Variety is the Spice of Life
I love history. I minored in it in college, and I was extremely close to choosing to work as history teacher. Obviously I love games too, so it makes sense that I really enjoy games that let me jump into a certain person, time, or place in history. Such is the case with Game-Labs’ real-time strategy game Ultimate General: Gettysburg, which, instead of playing out over the course of the entire Civil War, focuses on its most famous confrontation. The game is a lot of fun, blending historic names and locations with alternate courses of events that keep games fresh and exciting. While it might not be concerned enough with its historic accuracy to please those most interested in a history lesson, it’s a game that should be on the radar of anyone with a passing interest in the RTS genre.
When I first saw that I was going to be reviewing Ultimate General, one of my first thoughts was doubt that there could be a great amount of longevity and replayability in a game focusing on one single battle. Now, having played the game quite a bit, I think narrowing its focus is one of its strengths. First, the map is great. It includes the town of Gettysburg along with quite a bit of the surrounding area (re-created impressively accurately, I might add). By limiting the battlefield a good deal compared to larger scale strategy games it makes it much easier to focus on the nuances of troop positioning and combat. Instead of worrying about getting troops hundreds of yards away, I’m worried about five, ten yards, and which way they’re facing. Everything is methodical and not necessarily flashy, but it shows that there’s beauty in subtlety.
Ultimate General handles the flow of its campaign extremely well. Obviously Gettysburg, being a real battle in a real war, had a distinct outcome- the Union defeated the Confederacy on the third day. It’d be pretty boring if players were tied to the ebb and flow of the real battle, but the game instead plays like a choose your own adventure novel. The first battle always starts out the same (except for your choice of playing as the North or South), then after that, depending on how the battle goes, you’re given a few choices on what you want to do next based on how much damage and land each side took in the previous confrontation. You can decide to make your next objective taking over a location to earn Victory Points (basically just number for how strategically valuable different locales are to the overall battle), to protect a certain front, etc. Additionally, unit losses carry over from one campaign battle to the next, meaning that even if you’re dominating there’s still reason to be careful. Thinning out your larger brigade at the end just to finish a little quicker may seem like a good idea, but it’s going to come back to bite you in the next round when the opponents get lots of reinforcements and you’re suddenly overpowered. These combined to make each of the three campaign playthroughs I tried vastly different, which was great.
I Like to Move It, Move It
Being that subtle positioning and movement of troops is the name of the game in Ultimate General, it’s disappointing that most of my (thankfully few) complaints about the game deal with movement. On one hand the base system for movement is great with letting you pick movement paths. You just click, hold, and paint the path with your mouse. It’s simple and accurate. On the other hand, it’s a bit annoying that path painting is the only way to move troops. It can become a pain when I’m trying to move my incoming reinforcements across the map to have to drag the whole way. Why can’t I just move my screen and give a click command? It’s also impossible to select more than one squad at a time, meaning that moving mass numbers can be tedious. Lastly, sometimes the auto-fix on path painting works against itself. Often times the game will attempt to smooth out jagged paths or remove redundancies when you draw back over them (meant to let you delete part of your path). It’s nice sometimes, but it makes it hard to do things like make a quick 180 degree turn. A few times I wanted some cavalry to run up behind an opposing group and make a sharp turn to face them, and it kept fixing my path to either run right at them, or removing the button hook at the end.
Caring for Your Troops
Unlike some strategy games, most forms of resource management aren’t something you’ll have to worry about in Ultimate General. You won’t have to try to be a careful spender, keep track of research trees or raise combatants’ stat points, etc. You don’t even have to worry about what units to produce. In fact, the entire management side is really quite simple. There are only two things you need to keep track of among your soldier groups: morale and condition. Morale is what you’d expect- the willingness to fight. Does your squad have a 1500 soldier advantage against the group their attacking? Did they just make a different squad retreat moments earlier? Then their morale is going to be soaring, and they’ll be willing to stay on the front line and take hits longer. Of course it works the other way too. If a squad's morale is low, they’ll take off running away in the face of a superior opponent, and there won’t be anything you can do about it for a while. Luckily letting a low morale troop sit behind the line (preferably within the buff zone of a charismatic leader) for a few minutes should have them ready to go again. Condition is a little bit more difficult to manage and regain if lost. Condition is how physically able your soldiers are to fight. They might have confidence through the roof, but their body won’t be able to cash the checks their mind is writing if they’ve just marched a long distance or been in a long skirmish. They can still fight, but they won’t be nearly as lethal as they’d normally be.
Just because resource management is simple, however, doesn’t make it easy or unrewarding. In fact I quite enjoyed it. It’s easy to learn- after reading the last paragraph you know pretty much everything you need to know about it- but really difficult to master. It’s not like you’re only controlling one or two squads. You’re manoeuvring a dozen or so at any given time, sometimes across two, three, or more fronts, and being able to rotate them all without exhausting them to reap the greatest benefit is an exercise in organization and critical thinking.
Strategy games aren’t normally on the top of my to-play list, but I liked this game. Ultimate General: Gettysburg does a great job of being simple enough for anyone to learn in a short sitting, but deep enough to keep you learning and perfecting your tactics deep into subsequent playthroughs. I enjoyed its branching campaign and simple-but-important soldier stats, but was disappointed that actually controlling your units occasionally left a bit to be desired. If you’ve been looking to pull the trigger on something to scratch your strategy itch, then I have no problem recommending you ready your rifle, take aim, and fire.
Branching campaign keeps things fresh, game mechanics are easy to learn while retaining satisfying depth, and the unit statistics keep soldiers and events moving at a quick pace.
Character movement is too limited and sometimes seems to be working against you.