The First World War is not usually noted for its strategy - there wasn't any! Hard pressed soldiers facing each other across a devastated No Man's Land only a few hundred yards wide, languishing in mud filled trenches and being slaughtered by the hundred thousand in wave after wave of infantry attacks and artillery barrages are the indelible picture of the war. Could you have conducted it better? That is the enormous challenge posed in this new strategy game from Blue Byte.
Though noted for its static trench warfare, WW1 actually witnessed an enormous amount of innovation in the nature of the weaponry hurled from side to side. Tanks were invented, the standard of aircraft improved greatly as the potential of aerial combat was recognized. German zeppelin airships and Gotha bombers conducted the first air raids against London and south-eastern England, and submarines became deadly predators stalking merchant shipping.
In History Line, each of the opposing armies receives new equipment as the war progresses. An interval of approximately two months is presumed to have elapsed between each of the 24 battlegrounds, or Maps, upon which the fighting takes place. The green fields and open spaces of the earlier stages, upon which large numbers of cavalry pieces originally appear, are gradually replaced by landscapes scarred with trenches and bunkers whilst cavalry and infantry troops become progressively less effective as the number of tanks, artillery and aeroplanes increases. Although the technological advantage therefore swings back and forth between the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) and the Allied Powers (dominated by Britain, France and Russia), this does not mean walkovers occur as a superficially less impressive range of units may still win a battle if deployed with skill.
In terms of its appearance and the way it is controlled, History Line follows the format of Battle Isle very closely. One player may fight against an army directed by the computer, or two-players may compete against each other. Players may choose which power bloc they wish to control, represented on-screen by Germany and France. Two maps appear side by side on the screen, each forming part of the larger Map which forms the whole area of the current battlefield. The Map is divided into hexagons into which the players position the units under their command. Pieces are moved, and various instructions accessed, by joystick wiggling, keyboard tapping, or the mouse (my experience is that the joystick undoubtedly represents the easiest of the available control methods, although a little re-setting is required to have two working at once). Movement and action phases alternate between the two players.
The objective is simple enough: each army has a headquarters building on every map, occupy the enemy's and you will win.
Alternatively, just annihilate every unit he controls and a brutal but decisive victory will be yours. The game does not offer the opportunity of re-writing history, however. As its name suggests, History Line takes the player through a period in the past; each Map represents a fictitious engagement, and though some of the different landscapes and geographical features are based on real battlefields they are not intended to simulate actual battles. Even if the player controlling the Central Powers wins every Map, the Allies will remain victorious in the war as a whole.
Informing players about the causes and conduct of the war is one of the aims of the game. History Line begins with a brief animation depicting the Western Front in 1916, followed by a smoothly animated sequence showing the assassination of Arch-Duke Frank Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was shot dead by a Bosnian terrorist during a visit to Sarajevo in June 1918 - the event which triggered the war.
During the game, text and illustrations taken from contemporary newspapers appear. They keep players up to date with key events in the course of the real war, and provide nuggets of interesting domestic news from the countries involved - sporting events, for example. Animations are also shown, depicting notable incidents, such as a zeppelin flying above London Bridge during a bombing raid. The animations are drawn well, though with what seems to be a comparatively limited palette, and help the atmosphere of the game.
THE REAL WORLD
The standard of presentation is, overall, very good. Digitized contemporary photographs illustrate the information panels explaining the specifications of each military unit, and battle scenes illustrate each phase of the game in which enemy pieces exchange fire. It has to be said that the standard of background drawing in these sequences is generally superior to that of the sprites superimposed upon them who blast away each other.
The combat itself is not particularly lively to watch and necessitates a large amount of disk swapping if you have only got a hard disk. One of the reasons why the combat looks less bloodthirsty than might have been expected is that Blue Byte, as a German company, developed History Line to meet the restrictions of the depiction of violence in computer games which exist in that country. Paradoxically, the lack of scenes of carnage lessens the impact of the game, rather than saving it from the accusation of tastelessness that their inclusion might have caused. The WW1-based television comedy series Blackadder Goes Fourth, for example, ended poignantly despite its outrageous and tasteless humor precisely because it never understated the hardship of life in the trenches, or belittled the suffering of the men in them; they went 'over the top' as duty dictated regardless of their desire not to.
The 'long battle' mode may be switched off, however, in favor of the 'short battle' option that doesn't require disk swapping. In the latter, combat takes place swiftly with symbols for the belligerent units simply being placed side by side and those that get destroyed disappearing from the screen. Once you get into the game this is actually more exciting to follow, the battle scenes becoming merely a distraction.
The sound effects are good, and during battle scenes vehicle and weapon noises are clear and appropriate. While players decide their movements and actions on their maps tense music plays in the background; during the introductory sequence the tune is suitably mournful.
History Line 1914-1918 is an intelligent and enjoyable game of strategy, and represents an interesting development of the genre. It deserves to be a great success.
People who downloaded History Line 1914-18 have also downloaded:
History Line: 1914-1918 (a.k.a. Great War: 1914-1918, The), Heimdall 2, Hero Quest, North & South, Heimdall 1, Gobliins 2, Great Courts 2, Hero Quest 2
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