If you’re a pewter pusher like me, it was Jim Rose and Talonsoft that got you into computer wargaming. You remember him coming to HMGS conventions to advertise his new products, particularly a game called East Front. Yes, there had been Talonsoft products published before, but this one was special because it was about World War II and it boasted eyepopping 3D miniature style graphics. This was 1997, and a Pacific version called Rising Sun was released in 2000 and Divided Ground on the Middle East the next year.
However, my favorite, and the subject of this review, has always been 1998’s West Front. First, it wasn’t about the Russian Front (because seriously, do we really need another Russian Front anything right now) and it included not only the campaign in Italy and North Africa, but also some more esoteric fare such as the 1940 Fall of France.
In 2005 Matrix purchased the rights to all three WWII titles and in 2007 released them as a complete package titled John Tiller’s Campaign Series. While my review only looks at West Front specifically, if you wanted to buy it you’d have to buy the Matrix package. Alternatively, in 2017 JTS partnered up with Wargame Design Studios to produce the first of three (plus a free demo) spiritual successors under the product line Panzer Battles, each $39.95.
But you know what? There is something to be said about the “Good Ole Days” after all because after playing both said demo and my copy of West Front over the weekend, my personal opinion is that the latter is still the better game.
West Front is a tactical level, hex regulated computer wargame where each hexagon measures 250 yards across, each unit a platoon of something (or in some cases, a speciality squad or company) and each turn six minutes real time. The software can support both multiplayer and solitaire, plus remote play for those so inclined, and includes a very efficient editor for create your own folks. And while I haven’t counted all the scenarios included, I do know that the three game package advertises 350 + different engagements to fight. Many of these are add-ons to the original set, likely developed by consumers eager to show their modding skills, and they are considerable.
This gives the game a very unique selling point because it covers so much in one package. Yes, you will find the obligatory Normandy, Cobra, Battle of the Bulge, Anzio and Monte Cassino, but that’s only the start. There are also scenarios that cover the German invasion of Norway, the Spanish Civil War (check the terrain out here if you want to understand why Napoleon failed; evil), Operation Sealion (the German invasion of Britain) and so on. There is also a full slate of battles from the France 40 campaign as well as from the campaign for North Africa, where even the French shoot at GIs in addition to Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika. Besides, I like playing underdogs, so I like playing the Italians.
This means a lot to choose from and once a scenario is selected, actual functionality is typical John Tiller, so its pretty simple to begin with and even more so if you’ve played another of the designer’s games. Each unit in the game has a number of Action Points (APs) to expend each turn, and can do so moving, assaulting, issuing ranged fire or performing some special task such as loading trucks. You can also select units to hold fast and target the enemy with Opportunity Fire should circumstances permit, while offboard air strikes and artillery bombardment can also be called if available.
Movement is the default function, so using the appropriate mouse button, select a unit from a hex, then move it hex by hex to its final destination that turn. Alternatively, you can use the mouse to drag and drop the unit into the destination hex, letting the AI choose the best route for you. This takes APs of course, so move too far and you may not have enough to issue ranged fire, and vice versa, though one menu item will allow you to deliberately save enough APs to shoot. The process is repeated for all units you wish to function during the turn, basically in any order or sequence you desire. Beware, however, because the AI is not sitting on its digital thumbs. Come within field of fire and it will shoot at you, so if you selected an Audacious German AI (with 88’s) vice Cautious for your game, this can really hurt. I played the 3rd Army to Bastogne’s rescue mission, sending lots of Stuart light recon tanks forward, so ask me how I know.
That’s the basics, not a whole lot different from the way it was in 1997 and not a whole lot different from Panzer Battles today, though this new series does have 30 minute turns. Nonetheless, the folks who retooled the game for the Matrix edition did put in a lot of work under the hood to modernize things. This not only included loads of extra scenarios, but also extra units, orders of battle going out until 1953, bug corrections galore and a host of “rule changes” that will be completely transparent to most players. This latter collection is way too large to discuss fully here but does include things like allowing cavalry to fire while mounted, removing restrictions on certain types of concealment or degrading armored vehicle strength points by 50% when it fights in a village, town or other areas.
And speaking of changes, upgrading your copy with the 2.0 patch dated 24th February 2014 is an absolute necessity. Seriously, not kidding on this one. If you use a relatively modern OS like Windows 10, you will not be able to run this game if you do not apply this patch. On a positive note, however, you will become very familiar with the term “Direct Play,” and fully understand why so many people hate a software firm out of Redmond, Washington.
Olive Drab and Panzer Grey
Visuals are both West Front’s greatest triumph and most lamentable tragedy. In the tragedy category, the user interface is old and therefore just plan clunky. It is slow, counter-intuitive and simply not easy to use, much less master. No, the designers back then were not candidates for a Software Coding for Dummies class. Instead, what was state of the art in 1997 is not state of the art in 2019. This seems to manifest itself in particular by the number of options not given the player for manipulating the functions of the game or controlling its processes. For example, in a recent session with another piece of software, I could easily move the onscreen map by (Option 1) dragging, (Option 2) scrolling or (Option 3) moving the mouse cursor to whatever edge of the screen I wanted the map to move to. In West Front you get Option 3 only, though I’ve not tried the left/right/up/down keys yet. Similarly, zooming in and out in the game is done by selecting one of five options from a menu, as scrolling the center mouse wheel is not supported. Same thing with rotating the map.
Even starting the game is a UI hassle when it comes to selecting scenarios. You cannot click on a scenario from the list, nor can you simply scroll through the list to see what’s available. Instead you must continuously click on a single up or down arrow icon until the scenario you want is highlighted, then click the “OK” button at the bottom of the window. Admittedly I do like that you can sort the scenarios by date or number of turns and so on, but overall, you get the picture.
On the opposite side of the ledger, the 3D graphics are still first rate, even when compared to the more modern and recent Panzer Battles line. Why? Because Panzer Battles does not have a 3D option, none, nada, nein and nyet.
This kinda blew me away. Personal preference here to be sure, but I’ve often taken the John Tiller folks to task about their 3D graphics because of scale (the units will not fit into a single hex at the scale given) and visuals (mob was not a regulatory accepted formation). But West Front and its siblings are one of the few games that actually get it right, something even more impressive given the game is not a port of a miniature rules set a la Pike & Shot Campaigns. Yet, it looks like one.
West Front pulled this off in a couple or three ways. First, they got the scale correct. The units portrayed will indeed fit into a 250 yard hex in tactical formation. Second, in 3D normal mode the hexes are very large so if you drop three French R-35 tank platoons in one, they appear as separate entities in battle formation, not stacked one on top of the other. Third, the terrain palette does not look as if it is built from a suite of generic hex styles linked together hooked together. Rather the transition between hexes mimics a single, massive terrain blanket overlaid with a hex grid. Its as if the battle map was a single drawing, not various hex styles linked together. I found this particularly evident when I compared how crop fields were displayed between the two games. The Panzer Battles demo visuals are a redone – really well redone to be sure – top down 2D hex map with counters affair, and although thoroughly professional looking in its own right, the disparity really shows IMHO.
Now the West Front 3D system isn’t perfect. Some find annoying the little unit info window with its circular dial motif. Likewise, though certainly better than current John Tiller and HPS products, I found the graphics a little less softer and more grainy then I remember. I was told that one reason might be that when West Front was developed, the max resolution supported was 1024 x 768 resolution. Even on my wife’s low end Dell I’m now running the game at 1440 x 900. So on a lark I did flip resolutions and lo the visuals improved. Such is the price of progress.
About the biggest thing that bugs me about West Front is they deleted the opening visual of the German Tiger tangling with some Sherman’s in North Africa. The sight of the Tiger bouncing on its suspension when three shells hit it from the side is simply ridiculous (here it is via Youtube), so that makes up for the archaic and cumbersome UI.
The 3D graphics, however, makes up for both. The Boss and I have often talked about how “immersive” a game is. By that I mean does the game have the ability to actively engage the player’s senses and thus create an altered mental state, one that promotes complete involvement. For me the – accurate – 3D graphics in West Front does so far better than top down 2D with counters, regardless of how good they look. In one case its like being in a game, in the other like being in a battle.
Bottom line – some 22 years later West Front et al, remains like a fine wine: Its just getting better with age. The entire East Front/West Front/Rising Sun packaged as John Tiller’s Campaign Series will set you back $29.99 US, 350 + scenarios included free. Bit of a bargain, if we do say so ourselves.