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As a concept the Wargame series has taken leaps and bounds since Eugen Systems released R.U.S.E. back in 2010. Four years later, Eugen has released their fourth tactics-first styled real-time strategy game, Wargame: Red Dragon.
The third title in the Wargame series has carried the torch of progress for the Cold War era RTS, and similar to its predecessor Wargame: AirLand Battle has improved upon the games which came before it.
However, even with the introduction of naval craft from amphibious vehicles to destroyers, Wargame: Red Dragon is not yet the holy grail for this style of RTS nor this series. Though Red Dragon has benefited the series with numerous improvements, some questionable realities of the games’ design still linger.
Centered on the Far East with a chronology from the late 70s into the early 90s, Wargame: Red Dragon shifts the Cold War atmosphere from the plains of Europe into the lowlands and seas of Asia. Stoking the geopolitical fires between China, the Koreas, Japan, New Zealand, and Australia (the new nations to the Wargame mix), Red Dragon has not simply thrown the prior nations into a new theater of war.
With these new nations comes yet another addition to the series, coalition decks. Prior to Red Dragon its predecessors allowed you to create decks equipped with units from every nation within a faction or purely by nations.
Now players can create decks outfitted with units from coalitions; Red Dragon combines China and North Korea, while the Blue Dragons are Japan and South Korea. Eugen has furthermore added in the Commonwealth, a coalition comprising Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.
Featuring over 1450 partially authentic units, Red Dragon has added a heavy weight to the growing armory of assets to the series. Though many of the units in Red Dragon are simply aged and antiquated units from their allied Cold War superpowers, the latest Wargame has expanded the armory and arsenal with these new nations.
Although numerous new units are attributed to the introduction of naval craft to the series, most of the new unique units are infantry. However, Red Dragon also adds quite a few unique armored and air assets to the series.
Naturally many of the unique vehicles are proprietary variants such as the F-15J, Japan’s licensed-to-manufacture F-15 Eagle, but not all. China and North Korea are outfitted with their own tank units, China’s ZTZ tanks and the North Korean Ch’onma-ho tanks. China also has a few jets of their own, such as the Nanchang Q-5.
Lurking within the voluminous armory of assets are some problem children. The napalm units whether land or air along with the special forces and prototype units continue to upset the fulcrum of battle in Wargame.
Though a great asset in clearing out garrisons and denying travel across key junctions like bridges, napalm has always been dubious in its proportional effect. Considering that the area-of-effect for air strikes can cover hundreds of meters vertically and laterally regardless of payload, it’s scale of effect still has yet to be addressed. Covering a square kilometer of terrain in a concentrated pool of flame with a couple of 250-pound airstrikes is simply preposterous.
Effective against infantry and armored units alike, the jelly substance also works far outside its limitations in Wargame combining the devastating effect of a gasoline incendiary with thermite in a single punch. Due to the stunning effect native to the game’s core mechanic, armored units can be easy and impractically destroyed as the result of napalm air strikes and infantry.
Though napalm can reach over a thousand degrees in Celsius while covering an area of two square kilometers, the effect is mitigated greatly over such distances and burns out quickly. In Wargame, the substance continues to linger at great length without a diminished effect over time and spread.
Availability for exceptional and prototype units also upsets the balance of Wargame: Red Dragon.
Though special forces units are well implemented as a single unit, the airborne deck specialization and the additional naval section for deck creation grant players the ability to fight with battalion or regimental numbers in a single match. Despite being elite assets, Wargame in contrast to these exceptional units still provides a high availability of special forces.
It is not pointless or futile to use regular or shock units in-game, however due to the availability and innate strength of special forces there is little reason to outside of preference or specialized weapons such as ATGM teams.
Prototype units suffer from a similar fate, it’s even in the name. Despite their experimental nature prototype units have an availability on par with production models. Though expensive to field and lose, prototype vehicles commonly outclass equivalent units while being equally available.
For a title that has been developed with partial authenticity (units are configured against each other) as a statute of unit design, the availability of special forces and prototype units doesn’t reflect this design element.
Fortunately Red Dragon has improved a few of the menus and tooltips. The tooltips within the armory and deck creation menus better reflect the game mechanics detailing a more realistic expression of unit attributes.
Prior to Red Dragon accuracy displayed as a whole number which only told you one thing, higher is better. Now Eugen has replaced that flat value with a percentage better reflecting the probability of a hit.
Other attributes were previously displayed as either none, poor, bad, good, or exceptional. Though some such as optics and stealth still are; the attributes for stabilizers and electronic-counter measures have furthermore been replaced with a fractional value.
The veterancy tooltip now displays information relative to its effect. The veterancy mechanic has also been redeveloped to accompany core mechanics, what was once a question of accuracy is now a combination of accuracy, dispersion, morale recovery, spot-chance, and stun duration.
The menus have also been laid out with more accessibility. The navigation menu has been shifted vertically as a task-pane fitting with the laptop aesthetic.
Other sub-menus such as Replay have been moved around to more intuitive locations while a redundant Deck menu has been added within the multiplayer lobby. No longer do you have to navigate back in the menu-web to edit decks while waiting for a game to start.
Eugen did miss a few menu features that could have been redesigned for greater accessibility. Though the chat and friends task pane is nothing new to the series, Eugen did not extend its functionality for ease of access. If you want to join a friend in a session, you still have to navigate through the Profile menu.
Though a large selling point and the most advertised addition to the Wargame series, naval combat is a keel over.
Success or failure is heavily dependent on force majeure. Although some terrain does exist within the maps and naval sectors both in single-player or multiplayer, the atolls throughout Red Dragon are marginalized at effecting the outcom of a naval engagement.
For strictly naval battles featured in the campaigns, auto-resolve is more effective than fighting. With land sparsely littering the coastal shores, victory comes down to two conditions: numerical superiority of starting points and therefore spam.
The close-in defensive weapons on ships also mitigate the functionality of naval combat. Ships appear to have an endless supply of ammunition for these counter-measure systems mitigating anti-ship missiles whether air or sea born. Since many of the ships and all the aircraft only have a few, they are best used in volley but hardly help you close the distance for guns.
Despite it’s shortcomings, naval combat hasn’t been a complete urchin.
The amphibious units have added a layer to ground combat the series has lacked. Players can finally use the rivers and waterways that were only traversable by bridge in the previous Wargame titles, opening up angles of approach and attack.
However, the larger sea assets are best deployed in a supporting role for amphibious assaults or defending sectors close to deep water.
For a series that has grown out of its multiplayer shell, Red Dragon has the best single player yet for Wargame. Though skirmish hasn’t changed, the dynamic campaign first implemented in Airland Battle has been drastically overhauled; rightfully so it’s good challenging fun.
Since Eugen first began discussing Red Dragon to the public, the developer has been hyping the improvements to the dynamic campaign; evolving the single player element of the game. Now that we have it in hand, sound and concise improvements over the Airland Battle style are crystal clear.
With longer turn-counts, the four campaigns of Red Dragon offer greater diversity in operational objectives and defensive challenges.
Instead being assigned a specific task, the dynamic campaigns assert the player with an operational concept. After setting the scene of the Cold War scenario with new-to-the-series cut scenes, players are briefed on the concept of operations and strategic conditions; mainly what assets you have and how the enemy is deployed. From the initial brief, the fight is up to you.
Political points and battle groups have also received a face-lift. The R.U.S.E. styled options such as naval bombardment or aerial recon from Airland Battle are gone. Now political points are solely spent on refitting or buying additional battle groups.
Battle groups are now more realistic in their order of battle. Rather than having a battle group with every asset, like a full fist, Red Dragon has split the fist up into fingers and palms.
How you mobilize individual battle groups such as armor regiments, infantry regiments, naval assault groups, artillery batteries, or air squadrons will dictate the force you fight with.
The changes to political points and battle groups have given a greater strategic sense of control over a campaign by providing more depth in deploying forces. Instead of fighting a single-fist to the brink of destruction only to put them on R&R for a few turns, players can organize defense in depth with reserve units while pulling back damaged units for repair.
Visually Red Dragon is a gorgeous achievement. From the increased fidelity in micro terrain to the quality of water, the graphics are the best in the series. Powered by IRISZOOM4, the Asian theater is stunningly detailed from the land to seas.
The only lapse in graphical fidelity is one of conscious design.
At a distance craters carved out by bombs or artillery look marvelous. Upon closer inspection their illusion fades like an impressionist painting; they aren’t craters at all.
Rather than devising a system to cause craters on the surface, Eugen conceived an interesting subterranean optical illusion. The crater textures exist beneath a clear glassy plain upon which the buildings and grass layers sit rather than rending the terrain.
Despite looking awkward close up, the crater illusion is a benefit all around. From performance to AI navigation, having realistic craters in the terrain would be a mess. Units would get stuck easily and face difficulty in navigating around craters while the onslaught of battle would sap performance over prolonged periods of play.
It’s a good compromise and only you’d hardly notice short of taking close-up screenshots of shooting video; you just don’t play that zoomed in.
Featuring numerous improvements to the series at-large with few points of critique, Wargame: Red Dragon is the best RTS yet from Eugen Systems. Although naval combat doesn’t fit the scale of the series well, the addition of amphibious warfare has ripped the battlefield wide open. The series can still benefit from improvements to unit authenticity and menu functionality; but for now Wargame is in a good place despite its room for improvement.