101: The Airborne Invasion of Normandy is a throwback. It's turn-based and historically exact, and it never sacrifices realism for flash. It's a wargame, pure and simple, and if you're a wargamer, especially of the old-timey variety that played a lot of SPI's venerable Sniper! game, you'll love this title. Take my word for it, you 'nards can stop reading right now and just go out and buy the game and thank me later.
But 101 deserves and might earn a wider audience, for a couple of reasons. First of all, the invasion of Normandy is a popular topic right now. In the year of Private Ryan and ubiquitous Stephen Ambrose tomes, I can't think of a wargame topic more timely. But it also deserves a hard look from non-wargamers because it's simply a very good game. That's right, even though it's turn-based and not particularly beautiful, under all the wargame conventions lies a game that's in many ways more like X-Com than D-Day.
In 101, you take command of a stick of eighteen paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division, the famed "Screaming Eagles". Your job: to drop behind enemy lines in occupied France early on the morning of June 6, 1944-D-Day. One of the first things you'll do in the game is choose your stick's mission; you can blow up a railroad bridge, knock out an Nazi HQ, ambush some troops, take out some artillery, or pursue various other havoc-causing goals in the name of making Europe safe for democracy.
But before you jump into enemy territory, you'll have to spend time in your staging area in England, where you'll choose the members of your stick and equip and arm them, and where 101 gains an almost RPG-ish flavor. You must choose your men wisely; they're rated in several categories, including intelligence, toughness, combat effectiveness, and leadership. Some also have valuable skills-they might be handy with explosives or a machine gun, or fluent in German or French. Remember to keep your mission in mind when choosing troops.
Once you've selected your troopers, you've got to equip them, so it's off to the quartermaster's, where you load them up with chutes and jumpsuits and rifle-cleaning kits and K-rations and smokes. Every one of these items has some effect on your trooper's effectiveness and/or morale, which is a testament to the game's attention to detail. You can fuss with equipping each trooper just right, or if that's too much detail, you can just push the "standard issue" button and fit out your entire stick. Then it's time for a quick trip to the armory, where you issue weapons to your troops. You can't just load up everyone with a bazooka and a machine gun; many weapons are limited-sometimes they might not even be available-and you must also watch the amount of weight each trooper carries. Overload them, and they'll most likely be injured or killed outright upon a very hard landing. After equipping and arming your troops, you'll be asked to arrange them in jump order, and then, and only then, will you take off in your C-47 for Normandy.
Again, if you don't want to mess with all of this pre-mission finessing, you can just load in one of several pre-selected sticks that come with the game. This is probably a good idea for beginners, but as you become more familiar with the game, you'll want to equip your troopers more and more to your own specifications.
So you and your carefully-selected, carefully-equipped troopers finally cross the channel, brave German flak, and hit the silk. And now's when the real fun begins.
Because historically the Normandy drops were a disaster. Pilots flew too fast or too low or to the wrong place, and the U.S. airborne troops found themselves hopelessly scattered across the Norman countryside. And because this game is historical, that's how you'll find yourself. If you're lucky, upon landing you'll have half your stick with you. And if one of them has a map, you might be able to figure out how far off course you are. But usually you'll find yourself seriously understrength, seriously lost, and without much valuable-even essential-equipment. And you still have a mission to complete. Welcome to World War II, boys.
This is where 101 the game per se begins, and it's a lot like X-Com, only extremely historically accurate. You move each of your troopers in order according to their initiative rating, with enemy units moving as well. The tough paratroopers who lived through this first night of the Normandy campaign often talk about how very frightened they were, groping through the dark, wondering if moving shadows were friend or foe, and ISI does a great job of communicating that sense of fear and danger in the game. It's really easy to get your troops killed. You have to stay low, move slow, and keep your head up, and the game's icon-based interface does a good job of allowing you to do wise things that will keep you alive. Or stupid things that will get you killed. No matter what you do, you'll almost undoubtedly lose at least a couple of troopers to well-concealed German soldiers. Believe me; 101 is a very unforgiving game, and it helps to be more than a little paranoid when hacking through the bocage.
One of the game's strengths is the very realistic protrayal of weapons and morale-getting hit by a rifle knocks the hell out of you, just like in real life, and don't expect the first-aid packs that most soldiers carry to heal you to 100%, like some power-up in Quake. Nope, wounds do a mess of damage here, and as time wears on, your troop's nerves begin to wear out-you'll find yourself paying as much attention to your soldier's morale as their health, as happy when you stumble upon food as when you knock out an AA gun.
The only problem with gameplay-and I think the only obstacle to the game being a big crossover hit-is that sometimes the game lags. After you knock out that enemy HQ, you and your troops will go wandering across the Norman countryside looking for more trouble-and it may take a long time for you to find it. I've spent up to three hours of time trying to find someone to fight, moving from map to map hunting Germans, and from what I can divine from newgroups, this isn't an uncommon experience. While it may indeed be historical and a truism that war is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of pure terror, that's not exactly my description of a good game. ISI clearly went with historical realism rather than playability here, and while that's admirable, even grognards will find this exercise in "Where's the Germans?" sometimes tiresome.
The game's graphics are pretty good; while not state of the art, they're better than most wargame graphics. I'd have like to have seen a bit more flash, but the cutscenes and sound are excellent-the sound, in fact, is very useful in keeping your men sorted out, and can save their lives. Multiplayer is stable, though I haven't been able to play out a full game yet.
In a year when wargames have been few upon the ground indeed, 101 is a very pleasant surprise. It's fun, historically accurate, and takes for its subject a very hot topic. With a little faster gameplay and a lot more marketing (didn't anyone think of tying this in with the movie or a book?), this game could be a big hit.