Is it possible for a game to be too encompassing, have too many features and be too massive? Talonsoft, Inc.'s West Front, a war game covering much of World War II, raises these questions. Whether you're interested in controlling Axis or Allied powers for battles taking place throughout Europe and North Africa, whether you'd like to play out individual scenarios or play through dynamic or linked campaigns, if you'd rather create your own scenarios or just read through the massive manual and online help system to find out everything you ever wanted to know about almost every bit of weaponry and vehicle used during World War II, or if...no, wait, where was I?
I guess that's the point: West Front launches a full frontal and never lets up. And before you know it, your total attention has become a prisoner of war and your free time's been annihilated. For some, such as World War II fanatics and strategic-war game buffs, this might be all well and good, but for me -- not so. The tutorial alone took me hours and hours to complete, even though the tutorial scenario was limited to only twelve turns in length. Which is to say this game has one Hamburger Hill of a learning curve. To be honest, after the tutorial, I didn't even want to play anymore.
In all fairness, I have to give Talonsoft the proper credit for creating the most thorough, complete war game and virtual World War II encyclopedia with which I've ever collapsed from boredom. There have been many other games that have bored me but none so relentlessly as West Front. I felt surrounded on all sides by features and options and toggle switches and hotkeys. And then there's the game itself -- endlessly advancing soldiers and tanks toward some obscure goal that gets lost in the details of battle, such as "Secure such and such position," "Break such and such line," "Kill such and such enemy leader."
True, I wouldn't make a shining cadet; I wasn't even that good at being a Navy brat, so it was as a relative layman I was looking forward to West Front for a game of subtle strategy and overwhelming military realism. Instead, I got what felt like a 2D representation of a dynamic battle plan. Imagine sitting through turn after turn of "This is what will happen if we storm the bunker here, or, call in the air strike on this chateau, or, march like walking bull's-eyes down this open road." Aside from the decent background battle sounds, there was very little to pull me into the game. At no time did I feel like some captain leading my troops along Omaha Beach at Normandy or traipsing through the North African desert -- very little to make me feel like I was actually engaged in battle.
This lack of sensation may be due to an old football injury but it's more than likely the result of information overload combined with West Front's dated (c. 1998) hexagonal game board and questionable AI. The game is beautifully detailed and the amount of history and finely reproduced theaters of battle available to you -- the massive scale of the whole thing -- is astonishing. Because of limited victory conditions, the lack of an option for either side to surrender or flee and the somewhat soggy AI (troops aimlessly over-retreating and re-engaging and computer enemies shelling open hexes after the player's position has already been identified), skirmishes eventually stretch into shapeless battles of attrition. Competing sides chase each other around the map until enough reinforcements arrive to ensure that each scenario will not end until the 18th or 20th or 40th (!) turn has been completed.
All of this is probably music to the ears of turn-based strategy game fans or players with the patience of prison-camp interrogators. But, if you don't fall into one of those categories, I recommend that, instead of actually buying the game, you simply take a few moments to appreciate the fact that games like this exist and that people can seemingly devote their lives to creating them.
Graphics: Hexagons and icons and anti-tank guns, oh my! I admit I've been spoiled by RTS (real-time strategy) game graphics but West Front proves turn-based (or stop-action) 2D still has some life left. The interface and available menus (hide-able) are colorful and well designed -- more like a head-up display than a system of toolbars. The multiple map views are helpful but I needed to zoom in closer than the game allowed. Many of the icons blended with the background depending on the type of terrain drawn on the screen and stacking too many units in one hexagon looked like a jumbled mess. The different vehicles (tanks, jeeps, boats, planes) and the map structure (towns, bunkers, cliffs, trees) were exquisitely drawn. Some of the effect, though, is diminished by the fact that all unit icons represent larger groups of soldiers (I'm more the hands-on-per-soldier G.I. Joe type player than the metal-miniature-on-a-game-map type).
Sound: The game's sound effects do a good job of filling in the reality gaps whenever a unit mobilizes or fires a shot. There are also ambient midst-of-battle sound effects that help maintain the mood. Unfortunately, the music is obtrusive, kind of B-movie over-the-top like. I had to turn it off while reading through the manual because I couldn't concentrate with it playing. Also, I missed having any voice-over parts or mission-briefing movies (a cheesy staple of soldier-type games that I've rather gotten used to).
Enjoyment: This is one of those rare occasions where I have to recognize that even though I don't feel any particular fondness for the game while playing it, it's essentially a good game. No battlefield corpse has been left unturned (to needlessly extend this review's dominant metaphor) and when a game is that complete, a sizeable audience willing to explore it can easily be found. West Front's completeness and secondary features added to the fun for me. Even though I couldn't devote the time to poring over the subtleties of every single Stuart tank just to find out which one was best-suited against a particular howitzer, I was still glad the ability to do so was available from within game.
Replay Value: By virtue of length alone, this game could take you forever to complete and that's just going by what's included on the CD-ROM. The scenario editor and the multi-player modes add to the length and variety and the inclusion of both dynamic and linked campaigns gives players that much more from which to choose. Despite what's available, however, the game's slow tediousness will turn many people off well before they get the chance to try out all the available options.
People who downloaded West Front have also downloaded:
East Front 2, Waterloo: Napoleon's Last Battle, Rising Sun, Third Reich, Steel Panthers 3: Brigade Command (1939-1999), Sid Meier's Gettysburg!, Panzer General 3: Scorched Earth, Steel Panthers
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