Game Over Online ~ Squad Leader

GameOver Game Reviews - Squad Leader (c) Hasbro Interactive, Reviewed by - Fwiffo

Game & Publisher Squad Leader (c) Hasbro Interactive
System Requirements Windows 9x, Pentium II-233, 32MB Ram, 300MB HDD, 4x CD-ROM
Overall Rating 52%
Date Published Saturday, November 25th, 2000 at 07:35 PM

Divider Left By: Fwiffo Divider Right

Originally, Squad Leader was a board game introduced in 1977 that attempted to simulate squad level combat. It was subsequently upgraded with Advanced Squad Leader, where the wargame was extended to encompass just about every facet of historical WWII combat. A lot can be said about the turn-based wargame, in comparison to what the general public conceives as a "game related to war" (C&C and its many derivatives or clones come to mind). Turn-based wargames allow players to think before they do anything; eliminating mindless cannon fodder fests. This has been the main trump card the genre holds over the more traditional RTS titles. Sadly enough, even the most successful turn-based wargames get only a fraction of the sales compared to a run of the mill RTS title.

It is here, that Squad Leader appears to make a marked improvement. Each of the soldiers put into battle can be meticulously customized, armed and then sent into battle. Gamers may note that a similar WWII era title, Soldiers at War, was developed by Random Games, also the developers of this title, and published by SSI. It is hard not to draw parallels to that game, as it appears that many of the shortcomings of that title are ever-present in this one. The first is the so-called bonding with the troops. Unfortunately, due to the lacklustre graphical depictions of them in the actual wars themselves, it's hard to develop any attachment to them. It is true each of them features statistics and little biographies (a plethora of biographies to be honest) but like Hidden and Dangerous, all the portraits look relatively the same. There are overtures at the beginning of missions that try to draw you in but the narration is not top notch. In the end, you don't really care if such and such soldier came straight from milking cows in Iowa or such and such soldier is a bloodthirsty ex-con that makes Hannibal Lecter look like child's play. As such, even though they will improve (shades of X-COM and Jagged Alliance), the connection with your on-screen squad's personae is not as strong as say with a game like Shadow Watch.

There are three campaigns to run through and a total of ten custom missions added in to provide a fairly satisfying amount of gameplay; at least quantity-wise. Random Games also threw in a random scenario generator (not a full editor) that lets you create your own missions. This is standard fare nowadays for most strategy games but it does not pay homage to the customizable nature of the board game, since one of the key factors of this board game's longevity is the fact that you are allowed to set-up scenarios as you please. As it stands though, the two chief goals of translating Squad Leader to the computer game have been totally undermined. You can't bond with what is essentially the same soldier with a thousand faces. Furthermore, the developer's claim that this pays homage to the Advanced Squad Leader board game is unfounded; weak at best. In truth, this is simply a mediocre game dressed up as a new title.

Squad Leader pits you in a variety of missions, including amphibious beach landings like the film Saving Private Ryan, but because of the interface, it makes even the most exciting missions in the game border on the extremes of tedium. Basically, the gameplay mirrors that of Jagged Alliance in that you are allowed to control your very similar looking troops by plotting their square-by-square movement, firing, or adjusting posture in crouch or prone modes. This is all very well standard to the genre. Its interface is as tedious as the aforementioned Shadow Watch in that you always have trouble navigating the often-confusing landscapes. For example, when you move a trooper, you rather expect to see how many movement points or action points it takes to move to a particular location, so you can do some calculations beforehand as to how far you want a particular soldier to move. It would have been intuitive to merely show how many squares must be traversed in order to reach the destination by waving your cursor over a square. However, the developers here leave the estimations to you as you have to click once on your destination square in order to gauge how many movement/action points to expend. If you think this might not be a problem, try moving a vehicle like a tank that encompasses more than one square on its own.

Squad Leader features a variety of terrains, as the campaign takes you from barren rocks all the way to luscious green forests. The portrayals of these, on what appear to be 2D maps, are adequate but not entirely realistic. Perhaps the intention was to emulate the board game as much as possible, or more likely, perhaps very few improvements have been made to the Soldiers at War engine. The animations of the units involved are fairly minimal. Wargames tend to assume that the hardcore wargamer audience doesn't need any visuals to help them play the game. Indeed, that might be the case, like in Jane's Fleet Command, where the 3D component merely dramatizes (somewhat repetitively) what can be told with little hexagons and plastic counters. However, the wargame titles that have been the stalwart defenders against the RTS rush are the ones willing to invest in sprucing up their audio-visual department. Close Combat and Panzer General come to mind. Many gamers recall that the original Panzer General was bland, devoid of 3D visuals and lacked even the most cursory representations of the units involved. The most recent release of Panzer General features 3D-accelerated units doing mock battle with each other. What can be said about Squad Leader? The sounds, animation and graphics are merely adequate and sometimes, rather cartoonish.

This is really the dichotomy that faces this title. There are many improvements aimed to making this game more realistic. The chief among these is the customization and creation of soldiers that you can identify with. No doubt, carrying the same squad through tough battles with the potential risk of losing a soldier that you have developed from infancy of the campaign is dramatic. On the other hand, the mechanics of the game appear to put a stop to this trend towards realism. Squad Leader is unable to move past the grid system and lacklustre graphics. These features appear to be the ones used to pay homage to the original board game. Note that one of the "features" of the computer game is to play against a computer AI. These days, we expect even the most rudimentary computer AI to be standard fare. Thus, it would really be beneficial to Random Games if they merely created two titles: one for whatever tactical squad based game they had in mind and the other to authentically mirror the board game experience. There is a proverb that succinctly describes this title. It is a ship that cannot reach either end of the shore. Let's hope that the developers overhaul their ship before attempting this trip again.


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