Theatre of War. (computer game) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Alfred C. Giovetti
Get ready to play a game like no other. One that demands such fast reflexes that it puts some arcade games to shame; one that requires the intense strategy and fore-thought of the most heated chess game. Get ready for Theatre of War, a game so unusual that it's difficult to understand unless you actually play it.
With Theatre of War, Three-Sixty pushes the envelope of computer strategy games, using the full capacity and power of the newer, faster computers equipped with hires 640 x 480 SVGA graphics and voice-capable sound cards.
It's a visual and aural feast. Its musical algorithm composes variations on a variety of preset jazz themes, synchronizing the music to the ebb and flow of the battling pieces. Accompanying the music is a high-quality, digitized vocal part that comments on and embellishes game functions. The pieces themselves--abstract raytraced, 3-D forms rendered in bright, clear colors, using the full 256-color palette--spin and glide their way across the board like ballet dancers or ice skaters in free-form competition.
On the surface, Theatre of War is like chess. The ultimate goal parallels the chesslike kill-the-king idea. It has simple rules that can be learned quickly; but game-play is complex, with the capacity to provide an infinite variety of subtle moves and countermoves. Strategy is based on the personality of the game player; players can be equally successful with an aggressive or a patient route. There are three playing sets; complex concepts are incorporated into the modern set's rules, while the medieval set has the simplest and most basic rules and strategies.
The stage is a cyberspace, represented by a matrix of squares that can be varied from the 8- x 8-square pattern of the familiar chessboard to a 50- x 50-square battlefield. The board can be displayed in overhead view, end-of-board oblique view, or as a series of checkered hills. The squares' colors and textures reveal terrain features that affect movement, endurance, and combat effectiveness.
Surrounding the board are various icon-based controls and display features. The 30 increasingly difficult scenarios provided will be supplemented by the future production of a scenario editor, new play sets, additional scenarios, and a network-play option.
Within the cyberspace, your 16 abstract, bright-blue shapes are poised on one side of a checkered battlefield. Facing them is an army of red shapes. Observing the battle from your control monitors, you must be a quick-acting general, sending your troops racing across the board, while the monitor speakers blare a continuous stream of jazz music. The tempo of the music increases as a line of red soldiers glides across the board in the direction of your blue line. As the reds near your line, your soldiers move out to meet them, executing your commands. The convincing sound of explosions punctuates the action, and various pieces speak, relating their status.
The game's three playing sets are medieval, Great War, and contemporary. Each set is composed of 16 pieces of six different types, with up to six separate functions per piece. Each set has a commanding kinglike piece with certain healing and authority-based powers. Other pieces serve the roles of infantry, artillery, cavalry, and fire support. Each set has its own strengths and weaknesses.
Both chess and Theatre of War are abstract strategy games that simulate warfare, but Theatre of War provides some advantages over the ancient board game. Combat is conducted in realtime (save in the two-player, one-computer mode, in which players take turns), and it presents a challenge in the placement and deployment of troops as well as in effectively using and conserving the troops' expendable resources. Therefore, the conflict addresses both strategy and tactics.
As the leader, you can give any number of commands to any number of pieces; you're limited only by the time it takes to point and click. The pieces do the rest, executing your commands automatically. The realtime play makes the game more realistic than the rounded (you take a turn, I take a turn) play. It also emphasizes fast action and quick reflexes.
Learning the names and functions of the pieces in the sets was an enjoyable experience on its own. The highly intuitive interface almost makes the well-written instruction manual and command cards superfluous. The sitting-duck scenarios provide an experimental battlefield that allows you to learn the pieces' functions without being blown up. After you've investigated with the mouse, the functions of each piece and command tile are revealed. Before you know it, you're playing the game with ease.
Theatre of War allows three modes of play: one-man show, human versus computer, or two-player. You can use human-to-human combat on a single computer or in realtime over a null or phone modem.
The different methods of play involve different strategies. The rounded play of two-player, one-computer mode gives the player with the first move an initial advantage. Modem and one-player play are in true realtime; your strategy will require you to choose between the advantages and disadvantages of the various modes of piece display and board display, and piece status will also be important.
The pieces were designed in 3-D; then they were raytraced, using 3-D software. The images were compressed to fit more easily on the disks. Three to six animations were prepared per piece for Fighting, Moving, Dying, Special fighting, In-trouble, and Protected modes. Traditional paper-and-pencil animation drawings enhance the ray-traced animations. The transparencies and reflections of ray-tracing combine with the flat animations to create a smooth flow of texture and form. The bright, transparent, primary colors of red and blue are set off by the ray-traced, veined marble of the board and the iconbased controls.
Digitized speech and music have the dual effect of both setting and following the tempo of the game. Humor has been interjected into the largely somber mood of the game to remind you that Theatre of War is, at its heart, just a game. The script gives the pieces personality as they say, "I am too tired" or "I am dead." The voice replaces the need for a text-based warning window and enhances the play significantly for those whose hearing is not impaired.
Theatre of War's games are designed to be completed in one sitting, obviating the need for a save-game feature; however, you can pause the game in the single-player mode or in the two-player, one-computer mode. The developers expect modem play to be the most satisfactory, in spite of early indications that solitaire play seems to be the most popular.
The designers have taken the war-game expertise that made Harpoon such a hit and have created an abstract game of strategy and tactics that not only challenges the intellect in three different eras of military history but also is a feast for the eyes and ears. The bright, crisp colors, detailed 3-D graphics, online composition of synthesized jazz, digital voice, and intuitive, interactive interface leave little to be desired. Theatre of War is a well-thoughtout abstraction of war--a game that may rival chess's power to entertain.