I spent my college and high school years playing Blizzard games: WarCraft 3, StarCraft Brood War, and World of WarCraft. Thanks to this, I’m constantly discovering truly excellent games that just… sailed beneath my radar while I was happily slaying Night Elves and Protoss in my Blizzard bubble. And few games really drive in how much I really missed as much as the Blitzkrieg Anthology by Nival Interactive and CDV. Aside from a few UI issues (even when compared to other games released around the same time period) and a pretty steep learning curve, I was quite impressed with this game’s depth and quite sorry I missed it in its prime.
The definition of minimalist UI.
User interface and graphics
People who read my reviews will know that I often focus on the user interface pretty extensively. While many out there might be willing to accept an unintuitive or awkward interaction model to experience stellar gameplay, as a graphic and web designer, I feel that the user interface can make or break a user’s experience while playing a game. And to me, while the tutorial and opening missions of the campaign go a long way to acclimating the player to how the game functions, I feel like the UI is pretty much this game’s stumbling block. Looking at WarCraft 3 or Command and Conquer Generals as compared to Blitzkrieg, you note that the iconography in these games is large and clear, with representational icons. Not to compare these games in any way, but it's clear that C&C Generals and WarCraft 3 have more intuitive user interfaces: in fact, Blitzkrieg 2 even copied the UI of those other games to an extent.
Dude, where's my action?
Blitzkrieg, on the other hand provides the player with a very small icon tray. I quickly got used to the hotkeys as I played through the tutorial (which is excellent, by the way – very thorough and interactive, and really helps to explain the basic interactions you’ll perform as you play the game) but I was constantly frustrated whenever I forgot a command hotkey and had to fish through the tiny menus to find what I wanted my units to do. From unit stances on infantry, to Engineers having a number of functions like minelaying, demining, to repairing bridges, artillery needing trucks to move them and units needing to be have their ammo restocked, there’s a lot to remember (not a bad thing by any means, I actually love all of these mechanics) and these are often tucked in a submenu under the bottom left button on the command card (bound to the Z key) which functions differently depending on what unit you have selected.
One kind of niggling issue I had was the mission objective notification system. The location of mission objectives shows up on... the minimap. Not on the screen anywhere in the game, but only on the minimap. This can make some objectives a little more unintuitive than I'd like, and it's a little odd since many other games around the release of Blitzkrieg (and even released before) had much better systems for helping players find where they need to set up their units, or what to capture or defend. It's honestly an oversight in my opinion (this is fixed in the sequel, by the way).
I think the game looks pretty good (visually), to be honest. It’s no Company of Heroes, but its somewhat drab graphics really suit the setting, and while the graphics haven’t held up stunningly, it’s a sight better today than games like Emperor: Battle for Dune and other older 3D titles. The sound isn’t stunning, but it does the trick in my humble opinion. The options menu is a bit frustrating to navigate since it doesn’t have drop-downs to cycle through applications settings like screen resolution, instead forcing you to cycle through options by clicking, but that’s not really terrible, and you only have to do it once or twice once you install the game. I do wish there was the option to zoom in, though. Despite being a 3D game, it really acts like a 2D title in that respect.
Gameplay and mechanics
It’s hard to say enough good things about the game mechanics. Really. Infantry can garrison within buildings, throw AT grenades (intelligently), change stances, disband (they normally come in large squads), hit the dirt to avoid gunfire or artillery barrages. Disbanding allows you to scout using fairly expendable single infantrymen. There are trenches, and you can dig them using Engineer trucks. You can plant landmines, and you have to search for them in missions lest your tanks be blown to smithereens. Bridges can be destroyed and rebuilt. Houses and trees can be crushed or blasted apart. Air support is semi-controllable by the player (you can queue up a route for planes to follow). Units have ammo, and must be resupplied, which is something I think you see all too infrequently in the RTS/RTT genres. Actually, this can be a bit frustrating since the mechanic isn’t that intuitive, but I love seeing ammo management in any strategy or tactics game.
There are over 200 units across the Allies, Soviets and German factions, ranging from infantry to tanks to resupply trucks to artillery pieces, even on-rails units, which is incredibly rare and really interesting to use. Every unit in the game has an entry in the “resource manual” which provides unit stats and historical information. As a newbie to World War 2 tech, I found this to be a welcome addition and indicative of a lot of care and dedication on the part of the development team. It’s always great to see this sort of detailed information catalog provided by a game (just like in the Age of Empires games, for example).
Artillery is partially a joy to use, and partially a pain. Artillery has a truly huge range in Blitzkrieg, comparable to unit ranges in the Supreme Commander series, with ranges that can extend most of the way across a scenario. They do better with spotters, but let players guess as to the location of targets in fog of war as well. However, many of the better (not self-propelled) artillery pieces need to be towed around by trucks. This is a neat mechanic, but quickly gets cumbersome especially when working with more than 3 or 4 of the fixed pieces.
Positioning, timing, and scouting are hugely important, as is securing ammunition caches for your tanks and troops. Some mechanics, like tanks reversing, would have really benefitted from their own hotkey, since the pathing can be quirky in confined spaces. And this game is unforgiving. Really unforgiving at times. Getting caught in a crossfire or targeted by artillery can mean certain death for almost any unit, and let’s not even talk about walking blindly into a minefield. This game really makes you think and play defensively, that’s for sure. I find this to be refreshing and quite fun, but those expecting a StarCraft or Supreme Commander-like experience might not appreciate it. It’s certainly a different type of game to the average RTS fare we see nowadays.
There is a (very) limited skirmish mode, but the campaigns of both the core game and its expansion is pretty extensive, and missions are difficult enough that it'll keep you engaged for a long time. Certainly it's a good value for $9.99 on GOG.com.
Blitzkrieg is a great game. It’s wrapped in some cramped and awkward UI that might take you a while to get acclimated to, but it comes with a ton of content, lots of unit types and incredibly deep gameplay that will engage you even as (if) it frustrates you.