Cuban Missile Crisis: The Aftermath is a real-time strategy game inspired by 1962's escalating conflict between the USA and USSR, where Soviet nuclear missile installations were found on the island of Cuba. Yet the game views the events through a revisionist lens, exploring a "what if" scenario of nuclear war between the two superpowers. The world is now a wasteland of radioactive zones with the remaining countries battling for resources, influence, and survival. Four different sides are available to play as or against, including China, USSR, the American-British alliance, and the French-German alliance. The game adopts the graphics engine used in 2003's Blitzkrieg as players make turn-based tactical decisions from a global map before carrying out the conflict in real time from an isometric viewpoint high above the terrain. As players command helicopters, rockets, ground troops, and other forces of the revised time period, they must keep a watchful eye on hazardous contamination zones that can adversely affect both equipment and soldiers.
Cuban Missile Crisis: The Aftermath postulates an alternative outcome to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. In its alternate history, the shooting down of a U-2 over Cuba turned the standoff into a shooting war that started with an American invasion of Cuba and quickly led to a limited exchange of nukes. While this certainly is a plausible scenario, the game's storyline soon becomes over-the-top and melodramatic and will invoke a little eye-rolling. But who really plays strategy games for the storyline anyway? The developers wanted an excuse to create a strategy game with units from the middle of the Cold War and the story serves that purpose.
The game has four campaigns, one for each of its four factions: America/England, The Soviet Union, Germany/France (look who's finally playing "nice" together), and China. The story in the campaigns is conveyed through large passages of text and each faction in practice pretty much plays the same way, so there's not a lot of personality to the factions. Just pick the one with your favorite tanks and sully forth.
The campaign is played as a series of scenarios, but they are not structured as you might expect them to be in a real-time strategy game. Each scenario presents you with a strategic map of the area that displays the current locations of your armies, special strategic sites, your ultimate objective, and any enemy armies within sight. To win the scenario you'll need to capture the objective, but how you get there and how many battles that you fight along the way are up to you. Armies are maneuvered on the map in a turn-based manner and if you move your army onto an enemy army or strategic site a real-time battle will ensue. The real-time battles are winner-take-all affairs, with the losing side paying for their defeat with the complete loss of an army or a strategic location.
The strategic map also serves as your resource and army management center. Resources are generated by strategic supply sites and controlling them means more resources that can be spent on new units to add to your armies or that can be committed to a battle. Committing resources to a battle ensures that your units do not run out of fuel or ammo during the fight and is therefore critical to victory.
The strategic map adds a welcome layer of depth to the game and adds a good degree of replay value to the scenarios. On the downside the presentation is pretty Spartan and has a war room map feel to it. On the other hand, the information given to you about the scenario's significance to the war and your objectives is far too verbose and overwhelms you with large reams of text in very small fonts. I know it sounds crazy, but I prefer to spend my game time actually playing rather than reading.
When the action moves to a real-time battle things will look very familiar to anyone who's played any of the Sudden Strike games before. This is because the game is from the same developers and they took the Sudden Strike engine into Cuban Missile Crisis. Unfortunately this means that Cuban Missile Crisis suffers from the same maladies that plagued Sudden Strike. First of all, pathfinding is atrocious. Units given orders as a group will split up at the first sign of an obstacle in their path and begin to scatter across the map. Units will block each others paths and get stuck trying to get around each other. Others will blindly run across the open in front of enemy positions and happily let themselves be mowed down. The list goes on, but the gist is that the game is one of those RTS exercises in unit handholding and babysitting.
The pathfinding is annoying, but the real problem with the game lies in its line of sight implementation. Enemy units will be able to target and hit your units the exact second the smallest piece of them pierces the fog of war. You have to be very lucky to see the enemy who shot at your unit and of course once your unit is destroyed the fog of war cloaks the enemy instantly. You had better get used to the sight of your tanks spontaneously blowing up without ever firing a shot or even seeing who killed them. This means that you'll need to inch your units forward one at a time in the hopes that you'll reveal the enemy before you lose your unit. Even when you know where the enemy is lurking in the fog it is tricky to maneuver units into firing range without having them killed instantly by the quick-draw, dead-eye AI. This turns the game's best feature - its strategic map and the random encounters it creates - into a liability. If you were simply playing through a series of scenarios you'd eventually figure out where the enemy positions are located on each map through trial and error, but in Cuban Missile Crisis each battle is a trial and error (mostly error) affair.
There are a few other issues with the game, most notably the imbalance between armor and infantry. About the only sure way to kill infantry with a tank is to drive over them, otherwise it is a long and trying affair just to take out a few guys sitting in a trench. On the other hand, infantry can chew up armor in no time. It detracts from your enjoyment of the game when you can't capture an objective because the enemy infantry keeps blowing the turrets off of your tanks as fast as you can roll them to the frontlines.
For those of you who'd rather spend all of your time in the war room, the game features an auto-resolve feature for the real-time battles. Imagine that, a real-time strategy game that you don't even have to play. However, you'll soon find that your odds are a lot better if you do things yourself as I never won a single auto-resolved battle. Sure, it is statistically possible that I just hit an unlucky streak, but after the tenth time I auto-resolved my way to defeat I gave up on it.
Overall, Cuban Missile Crisis takes an interesting strategic component and surrounds it with a mediocre presentation, dated graphics, and a game engine that has as many problems as it did when it was first released. Best leave this one to the hardcore Sudden Strike fans and those who've spent their lifetimes obsessing over what would have happened had the world gone to war in 1962.
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