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Waterloo: Napoleon's Last Battle

Score: 85%
ESRB: Everyone
Publisher: Strategy First
Developer: Breakaway Games
Media: CD/1
Players: 1 - 8
Genre: Miscellaneous/ Strategy

Graphics & Sound:

All right. Waterloo runs on an engine that first debuted in 1997, with Sid Meier's Gettysburg!. And while the engine has definitely been improved in that time period, it's certainly nothing to write home about when it comes to graphical gorgeousness. The map of Waterloo is quite well-defined, but the various structures on it look more like a first attempt at rendering buildings than something in a finished product.

The units are considerably more interesting-looking, as Napoleonic times sported a bevy of different countries and therefore uniforms. The battlefields certainly look a lot more interesting than blue-and-grey or camo-and-camo. The engine also supports a quite high level of zoom, and while the 'models' in the game are not particularly detailed -- it's all sprite-based, but the sprites seem to be based off of different viewing angles of 3D models -- they're all quite well-dressed.

It's a shame, then, that the Gettysburg! engine really isn't made to handle the scope of battles in Waterloo. They run quite well on my beast of a machine, but machines that are lower have a habit of chugging in heated battles. And even my system balks occasionally on the full-scale simulation of the battle of Waterloo. Yes, there are hundreds of units moving around at once on the map, but it's still a little disturbing.

The sound effects in Waterloo are, for the most part, superb. You can hear the scattered gunfire, the commands to charge, and the clangs of steel as cavalry tears through the ranks. Even more intriguing are the voice commands that your commanders give. Give a group a command to wheel right, and you'll hear 'Droite!', which is a very nice touch. Playing the British, on the other hand, will give you the appropriate English responses.

Music, on the other hand, is nearly nonexistent. There's music at the end of battle and on the menus, but in the game, all you have to occupy yourself with is the sound effects. And even those can grate on your nerves after a while. I really wish there were some sort of musical track in the background, even if it were subdued.


Gameplay:

First things first: I'm not a grognard. While I love my tabletop gaming, I find it in the world of German-style board games and the occasional Planescape campaign rather than in the world of wargaming. There's something about the overwhelming complexity of wargames that's always turned me off, not to mention the book full of exceptions to rules to make the game play more like history.

So it's fair to say that I took on Waterloo with a certain degree of apprehension. While it was supposedly toned down for the non-wargamer, any game that says that it at least attempts to reenact the entire battle of something as large-scale as Waterloo gives me the shakes. I can set my grouped units and tag between them easily enough in StarCraft, but managing historical companies and batallions?

Imagine my pleasure when I dove into the tutorial missions, which quite nicely broke me into the whole concept of wargaming on the computer. Careful consideration of your regiments is necessary, as are morale and energy considerations. And the difference between high and low ground is oftentimes death.

Imagine my discomfiture when one of the armies in the training missions wiped me clean off the face of the earth.

Thankfully, I realized that the difficulty setting had defaulted to something frighteningly high. Turning it back down to something a newbie could handle, the game became enjoyable again.

The core conceit of the game is a number of scenarios dealing with the historical Battle of Waterloo. There are a large number of speculative ('what if') scenarios, that I'd imagine would have had a much larger impact on me if I knew the full history of the battle. Of course, that was quickly remedied by an extensive online history that you can read. Along with the speculative scenarios are a number of historical ones, from skirmishes that took place throughout the battle to a simulation of the entire battle at once. Sound frightening? Well, it is.

Once you get the hang of how to control the game, however, you can actually start to think about heavy strategy. Moving units is a simple click-and-drag, and giving orders is done by clicking on various buttons in the HUD. Some take a little getting used to, but soon you'll be changing formations and tooling your units around with ease. You can use generals and the like to command large numbers of units at once, which definitely cuts down on the micromanagement.

There are three basic types of attack units in the game -- infantry, cavalry, and artillery. Each has their purpose. Infantry can decimate just about anything else, as long as the proper formations are used. Cavalry can chew through a group of infantry, however, if they're not smart enough to get into a square formation to deflect the attack. And artillery can shell buildings and far-away units, helping thin the ranks before the real messes start.

Because of the level of detail involved in the game, constant pausing is a must. This takes some getting used to -- giving orders in pause mode, to keep your footmen from getting completely destroyed by that bunch of charging cavary, is a completely necessary skill, but it's not something that's commonly done in RTS games. A little practice goes a long way, however.

The battlefield is usually scattered with a number of control points. These points are worth varying amounts of Victory Points at the end of the battle. The side with the most Victory Points wins -- and if they win by a large enough margin, it's considered a decisive victory. There are many other factors that come into play with respect to victory points -- routing your enemy gets you quite a few, for example, and unfreezing certain units will cost you a number of VP -- and some experimentation is necessary to learn the particulars of the game.

If you wear out the single-player game [not likely] you can always play with your friends on the Internet or on a LAN. I can imagine that it'd be enthralling, but unfortunately no one ever wanted to play on Gamespy Arcade with me. Ah, well.


Difficulty:

Even on the lower difficulty settings, the AI in Waterloo is quite superb. It'll charge you when it doesn't think you're paying enough attention, destroy your charges, and flank you like nobody's business if given a chance. The higher difficulty levels are that much worse -- I couldn't survive more than a few minutes in a single serious battle on the highest level. It never feels like the AI is cheating, but it's certainly uncanny sometimes with respect to how good it is. Prepare to spend some time getting the battles won properly. One can only imagine how they did it in reality.

Game Mechanics:

Controlling the game is simple enough, with almost every operation being done with the mouse. Moving your units is simple, as is getting them to rotate the way you like, although they automatically face enemies when they need to. Their tendency to stop in their tracks once they have even the slightest chance of hitting an enemy regiment is annoying, but not terribly so. The choppy rendering can cut down on your accuracy, and the seemingly arbitrary methods that the computer uses to determine who controls a point on the map can be frustrating. But it's all manageable given enough time.

Waterloo is an intriguing game, and one that's full of hours of gameplay. It's enjoyable to put yourself in the shoes of Napoleon and Wellington, to see just how well you could have done in the time. [I would have been beaten absolutely senseless, in case you're curious.] Despite its frightening exterior for the non-grognard, there's actually enough of a slope on the learning curve that those familiar with most RTSes can get into the game fairly readily. Just don't plan on playing it on the highest difficulty levels. With a better engine, Waterloo would be damned near perfect, but as it is, it's still a fine wargame that any fan of the genre should have on their shelf.


-Sunfall to-Ennien, GameVortex Communications
AKA Phil Bordelon

Minimum System Requirements:



Win9X/ME/2K, P2 266, 64MB RAM, 4MB video card, sound card
 

Test System:



Athlon 1.1GHz running Win98 SE, 512MB RAM, GeForce 2 GTS w/ 32MB RAM, SoundBlaster Live!, 8x DVD-ROM

Windows Uplink Microsoft Xbox Dark Summit

 
Game Vortex :: PSIllustrated