It's a curious fact
that, while most Americans know next to nothing about the Russian Front during World War
II - in fact, many don't even know there was a Russian Front - it is by far the
most popular theater amongst WWII wargamers. Partially this is because the sheer enormity
of the campaign, both in time and space, allows for a wide variety of scenarios, anything
from the dramatic Russian winter counterattacks in front of Moscow to the urban
meatgrinder of Stalingrad to the massive tank battles of the Kursk offensive. And if you
add the drama inherent in the titanic struggle between Communism and Nazism, you're
looking at a situation with some pretty strong game potential. Plus, as any treadhead will
tell you, you get great tanks.
With the release of East Front, Talonsoft attempts to do its part to fill this void, and to do it in a big way. East Front covers the entire war, from 1941 to '45. And though the game is tactical and the units platoon-level, you can command either side at the company, battalion, regimental or even (for those monster gamers out there) corps level. With a campaign game that allows you to fight the major campaigns of the war and a series of scenarios designed by a "who's who" of wargaming - Richard Berg, James Dunnigan, Mark Herman, Dana Lombardy - East Front promised to be the big one that WWII gamers had been waiting for. Does it live up to that promise?
OK, let me lay my cards on the table. I had enormous expectations for this game. First of all, it's put out by Talonsoft, a company whose games I unreservedly recommend to anyone whom I can collar. They made their name with the terrific Battleground series - a run of well-designed, historically accurate, handsomely documented, colorful and fun games covering major battles of the American Civil War and Napoleonic era. East Front is the first game of their new campaign series, and while my expectations were probably too high to be satisfied by any game, East Front falls quite considerably short of them. Don't get me wrong; East Front is a good game once you manage to get it running and figure it out. But numerous bugs, miserable documentation, and uneven graphics conspire to foil what woulda coulda shoulda been a great game.
The biggest gripe I have with this game is that it was clearly released too soon. Evidence of this? Well, how about the fact that Talonsoft hasissued three patches in the three weeks since the game hit the shelves, and they still haven't completely debugged the game. Until I downloaded the first patch, my game regularly crashed during the first or second battle of the campaign game, and less serious glitches plague the game - especially in the generated campaign scenarios. At the beginning of many of them, I find my troops well within range of the enemy, often with my artillery and headquarters units in the front lines. Huh? If the other guy gets first turn, which often happens, I'm meat. Once my Tiger company came onto the map in the far southwest corner. Unfortunately, an unfordable, unbridged river just cut off that corner. Though the river meandered back onto the map a few hexes away, and a nice big bridge was parked right over it, there was no way to get my Tigers to it, and they had to watch as the Soviets overran my outmatched troops. I mean, did anyone beta test this game?
To be fair, Talonsoft has been terrific about releasing patches, and the game runs much better since I downloaded patch 1.04 from their website, but all of this could have been avoided with some careful beta testing and by delaying the release for a few weeks. Listen, you won't hear me complaining about how long it's taking for Blizzard to release Starcraft.
Another surprising and dismaying problem is the absolutely wretched documentation that comes with the game. Talonsoft has up to now released great game manuals, but I knew East Front was trouble when I received, along with my review copy, twelve stapled pages of "rules supplement." One of the first topics in the supplement? How about "Selecting a Unit"? That's right, how to select a unit is just one of the many basic game concepts that didn't make it into the misleadingly named player's guide, only 12 of whose 31 pages are dedicated to explaining how to play the game. If this were Freddie the Fish, hey, no problemo, but East Front is a complex and deep game. Unfortunately, you're going to have to find out just how deep by yourself. I've played the game for hours and hours, and I'm still stumbling onto stuff that should have been in the manual. Again, Talonsoft has tried to alleviate this problem by posting the aforementioned rules supplement on their website, but this is yet another problem that a little more care and less hurry could have averted.
The game's graphics, though overall nicely done, also have curious lapses. For instance, although most of the vehicles in the 3D Battleview are very well rendered, the infantry looks wraithlike (see image to right). It's very difficult to make out infantry units on the 3D map, and it's no fun to run into a Soviet anti-tank rifle unit with your HQ just because it blends into the background so well. The normal 3D view is a bit of a problem as well; on the one hand, it's the view that allows the most detail and looks best. On the other hand, it's very difficult to play the game in this mode. In the earlier Battleground series, this wasn't such a problem, as Civil War and Napoleonic combat took place at close quarters, and the normal view could encompass attacker and defender. In East Front, however, you're often firing at units several hexes away, and frequently you won't be able to see the firing unit and its target on the same screen. For all the eye-candy gloss of the view, I usually found myself playing on the 2D screen, pulling up the 3D screen only occasionally.
All of this is more the pity because once you get the hang of this thing, it's a very enjoyable game. Though there's nothing revolutionary about the game's turn-based mechanics - old-timer board gamers will feel right at home here - East Front does a fine job of modeling the different types of warfare fought over the various types of terrain in the campaign, and that's no small feat. One long evening I fought a Kursk scenario, a Stalingrad scenario, and a Winter War scenario in succession, and I was struck not only by how much fun I was having, but by how different each of the scenarios felt. The Stalingrad scenario in particular was brutal, a slugfest amongst the factories and ruined buildings as the Germans assaulted with engineers and artillery and the Soviets stubbornly held on, infiltrating behind enemy lines when the opportunity presented itself. The Kursk scenario, on the other hand, was a wide-open shoot'em up with waves of tanks blasting away at each other. The game's interface is nicely done and unobtrusive (though it's too easy to accidentally hit the "turn over" button), the AI is good, and the campaign game, once working, is a kick.
This has been a frustrating review to write, but then again this was sometimes a frustrating game to play. Overall, it reminds me of nothing so much as a straight-A student who one day turns in a paper with great ideas but which is also poorly proofread, insufficiently documented, and awkwardly presented. I usually figure what the hell, everyone has an off day - and tell him or her to rewrite the thing. Unfortunately, I can't do this to Talonsoft. So I'm going to give them a "B-" and trust their next effort will be up to their usual standards. My bottom line on the game is this: if you're at all interested in the Eastern Front or WWII, and you're willing to download patches and instructions and learn to fly this thing by the seat of your pants, you can have a terrific time with East Front. It's a good game with the potential to be a great game. But it's not there yet.