The Wargame RTS titles are serious, detailed games that throw a mind-bogglingly vast array of modern military units at players and task them with duking it out - with AI or devious human minds - in striking battles stretched across often massive maps.
They don’t really have any direct, obvious competition. With Wargame: Red Dragon, the third in the series, Eugen Systems finds itself in the peculiar position of competing against itself. Wargame: AirLand Battle remains an excellent game, and while Red Dragon expands upon it with naval units and new campaigns, it also stumbles in places and strips out some important features.
Yet the battles are just as intense, the multiplayer as exhilarating and stressful and it continues to offer tactical complexity and depth that its peers simply don’t. It would have been a great expansion, but struggles to be a great sequel.
Red Dragon shifts the wars away from Europe and over to East Asia, where European, American and Russian forces fight with and against South and North Korea, Japan and China. The new factions bring with them a bounty of military hardware. 450 units. That’s new units.
With the overwhelming number of units and factions, learning the ins and outs of each unit takes a painfully long time. Initially it’s simpler to choose units based on their role, be it anti-aircraft support, stalwart tanks to break through enemy lines, recon units to keep track of enemy movements, and get used to the basics before experimenting with the many different units that fulfill those roles.
There are overlaps, but also plenty of distinct vehicles and squads of soldiers all with specific ranges, multiple weapons, finite ammo, speed and all manner of statistics that can set them apart.
The various campaigns, split up into different tiers of difficulty, thrust factions upon players, offering an opportunity to get acquainted with the new units before taking them into the highly competitive multiplayer battles.
Red Dragon’s campaigns are fine. The alternate history they propose - between the ‘70s and ‘90s - offers diverse confrontations from the easiest South Korea vs. North Korea squabble to Communist vs. Communist conflicts. The narrative is threadbare and filled with bland talking heads. The real stories are found in the battles, where commanders craft their own tales of surviving burning jungles showered in napalm or stealing victory through sneaky airstrikes in the last minute.
They are worth going through because they represent a chance to get to grips with different factions, but don’t provide the same challenge as the multiplayer conflicts. Enemy AI can be punishing thanks to its savage aggression, but it fails to employ diverse tactics and doesn’t seem set up to deal with the losses between one battle and the next. Yet I still found myself beaten thoroughly on several occasions, as matches can become catastrophes very quickly if you take your eye off the ball for even a second. One well-timed airstrike or long-range missile barrage can utterly devastate an army.
And there’s something rather important missing in the campaigns: there are no co-op campaigns at all. AirLand Battle provided these entertaining diversions, and they were extremely helpful when I was first getting used to the complexity of the series. Having a buddy to back me up was a massive boon. They are also simply fun. Throwing another player into the mix expands the tactical depth and creates a more rewarding experience.
Some of the dynamism of AirLand Battle’s campaigns have also been lost. Gone are the sneaky abilities offered to commanders in the campaign map. These abilities gave greater meaning to the resources used to request additional forces, because they could also be spent on weakening the enemy through sabotage and even more nefarious means. Without these, the campaign map aspect feels a little shallow.
The battles, though, they are still remarkable. Wargame might not have the recognition of some of its RTS peers like Company of Heroes or Starcraft, but for a niche game it’s a stunning one. Realism is the focus, so there isn’t much of an art direction beyond making everything look as believable as possible.
The payoff is obvious during those rare lulls in the middle of a battle, where you can zoom right in and see how Eugen has recreated the Asian landscape in startling detail. Units and the devastation they cause are equally striking. Huge lumbering tanks struggle through the mud, tiny men running around them, sprinting to cover, and aircraft zip around, launching missiles that streak across the sky.
Red Dragon’s terrain isn’t just eye candy, it informs battles. Vehicles can get stuck in mud and in dense forests; soldiers can set up ambushes, hidden by the side of roads; and recon units seek out mountains and hills to get a better view of the battlefield. The strict field of view (there’s no fog of war) means that enemies could be hiding anywhere, and even flat fields can present obstacles for heavy vehicles.
It’s when the action shifts from land to sea that things get a bit shaky. Ostensibly, naval shenanigans are the main draw in Red Dragon, just as the inclusion of aircraft was in AirLand Battle. But this time the addition is not handled as deftly.