West Front Review
By Jesse Alley |
Most games don't require bibliographies, but the manual for West Front devotes four single-spaced pages to citing works of military history.
You say you're not familiar with best-selling author J. Pipes' German Armored Cars and Reconnaissance Half-tracks, 1939-1945? How about the taut prose of C.P. Stacey's Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War, Vol. III: The Victory Campaign: The Operations in North-West Europe, 1944-1945?
Fortunately, neither a degree in military history nor a shelf full of weighty tomes in needed to enjoy West Front. It's approachable, attractive, and addictive enough.
The name, West Front easily describes the game's scope. Scenarios range from North Africa and Italy to Norway and France; basically anywhere the Axis fought the Allies within the vicinity of Western Europe.
As a strategy game, it's turn based, and played out on a 2D hexagonal grid, despite the 3D terrain representations. Each turn represents about six minutes; each unit is roughly one platoon, or one vehicle. The map graphics are attractive; the 3D elevations make figuring out LOS a snap; multiple views allow different ways of studying the overall disposition of forces.
But in terms of scope and scale--or sheer wild-eyed ambition--it's a step down from The Operational Art of War, as there's no plunging the whole peninsula of Korea into war, for example. And at the other extreme, because West Front is abstract and turn-based, it lacks the visceral punch and panicky immediacy of the Close Combat series.
Instead West Front marches down the middle road, safely ensconced in wargaming tradition--and aficionados of the genre will find little to quibble over this time out. As a follow-up to the problem-ridden East Front, West Front fixes most of its predecessor's gaffes. This time there's a manual, the game has working concealment and line of sight (LOS) rules, and the artificial opponent has been toughened up.
Meticulous detail is still the order of the day. For example, where most games would be happy with one kind of desert terrain--think of the bland yellow tiles of Dune 2000--West Front offers six types of desert alone: clear desert, soft sand, scrub, cactus patches, wadis (dry riverbeds), and hammada (areas strewn with rocks, like the surface of the moon.) Vehicles and unit types also abound. The table of units runs for well over one hundred pages, detailing thousands of units, and not just from your usual suspects--the Germans, Americans and British--but also the armies of obscurer participants: Yugoslavia, Italy, Norway, Greece, Vichy France and half a dozen others.
Yet most of this painstaking attention to historical accuracy is conveniently hidden from the user, a huge advantage that computer wargames have over their boardgame brethren--no constant manual thumping or breaking out the rulers here. And there's also the fact that you can play against a computer whenever you want; no waiting around for a similarly warstruck pal to game against. The result is game full of tactical questions; like a newspaper chess problem, West Front can be a perfect way to kill a lazy Sunday.
There are some annoyances. Having the scenario dictate where your forces begin is a bit presumptuous, and the interface feels a little clumsy, a bit sloppy and unintuitive, as if it sprung from the "Okay, this is how we did it, and you just need to learn it" school of game design.
And in some of the more complex scenarios, with huge dobs of units on each side, a single turn can just go on and on and on. It's especially numbing if on the opening turn your side doesn't move first, since you are forced to sit through a long grandiose attack by the other side on your positions, with the map shifting randomly about as unit after unit attacks, never giving you a chance to get the overall picture, and not even feeling involved, since you didn't even get to set up your own units in prepared positions to begin with. This is not a good way to go about making the player care about what is about to happen.
On the other hand, the game draws great strength from its extensibility. Besides the numerous individual scenarios (which can also be played in linked campaigns), there is a random scenario generator, letting you stage off-the-cuff engagements, as well as fully-featured map and scenario editors, letting you recreate the most obscure or fantastic engagements your heart desires. West Front also packs the full gamut of today's multiplayer options: modem, LAN, TCP/IP, hot seat, and play by e-mail.
So all in all, West Front is a respectable, acceptable foray into mainstream wargaming, suitable for novices but really aimed at veterans.