Shattered Union is a 3D, turn-based game of conquest, set in a discordantly imagined, alternate-reality United States. The country is at war with itself, and players can choose to lead one of seven bellicose factions: Greater California, The New Republic of Texas, the Heartland. Dixieland, the Yankee Union, or the exploitive European Expeditionary Force. The game's blend of familiar American battlegrounds and fictional nation-states encourages players to re-imagine history, and claim it all under their lone flag. Although orders are given in a turn-based fashion, they are executed simultaneously. Detailed unit animations and fully destructible landscapes bring action and chaos to the strategic gameplay. Multiplayer modes are supported for both online and offline competitors. Shattered Union was developed by PopTop Software, known previously for its well-received 1998 and 2003 sequels to Railroad Tycoon and its original city-building game, Tropico.
If, like me, you're a hard-core armchair Eisenhower, the PC has always been your platform of choice. Despite its supremacy in strategy and RTS titles, however, the PC has always had an embarrassing dearth of classic turn-based "beer & pretzels" strategy games. In fact, these fast-playing, simple-on-the-surface but surprisingly deep challenges have been dominated by consoles in recent years -- as typified by terrific titles like Dai Senryaku, Advance Wars, and the Fire Emblem series. Shattered Union, from PopTop Software (notable for their exceptional update of the Railroad Tycoon series), brings that type of quick-hit light strategy title back to the PC. Unfortunately, while the game is an enjoyably fun diversion, gameplay holes and surface defects cause this take on a second American civil war to fail to reach its potential.
The game's premise could have been (and probably was) lifted straight from CNN. A disputed election installs the most unpopular President in American history into the White House. Incidents of domestic terrorism push an already strained United States to the breaking point, and a nuclear bomb that destroys Washington D.C. and wipes out the governmental line of succession causes regions of the country to begin breaking away into mutually hostile camps. Eventually, six American regional factions emerge including the California Commonwealth and the Republic of Texas, the European Union invades the area around Washington D.C. "to restore order" as a seventh faction, and the battle is on for which gets to rebuild the United States in its image.
The actual storyline is mostly piffle. Liberals will get a cheap thrill from swipes at the Bush Administration, conservatives will grit their teeth for the same reason, but ultimately, the storyline doesn't have a whole lot of bearing on the actual gameplay. During the game's campaign mode, which allows the player to take control of one of the seven factions, little cut scenes will pop up detailing the investigation into the destruction of Washington D.C. and the implication of a former Soviet hardliner in the bombing. These cut-scenes, while adequately scripted and well voice-acted, don't have particularly good production values. They're stocked with plastic-looking characters that bear a striking resemblance to Barbie dolls (or possibly CNN anchors).
The real meat and potatoes of the game are the tactical battles that take place on hex-based maps that represent regions of America. It's here that the game really shines. Play begins with each player placing up to 42 military units down on "deployment hexes." Once that's done, they can move their units a certain number of hexes each turn, occupying cities or attacking enemy units. When battles occur, the combat is resolved using attack and defense ratings in various categories. When the player has finished his or her moves, their opponent (human or AI) gets to go. The winner is the player who has destroys all enemy units or manages to occupy a certain number of "victory points" -- hexes representing valuable cities. The Campaign adds an extra layer of strategy on top by stringing together these battles, with the winner conquering one of 24 regions of the country which will provide money, bonuses, or new units. The Campaign winner must take over all 24 zones. That's really all there is to it.
Except, of course, that that's not all there is to it. Underneath this simple surface is a very enjoyable strategic challenge. Player units are divided into 10 different categories, including heavy, medium and light armor, artillery, air and anti-air, and infantry. Within each category, players have two or three choices of units, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Each faction also has a "special" unit. The Great Plains Federation, for example, has a killer piece of artillery that's incredibly powerful but slow and fragile. Figuring out how to best use your assets, which ones work well together, and which carry the most bang for the buck in a particular situation is the kind of enjoyable problem solving strategy game junkies live for and there's a lot to chew on in Shattered Union.
One of the best additions is actually the "political reputation" meter. This is a representation of world opinion on your conduct of the war. Employing particularly destructive weapons can damage cities and possibly destroy famous landmarks, causing your reputation to go down. Avoiding such things, on the other hand, can cause it to go up. Both extremes offer an array of special powers on the battlefield ranging from tactical nukes to WMDs to electronic jamming that immobilizes enemy vehicles. It's not the most sophisticated system in the world, but adds an enjoyable bit of spice to both the campaign, and multiplayer as you can never be sure what special abilities your opponent is going to pull out.
Unfortunately, while the basic strategic game is solid and enjoyable, various unpolished game elements and annoyances keep this from being the kind endlessly enjoyable strategy morsel PopTop was clearly aiming for. The most severe deficiencies are the most subtle ones -- holes in the strategic model. The way the game represents line-of-sight is ridiculous. This game is supposed to represent Americans battling Americans within U.S. borders and the game is cursed with a fog-of-war model straight out of a World War II game. Discounting the obvious question of why rebel elements of the U.S. military wouldn't have access to satellite imagery or radar, units that are supposed to be used as scouts (like the Humvee or the Warrior light chopper) have sightlines so abbreviated as to make them almost useless for their primary function. I often found it better to just spend my money on another Abrams. If I'm going to be the constant victim of ridiculous surprise attacks, I'd like to have enough armor to take a few shots.
The game's AI also tends to be a bit rigid. One of the most enjoyable challenges of the game is figuring out how to first properly use your units, then figuring out the best way to defeat different enemies. After a couple of campaigns, however, the AI's strategic tendencies tend to become obvious, which caused the single-player campaign to get repetitive and boring. This isn't a problem in multiplayer, however, and playing against another human being is incredibly fun. Multiplayer, however, is restricted to skirmishes, despite the fact that the idea of a 1-7 player campaign option would seem to be a no-brainer.
Then there are the smaller annoyances. It's very difficult to get the game's camera into a good position to get a decent strategic overview of the situation. Zooming in close to give orders to units can easily conceal enemy units behind mountains or past the edge of the screen that might otherwise have changed your strategic calculus. Zoom out farther, however, and it's almost impossible to identify individual units. This is compounded during combat because the camera swings around wildly to zoom in on the action and then zooms back out, which (along with units ducking back under the absurd fog-of-war) often makes it tougher than it has to be to pinpoint just where an attack is coming from.
The tutorials are lousy as well. Filmed tutorials are almost never good, as they don't let the player get his or her hands dirty with actual gameplay. Shattered Union's however, as worse than most. They're merely huge info dumps that drop a whole lot of confusing jargon and game-specific terminology on the player. I've been playing strategy games so long I think I may have hex patterns imprinted on my retinas and I found the tutorials useless. It's just better (and far more rewarding) to monkey around with the game itself, although this can contribute to a slightly frustrating learning curve, as there are certain gameplay subtleties (like the firing range display) that are easy to miss, but are vital to winning the game.
In the end, however, the worst part about these surface annoyances is how they keep Shattered Union from being the awesome game its developers were obviously aiming for. There's the core of a truly great beer-&-pretzels wargame in here, and strategy gamers looking for a light, enjoyable romp through a ruined United States will have a lot of fun with Shattered Union, particularly in multiplayer. It's just that -- as with most political promises -- what the game is simply doesn't match up to what it could have been.
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