Games Reviews

Review: Battle of Empires 1914 – 1918

So I’m doing an inventory and purge of my Steam account the other day, when I notice a game I’ve not played in a while, and never played that often to begin with. This was the Great War Team’s World War I tactical computer game Battle of Empires 1914 – 1918, and then it hits me. Seems a little over a year ago they added a new nationality pack, Austria-Hungary, and then I was hooked. I downloaded it and a few others I missed. I’ve always been fascinated by the Great War, but less fascinated by the perception of many that it involved only Britain and Germany, or for us Colonials, really not a war at all until “Blackjack” Pershing and Sergeant York arrived to take care of things. There are of course the French, the Russians and rarest of all, the Austrians.

Bottom line? I’m not sure why I didn’t pick up on the game during the Wargamer’s WWI Anniversary observance, because I should have. Its aged well, pretty historically realistic and accurate, and after a weekend of play, an awful lot of fun. Here’s why.

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What the game is not

Well first the game is not a RTS (Real Time Strategy) product as many would have you believe and have so designated. Instead Battle of Empires (BOE) belongs in that seldom mentioned category RTT, or Real Time Tactics. This means (quote) “lack of classic resource micromanagement and base or unit building, as well as the greater importance of individual units and a focus on complex battlefield tactics.” Indeed, BOE actually seems to have begun its life as a player mod for the Men of War series of games, published by Russia’s 1C Company, but evolved into a separate game in its own right, with a core software package and several add-ons.

The game is not expensive. The base game runs $8.99 US with the Prologue Battles and Multiplayer capability. Add in the Skirmish pack, the French, German, Russian, and British Campaigns, and you’re out $25.44 US. There are few more additional expansions, some are free, such as the battle of Cambrai multiplayer, but most cost around $5.00 to $6.00 or so. For example, the Ottoman Empire expansion, which includes the entire battle of Gallipoli, is $5.99. I kinda like this way of doing business because for me, I don’t like having to purchase something I won’t use simply because its part of the package.

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The game is not hardware heavy. As I do with most wargames I review, I’m using BOE on my wife’s Dell workstation she uses for accounting, the one sitting in a roll top desk in our den. It sports Win10, an Intel Core i5-3570 rated at 3.4 GHZ with 8 gigs of RAM 1333 MHZ and an Intel HD Graphics onboard card with 2.1 gigs Video RAM supporting 1140 x 900 resolution. The absence of the words “NVIDEA” or “Radeon” probably cues everyone that this is not a high end PC, much less a dedicated gaming PC. Indeed, when I tried to run the Steel Division Normandy 44 game on the rig, Windows 10 actually blocked it from accessing the graphics CPU. Yet in playing  BOE there was absolutely no video delay or stutter. All aspects of battle worked smoothly, and the mouse moved quickly and without hesitation. Animation was realistic and exceptionally appropriate to the situation at hand.

The game is not ultra-state of the art, but as we shall see, that’s OK. Thus, if you zoom in close to see individual figures or pieces of equipment, you are not going to see the smooth rounded edges of uniforms and tanks in a Call of Duty World at War game, nor the digital camera quality in facial appearance or hair. In fact, there is a sort of a vanilla appearance up close, a sort of parade ground pretty consistency you’d not expect to find on a World War I battlefield.

Likewise, the voice acting leaves a lot to be desired. OK, let’s be real, its pretty bad. While there are a few repetitive phrases in the language of the combatants, most of the words spoken are by British chaps with painfully fake accents using non period conversation. There was one exception, but here we found out the German officer in question must have been from southern Bavaria because his accent would serve him well in LA (Lower Alabama).

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Add to that using US Air Force pilot’s wings to decorate equipment inventory lists, or introducing the newly approved spelling of ‘Feburary,’ you’ll understand it’s not a totally perfect, polished, professional presentation. But after you try a scenario or two, you’ll also realize it doesn’t matter because for all the important stuff, it’s pretty damn close.

What the game is

Gameplay: First, let it be known that BOE can be played multiplayer, and surprisingly, there seem to be a number of folks still online playing it assuming the small window in the lower right of the game into screen is correct. This screen displays all your play options to include Bootcamp (a tutorial), Prologue (a full practice mission) and multiple campaigns to include French, German, British, Austrian, Russian and Ottoman. There is also a Blazing Guns campaign which introduces armored cars and tanks into the fray, as well as a Victory Pack add-on that looks at the fall of Berlin in 1945 (haven’t a clue). The entire setup is done in shades of grey, giving a very appropriate, somber appearance to the game. Picking a campaign will flip to a similar screen with a list of missions, and selecting one of these brings up a screen with a soldier’s letter to home – in his native language yet – describing the scenario to be played. A few moments later, the player is on the battlefield.

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Each campaign is a series of unlinked scenarios that are nevertheless arranged to take place from the beginning of the war until the end in 1918. Each scenario has the player leading anything from a squad of soldiers up to several platoons through a series of tasks that must be completed by scenario’s end. All the while, the battle rages around the player’s little piece of real estate and from what I can determine, this larger picture is not necessarily dependent on how well the gamer performs. Thus its critical the player keep an eye on a little mini-map of the entire area that sits in the upper right of the screen.

As in most RTT games, the player may select to control an individual soldier, a unit or all the units he has available to him. This means click on the 3D sprite, select a unit by clicking its control button or dragging the cursor around, then selecting a destination point for everyone to move to. If that destination happens to be something like a wall behind which the unit will take cover, the screen shows small white soldier silhouettes indicating the position your troops will take when they arrive. At the bottom of the screen (and also with Hotkeys) are various buttons that allow you to set the firing status of your forces (fire at will, only in defense, etc), direct your units to walk or stand, to go prone or kneel, carry a piece of equipment and so on. You can also check the equipment inventory of a soldier and exchange what he has on person for other gear if it is in a nearby box or laying on the ground. No the game hasn’t randomly put this stuff around the battlefield as some sort of victory point reward. Its actually battlefield realism. If you capture a command post in a trench and there are a box of grenades present, you can grab some. Kill an enemy soldier with a submachinegun, you can use it. You can also take manual control of a soldier and literally do things like aim his rifle, and this seems to be the only way you can select the proper ammunition and fire a crew served weapon, in this case clicking a button to bring up the correct round.

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I was especially impressed with the way weapons were handled, from Lebel Model 1886 rifle to Mark I Male tanks. The latter are slow, hard as hell to turn, break down if they hit a discarded bully beef tin and get stuck in the mud an awful lot. The rate of fire for rifles is likewise dead on the money and you can run out of ammunition. Where this really clicks home is with a light machine gun like the French Chauchat M 1915, an infernal machine that was fed by a 20 round magazine. Target an enemy formation with this thing and the game visually shows you on a bar the 20 rounds clicking down. Then firing just stops, almost always at the worst time possible, and doesn’t continue until the magazine is changed. This is hardcore realism and really jumps my respect level for those who fought back then.

Graphics: Seriously, all you need to do is zoom out to a moderate distance, and the soldiers and weapons portrayed look just fine, rivaling games like Steel Division Normandy 44 and others. The uniforms are historically accurate and do change depending upon the year the scenario represents. Thus in 1914 the Germans wear Pickelhaube, but by 1917 they use the M1916 “coal scuttle” Stahlhelm with black bordered camouflage patches. The French likewise change from “pantalon rouge” to horizon blue. Movement animation is very well done, particularly as regards forces the player does not control. Soldiers drop and go prone when under fire, and some even drop their weapons and crawl to the rear when things get too frosty, as it often does. There is a lot of firing and a lot of explosions in this game, all very accurately rendered with tiny  muzzle flashes for small arms and large thumpers with lots of kicked dirt when an artillery shell hits. On the latter, you can actually see the rounds spinning in the air (and this is correct; I’ve seen the same thing at Grafenwoehr  when I was in the service), then punching holes in the ground, cracking trees in half and blowing bits of barbed wire all over the place. The explosions are not the gasoline based Hollywood fireballs in many games, but what you see in films from the era and what I’ve seen on a tank range.

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However, it is the overall terrain and weather which impresses the most. Winds prattle trees, snow falls and at night when lightening strikes, the entire area glows for a split second. Vegetation, trenches, railroads and villages are some of the best I’ve seen, and indeed a city fight just looks good, very detailed and very much what I saw when I was stationed in Europe (not to mention a corridor by corridor fight for one of the forts at Verdun for the really edgy). Trenches and “no mans land” are present, of course, and the game gives them the dark, foreboding complexion they deserve, but also reminds us that even in Flanders it didn’t rain all the time nor was their fog 24/7. BOE also recalls that not all the war was on the Western Front, and thus a lot of venues within the game are much less gut wrenching in their appearance.

And did I mention that the Russian Sikorsky S22 Ilya Muromets, a flying whale with four engines and a lot of bombs, actually makes an appearance in the game? Radical.

In closing

Birth of Empires is likely one of the best WW1 computer wargames you’ve never played. Its inexpensive, historically realistic, easy to play and just a great way to spend a gaming evening or two. Count this one as highly recommended.

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