Reviewed: March 28, 2004
Released: December 10, 2003
Panther Games, those developers from down under, has been around for nearly 20 years. In that time theyíve managed to produce some fine computer-based war games, benefiting greatly from their experience in making popular board games (remember those?) before PCís became the platform of choice for Aeron chair generals.
Believe it or not, World War II is still one of the biggest sources of video game material today. Where this particular sub-genre of games breaks into separate factions is on the issue of historical accuracy versus the overall ďstylisticĒ period. Not to say that war is romantic by any means, but most people agree that the simpler times and the clearly defined players of that conflict make it less controversial subject matter while providing loads of action.
Games like Medal of Honor and Airborne Assault: Highway to the Reich fall into the former category, while Return to Castle Wolfenstein exemplifies the latter (occult overtones notwithstanding). As a gamer, you simply make your preference and run with it.
Airborne Assault: Highway to the Reich takes an old-school approach to war gaming by using a top down 2D perspective, graphs, and icons to represent virtually every aspect of a given mission. Clearly Panther Gamesí tabletop pedigree comes into play here right down to its 1km grid overlay of the map. Imagine Risk with a Time-Life WWII library for a manual.
That said you donít really need an overview of the actual story that you canít get by parking yourself in front of the History Channel for a few days. This game is packed to the gills with detailed stats for both sides of every battle of Operation Market Garden. The Allied plan was to march right into Hitlerís backyard and end the war in time for Christmas. Where they may have failed in reality, you have a chance to change that here. Or, playing as the Axis forces, you can tell Uncle Sam ďNein!Ē all over again.
As a PC-based war game player, my experience is largely relegated to FPS fare such as the aforementioned Medal of Honor and Return to Castle Wolfenstein. I was never a great student of history, something I donít take pride in, but there you go. In any case, I am no stranger to real time strategy games either, having cut my teeth on genre mainstays like the Blizzard ďcraftĒ games (i.e. Starcraft, Warcraft, et al.) in PC days of yore.
The interface is simple but effective, eschewing the flamboyance of detailed 3D models & CG cut scenes for comprehensive, meticulous scenarios replete with painstaking metrics. Donít worry, itís not like youíre playing Zork here. Panther has taken care to organize the sheer volume of its data into about as concise a format as one could imagine, using conventional tabs and bar graphs.
Whereas some games make it possible to improve your characterís stats as in most RPGs, this game is based on historical battles by default, so the playing field is rather fixed. Itís more about proper utilization of resources for any given scenario, playing out like a tense, topographical chess game. Thatís not to say that you have no options whatsoever if you want to change the rules a bit. The map generator allows you to take your own scenarios online for a little 40s era smackdown, and the numbers can be adjusted if you want to see how things would play out if, say, Allied forces were magically tripled (pretend the Rohirrim showed up to assist).
Ultimately, the combat system succeeds on the strength of its AI. Whether you play as Allied or Axis forces, be assured that the other side will not be easy pickings. This makes playing what could be a real headache in terms of tactical overload much easier to manage, as the AI basically takes care of whatever you do not.
Ordering a battalion to make its way to a specific area requires only the setting of a couple of major waypoints. The AI handles the rest. Granted, what seems to be a superior ďintellectĒ may be the happy result of navigating a 2D interface, as most AI problems seem to stem from characters getting stuck on otherwise inconsequential objects Ė whatís known as collision detection.
However, donít be fooled into trying to plow through the somewhat formidable learning curve as a General by proxy. As in real life battle, a careful planning of resource deployment is essential to ensure victory. Many troop deployments are dependent upon necessary support deployments.
For instance, you canít always throw a paratrooper company at enemy forces without perhaps some indirect fire support from an available artillery battalion. So, while some fun can be had playing this game merely by instinct, youíre much better off taking the time to learn the strengths and weaknesses of each military unit (regiments, battalions, companies, platoons, et al) and develop a rudimentary knowledge of martial tactics. Otherwise, this game could get pretty frustrating pretty quick. Translation: War geeks, come and get it!
In a time when most war-themed games require the absolute latest hardware, testing your systemís limits, Highway to the Reich is a welcome relief. Its minimum requirements of a Pentium II processor, 64Mb of RAM, and an 8mb video card literally made me do a double take. Itís nice to see games these days that donít require a video card that costs half as much as a new PC. True, youíre not getting state of the art graphics, but you donít really miss them with this particular kind of game.
The sound is a tricky issue, however. No, like the other aspects of this game, itís not state of the art quality. Your $400 Logitech sound system will not even begin to chug when battles flare up. But I found the sound effects to be rather anemic, quite frankly, sounding more like I was listening to a war movie over the phone. In the end, however, it really didnít take away from the overall experience.
Game time varies greatly depending on each given scenario and the fact that you can play it at different speeds or pause it all together to get your bearings in the heat of battle is nicely done. Even in ďreal-timeĒ, minutes fly like seconds, and watching the map change in response to weather conditions and time of day is rather effective.
But if youíre looking for a way to kill a little time, this isnít it as each battle takes a serious commitment. Conservatively, game time runs anywhere from 10 hours to a few days depending upon your patience (and how many potty breaks you require).
If thatís not quite enough to scratch your bellicose itch, there is a map editor that makes it possible to concoct different scenarios for playing against friends online, even going so far as to offer customizable map textures for those inclined to tinker.
Regarding online play, think the early days of Quake but relegated to 2 players. Yes, itís that bad. Hopefully, in the future Gamespy will offer support for it because the lack of any sort of in-game browser is a major disappointment among the other relatively minor ones.
You really get the feeling that youíre learning something and not just going through the normal circle-strafing motions with this highway to the Reich. Who knows, with this game, history class mightíve made a lot more sense to me back in high school instead of watching Tora! Tora! Tora! for a couple of days.
This game is well detailed and well executed for what it is. It doesnít try to be a gaming ďexperienceĒ that recreates as much as possible the visceral thrill of actually being in real-life skirmishes of World War II. But itís also more than a fancy, historically based chess game of statistics; meeting somewhere in the middle of the two ends of the PC war game spectrum.
As good a war simulation as this is, it tends to be so thorough in its attention to historical accuracy that unless you wear a lot of tweed and smoke a pipe, youíd probably do well to stick to your Battlefield 1942 mods. Fast-paced this ainít.