Blitzkrieg 2 is a real-time strategy game that plays out across historically modeled 3D landscapes of World War II. Battles take place around the globe -- in Europe, Northern Africa, and the Pacific Theater -- and are based on the real-life engagements that took place during the war. The game features four campaigns, allowing players to fight from the perspective of the Russians, the British, the Germans, and the Americans. More than 250 unit types are available, so a built-in encyclopedia is available to help players brush up on their history and choose the best troops for the fight ahead. Like the original Blitzkrieg games, Blitzkrieg 2 was developed by the strategy-action specialists at Nival Interactive.
It's not easy finding a new twist on World War II these days. It's one of the most extensively studied and fictionalized events in human history, the subject of countless books, movies, and, of course, video games. Russian developer Nival Interactive entered this overcrowded market in 2003 with the mediocre Blitzkrieg, a game that managed to wrap a few interesting ideas around an ancient 2D engine and thoroughly pedestrian gameplay. Now Nival has released Blitzkrieg 2 -- a game that has the virtue of being better than the first, but still doesn't manage to rise above the thoroughly pedestrian.
Blitzkrieg 2, like the original, is a "tactical" RTS -- one that tries to bridge the gap between a grognard-friendly turn-based game and the more simplistic, but highly commercial RTS models typified by Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War. Like that game, Blitzkrieg 2 jettisons most resource management, instead offering a player most of the military units they're going to get at the start of each mission. Each unit is also modeled (more or less) realistically, with different armor ratings on the front, sides, and rear of a vehicle, and a finite amount of ammunition. That, naturally, contributes to a more deliberate play style as players can't simply rush headlong into battle since every lost unit could be the critical one that costs them the battle. Players do have reinforcements available, but these, too, are finite. They also carry over from mission to mission in the single-player campaign, meaning that one is loathe to risk them when there may be a greater need down the line.
It's this single-player campaign where the game is at its best. Having played a lot of RTS games where battlefield tactics either consist of Zerging or single-unit micromanagement nightmares, Blitzkrieg 2 offers a nice balance between the two extremes. There's a premium on unit position, height, and range, and there are definite combat relationships between units that make combined arms tactics a must (most of the time, anyway.) The necessity of resupplying units with ammunition during a battle also adds an enjoyable twist not often seen in this type of game.
New to this edition of the game is the RPG-like idea of "experience points." The player and his or her unit commanders will gain experience with every battle which will allow the player's troops to gain special abilities like "entrenchment" or "rapid fire." This gives a more cohesive feel to the campaign and adds plenty of enjoyable twists to battlefield strategy when players need to take into account their commander's need for battlefield experience in addition to the immediate tactical situation.
Unfortunately, while the "big-picture" ideas manage to work, the game ends up being brought down by a number of annoying little details that make individual battles less fun than they might otherwise be. Let's start with unit pathfinding. As is so often the case in these games, individual unit intelligence is basically 4F in Blitzkrieg 2. Unit movement is fine in open spaces, or when there's an obvious road or path to follow, but get your guys into any kind of narrow space, such as a bridge or between two houses, and it's all too common to watch them bunch up and mill around hopelessly. They also have limited decision-making capability that's supposed to help decide where their firepower can be most effective, but in practice it ends up causing tanks to break off a town defense in order to pursue a single infantryman and can have soldiers and tanks choose two completely different paths through an enemy-infested jungle where they can all get picked off. I am so tired of this. It's 2005 and we're still dealing with the kinds of annoyances that were old-hat when Command & Conquer: Red Alert was burning up the sales charts.
The enemy's tactical AI is no great shakes either. While it has a basic idea of how to use combined arms when forced to by a mission's design, once the AI is forced into actual movement, all bets are off. Instead of scouting and striking at weak points, the enemy AI seems to have two basic tactics; "We lost three scouting parties on this road, so maybe a fourth one will do the trick," and "human wave." It's an irony then that the AI's weaknesses actually contribute to one of the more fun aspects of the game -- defensive missions. The first American mission, for example, is a defense of a beach in the Philippines against wave after wave of landing Japanese troops. In it, the player has to properly place troops and judiciously time reinforcements to defeat the enemy. It's actually a lot of fun the first few times you do it, but when you play through the rest of the campaign and see how many missions are built around these two styles of AI tactics, it starts to smell like the mission design was being used to cover for weakness in the AI -- and it gets boring and repetitive.
Fortunately, multiplayer makes up for that lack. The game's multiplayer matching system has been beefed up to support Blitzkrieg 2 and allow up to eight players to compete in regular or ladder ranked matches. Connection seemed easy and stable and signing up for an account was a snap. The game itself is also a lot of fun in multiplayer. While many of the gameplay deficiencies remain, they tend to be less important when the biggest one is eliminated simply by having a human substitute for the flawed AI. Games are timed, which make short-time games are more exciting. Games with longer time limits, however, can get boring. That's because players get unlimited reinforcements which tends to cause long games to devolve into dull defensive dances as each player tries to wall up behind a layer of armor.
There's also a serious issue with the game's camera -- another annoyance almost as old as the genre itself. First, while the game's battlefield can be rotated, the system for doing so is ridiculous. Players have to take their hands off the mouse and rotate the camera with the Control and arrow keys. Considering that developers have been putting this functionality on the mouse for years, the decision to do it this way is puzzling. The real problem, though, comes with the game's view distance. Close-ups are great, and certainly show off the beauty of the game's 3D engine. The camera can't pull back far enough to let the player get a wide view of the action, though. The game's mini-map, while functional, isn't the greatest -- the enemy position markers on the mini-map are small and hard to distinguish. That means it is way too easy to get ambushed by enemy units that by all rights should be visible. Even worse, it makes controlling air units a nightmare. Airplanes have to be controlled by selecting the unit itself as the "control all planes" button is worse than useless for giving individual orders. The planes are also placed too "high" relative to the camera's distance from the ground to be easily selectable. Players will usually see a plane's shadow more often than the plane itself, leading to frantic scrolling to find the actual unit. Planes are also so big that they often block out critical action on the screen.
Graphically, the move to a fully 3D engine has certainly paid off. The game is lovely to watch. Explosions are big, red fireballs that throw up clouds of dust and smoke. The battlefield landscape is beautiful, particularly snow covered fields that show off the tread marks and footprints of vehicles and soldiers passing over it. Even better, the environment is fully destructible. Tanks will knock down trees and tumble walls and smaller structures as they rumble though the landscape. The shockwave from artillery fire will blow back soldiers and knock the snow and leaves off trees, leaving nothing but charred trunks. Unit animations are also impressive, filled with little details that are often unnoticed but really appreciated the more the game is played. I particularly enjoyed the resupply trucks which, rather than abstracting the process of resupplying units, instead drive up to then and have little men jump off the back carrying crates of ammo.
In the end, though, the beautiful graphics are like the defensive missions and almost everything else positive about the game -- they're a fresh coat of paint on a game that has significant underlying structural problems. Blitzkrieg 2 is certainly an improvement over its predecessor, and had the potential to become an exceptional RTS. As it stands, however, with its fundamental gameplay issues, Blitzkrieg 2 is just another half-decent WWII RTS destined to sink into oblivion.
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