Classic Reviews: Blitzkrieg (PC Game)

Michael Eckenfels, 25 July 2019

Developer: Nival Interactive
Publisher: CDV Software

I’ve reviewed my share of RTS-type games. Heck, I’ve played more than my share. Titles such as WarCraft and StarCraft whetted my appetite for such games: building, training, destroying, encroaching…conquering! Such is the makeup of most serious wargames, whether tactical or strategic in nature, and while an RTS is inherently enjoyable from its base qualities, it’s a very difficult genre to capture effectively across the board.

I had reviewed a similar World War II RTS-type of title recently (Panzer Claws), and while I enjoyed that game, Blitzkrieg is in many ways a fuller experience for a gamer eager to get their fix from World War II era battlefields. And yet, it is still not quite a full RTS game in the same sense that it’s predecessors are.

A ‘Lightning’ Preview

Blitzkrieg has already pierced the European market, and is due to be released in the United States in May. The game I reviewed is a full version, which allows the player to engage themselves in a campaign as the Allies, Germans, or Soviets. It carries the player across some breathtaking landscape that can be either admired or cratered like the surface of the Moon – just about everything is destructible. Besides the campaigns, a random map battle generator and a campaign editor are available to add longevity to the experience. The player can, using the campaign editor, even create their own units.

CR Blitz ACRecon

Three Mk.1 armored cars fire on Germans in a nearby trench.

The RTS roots of this title are obvious to those familiar with the genre already: double-click a unit to select all units of that type in view, drag-and-drop to select large groups, etcetera. Movement and combat are effected in the same manner. That’s where the similarities stop, however. There is no resource gathering, structure building, or other similar economic model ingrained in this title. Instead, the player concerns himself with what tactical commanders should worry about: destroying the enemy and capturing terrain (or defending it from attack).

 

Presentation

The game’s sophistication is beheld by the realistic behavior of the units: tanks belch smoke from their engines and leave tracks behind, infantry suffer heavy casualties when captured in the open by artillery, and vehicles of all types can be damaged and run out of ammunition. Aircraft swoop in and shoot down enemy observation planes, and level bombers unleash deadly cargoes on targets below. All of this and more is reproduced in just about every corner of the European side of the war, from Norway to North Africa. And while falling short of true hexagonal grognard delights, the action is fast and furious enough to make most grognards (of whom I am one) very happy.

CR Blitz Shattered

British troops regroup in the remains of a German strong point.

As mentioned, the battles can be quite graphic. Catching the enemy in the open, or watching them dash themselves against a player’s prepared defenses, results in the landscape being littered with reddened corpses – the only thing missing are the circling scavenger birds. Tanks heat up and explode in vivid pyrotechnical displays—my personal favorite is seeing turrets pop like corks—and the wrecks left behind are blackened and sooty. The ground itself can be churned up by artillery strikes, and buildings may be razed to their very foundations. This is realistic, tactical PC combat at its best.

 

Tactical Command

The player assumes the role of an officer in charge of a small core of troops. These units are usually of the same type throughout all missions, but are often enhanced for each battle by add-on forces such as artillery, infantry, and aircraft. Additional support units, such as supply trucks and repair vehicles appear as well, making for a well-balanced team—although sometimes it can be a lot to keep track of. The player will begin operations for their side during the first conflicts fought at the beginning of World War II itself (for example, the first conflict for the Soviets is set in Finland). These battles are organized into chapters, in which various missions (battles) may be fought out. Some chapters have more than one mission, while others give the player a choice of continuing to present engagement after the player’s initial objectives have been met.All chapters have a minimum requirement of one mission to complete, but often it is fun to keep plugging away. Not only do the player’s units gain experience, but the player gets medals (historical ones, such as the Iron Cross) and earns scores and promotions as well.

CR Blitz Sov1

Soviet KV-2’s hammer a Finnish bunker.

The chapters are historically accurate, although the one-mission minimum is a minor gripe of mine. I simply wish there were moreof these battles in each chapter. Some allow the player to select which mission to go on (chosen on a map), but only allow the one mission to be played out before closing the chapter and moving on. I’d much rather see the player given the choice of continuing to fight more battles if they are available. However, there is still plenty to do for an eager commander, with conflict aplenty in the missions ahead.

The player’s core units are few in number, usually about three armored/recon vehicles and a few artillery pieces/anti-tank guns, and these are the ones that stick with them throughout the entire war. Losing a core unit is not a good thing, although the player will find replacements down the road. Core units gain experience, unlike the ‘attached’ troops that often accompany them into battle, which makes them much more valuable than the regular cannon fodder.

Failure in a mission usually stems from the player getting all their units (or at least a healthy portion of the only decent ones) destroyed. Luckily there’s an option to retry a scenario, which is usually what I chose to do anytime one of my core units bit the dust. Careful, methodical gameplay is necessary, as going in blasting wildly is a quick invitation to Valhalla (or wherever computer soldiers go when they de-res Tronstyle). The AI is quick to take advantage of bad decisions on the part of the player, so a few wrong moves can quickly spell disaster.

CR Blitz Bridge

British troops destroy German resistance near a bridge. The bridge was in perfect condition before the shooting started.

Installation and Technical Issues

Blitzkrieg takes up a ton of space—two whole gigs, to be exact—so the installation process takes a long time. Two CD’s are required to complete the install, and a third copy protection CD is necessary to have in the CD-ROM drive whenever the game is started up. This was a different path for CDV to take, as usually Disk 1 is the standard ‘copy protection’ CD, but no matter—the process is long but painless. In fact, given the game’s relatively light requirements – minimum, a Pentium II 366MHz (800MHz recommended) – it’s probably going to run well even on lower-end machines (my 500MHz ran it without slouching).

 

Documentation

The docs are in a .PDF format, and it’s not entirely clear at this time if they will be included as such on the public release CD’s or if a manual will be included. Regardless, it is a quality manual with eye-catching graphics and easy-to-follow instructions. Although one gigantic blunder stares the reader in the face almost immediately – the heading, “SAFTEY,” with the standard warning of seizure potential, indicates perhaps not every mistake was caught in editing.

The game has a database that is only accessible when the player is in between missions, but it is full of valuable game-related information. Similar info is available when the player is given the opportunity to upgrade the equipment of their core units.

 

Graphics and Sound

The game’s graphics are great to look at, but what makes them stunning is the destructibility of the environment. If a tree is hit by an artillery round (or even a tank shell), it explodes in leafy glory. Buildings collapse and smoke heavily, leaving a ruinous skeletal shell (which does make a good hiding place for infantry, and don’t think the AI doesn’t know that). Weather plays a part in the game also: snow, desert, and temperate climes are as diverse as the battlefields of the war, and wind-swept storms are not an uncommon occurrence – and not without consequences, as they halt air operations. The images are all very realistic and accurate down to the infantry’s equipment – not all infantry is alike, for example. Bren gun-carrying soldiers hoist their MG on their shoulders, while officers stand in the rear (strange, but a common occurrence among all three campaigns) brandishing but a pistol. Artillery crews depress and raise their gun barrels, and can raise the stabilization gear to swivel their tube in the desired direction. If I listed every little detail here, this review would go on forever.

CR Blitz NAAir

Italian SM-79 bombers wreak havoc on a British-held desert town.

 

CR Blitz Ambush

A French armored car ambushes a German spearhead.

The sound is good as well, convincingly paired with the graphics. Sound effects are superior, down to shells impacting on building walls, tanks exploding, and shrieks of men as they fall. Especially good is the sound of bombs dropping from a level bomber and impacting on a concrete pillbox, with the pillbox disintegrating more and more with each bomb hit.

The main overhead map in the lower left corner is helpful, with arrows pointing out objectives and displaying pulsing orange circles indicating enemy artillery fire. The latter is especially helpful when conducting counterbattery fire, while the former helps one to remember where they need to go next. Some may find this disdainful, since things are generally mapped out as far as what the next step in the mission is. But it can also be said to “grease the wheels” of the in-game action, and lets the player worry about defeating the enemy more, and worry less about where troops need to be pointed. After all, the maps are not terribly large to begin with, and it’s virtually impossible to get lost.

CR Blitz Storch

A Storch recon aircraft gives away the location of a British artillery battery.

One final comment on the graphics: wrecked tanks and vehicles are a beautiful sight to behold, but they disappear after about thirty or so seconds, leaving only a greasy smear to mark where they were. It would have been nice, and a bit more realistic, to keep the vehicles present, providing cover for infantry or other personnel.

 

Interface

The mouse is the computerized equivalent of a “marshal’s baton,” which provides helpful information. Selecting units is, as mentioned earlier, done in typical RTS fashion. The bottom menu sprouts easy to read buttons that are in fact mapped with the left side of the keyboard in mind, so one may choose to use fingers instead of a mouse to command their units.

Each mission is laid out in an almost linear manner, and if multiple objectives are present, the game presents the player with one at a time, so the game never gets overwhelming. Sometimes other objectives may be completed before the first one is even attempted, if the player tries an unorthodox strategy (such as going around a town that needs to be taken, assaulting it from the rear, and subsequently coming across a battery of artillery whose destruction becomes another objective of the mission).

Controlling units is relatively easy, although at times trying to select a single unit was frustrating. This didn’t happen often, and really isn’t a problem that hasn’t been experienced by countless other players in dozens of other RTS games. It still got on my nerves though. For example, once I had a group of tanks moving to a specific point. I then wanted to move a truck hauling a howitzer up behind them, so I clicked on it and clicked where I wanted it to go. I came to realize that the truck was never selected, but instead the movement order went to the tanks that I had already positioned perfectly a few seconds before. Moments like these are very rare but nonetheless, still annoying.

The only real major complaint I have concerning the interface is the lack of a zoom feature, something even Panzer Claws had (and indeed, it was a striking feature of that title). There is only one view of the battlefield, and other than the view afforded by the map in the lower left of the screen there is no other means of getting a wider view (or even a nice close-up from the ground, a la Combat Missionor the already-mentioned Panzer Claws). This can be disconcerting when trying to control a particularly large group of troops. The player may rest assured that, if they find a large command at their disposal, their mission ahead is no small feat and they’ll need every man and gun tube arrayed. A zoom feature would have made management of this much easier. As it is, this is a mere annoyance and not a failure.

 

Gameplay

The action is fast and furious. The map is completely revealed to the player, but fog of war rules are in effect for every mission. So, while the player may scroll across the map and inspect every tree, trench, and building, they’ll have no way of knowing what’s really out there until these areas come into the range and sight of a friendly unit. Areas within view (and therefore within direct firing range) are lighter colored, while hidden areas are grayed out slightly to reflect fog of war.

Campaign Start

The Campaign Screen, where Blitzkrieg careers begin.

This makes for a challenge, as even when one knows that a trench is ahead, one is not completely sure it is occupied. It may indeed be; in that case, running a tank up to it to massacre the infantry within may reveal an antitank gun hidden in a copse of trees just to the rear, which will make short work of your tank. Needless to say, the rash commander is more often than not the failed commander in Blitzkrieg.

Combined-arms tactics will win the day, if implemented correctly. This is not a game where the player can merely gather all their armored assets into an offensive fist and try to bludgeon their way into the enemy’s heart. That’s a bad idea, not only because of the aforementioned antitank guns, but also because of infantry that can lob grenades if they’re close enough. Artillery can depress their barrels low enough as well and can make short work of armor. Additionally, don’t forget that fighter-bombers and level bombers can make life, err, “interesting” for you. What it comes down to is this: infantry takes the real estate, tanks support them and knock out hardened defense points, artillery softens the way up for both, and aircraft are used to recon, drop paratroops, bomb, and provide air cover from the enemy’s forces.

On a side note, dropping paratroops is always a great idea in this game—on paper. The player won’t know that a field that looks particularly large and inviting one minute could be swarming with enemy tanks as soon as the first jump boot touches soil. Recon aircraft and scouts are useful here, but neither unit is completely immune to attack.

CR Blitz Arty

German artillery assists infantry in reducing a pillbox. The truck that hauled the artillery piece to the battlefield didn’t do too well.

 

Artillery is a nice add-on to the game, but it’s not without its own problems. Finding a pocket of hardened resistance (a pillbox, for instance) may be a tempting target for a player’s howitzers. Remember, though, that once that artillery starts lobbing shells the enemy’s artillery will get a general idea where those shots are coming from and will start attacking very quickly. Sometimes, it takes a few rounds before they find the range, but they will—oh yes, they will. Nothing beats the smug feeling of hitting a concrete pillbox with 155mm howitzers, watching it disintegrate but then having that battery reduced to fine embers because some 120mm mortars in the next village took offense to the attack. Enemy artillery therefore becomes a prime target. Either that, or the player should learn how to fire a few rounds and then move their valuable support pieces out of the way of the enemy’s response. “Shoot and scoot” tactics will serve the electronic commander well in Blitzkrieg.

Sustained firing by any unit will result in said unit running dry on ammunition very quickly. Each mission usually has a detachment of supply trucks that can refill the stores of these combat units, and in turn the supply trucks draw their stores from warehouses and supply dumps. While capturing these is nice (and sometimes such a capture is a mission objective or two) because it provides the player with a source of supply closer to the fighting, I only used such supply sources a few times. The map’s not so big that it becomes inconvenient for the trucks to refill their stores from a map edge source, and if the player is already in control of three quarters of the map the outcome is usually a foregone conclusion. The support side of battle makes a good addition to the game: engineers can repair other vehicles, build bridges, lay and clear mines, and build trenches and barbed wire walls.

The best unit, in my opinion, is the scout. While infantry units have standard movement modes (‘march’ to move faster, ‘aggressive’ to be prepared for action but move slower, etc.), the scout has a ‘sneak’ mode that allows them to become nearly invisible. Their scout function, shown as a pair of binoculars on the menu bar at the bottom, helps them to see into the distance on the map. They also sport a nice sniper rifle that can take targets out easily (though not if they’re in cover, such as buildings or trenches). Another annoyance of the game comes at this point – that of the sniper easily being able to kill off artillery crews. The crews will stand there nice and dumb-like as you pick them off one by one, instead of diving to the ground like infantry does. Being prone makes infantry harder targets to hit, but even they stand up after a few moments. A soldier can be standing next to another that gets capped, then hit the ground, and a few seconds later stand right up and make an inviting target of himself.

 

Game Mechanics

As mentioned, the maps are not terribly large, nor are they really small either. There’s no hard and fast rule of distance in them, and the terrain is enjoyable enough to look at to make any trip across it interesting.

Time can be accelerated or slowed down, as the player desires, which comes in handy when sneaking a scout into position somewhere (they move painfully slow when in that mode of movement). Slowing the game down helps the player further manage their resources and troops. These resources can be upgraded in between missions, if newer equipment becomes available.

 

CR Blitz Equipment

The M3 Stuart light tank, one of over 250 vehicles and weapons.

 

Units are rated according to the level of firepower they can take and dish out. If the firepower level they can unleash is higher than the armor rating of the target, the target will suffer accordingly. If the attacker is particularly more powerful than the target, it will be destroyed that much quicker. Tanks and other vehicles have armor ratings that reflect their front, side, rear, and top, accurately portraying the fact that most armored vehicles are much more vulnerable from the sides and rear than the front (just observe a KV-2 heavy tank, which in the early stages of the war laughs at just about anything thrown at its front).

The missions themselves can offer a wide range of difficulty, which is spelled out in the chapter screens (if more than one is shown in the first place). Missions can be Easy, Normal, or Hard difficulty; the ones that are listed as ‘Historical’ are the missions that need to be completed in order to officially finish a chapter.

CR Blitz Screen

Each campaign has its own ‘news reel’ of sorts to kick things off.

Finishing a mission is no mean feat, as some of the more difficult ones can take a few hours to play out, especially for a cautious commander. The player is being evaluated by the game constantly, so at the end of each mission their performance is measured in several different categories. Take too long, or eliminate more friendly troops than enemy will result in poor levels and fewer accolades, promotions, or medals.

 

AI

The computer can put up a good fight. I get the feeling that events are scripted, however, with the computer acting only when the player’s units come into view (as opposed to moving around the map). The only two exceptions to this seem to be their artillery (which can be wickedly accurate and makes sitting still hazardous) and their airpower (nothing’s more frustrating than watching some IL-2’s strafe the daylights out of my tanks without adequate air support to drive them off). These two forces react to the player, and don’t just sit there, waiting for a beating.

The player doesn’t have to be a Patton, Zhukov, or Rommel, however, to figure out what approaches suit which situations best. The computer tends to lean towards specific defensive tactics, which I will not go into here to spare anyone seeking to purchase Blitzkrieg. Suffice it to say that figuring this out does not give one carte blanche to run roughshod over the enemy – such an attitude is an invitation to a bloody nose. My own aggressiveness and glory-seeking once caused the destruction of my beloved Stug III assault gun in an attack on a heavily fortified Russian village; the aforementioned IL-2’s swooped in like birds of prey and tore it to shreds, while hidden AT guns took coordinated shots at them.

Sometimes, just when I thought I had the computer’s strategy figured out, it did something different. For example, after seeing a few villages I got the distinct feeling that certain weapons liked to hide in certain blind spots, which is true sometimes but not always. Usually, such suspicions are healthy indications of my respect for the AI. Calling in a few rounds of precious artillery onto what looks like a dead man’s curve usually ended up resulting in a fruitless waste of ammo.

One thing I did note is that only infantry is allowed inside of buildings; light AT guns are not, nor are tanks (which did occasionally take shelter within to wait in ambush). While I can overlook tanks, the lack of the ability for an AT gun to hole up in, say, a barn, shack, or warehouse seemed puzzling, and chipped away again at the game’s realism.

 

Editors, Expansions, and Replay Value

A “resource editor” is included with the game copy I received, which is essentially a game editor, allowing the creation of the player’s own battles and campaigns. Adding this to the very immersive campaign (for three sides, no less) and the random map battle generator, this game has a ton of potential to make a player keep it on their hard drive for a very long time to come.

The game runs so well that the lack of game-killing bugs likely will mean that any patches coming from CDV will be the result of tweaks to the game instead of wholesale restructuring, indicating that the creators of this title have looked to just about every possible detail. This game can only improve on an already impressive engine.

 

Multi-Player Gaming

Although I did not expect to find any games going on, through the title’s main menu there is access to LAN, Internet, and GameSpy. On GameSpy, I found two games going on at the time, with a grand total of four players. Perhaps this will pick up when the game is released. In any case, even with a robust AI powering this game there is a need to challenge other humans.

The multiplayer component will support up to sixteen players on each map, which can have potential for some wild free-for-alls. The players may indulge themselves in a game of Assault (attacker versus defender), or Flagcontrol (where controlling certain locations helps the player(s) earn points). Yes, that’s “flagcontrol,” run together, their unique nomenclature for this particular type of game. This one is different from Assault, in that the points earned may be spent on reinforcements. Assault games are pretty much ‘last-man-standing’ affairs, with no reinforcements allowed. I personally cannot wait to give this side of the game a try.

 

Summary

Powerful graphics, stunning interactivity with the environment, tough battles with a wide variety of units…this RTS has it all. While not a “true” RTS in the sense that it allows base-building and resource-gathering, it gives the player plenty to do and worry about otherwise. Minor problems inherent in the game will hopefully be corrected in later patches, but these are so few that the game can’t be faulted as a whole for them. CDV has reawakened a stagnating RTS genre with this title. World War II gamers, unite! Grab your mouse, boot up, and we’ll see you out there on the battlefield!

 


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