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GF! Archival Version Copyright 1995-2004

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Ups: Pretty good coverage of the ACW in the East.
Downs: Misguided attempt to use Ancients system in Civil War game, dated graphics and engine.
System Reqs:
Pentium-166, 16 MB RAM, 4X CD-ROM, SVGA.
nvs1.gif (16183 bytes)Interactive Magic’s North vs. South is a brigade-level turn-based game that covers ten battles from the Eastern theatre of the American Civil War. The battles range from the major, like Gettysburg and Antietam, to the relatively minor, like Cedar Mountain and Brandy Station. The game is the most recent in Interactive Magic’s and Erudite ‘s Great Battles series, a collection whose previous games focused on the great captains of the classical world--Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar.

Now, even if you don’t know much about history, you probably know that there’s quite the temporal gap between, say, Cannae and Bull Run. And you might even recognize that the organization, tactics, and weapons of, say, the Theban Sacred Band and the Iron Brigade were significantly different. And if you are a truly gifted lad, you might even extrapolate from this that two tactical/operational wargames from these two eras, called, say, The Great Battles of Alexander and North vs. South, might need two different game systems. And in fact you’d be right; even back in the dark (or golden, take your pick) ages of the early seventies S&T recognized that the game system for its classical PRESTAGS (anyone remember what that acronym stood for?) tactical games had to be different than the one for its rifle and musket games. This fairly elementary insight seems to have been lost upon North vs. South, which pretty much grafts the GB system right onto the Civil War, with predictably problematic results.

nvs2.gif (15691 bytes)The biggest failure of translation is how damage is represented on the battlefield. In the GB series, a unit’s strength (i.e., manpower) is less important than its morale rating (MR), which represents such less empirical factors as its cohesiveness, morale, and fatigue level. During battle, a unit’s morale factor gradually wears away as it moves across obstacles, takes fire, engages in combat, and just stands around in the sun getting tired. When the morale rating is reduced to zero, a unit routs—if a leader can rally it, it may return to the fray; if not, it flees the battlefield. In either case, a unit’s strength rating never varies.

This actually works pretty well on the classical battlefield, where numbers were an iffy thing and casualties proportionally lighter than they are in the post-gunpowder era. But it just doesn’t work for the Civil War. For instance, at Antietam, Hood lost over three-fourths of his command in the vicious fighting at the cornfield. When asked later where his command was, he replied, "Dead on the field." There’s not much chance of rallying dead troops, and while morale was of course important to units in the Civil War, it pales in comparison to the sheer damage units sustained from concentrated fire. Which, by the way, is vastly underpowered in the game. Most of your combats will be decided by melee; fire is a nuisance, but your troops won’t get chopped to pieces by enemy rifles and cannon. In fact, the game plays like the earlier games, only with all the heavy infantry armed with slings. It just doesn’t feel like ACW combat.

nvs3.gif (15924 bytes)There are other problems as well; while some seem to think the graphics are very nice, I find them pedestrian at best and garish (especially the terrain) at worst. The game maps for some reason don’t designate any landmarks—so you can play Gettysburg without knowing where Little Round Top or the Lutheran Seminary is, or Antietam without the East Woods or Dunker Church or the Sunken Road. The interface remains essentially unchanged from GBoHannibal, and it’s showing its age; there are far too many pop-up windows to negotiate. Finally, this engine has always run slowly; it still runs slowly on my P300 with 128 megs of RAM, and the scrolling (especially up) is awkward and frustrating. I had some problems with the sound—occasionally when I moved cavalry the gentle patter of their clip-clopping would play through the rest of the turn. And finally, the GB series took a lot of heat for its patched-together campaigns, which merely consisted of playing each battle in chronological sequence. North vs. South attempts to remedy this by adding a branching campaign, but it’s not very successful, either. For instance, if the South wins at First Bull Run they march on to Washington and win the war. Well, the South did win First Bull Run (more or less), and the war dragged on for four long years. There’s also the possibility of getting stuck in a campaign cycle in which you endlessly play the same scenarios over and over in a time loop reminiscent of Bill Murray’s "Groundhog Day" or some circle of Dante’s Inferno, you make the call.

I’ve grown increasingly disenchanted with the Great Battles series. I admired and enjoyed Alexander, thought that Hannibal was the high-water mark of the series (even though the lack of graphical improvement was a drag) and thought that Caesar was competent but just not much fun (due mostly to the machine-like qualities of the late Roman army). North vs. South demonstrates nothing so much as a game system sinking towards its nadir. Shoehorning a Civil War game into an Ancients game system is a misbegotten idea, and the lack of any real improvement or modification to the game system after three years is distressing. Do yourself a favor, and skip this one. If you really need to play a Civil War game, pick up either one of the turn-based Talonsoft Battleground bundles or a copy of the real-time Sid Meier’s Gettysburg!

--Rick Fehrenbacher