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GamesFirst! Magazine

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by Hasbro

Back when I was a kid, I used to frequent a hobby shop in Lafayette, Indiana known as The Scale, which was run by this lantern-jawed long-haired leaping gnome of a guy named John Hill. At the time, he was trying to get his own wargame company off the ground, and his loyal customers were often pressed into playtesting his work—games like Verdun, Hue, Kasserine Pass and Overlord. He eventually published all these games, they were very well-received, and suddenly John was a celebrity—or as much of one as you can be in wargaming circles. One day he threw out a new game to playtest, one based on squad-level World War II tactics. We loved it, he eventually published it with Avalon Hill as Squad Leader, and the rest, as they say, is history. Squad Leader and its latest incarnation, Advanced Squad Leader, are probably the most popular board wargames of all time, with a legion of fanatically dedicated fans (including its most famous one, Curt Shilling of the Arizona Diamondbacks). When Hasbro purchased Avalon Hill, the wargaming community held its breath to see what it would do with such a prestigious franchise. Well, now we know, and it’s not pretty.

Hasbro Interactive’s Squad Leader is actually nothing like the boardgame Squad Leader. If you want a good computer version of a squad-level tactical WWII boardgame, try either the well-aged Close Combat series or the stellar Combat Mission, and you won’t be disappointed. But Squad Leader the computer game plays much more like X-Com or Jagged Alliance, and owes more to a boardgame like Easy Eight’s Battleground than to the original Squad Leader. Actually, what it really owes its gameplay to is Random Game’s mediocre Soldiers at War—in fact, this game is should be called Soldiers at War II, and for Hasbro to try and pass this off as anything else, or as bearing any sort of relationship to Squad Leader, is pure bait-and-switch. They should be ashamed.

But false advertising aside, we still thought there might be some hope for the game. Even though Soldiers at War was a dismal game, we were much taken with Random Game’s second effort with the SaW engine, Chaos Gate. That game was based upon the Warhammer 40K game system, and it did a very nice job of transferring the boardgame to the computer. But that was two years ago, and things have changed—well, everything except Squad Leader’s game engine, which seems to be much like Soldiers at War’s. The biggest problem with Squad Leader is its outright antiquity. Everything is this game is dated, from its interface to its graphics to its lack of multiplayer. If it had come out four years ago, it might have been worthwhile, but with the excellent squad-level games available now, there’s no reason to let this anywhere near your hard drive.

In Squad Leader, you take control of several 4-5 man squads of troops—either German, British, or American—and fight through a ten-mission campaign. Before you begin each mission, you’re given the option of configuring your squads from a pool of available troops.  This is actually one of the best parts of the game, as each troop has a list of statistics that rate his ability in such areas as leadership, strength, and weapons accuracy. You also get to kit out your soldiers with various weapons. Squad Leader also tries to add some personality to your soldiers by giving a brief biography of each, but these come off as sort of caricatured. Indeed, one of the problems with Squad Leader is it never seems to settle on whether it wants to be a serious wargame about World War II or a Hollywood movie about World War II.

Once you get your squads together, you’ll be able to deploy them on the map, and this is where the real fun begins, because this is where you’ll begin to realize how ugly this game is, even for a wargame. Colors are muddy and indistinct, units are poorly modeled and animation is herky-jerky, and you can’t rotate your view, which means you’ll spend much time using the dreaded “cut away level” control, which is both archaic and arcane.  Even worse, maps are very small. There’s no sense of being involved in a World War II battle; the artificial boundaries of the game’s maps make it feel much more like a playground or movie lot exercise.

One on the small battlefield, you’ll move your units one at a time in a turn-based sequence. Each of your soldiers has a specific number of action points, and every action will cost him a few of those, so during your turn you can run, walk, kneel, crawl, shoot, throw a grenade or perform other actions, so long as you don’t run out of points. Your soldier’s turn may be interrupted if he runs into a hidden enemy, and his life may be interrupted if the enemy gets off some opportunity fire. Again, this game system is pretty ancient, but it’s still somewhat viable, especially if a game has a clean interface and a great story, a la Jagged Alliance 2. Alas, Squad Leader has neither. Its interface is far too fiddly—there’s way too much micromanagement involved here, and the awful maps make movement and planning very confusing.

And though you’ll be confused, you’ll still probably win most missions easily, since the enemy AI is just awful. And did I mention there’s no multiplayer? OK, enough of this. I really don’t enjoy jumping up and down on a game named after one of my favorite games of all time, and I really like most of Hasbro’s reworkings of classic board games (the new Risk rules) but caveat emptor here, baby.   

Rick Fehrenbacherr

Snapshot

Ups: It's Squad Leader for the computer!

Downs: No, it's not; and it has a poor interface, bad graphics, and clunky gameplay to boot.

System Reqs: P-233, 32 MB RAM

 

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