Sid Meier's Gettysburg! was a combination of challenging strategy and attention to detail. Now, with the follow up title Sid Meier's Antietam!, fans of the genre can expect more of the same with this 3D real time war strategy game, Firaxis' second Civil War installment.
The attention to detail will likely be among the first things many gamers will notice. From the landscapes, buildings and bridges to troop uniforms and consistency in historical accuracy, the game's foundation in realistic settings is obvious to the most casual observer. Detail runs the gamut from regiment nicknames and troop attitudes to historically accurate regiment performance.
The game is broken into single player and network options. In the single player mode, you are presented with ten scenarios that cover different stages of the battle. With an educational preface to every scenario, you are brought up to speed with the setting and motivation. It's also a quick way to learn some American history.
For the most part, the scenarios are in the hour-long range with a few cutting it to half an hour and a few extending that time. When the time comes, you have the option of playing the whole battle of Antietam in its entirety. This option is rife with options such as intensity and whether or not you want troops to be made available chronologically -- features that let you decide how true to the real battle you wish to adhere.
With regards to replay, you are able to tune each scenario, fudging historical accuracy to change the course of the game. A few of the scenarios included are revisions of what actually happened and add an interesting spin to the game, intended to satisfy the civil war fans who are always clamoring for chances to try out their theories. There is no scenario editor but the game does contain a random scenario generator.
The interface in Sid Meier's Antietam! is a combination of mouse point-and-click and keyboard shortcut commands. Troop movements are intuitive. Click on your troops, click where you want them and then arrange their formation (there are five) as they go. Different factions are lead by famous historical commanders from the period, adding to the realism. As a short cut, you can also move your regiments by simply moving their commanding officer.
As for weapons, the game has an assortment of eight different rifled bore and smooth bore cannons. Standard fare mostly but with a unique presentation. Your troops have both experience and morale with which to contend. As your troops gain experience, it is translated to the amount of firepower they can deliver; this is tracked with a range finder that displays, with varying intensities, your troops' power levels.
The game provides a multi-user option for battles over the Internet or a LAN. Up to eight players can battle it out and the Internet hosting is done by the Zone.
When Firaxis appeared on the scene with Sid Meier's Gettysburg in 1997, gamers rejoiced at the combination of attention to detail and playability that the title offered. It was, by some estimations (including my own), one of the most fascinating and functional real-time tactical games ever. Just before the Christmas break, we received a package from Firaxis containing their second game built on the Gettysburg engine, Antietam. Since the break I've been giving the game a serious working over and I've got to admit that it surpasses even Gettysburg in several areas. While the game definitely has flaws, these are minor compared to its strengths. But first a little context...
Sid Meier's Antietam is the second in the Great Battle Series undertaken by Firaxis. Like its predecessor Gettysburg, Antietam is a real-time simulation of regimental level warfare. Players take command of either the Union or Confederate side as they relive America's Bloodiest Day. On September 17th in 1862 General George McClellan led the Army of the Potomac against the Army of Northern Virginia under the command of Robert E. Lee. The two forces fought near Antietam Creek just outside the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland for the whole day. By the end of the day 23,000 American soldiers lay dead. No other day before or since has seen as many American deaths.
One thing that impressed me about the game is the attention to historical detail. Firaxis bossman and overall coxswain Jeff Briggs says that that's always been a high priority for the team and the commitment to realism is instantly apparent in the finished product. The huge, contoured map of the area around Sharpsburg is incredibly detailed and accurate. It contains all of the tactically significant terrain features that you would find if you were to travel back a hundred years in time and visit the battlefield. The most significant features include Antietam Creek, passable only at select fords and bridges; the famous sunken road known to history as The Bloody Lane, acting as an entrenchment for the occupying units; and the town of Sharpsburg, which your units may only enter in skirmish or column formation. The map also includes several new terrain features such as embankments, plowed land and Miller's Cornfield.
The realism extends to the representation of units as well. The team obviously spent a lot of time researching not only the various performance characteristics of each regiment, but also their distinctive clothing and dispositions. The fully animated troops come with all sorts of different uniforms so you can tell at a glance whether you're dealing with Zoaves, Berdan's Sharpshooters, Louisiana Tigers or the Irish Brigade. There are even historically accurate uniform differences within the same regiments on the Confederate side. Nearly every unit comes with a historically accurate nickname as well. With each soldier on the field representing about 40 men, some of the smaller regiments (like the 8th Virginia) have been assimilated into larger regiments for convenience's sake.
Combat is equally convincing and accurate. That is to say, it's handled accurately but presented in a slightly unrealistic manner. Each regiment is rated for experience and morale. Experience affects a regiment's firepower. The graphical representation of this tends to detract from the realism of the game but it's really one of the most effective ways of showing fire effectiveness I've seen. A cone extends out from each regiment or cannon to its target the wider and brighter the cone, the more damage is being inflicted. That may sound strange but it makes a lot more sense when you see it in action. I was a little disappointed that there is no smoke from the gun volleys, but I can live without it.
Unit movement and formation control is also remarkably well handled and fit the time period very well. After a few minutes of drill, you'll be able to control your troops with just a few mouse clicks. You select a unit and then click on their destination. You can change the regiment into any of five separate formations -- line, double line, column, skirmish and road. Road formation directs the regiment to follow the contours of the road to reach their destination. Regiments can be moved in larger groups by moving their commanders. All in all, the movement and order system has that great combination of versatility and simplicity that's apparently hard to achieve.
There are eight separate types of cannons in Antietam of both the smooth bore and rifled variety. Both sides may load canister shot into their cannon to inflict maximum damage on infantry formations at close range. The Union cannons have extended line of sight to reflect their enhanced performance on the battlefield. Cavalry are also replicated here but, in deference to historical fact, they function as little more than dragoons -- mounted infantry basically.
The troops are led by their historical commanders. Early, Hood, Jackson and others are all represented in the game. Although it would have been nice if the commanders all had different characteristics -- initiative, awareness, etc -- the only difference between commanders is their range of influence. The commander's sphere of influence affects the morale and effectiveness of nearby units. Antietam offers two new Brigade level commands that will speed play along -- retreat and fall back. In Gettysburg you had to issue these orders to each unit individually. Now you can issue the order to the Brigade commander and all of his units respond. Division commanders may now gather all of their artillery around them with one click of a mouse.
Although the game only covers the battle of Antietam, there are numerous scenario options here. You can elect to play any of ten scenarios depicting various stages in the overall battle. These range in length from 30 minutes to a few hours and offer a quick way to get to know the game. Unlike Gettysburg, the scenarios in Antietam are not linked together. Once you select a scenario, you're prompted to read a well-written, informative essay that outlines the action and puts it in the appropriate context. Three longer scenarios depict much larger sections of the battle and three "speculative" scenarios depict "what-if" (or "counterfactual" to use the academic term) circumstances. The most tantalizing of these is the one in which McClellan decides to commit the V Corps under General Porter to attack. This decision has kept historians occupied ever since the battle took place over a hundred years ago. Nearly every scenario comes with several historical variants that spice up the action a little. There's also a random scenario generator but, sadly, there is no scenario designer. What the hell -- I never use those things anyway.
Once you've whet your appetite on the smaller scenarios, it's time to move onto playing through the battle as a whole. This is a daunting prospect, even for someone who gets paid to play games. Even here there are numerous options. You can opt to play the battle with as many historically accurate limitations as possible. In other words, troops aren't available until they were available during the actual battle. You may even have to spend some of your victory points (earned through occupying certain locations and killing enemy soldiers) to activate some of your reserves. You can also play the battle in low- or high-intensity variants or with fewer restrictions on unit activation.
Once you're done with the single-player variants (which should take quite a while), Antietam also has multiplayer options for up to eight players. You can divide control of the separate armies up among the various players and thereby better simulate the effects of commander personalities on the progress of the battle. Support offered through the Zone is relatively painless (by Zone standards) but we had a difficult time getting the LAN multiplay going. Once we figured out the trick (you have to set up the game as TCP first, then the other players join via IPX), I took out my aggressions on my fellow editors in game form...which is much more healthy than the way I've been doing it.
The game menus also include a few paintings from the famous Civil War artist Don Troiani. I can only name two others so he must be famous, right? While I've never been a personal fan of Don, his work seems to be very popular among Civil War junkies. More significant is the inclusion of the previously unpublished manuscript of Ezra Carman, the commanding officer of the 13th New Jersey Volunteers during the battle of Antietam. His 1800-page handwritten account of the battle has sat in the National Archives since it was penned and its release is of interest to people other than gamers.
In the end, the thing that gets me most excited about Antietam is that it's only the second in Firaxis' series. This is without a doubt one of the most remarkable Civil War games I've played, even better than Gettysburg. If the next game (the subject of which Firaxis is as of yet unwilling to reveal) is better still, then gamers are in for a real treat. In the meanwhile, Antietam is plenty good enough to occupy my time.
People who downloaded Sid Meier's Antietam! have also downloaded:
Sid Meier's Gettysburg!, Civil War Generals 2, Sid Meier's Pirates!, Robert E. Lee: Civil War General, Waterloo: Napoleon's Last Battle, Austerlitz: Napoleon's Greatest Victory, Sid Meier's Civilization IV, Sid Meier's Railroads!
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