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ups: Decent graphics, old school turn-based gaming
downs: Terrible campaign game, undeveloped setting

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Shattered Union Review
game: Shattered Union
three star
posted by: Rick Fehrenbacher
publisher: 2K Games
developer: PopTop Games
ESRB rating: T (Teen)
date posted: 09:35 AM Mon Nov 28th, 2005
last revision: 01:09 PM Sun Nov 27th, 2005

Click to read.Shattered Union is indeed a rarity in today\'s PC gaming market: a turn-based wargame distributed by a major publisher. True, it\'s not difficult to find these \"grognard\" games if you look around online, (check out HPS Sims or Matrix Games, for instance) but it\'s been a while since gamers have seen the likes of Panzer General or Steel Panthers gracing their local store shelves. Unfortunately, I doubt that Shattered Union is going to herald a wargame comeback. While it has an intriguing premise and solid-if-dated tactical gameplay, it doesn\'t do much with the premise, and the strategic campaign game which frames the tactical engine is just hideous.

Shattered Union is set in the near future, when a disputed election, an unpopular president, civil unrest, and domestic terrorism lead to the nuking of Washington, D.C. The United States then shatters into different regional governments that pursue their differing political agendas and conduct war against the others. The European Union, aghast at the chaos and unrest, sends a peacekeeping force to the Washington, D.C. area, and quickly finds itself drawn into the larger battle. The Russians lurk at the periphery of the conflict as well. So far, so good; but unfortunately the campaign game that follows lacks any of the flavor of the background spun thus far.

In the campaign game, the United States is divided into six different factions, with the European Union peacekeepers in the D.C. area forming a seventh. Players take control of one of these factions (and the four territories it controls) and attempt to win by conquering all of the former U.S.A, faction by faction. Players may only attack into one other territory per turn, though they may be attacked by any number of opposing adjacent players. When a player attacks, the game switches to the tactical map of the territory invaded, units are assigned to the battle, and the players fight in out in turn-based mode.

Again, this sounds promising on paper, but in practice it just doesn\'t work out. First of all, there\'s that distinct lack of flavor I mentioned above. All the factions (other than the European Union) use almost all the same units, and except for a brief paragraph in the rules and on the pre-battle screen, no attempt is made to differentiate the factions. There are no special abilities, a very few special units, no leaders, no technologies based upon regional resources. Of course, the possibilities here should have been endless-why not give Southern units something like a \"rebel yell\" ability, New England units a \"Minute Man\" bonus, tanks produced in the Midwest an armor or movement bonus?

Besides their essentially vanilla nature, the factions also suffer from being divided up in a geographically contiguous but ideologically incoherent fashion. For instance, the Pacifica faction is described as \"tree-hugging technophiles.\" That may work as a broad caricature of the Northwest Pacific coastal region, but when the faction also contains the rock-ribbed red states of Idaho and Wyoming, my disbelief is unsuspended. Same thing with the California Republic, which includes Utah. The Great Plains Federation lumps everything from Ohio to Nebraska together. I find this unrealistic division somewhat odd; since Shattered Union clearly references several events taken \"from today\'s headlines\"-a contested presidential election, an increasingly unpopular president, a polarized electorate, terrorism-it surprises me that the factions aren\'t constructed more realistically and topically. The game would have been far more interesting if it had been divided up along red state/blue state lines, with other factions like a fundamentalist theocracy in the South, a Mormon Empire in the Inland West, a militia State in the Northern Rockies. I\'m not sure why 2K Games didn\'t do this-it might have been political and controversial, but it sure would have been interesting. Probably would have caged some press, too.

But any amount of topicality isn\'t going to save the campaign game as currently manifested. It just flat-out sucks. In the campaign game, each player takes a one turn per week. During that turn, the player can buy or repair units and attack one adjacent territory. Capturing an enemy territory gives the player more resources and maybe some special production bonuses. To attack a territory, players must assign units from their force pool. Unfortunately, these units cannot then be used to defend against attacks from other players during that turn. Even more unfortunately, you will probably be attacked by at least one (more likely two) enemies in that turn-and since there\'s no diplomacy and no intelligence-gathering capabilities in the game, it is virtually impossible to tell who will attack you or when. Add to this the fact that the AI-controlled factions seem to operate in an entirely random faction, and too often the campaign plays like a game of blind man\'s bluff, as you fight over and over the same terrain as you\'re attacked by clueless enemies for inscrutable reasons. While the terrain is deformable and damage inflicted to geographic features accrues during the game, enemies have a foolish penchant for attacking in the same way over and over again. The campaign game quickly becomes a frustrating grind. It\'s a damn shame that the campaign game and the background weren\'t given the development they deserved, because the game engine proper is classic stuff.

The tactical gameplay is a lot of fun in a \"wargame lite\" sort of way. If you\'ve played Panzer General, you\'ll feel right at home here. While the game is set in the modern world, and includes helicopters and airpower, at the core of this engine beats the heart of the old SSI \"General\" series. That\'s not a bad thing, at all, and the game\'s graphics are pretty good, too. Units look fine, and the tactical maps are broadly drawn representations of the regions being fought over-there\'s a visceral thrill to pushing one\'s tanks across the Golden Gate bridge, or capturing Des Moines after a hard-fought battle. Grognards will undoubtedly find many things to grumble about-the simplistic zones of control, the lack of opportunity fire, the fragility of even dug-in infantry-but the tactical game is good for the occasional couple hours of mindless wargaming fun, and skirmish is the preferred mode around here. Multiplayer is supported, but good luck finding a game online.

If you\'re really jonesing for a turn-based game in the Panzer General mode, you could do worse. But until the campaign game is polished, I can\'t really recommend this one. If 2K Games had had the guts to portray what a Civil War in the U.S.A might really look like in the very near future, and if they\'d spent more time developing a deep and intelligent strategic game, this could have been a special game. As it stands, Shattered Union isn\'t a terrible game; it\'s just a mediocre game that should have been a lot better.

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