Squad Assault: West Front bears an uncanny resemblance to the titles published by Microsoft under the Close Combat franchise. Now that Microsoft appears to have moved on to more mainstream titles, West Front is essentially a product that takes the simplicity of Close Combat and mixes it with a 3D engine to illustrate the action. On paper, such a combination would be formidable.
West Front still bears many traits of Close Combat. At the heart of the game is a deep psychological model of your troops in battle. After so many years, this aspect of the title continues to be engrossing and it enables smart tacticians to use the power of morale to overcome technical or numerical inferiority.
Take for example a German contingent defending itself against overwhelming Allied numbers. In West Front, you're able to set defensive perimeters in and around each squad. You control how wide the arc they have to cover. You also control the depth, allowing you to ask a machine gun squad to shoot on sight any opponents that come within so many meters of their position. Using these features, you can co-ordinate simultaneous attacks from several squads. And because West Front is not about racking up the highest kill ratio (although successfully putting enemy troops under crossfire will no doubt raise that number), a withering attack from two, three or more machine guns will sap the morale of even the most elite infantry and turn them back.
In a less sophisticated game, such a scenario would have never stood a chance since any theoretical calculation of strength is against the defender's favor.
The interface in West Front can be divided into two sections. One is for troop movement and setup. The other is the camera. The former is similar to regular 2D wargames. In fact, if you played any iteration of Close Combat, you won't even need to go through the tutorial. The ability to order your troops to fire (for cover), move, assault, sneak, hide are available. You can set ambush and defense arcs of fire. For squads that have the capability, you can ask them lay down smoke for cover.
The camera, on the other hand, operates similar to most 3D games. Perhaps it's the camera's movement pace or the just the controls used, I never got in a groove with using the camera properly. Nominally, I would just set it to one view and stick with that one. While you can zoom down to see individual soldiers under your command, this view is hardly useful. Line of sight is dealt with using the interface above and the soldiers themselves are modeled with frightfully few frames of animations. Even armor in action can be uninteresting. Furthermore, the textures used to paint the terrain are not, in quality, anywhere close to a modern 3D engine.
In the aural arena, West Front demonstrates an excellent repertoire of weapons sounds. If you're able to identify them, you can, without surveying the battlefield visually, identify which units are attacking simply by sound alone. German, Free French, British, American and Canadian soldiers are featured in the game and they all come with authentic speech. I've always held developers and publishers in high regard when they spend the effort to do this. However, the overall presentation of the audio is tainted by some blatant miscues, notably on the frequent screams and death cries, which sound amateur at best.
West Front's campaign takes you to the Normandy landings and the initial Third Reich defense against the Allied landings in northern Europe. Missions are available singly, grouped together as an Operation or strung together as a Campaign. From one connected mission to another, you're allowed to bring any troops you have left. This makes preserving veteran or elite units a priority in the campaign context.
One of the faults I find with West Front and indeed, most of the Close
Combat titles, is the polarization between offense and defense. Depending on the period of time in World War II, one side is always on the defensive while the other is always on the offense. Here, the Germans are always defending and it affects the way you play the game. At the onset of nearly every mission, the Germans are the ones holding all the strong points. This places the emphasis on placing units under cover, estimating and creating lines of fire that support other units. I found myself spending a good five to ten minutes setting up troops for what could be an engagement that is no longer than fifteen minutes.
On the other hand, when perusing the Allied side, the type of gameplay is completely different. Instead of hunkering down, you have to move and move fast under cover. You'll learn more about using smoke grenades and armor to support your infantry advance. Here, the whole story is about alacrity; catching the enemy off-guard or advancing at a pace where the enemy doesn't even have time to fall back to their secondary defensive positions. You can't mix both and it's a pity since each side possesses strength in certain units. It would have been nice to see those units perform in offensive or defensive scenarios.
There are some frustrating moments in West Front. Buildings, including those with church towers, never give you a height elevation to extend your line of sight. If any of you have watched films or mini-series like Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers, you'll know that height in an enclosed location can have a devastating impact in defense. The other thing about buildings is how your troops are placed. No matter what you do, sometimes, an entire rifle squadron will have one or two soldiers lined up outside of the building. That does me no good when I want them to ambush incoming opponents.
Finally, the worst is how the soldiers navigate themselves inside the buildings along the windows and such. If I'm ambushing with an anti-tank squad, I expect them to check every single window to get line of sight to their armored targets. I can't count how many times my anti-tank squad lined themselves up against a windowless wall while an enemy tank was moving five feet away from the building.
Speaking of tactics, the artificial intelligence in the game has a tendency to rush from the same side on a single map. A head to head multiplayer component may alleviate this but this goes on to point out another issue I've always had with Close Combat and probably now with West Front.
Every iteration brings some form of innovation. Unfortunately, some of the innovative features are let go for no reason at all. For example, at one time, you were allowed to groom your own platoon leader into a formidable commander of the company. Of all troops you'd like to preserve, it'd be this one. This went the way of the dodo (why?) to be replaced by a turn-based map that allowed you to capture fuel depots, points of reinforcement, collect on a global scale any naval/air/ground artillery strikes. Then this was ditched (again, why?). And still, there isn't any way to incorporate more than two players in a game or play other Axis powers like Japan or Italy.
West Front is an engaging wargame that has an interface amenable to the masses. The camera may not be smooth and there may be some quirks but this title enables casual gamers to become armchair generals. For veterans, it unfortunately doesn't cover any period of World War II we haven't seen before. Where are the colonial wars, the emphasis on the Eastern Front, the Balkans, or the battles in the Pacific or North Africa? The psychological and morale effects continue to be the highlight of the game. However, it doesn't feel like there were any significant advances made, making West Front feel like a more polished title with some rudimentary 3D artwork.