set in World War II, not that that would be a bad thing. In fact, there are some fundamental differences in gameplay that a veteran Kohan player might have a hard time getting accustomed to.
The biggest difference would have to be supply; A&A takes the ‘zone of supply’ concept (units can only heal when in zone of supply) and adds a layer of complexity to it with ‘line of supply’. Basically, your Corps Headquarters, the hub of your base, generates a zone of supply, which can be extended by supply depots (as long as they themselves are within supply). Cities and villages you capture can also generate a zone of supply, but your Corps HQ and base buildings have an important distinction- they can be packed up and moved. While this certainly does add the potential for micromanagement into the mix, it also opens up a whole new realm of strategic possibilities. Moving either parts of or your entire encampment closer or further away from the front line can get very tedious if you overdo it, but I suspect that mastery of this feature separates the men from the boys in multiplayer.
There are only three resources to worry about: money, ammo, and gas. Levels are easily maintained by deploying a variety of support buildings, and by severely scaling back on the tedium of resource management, A&A lets you focus on your strategy and maintaining your front line.
Company formation isn’t quite as customizable as it is in K2, but the diversity of unit types is a little more distinct. Namely, we get to play with boats and planes. Air units came in very handy, especially bombers. Nothing like softening up the enemy base a bit with some bombing runs before you barreled in with your tank regiments. Naval units, on the other hand, just never really got much room to play with. Every map I played with naval units had a thin border of water around it that kept my battleships out of the thick of things. I just never got the opportunity to cut loose with them, and while you certainly could land troops from your ships or launch planes from your aircraft carrier, I just got the impression that a ‘strong’ navy wouldn’t necessarily pass muster in the land-centric gameplay and maps.
Another feature that is unique to A&A is that companies have to be attached to their corresponding Division Headquarters. The Infantry, Mechanized and Armor Division HQs not only deploy units, but existing units can be attached to them as well. Only units that are attached to a Division HQ can regenerate when in supply. This makes your support buildings that much more precious, and a strategically timed air strike can wreak havoc on an opposing forces capability.
There are three basic game types: Campaign, Custom, and World War II. Campaign mode takes you through sequences of scenarios loosely based on historical battles, one sequence for each playable country. Custom mode allows you to play random or custom maps against the several better than average AIs. And finally, in the game’s one true nod to the board game, there’s World War II. Basically, it’s very similar to the board game, but instead of battles abstracted with dice, you get to play them out with RTS gameplay. We’ve seen something like this before in Rise of Nations, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a staple in a lot of historically based RTS games from now on. In this case, it really lends that Axis & Allies feel that isn’t present in the rest of the game.If there is one thing I’ve come to expect from a TimeGate game, it’s an extremely satisfying multiplayer experience, and Axis & Allies is no exception. I only wish there was a way to play World War II mode with my friends online to recapture the old board game feeling. You can make your own maps in the map editor and share them online, always a good way to keep things fresh. And just like in the Kohan games you can save a film of your victories and show off your battle prowess and superior strategies to your friends. The campaign, as usual, feels like a primer for multiplayer, and leaning towards a more historically accurate ‘story’ might be great if you are up on that sort of thing, but plays a little more random to non enthusiasts. Luckily, the WWII mode has the potential to play out any number of ways, giving a slightly more structured re-playability than just a random map will. To tell the truth, at first I was somewhat disappointed in this game, thinking it a more simplified take on the Kohan-style gameplay. As I continued to play, however, it started reminding me more and more of the more obscure strategy games that were out about the same time as the original (basically, any Avalon Hill game from the early to mid eighties). These games were really difficult to get into, but once you got the hang of it you couldn’t get enough of it. Axis & Allies has a steeper learning curve than Kohan 2, and that may turn fans of that series off. It also doesn’t have much in common with the original board game, and that is sure to cause an issue with fans. However, once you dig into the game, it’s a truly satisfying experience.