Reviewed: April 22, 2005
Released: March 30, 2005
Matrix Games loves war. They are one of the leading publishers of historically-based strategy games in the industry and that is no small task when you consider the wealth of information available - especially when it comes to the topic of World War II.
There are countless amateur historians out there that can recite to you, in a manner not unlike baseball votaries, the movements of every single military faction involved in the second great war of the last century with startling accuracy. These armchair generals analyze every minute detail of every battle recorded and interview conducted. And games like Gary Grigsby's World at War provide endless hours of possibilities when it comes to playing out the scenarios of such a major historical event from the comfort of a computer desk.
The style of gameplay varies, ranging from first person shooter classics like Call of Duty or Brothers In Arms to PC turn-based games like Uncommon Valor: Campaign for the South Pacific or Airborne Assault: Highway to the Reich (both Matrix Games offerings). I've played games like this before, namely the Airborne Assault: Highway to the Reich game and while the historical aspect of it escapes me (I was always lousy at history), the scope of the games like these is staggering when you consider the voluminous data available.
One suggestion right off the bat, and this is true for all of these types of games, read the manual or take the tutorial. Do not try to jump in and start playing off the cuff because you will get lost quickly. Once you've gotten through the instruction however, you'll no doubt find that Gary Grigsby's World at War's interface is streamlined and informative as it takes you through four full-length scenarios (Spring ’40, Summer ’41, Spring ’42, Summer ’43) lasting to the end of the war.
At a glance, you can see the 15 different combat (air, land, and sea along with their respective supply units) units' status which is amazing in itself considering the breadth of exhaustive data entailed. Fittingly for a game about WWII, you will cover over 350 areas on a sprawling world map that hosts five playable forces (Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union, the Western Allies, and China) and 38 different countries. It really is daunting at first, but very satisfying for those that hang in there.
Airborne Assault: Highway to the Reich may have covered much of the same material – including the standard Fog of War rules that hide enemy units and production - but their interface perhaps wasn't as streamlined as World at War's, something that sets games of this particular genre apart from each other. When you consider that these titles are essentially elaborate chess games over a period of historical warfare, it all comes down to distilling reams of data into informative icons.
Add to that supply rules that can be set to provide a common pool for all units to draw from, or the creation of field units that must accompany the armies, managed by a challenging AI and you've got gaming nirvana for weekend warriors.
It never fails to amaze me that games of this type require such powerful systems to render their wares. When you see the game, it's noticeably devoid of any polygonal units or specular highlighting, normal mapping, any of the hallmarks of modern gaming on the PC. So one wonders where all of that PC power is being put to use, no offense.
Where some games tend to keep unit representation to a minimalist aesthetic (read: nothing but numbers), World at War uses a simple but effective action screen that clearly shows what units are attacking what units with what ordinance. Despite its relative simplicity you do get a great sense of the scope of resources. What works nicely is that once a particular battle is over and the summary screen is reviewed, the map screen moves to the next battle, providing a nice comprehensive perspective of a given theater of operations. Put simply, don't play any game like Gary Grigsby's World at War expecting Medal of Honor, this is gaming for war nerds.
Like the graphics end of things, the sound is fairly weak when you consider the more cinematic experiences of first person shooters set in the same era. Bottom line, you're not likely going to hear qualitative distinctions between different armaments like Medal of Honor, this just isn't the kind of game where that kind of detail is called for.
Gary Grigsby's World at War concentrates on micro-management and historical accuracy rather than aural fidelity, but there are satisfying explosions and gunfire to set the mood during scenario play-outs and each faction even gets its own theme music. Seriously.
When you play this game by the numbers, you'd swear it takes almost as long to play as the actual war did, but by using the menus, you can skip to any part of the conflict (even some battles I never even heard of) in a jiff, making this a very enjoyable and even an educational experience.
Replay value comes in the form of working the stats. By concentrating on research and development, you can alter the course of history by strategically building up then deploying your forces. Hindsight's a beautiful thing, eh? The crux of the game relies on the effective management of supply chains for your forces after all, so I must stress again the importance of completing the tutorial.
One of the best features of this type of game is the ability to play by email (PBE as it's known in the field) with up to 4 other friends. This is gold for history geeks and is almost enough to make me want to try it – if I had any friends smart enough to play well. WWII nerds will definitely go for it, depending on how long you can stand sitting in front of your computer's monitor before sleep demands you stop.
Without being a history geek myself – though I always admire people with such acumen – I must say that Gary Grigsby's World at War not only makes for a fine game, but I would be tempted to use it as a high school teaching tool for its sheer depth. It provides all of the data you could want for any battle you can think of and that takes research and devotion rarely seen in any other genre. It's even more compelling when you take into account the ability to replay scenarios with benefit of hindsight. It's about as thrilling as you can make learning history without wearing costumes.
I would like to have seen some degree of animation at this stage of the genre's life cycle but I acknowledge that as the realm of more action-oriented fare like Medal of Honor or Call of Duty. Suffice it to say, that if you're a war simulation devotee, you'll love this game for its historical fidelity and would do well to add this title to your software library next to a Time-Life DVD video series. FPS game WWII fans, keep marching.