Avalon Hill's Squad Leader has you leading of a band of soldiers through the Battle of the Bulge, the Normandy Invasion, and Arnhem safely. To become a great leader, you can begin by completing the tutorials that teach you the basics of the game. After your training is completed, there are over ten missions and three campaigns that await your invasion. Learn about your U.S. British or German soldiers with the 300 soldier biographies included with Squad Leader.
Squad-level military engagement against a World War II backdrop is nothing new for gamers. It is the central theme behind a number of computer gaming titles aimed at wargamers.
One of the most popular tabletop gaming systems covering this area was Squad Leader, and developer Avalon Hill has taken Squad Leader off the tabletop battlefield and moved it to the computer, joining the ranks of games such as Axis & Allies and Risk.
With the main focus in the industry on developing variations of real-time strategy games, it has been a while since a serious turn-based game was marketed. And with Squad Leader as a starting point, it's hard to see where Avalon Hill could go wrong.
But, unfortunately, Squad Leader did go wrong, and the result is a game without an impressive interface and graphics, without a multiplayer mode, and without any real lasting value.
Maybe my expectations were just a little too high after playing some of the other recent WWII squad combat games, or perhaps I was remembering some of the Saturday afternoon games we would play in the early 80's a little too fondly. But either way, the translation of Squad Leader to the computer did not live up to my expectations.
Squad selection at the start of a mission wasn't too bad. Each mission has parameters limiting the number and types of squads and specialists available, and you can drag soldiers from squad to squad to get the right mix of your favorites. And, of course, arming your squads was just as time consuming as the tabletop game; there are some things you just can't rush if you really are intent on winning. Squad Leader also gives you many options to play around with, including the ability to modify what each soldier should carry and what should be dragged along.
Deployment of troops is also very straightforward, with your staging area designated by red, outlined terrain squares. To deploy troops, you simply place units on those squares and adjust their position to suit your needs.
But it's also here that I got my first good look at the actual game screen. The units themselves look pretty good, with a fair amount of detail to distinguish a unit's stance and facing. If only the terrain had a look to match -- all the terrain textures, from those used for trees to the various ground patterns, simply looked too coarse. Five years ago, I would have expected graphic presentations of this level, but not today, and not when the recommended system is a Pentium II 233.
And what happened to the hexes? There was a reason for hexes in table gaming, one of them being the ease with which you could judge the cost of a proposed move against the available movement points left on a unit. In the computer version of Squad Leader, players move on a series of squares. It's a good thing that the first click to select a destination merely plots the computer's best guess at a path and the total movement cost. You aren't committed to the move until you select the same square twice.
Another item that made planning a path a little harder than need be was the difficulty in judging changes in terrain elevation. Sloped terrain simply didn't stand out very well without the gridlines turned on. Nor can you rotate your view of the map -- you always have the same perspective, making it harder to see exactly where the brush and other items are or aren't in your way. The interface and the graphics simply aren't in any way impressive. At best they are adequately functional. Several years ago these wouldn't have been issues, but in today's market, it's fair to expect software to do more with the hardware we throw at it.
I was also taken back by the process of taking turns during actual gameplay. I've come to expect straight turn-based games to have a 'move' phase followed by a 'fire' phase, with defensive fire being made by each team automatically at the appropriate stages by those units designated to do so. So, I made my moves while leaving enough action points on my units to handle a round of fire, and for a few to engage in defensive fire. Then I watched as the other side moved and proceeded to mow down my troops. Fire commands are also executed immediately, instead of allowing the player to issue all fire commands and see them executed in unit initiative order.
It is still possible to play and win with these little changes from both the original Squad Leader and other turn-based tactical combat games, it's just more confusing. I'm not really sure just what active Squad Leader and Advanced Squad Leader gamers are going to make of this title, but I don't see many of them being pleased with the digital version of their game. Though it does remind me of the very first computer gaming attempts at fantasy role-playing games. Again, that would have been OK 10 years ago.
Going back over my experience with Squad Leader, my complaints may seem a little trifling for a game that ran well and performed exactly as the manual outlined. But I still didn't have any fun actually playing the game. There was never that desire to finish a mission so I could advance to the next. Instead, it was simply a desire to finish a mission so it would simply end.
This is a game after all, and the final judgment has to come down on whether or not you enjoyed your time playing. Maybe a little multiplayer would have improved things a little, or it may have simply highlighted to players that this is Squad Leader in name only.
People who downloaded Avalon Hill's Squad Leader have also downloaded:
Axis & Allies, Allied General, Austerlitz: Napoleon's Greatest Victory, American Civil War: Take Command - Second Manassas, Civil War Generals 2, Battleground 2: Gettysburg, 101 Airborne: The Airborne Invasion of Normandy, Close Combat 4: The Battle of the Bulge
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