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GF! Archival Version Copyright 1995-2004

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by Talonsoft

Ups: Excellent gameplay, thorough coverage of WWII Pacific theatre, fine graphics.

Downs:  Probably the last game in the Campaign Series, just as it hits its stride.

System Reqs: P200, 32 MB RAM, 4x CD-ROM.

Back in the 70’s, designers used to say that you needed one of the three N’s—NATO, nukes, or Nazis—to sell a modern-period wargame. Thus began a trend that has pretty much continued to this day. There are all manner of games that allow you to battle as or against the Huns on the east and west fronts of World War II, and you don’t have to search far to find games pitting NATO against whomever seems threatening this week. And many of these games sell very well (for wargames).  On the other hand, games set in the World War II’s Pacific theatre just don’t. The Japanese have always been wargaming box office death, the equivalent of a Judd Nelson direct-to-video movie. I’ve never been able to figure out exactly why—though I think it might have something to do with tanks. As everyone knows, Germans and tanks go together like chicken and waffles. If you play a game with Nazis in it, you just know that sooner or later you’re going to see some enormous and very stylish Tiger or Panther tanks—and it doesn’t hurt that you get to throw Shermans and T-34s up against them, either. On the other hand, the Japanese didn’t have all that many tanks, and the ones they did have—mostly Type 97s with 47mm guns—look pretty sad in comparison to a King Tiger or even a Mark IV.  And the Pacific theatre’s terrain didn’t exactly favor the blitzkrieg tactics of the European battles, either. Forget the dashing Pattonesque end runs. Much of the theatre’s fighting took place in some of the most thoroughly inhospitable terrain imaginable--jungles, mountains, and swamps were the least of it. It was a grunt’s war: up close, personal, and nasty.  This is witnessed, of course, in the theatre’s two most enduring images—the banzai charge and the opposed amphibious landing, both of which consisted of getting a bunch of insanely brave guys to charge into concentrated fire. Actually, it’s great stuff, but it just hasn’t sold games. Not enough tanks. That’s all I can figure.

And so it was pretty gutsy of Talonsoft to release Rising Sun, the latest (and probably last) installment of their excellent Campaign Series. Rising Sun is a platoon-level game covering the Pacific War from 1941 to 1945. It includes about 40 scenarios, and you’ll find almost every significant battle in there somewhere: a partial list of scenario settings includes the Aleutians, Biak, Bougainville, Buna, Burma, Guadalcanal, Guam, Leyte, Pelelieu, Imphal, Kohima, Kwajalein, Malaysia, New Guinea, the Philippines, Okinawa, Tarawa, and Saipan. Rising Sun also includes seven campaign games. Four of the campaigns are linked and based upon pre-designed historical situations: they allow you to command either the Aussies in New Guinea, Japanese in the Phillipines, or Americans in the Guadalcanal campaign and Operation Olympic (the projected invasion of Japan).   Three of the campaigns are dynamic and cover Burma, the Philippines, and Luzon, and can be played as either side. In the dynamic campaigns, you can also choose what level of command you wish to take, and your units will gain experience as you progress through randomly generated scenarios. With most of the scenarios running to 20+ turns, there’s a lot of gameplay here.

If you’re familiar with the Campaign Series, then you’ll feel right at home with Rising Sun. If you’re not, Rising Sun is a standard Igo/Ugo turn-based wargame. Though more complicated than, say, Panzer General, it’s nowhere near as arcane as, say, The Operational Art of War. In boardgame terms it’s a lot like the classic Panzerblitz in both scale and complexity. In fact, Rising Sun is a nice intermediate step for wargaming beginners who want to move up from the wargame lite category. This is made easier by the game’s excellent and user-friendly documentation and tutorial. Clearly, Talonsoft has learned their lesson since the initial offering in the series, East Front, was released with virtually no documentation; Rising Sun comes with a very clear and helpful 188-page manual.

Though the mechanics and interface of Rising Sun are an awful lot like East Front’s and West Front’s, gameplay is very different. First, as I said, most of the games are grind-it-out infantry battles. Secondly, a slew of new features captures the essence of island fighting, including a great set of night-fighting features. Since many of the epic battles in the Pacific were fought at night, Talonsoft has included rules for firing starshells, firing at gunflashes, and limited line of sight. When I played the Guadalcanal campaign, several of the scenarios revolved around Japanese night attacks on my Marines as they attempted to hold the frayed perimeter around Henderson Field. I’ve played a lot of Guadalcanal games and many of them are excellent—especially GMT’s Operation Shoestring and The Gamer’s Matanikau--and the superb implementation of night fighting rules in Rising Sun raised it a cut above even those games. Since the Japanese player could also launch “banzai” charges, it made for some tense gaming as swarms of Nipponese troops suddenly appeared from the darkness, overwhelmed my thinly-spread outposts, and infiltrated into my rear areas. Rising Sun also includes rules for some of the nastier fortifications the allies ran up against during the Pacific War, including caves. In fact, many of the scenarios will involve prying stubborn Japanese defenders out of well-prepared positions, so it’s well worth playing through the “boot camp” scenario on bunker busting before trying them on. And then there are the amphibious landing scenarios. My favorite stand-alone scenario is Tarawa: Line of Departure, and it’s an absolutely brutal battle. After playing it, you’ll understand why the Marine casualty list occasioned calls for a Congressional investigation. The bottom line: gameplay in Rising Sun is first-rate.  Most Pacific War wargames have failed to appreciate the theatre’s unique qualities, but Talonsoft’s inspired tweaking of the Campaign Series game engine has given us the first realistic, immersive, and thoroughly enjoyable PC game of the war against Japan.

Graphically, Rising Sun maintains the Campaign Series’ usual excellence. You can zoom maps to several levels of magnification, and the closest 3D view looks like a miniatures game. Sound is excellent as well, with Japanese and Western music tracks available, and the sound effects are up to Talonsoft’s usual high standards.

Multiplayer is supported for modem, TCP/IP, IPX, and Play-by-Email, though oddly only five of the scenarios are “balanced”—that is, most of them are best played by one side or the other. Here’s hoping for more balanced two-player games in an expansion pack.

The downside? Well, other than the limited number of two-player scenarios, I can’t think of any. Uh, there’s no Iwo Jima scenario. But this is probably understandable, given the battle’s scale and the fact that it isn’t really a great gaming scenario anyway. 

So the real downside is that this might indeed be the last game in Talonsoft’s campaign series, especially given the recent exodus of its hardcore wargame design team. That would be a shame, because Rising Sun is in my opinion the best game in the series so far, and the one that best demonstrates the engine’s surprising flexibility. I wasn’t sure the CS engine could move successfully from Europe to the Pacific, but it has done so with flair, and I can think of plenty of other subjects I’d like to see the engine brought to bear on—Vietnam, for instance. If you’re one of those that habitually pass on Pacific theatre games, pick this one up; Rising Sun is a superb wargame by any standards.    

--Rick Fehrenbacher