Blitzkrieg. It’s a word which means different things to different people, but all share the same image: Sudden and all-out war, with total annihilation its goal. Thankfully, to gamers it’s a word which represents the pinnacle of accessible yet deep PC real time strategy games, spread across beautiful maps and several campaigns, with the ability to see WWII from every angle. It’s about tanks and troops, about the Axis and the Allies. It’s about fighting on the beaches, and in the streets. And it’s about to make a return.
Blitkrieg 3 is currently in Steam’s ‘Early Access’ program, which means it’s somewhere between beta and release. Product is reviewed as-is, at the time of this post.
I am a huge fan of the first two Blitzkrieg games and their expansions. Great looking 2D backdrops hosting well animated 2D and 3D units, playing out like a tactical version of Command & Conquer during the theatre of World War II. A plethora of campaigns, playable from various sides of the conflict across dozens of maps with hundreds of historical units unique to each faction bring excitement and variety across both single and multiplayer experiences. They are games I still play today, having the perfect balance of realism and fun, and Blitzkrieg 3, bar the move to full 3D environments, is no different in those aspects.
The single player and PvE is where I like to spend most of my time, especially after the introduction of Boris, but more about him later. During the main campaign mode, you will fight through three eras of WWII, early mid and late, as either the Allies, the Germans, or the USSR. There are tutorial missions available for all three nations, and these have to be played through before you get access to the rest of their campaign, and the multiplayer and skirmish modes. Don’t fret though, if you ultimately want to play as the Allies but you’re curious about the Germans, you can switch to whichever campaign you choose after every mission, and your progress will be saved across all three nations individually.
The campaign itself is visualised on a global map, centring on the European conflict. After a mission has been completed, you will return to this map and decide where to press on to next. There are main missions which drive the progress of your campaign forward, as well as side missions and even ‘mini-missions’, small strikes, which go towards unlocking and amassing new units to add to your army. All of these are accessed through map markers, with multiplayer modes hidden away underneath a ‘Frontline’ icon on the map. Completing multiplayer matches unlocks further units to add to your army for deployment across all game modes, and this is where any notion of realism takes a nose-dive: You can unlock RPG style common, uncommon, rare & legendary units, giving you an edge in battle. It is fun, and it does make for good gameplay and it’s a satisfying mechanic. For a fantasy RPG, maybe. In something that is otherwise a historical world war real time strategy game, it’s out of place, at first especially.
Another arcade-style touch is the rewarding of stars for completion of missions, with one star affording a much smaller reward than the units you’ll get for attaining three. Again, it feels rather out of place, as when you combine it with the fact that side and mini missions can be played over and over to amass countless units, it encourages replaying completed scenarios in a game that should be all about driving back the enemy one battle at a time. Still, I find myself ambivalent – they are all driving forces which urge me to continually play and improve, but the setting isn’t really comfortable for that approach. Storming the Normandy beaches loses its significance and potency when you’ve replayed it five times to unlock a better tank, and that crack of incoherence between the game and the setting runs throughout Blitkrieg 3. This wouldn’t be a problem if the game was presented as a Cannon Fodder, or a Great Little War Game, or even a Command & Conquer. But it isn’t – it has all the serious music and detailed visuals to represent the horrors of war as only Company of Heroes or Brothers in Arms can match. It’s a juxtaposition I’m not entirely comfortable with.
With all of that out of the way, let’s talk about gameplay. At the start of each mission, you are required to choose your army to take forth from the pool of units you’ve amassed completing missions and multiplayer events (optional) along the way. All units have their own strengths and weaknesses, and some are more suited to tasks than others. Infantry, for example, can be set to hold fire, go prone, defend a position and much more with simple on screen icons or keyboard hotkeys. Armour units, such as tanks and APCs, have their own individual hit points for each side, so just like the real thing tanks are more vulnerable at the side and rear than facing dead on, where they have the most resistance. All of this information is displayed clearly on the HUD, as well as icons representing each of your units currently in play. Like with any RTS, you can group various units together into teams, which are then available to control en masse at the simple press of a number key.
Visually, the game looks great, especially during the heat of large, urban battles. The heads up display does take up a lot of screen real estate though, but it’s a model the game has used since the first title released years ago and it does work well. You’re given a lot of onscreen information at once, and just like the instruments on the dashboard of the Fokker that’s about to take you out, it’s all readable and useful at a glance – once you’ve learned it. Great attention to detail has been lavished on everything, from the way tank tracks are animated to the amazingly painted loading screens. When you bear in mind the majority of the time you’ll be spent staring at the battlefields from a birds-eye perspective, to zoom in up close and get a view which looks as good and visceral as it does, the developers deserve credit. It’s one of those games you’ll pause a lot, to get that amazing screenshot of your tank flattening a general as a trooper plants a grenade under your caterpillars. Music is generic synthesised strings, brass and marching drums affair, very po-faced and serious, but the sound effects are pretty good, especially during the heat of battle with multiple unit types and nations fighting each other. Not quite at the level of Company of Heroes 2, but it more than does the job.
If you do decide to delve into the multiplayer, which the developer seems to encourage a lot, there are several game types currently available to play: Skirmish, player assault and base assault. Skirmish is by far my favourite way to play PvP, and can be done 1v1, 2v2 or 3v3. It plays out much like a match of Battlefield 1943, with control points spread across the map you take to earn victory points. The player – or team – who amasses a preset winning total of VP wins the game. It works well, because you can have a handful of units taking a control point, with your allies amassed around in various strategic positions. with good communication and great team work, combined with a knowledge of the units and the map, you can absolutely dominate the opposition without them ever getting a look in. Of course, this is most satisfying when played against another team of equal skill and experience, as you try to outsmart one another and preempt the oppositions tactics and movements.
Base and player assault are basically the same thing, except one is asynchronous. On the map, all players of Blitkrieg 3 will have an HQ. Instead of taking part in a single player mission or a PvP skirmish, you can choose to assault an enemy HQ, that of another real world player. If that player is online, he will get the chance to defend his HQ in real time, otherwise you’ll be facing off against AI simulating that players defence. Of course, you can get attacked too, and the same applies to online vs offline. During the assault on an HQ, you simply have to overpower the defences and take out the main core of their headquarter building. If you find yourself on the receiving end of an attack, you can take control points around your HQ to bring in reinforcements to help you wipe out the attackers. These assaults can last about half an hour, and although the first time you defend your base it’s fun, if you aren’t an aggressive PvP player – which I’m not – all it does is serve as a distraction from the main game.
And so, we come to Boris. Nival are promoting him as the worlds first true neural network AI. They’ve given him a face and everything. It’s a claim I can’t substantiate from my time spent with him, as surely if this was the achievement they claim it to be, they’d have sold it for trillions of dollars to some government or defence force? Of course, what they’ve actually done is put him in an Early Access game on Steam. Anyway, beyond those slightly ridiculous claims, the goal with Boris was to create an AI which genuinely reacts to what’s going on around him. The idea is that he doesn’t pick an approach from a set of variables which are pre-programmed, but reacts in real time to the events unfolding during the theatre of battle. You can only play against him in custom games for now, and you can alter his intelligence level (which rather refutes the claims of his ability to genuinely react), but Boris apparently uses “no hidden knowledge” to determine his actions. He’ll move his troops around realistically, scouting ahead and taking out fortifications. He’ll drop back to defend his control points, and react on the fly to artillery strikes and the like. Playing against Boris is supposed to feel like you’re playing against a real person instead of a computer which can calculate a million times faster than you. In all honesty, I haven’t spent much time with him as he was only launched in late March, but I have to say it does feel unpredictable and organic. If they can spread this AI into the scripted single player campaign and into Skirmish mode, it could provide some incredibly satisfying matches for people who don’t like to be randomly matched to other players.
Blitkrieg 3 is shaping up to be a great game when it finally releases, no doubt. If you’re coming from previous iterations, then prepare for familiar gameplay and unit control but presented in a much more ‘gamey’ wrapper. If you’re completely new to the series, and you’re looking for a great RTS with the opportunity for fun, multiplayer shenanigans, and you like the idea of taking a customised army across Europe and Africa during World War II, then you’ll also find a lot to like. My reserves with the game’s juxtapositions aside, I’ve had a blast playing through the campaigns, and I suspect I’ll continue to do so when it is released from Early Access.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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