Looking at the face of the nation today, it's hard not to get a little bit nervous. The more we strive to cement our footing as the world's pre-eminent power, the more we put ourselves in the position to be viewed as the uncompromising bully. The way our own county is becoming so very divided about so many things within our borders and without, it's hard not to see the premise behind PopTop's turn-based strategy game Shattered Union as interesting, however far-fetched it really is. That particular point of such an easily identifiable subject is one of the coolest parts and biggest disappointments in the game as the presentation, while it starts good, never really gets off the ground. And while tactical battles can actually be very good, the strategic map of the United States is severely underdeveloped. Still, for a console strategy title, you could definitely find worse.
A premise like that found in Shattered Union is the breeding ground of epic stories and brilliant struggles. After a highly disputed election (sound familiar at all) one of the most unpopular presidents in memory takes control and begins pissing everyone off while domestic terrorism spreads like wildfire. After another sham election putting the same man back in power, all hell breaks loose. During the inauguration ceremony, a low yield nuclear weapon explodes in Washington D.C. destroying the city and all forms of higher government. The fallout from the attack includes six separate parts of the country banding together in mutual pacts of protection (and aggression) to begin trying to put the country back together again through America's favorite pastime, violence. Making matters even more interesting, the European Union steps in with a "peace keeping force" that begins an effort to squelch the ambitions of the various new factions while securing a hand in the development of a new nation.
Aside from the opening cinematic and brief news update cut-scenes that detail the role Russia played in the recent anarchy, there's little to no real presentation to speak of. The map of the United States itself is extraordinarily dull, offering no real incentive in terms of graphical interest or strategy. It can be a little confusing to figure out why the states like Washington, Oregon and Idaho are such good friends while suddenly turning a baleful eye on California, Nevada, the Dokotas and pretty much everyone else. A little more background, some leaders to go along with the factions, and more motivation would have been terrific. The single paragraph describing each faction doesn't cut it. Whether from budget struggles or lack of vision, it hurts the game a bit.
The troubles in the strategic portion of the experience don't end with the presentation. There's just very little going on in general. The United States is divided into various territories (not necessarily by state) that can be attacked by any other nation bordering it. For instance, while playing as California, the newly formed Pacifica kept attacking me from the Central Cascades. Each of these territories have value associated with them in terms of cost to purchase and repair units, fuel upgrades for your army, and so on. Aside from that, the main strategy you'll have to employ is in how many troops you employ on the battlefield. The issue here is that any units you use to attack or defend will be eliminated from defending again before your turn comes back up. That means if you attack with all of your forces, or defend against one army with all of your forces, you'll leave your territories defenseless and will have to concede a territory without a fight should you be attacked again. On the plus side, you can use hit and run tactics on attack where you simply fly in, destroy as many units as possible, and retire from battle before you lose anything yourself, hopefully weakening your enemy. On the other hand, this can mean that the strategic game becomes a back and forth struggle that's more aggravating and slow than it is fun.
The main issue with for me has been that there is absolutely no intelligence about the other army strength aside from a vague bar on the right side of the map screen. As far as I can tell, that really only measures how many units are in an army so there's no way of telling what units are in the army. Given today's level of reconnaissance data, it's hard to believe you would get no help on this. They could have at least put that in the strategy game as a special attack type of move where that could be used to grab some info about one enemy once a turn. What's even more aggravating is that it seems like the computer knows when you've left yourself defenseless. There hasn't been a single turn where I've done that that the enemy hasn't attacked immediately after never attacking me while I've had defenses. That could be the luck of the draw, but I would have to be a very, very unlucky person. This is especially troubling when the enemy AI doesn't seem to understand the idea of ganging up on the big guy. Most games devolve to one enemy faction taking half of the map while all of the other factions continue to fight each other while that other group just gets stronger and richer. Case in point, in my most recent game, the California Commonwealth continued to attack Texas while the Pacifica juggernaut just kept gobbling up California territories from behind. This is a sad problem, especially with the notable absence of any kind of diplomatic options.
The really annoying thing is that when you get past the rest of this stuff and into the tactical game, it gets pretty good. It's easily understandable and accessible to most players while maintaining a decent depth of tactical strategy that that desktop generals will enjoy. When deciding to attack or defend a territory, players will first have to choose which units to bring into battle keeping in mind they may have to defend later in the turn. Once decided, players can then place the units around the map while considering overall tactical value of spots on the map. Infantry are more powerful in cities and forests, helicopters can cover ground quickly, Humvees and partisan units (free to you if the region likes you) are terrific scouts and are fairly cheap units. Players will also have to keep in mind that airplanes such as attack fighters or bombers can be employed during the attack phase as well.
The tactical game is set up on a hex grid that any strategist will immediately recognize and understand. It's fun learning the maps, where its best to attack from and set up defenses, and how to move forward without exposing troops to incoming units. There are certainly points where players are going to have to seriously consider letting parts of the map slide into enemy control just to get an upper hand later on. Often a tactical battle will require plenty of retreating to help keep certain units safe as well as setting up defenses against air strikes. There's nothing more frustrating than forgetting to send out your fighter defenses and then have one of your best units bombed because of your slip up.
For the most part, enemy AI is pretty decent, knowing when to move and where (though sometimes it seems a little like cheating when all of their units just happen to move in the right direction to attack you without having shown yourself) and taking advantage of your miscues, but it has one very noticeable flaw. It either doesn't recognize and select the smartest targets, or has been told to go after the most easily killed unit on the field, regardless of its importance. The enemy will often go after a partisan unit, which has a very limited offensive capability, instead of moving ahead to take out a tank or mobile artillery unit. As usual, only a real person will give up the best challenge, but this AI isn't a horrible option.
Whether playing against AI or a human, players will have access to a large variety of units available in several classes. While most of the American forces will share units (the EU has a separate list), they're diverse enough in capability, use, and price that finding out what you're fighting against is a huge priority. Once again, I have a bit of a problem with no inclusion of some sort of intelligence gathering device (in this case I think a very weak and defenseless mobile radar unit would be cool to detect enemies), but I guess you could argue that tension of sending recon out to find enemies is good.
Lastly, how you play on each of the maps will have a direct effect on the outcome of the game and the resources you have available to you. Each territory has several items of interest. First are the facilities that grant the bonuses associated with each territory. For instance, a map that gives bonuses to infantry will have a barracks located on the map somewhere. If that building is destroyed, that bonus is removed from play completely, never to return for any player. Likewise, there are several well known landmarks around the map, such as the Golden Gate Bridge in Northern California, that can be annihilated as well. Should a player simply roam around blowing these things up, their political reputation will begin to decline.
The political reputation is directly responsible for what extra powers your side will have in the midst of battle. Someone with good rep will receive an EMP maybe while the bad rep will receive a tactical nuke, going along with the general idea that bad people don't give a crap what happens to the world around them as long as they win. Simply attacking without worrying about collateral damage will send your rep down. What's cool about this is that any damage caused (i.e. city sections turned to rubble or bridges destroyed) will remain that way for the rest of the campaign so you can actually see the path of destruction.
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