There's been a constant bombardment of World War II strategy games of late, and it's been so relentless that I'm sure we're becoming numb to it all. Shells from Commandos, Blitzkrieg, Soldiers and Codename: Panzers have been landing all around - and there's still no let-up. The RTS cannon is loaded with the likes of Codemasters' promising World War II: Frontline Command and the sequel to my personal favourite, Hearts Of Iron 2.
Between them and the various war-themed shooters they've covered every theatre of war imaginable, from all sides and every perspective. So why should we be getting excited about Axis & Allies? Well, the clue is in the name. In its various board game incarnations, Axis & Allies has shifted over two million boxes over the last 20 years. With recent versions of the game set specifically around D-Day and the Pacific War, not to mention a revised edition earlier this year, it's clear the board game still has plenty of fans. Enough, Atari is no doubt hoping, to ensure similar successes will engulf the interactive edition.
Common to both tabletop and desktop is the fact that the game allows you to fight the Second World War across the entire globe, from the well-worn fields of Europe to the less travelled regions of central Africa and beyond. Moreover, not being linked to any linear campaign (although the game features those as well) you aren't limited to sticking to what happened in the history books.
As Germany for instance, you could quickly subjugate Russia before hopping over the Bering Straits and fighting battles across the American mainland, or maybe swing down into South East Asia instead. To a certain degree this is A&A's appeal; that it deviates from historical reality in response to the players, but while victory for the Allies is always likely, it isn't a foregone conclusion.
Closer to Risk than something you'd find in an atlas, Axis & Allies' world map is carved into geographical regions and dished out between the five major powers. They're roughly consistent with how they were in 1942 when Germany was marching towards Moscow, Britain was camped in the motherland and America was waking up after Pearl Harbour. The subsequent aim, as either Britain, the United States, Germany, Japan or Russia, is to conquer the capital cities of your sworn enemies, by building up resources from each of the territories under your control and buying infantry, mechanised or armoured armies and moving them around the map.
Old Game, New Rules
In contrast to most of the boardgame conversions we've had to endure over the years, Axis & Allies doesn't just do away with the need to have a flat surface and a couple of friends in close proximity - it does away with most of the rulebook whose title it depends on. Where in the board game you'd move a tank into North Africa and hope to roll a one or a two on a die to dislodge the enemy infantry and claim the territory your own, now you must - assuming you don't want to select 'Quick Resolve' - fight each battle in 3D.As soon as battle becomes inevitable the engine then runs through its map generation routines, and depending on the latitude and whether the territory under dispute is predominantly coastal in nature, will quickly knock up a fitting environment. Despite the fact that the version of the game we were privy to only seemed to know how to construct temperate land-locked levels, we're assured that no map will ever be quite the same in any one game.
Once the computer has decided on the topography of the landscape, it's then up to you to decide how you're going to capture it. At this point, on the face of it at least, A&A appears very much to follow the C&C template, as a base must be built first and resources hoarded before victory is assured. This design decision actually makes for a lot of sense since whilst the side fielding the most armies will have an obvious numerical advantage, the process of base building gives the defending nation a chance to repel an attack. This is because while one army may be able to quickly get three divisions ready for battle compared to the other side's one, supplies will be stretched so thin that unless victory is quick and decisive, the outnumbered enemy might well deliver a fatal counter-attack.