Reviewed: January 10, 2004
Released: October 20, 2003
Squad Assault: West Front (or SAW) is a product of Matrix Games, a publisher that specializes in “historical combat simulations” or, more simply, war games. The company has a wide offering of games for many periods in history, but today we’ll be looking at SAW, the latest WWII tactical sim from Eric Young.
Squad Assault: West Front features:
Tactical strategy is the forte of Squad Assault: West Front. You’re free to choose between several sides as you fight through WWII. The main gist of the game is focused on ground warfare. Ships and planes are used solely for fire support (and they’re needed too.)
The majority of the time you find yourself controlling the grunt, the common infantry. The box claims to have “realistic” A.I. that causes the game soldiers to respond realistically to diverse situations. Ordering all my men to assault a heavily fortified position resulted in them blindly following orders and being cut down. Like lobotomized ants they scurried forward, not even the slightest sense of self-preservation. Hardly the actions of an intelligent soldier.
Never has so insidious an enemy been unleashed against a country than the camera in SAW. It was the most aggravating camera I’ve come across in ANY game I have ever played. It’s so bad it’s practically anti-intuitive. The controls are locked in and cannot be remapped. These were the first hurdles to pass.
The next hurdle was the learning curve, the astronomical learning curve. It was an uphill battle, and when I finally thought I understood the game, something else came up that utterly confused me. The instruction manual is long and well written, but a poor substitute for a good tutorial of which there was none - at least a good one. This is definitely not a game for genre newcomers, but if you’ve explored this genre before you’ll get your fair share of options.
I feel I shouldn’t have to use a book, even an instruction manual, to understand or enjoy a game. The game itself should have everything it needs to capture the audience. To become better at the game I’d be willing to read through a short guide. By itself, SAW is practically indecipherable. It takes a good thirty pages of written instruction to begin to understand the freedom and control the game offers.
Unit commands are labyrinthine. There are over five distinct actions that all result in “move.” Each depending on what caution level you want the soldier to go at. Personally, I didn’t find such an interface all that beneficial, but the hallmark of a great war game is the amount of control you can exert over your little soldiers.
The amount of control you have over the actual battle is equally staggering. It’s very overwhelming when you first see the plethora of options you can arrange or disallow. You have free reign to change the realism, combat lethality, length of the battle, the ability to see enemy soldiers, etc. Par for the course in most war games and SAW upholds that trend.
While some people might find such control liberating, it had the exact opposite effect on me. Tweaking everything does lead to slightly different feelings as far as the game is concerned, but it still is quite daunting to have such control over so much of the game experience.
The menus are pretty drab, but this was probably done to match the spartan war aesthetic, and it works. Buttons and selections are clearly labeled and the font is easy to read. There are a massive amount of options and tweaks to go through so it’s good that they’re easy on the eyes.
Once the game is installed, clicking on the desktop icon launches a wonderful pop up menu. This menu contains pretty much everything you could ever need in regards to playing/enjoying SAW. The menu has links to a scenario archive, allows you to add mods, a patching utility, links to a number of similar gaming sites, and a link to the official SAW game forum. Be warned though, it might take some finagling to get them to work correctly.
The in-game graphics are sub-par when compared to game such as Medal of Honor or Battlefield 1942, but there are hundreds of individual soldiers in the game world so some quality had to be sacrificed for quantity. Considering what’s there, the soldier are generally well put together, clipping is kept to a minimum and each one has a backpack, equipment, and so fourth.
The sounds of battle are well conveyed. While I’m not sure if the gunshots and whatnot are 100% historically accurate, the battles sound like a battle should and that’s all that matters. The lack of the huge human audio element is a tad puzzling.
You’d think officers would be barking out orders, swear words exclaimed by the frightened private, etc. But, except for gun shots, or birds if that was the ambient noise you picked, there’s nary a sound as the battle unfolds.
Units, when ordered about, utter a brief acknowledgement and then march and attack without raising their voices. Ambient noise can be changed through the use of the options menu. You have your choice between the aforementioned gunfire, birds, or nothing.
The menus are deathly silent, the only sounds you’ll hear are the beeps and click of the options you’ve selected. There are very few menus so the absence of music isn’t particularly missed, though it would’ve been nice to have some nice orchestral accompaniment.
This is easily the game’s strong suit. SAW offers easy mod-ability, semi-random scenarios, and a multiplayer component. Not to mention a quasi turn-based mode to appease fans of that particular game variety. A scenario editor is also included so you can craft your own battles and campaigns.
The Multiplayer game can also be tweaked with several components so you get a wide variety of games styles. The game is very customizable and the included bonuses insure that once you throw yourself into the game, you’ll be there for a while. However, at a full $50, there is no real monetary incentive to try the game out.
War games, by their very nature, are often not accessible by the mainstream. Some of us find such precise control of the game almost paralyzing. While that may be the war games greatest strength, it also serves as its greatest weakness, putting up walls against those that find such freedom frightening. I, for one, found the walls of SAW a bit too high to overcome.
If you enjoy war games, you’re apt to enjoy SAW more then just a regular gamer with no particular affinity. It’s long, and it’s deep with ample replay potential for those of you that enjoy such games. Otherwise, it’s very hard to recommend to someone new to the genre. Once you get the hang of it, SAW is very well researched and quite challenging. Everything is solid, not flashy, but still gets the point across. The biggest hurdles are the camera and interface. The learning curve is very high so I’d suggest “casual” gamers steer clear.