Wargame: Red Dragon Review

Posted June 17, 2014 by John Clark in Nerdy Bits

Strategy games often pride themselves on their depth; more than perhaps any other genre, they allow and encourage players to dissect their gameplay, picking apart every detail that they can find to gain an advantage. Wargame: Red Dragon, the third entry in Eugen’s Wargame series, is an admirably complex game, but obtuse design and archaic naval mechanics hamstring an otherwise promising title.

For those who haven’t played any of the Wargame titles, Red Dragon is an isometric strategy title in the vein of games like the Total War series. Unlike Total War, however, there’s a lot less emphasis on city-building, with administrative duties relegated only to a ‘command vehicle’, a mobile unit used to gain reinforcements during matches. The bulk of the gameplay stems from the deckbuilding and tactical real-time battles, allowing players to customize their armies before deploying them piecemeal against opponents. The deepest parts of the strategy come from choosing where and how to send forth the army you’ve chosen and commanding them with micromanagement in battles. In this respect, Red Dragon both succeeds and fails in equal measure.

The game's a true spectacle at times, especially during big battles.

The game’s a true spectacle at times, especially during big battles.

In both single- and multi-player, players are tasked with building a deck out of the thousands of units available for each round. This deck determines which units can be created at the start of the match, as well as the reinforcements available when command points are seized. There’s a ton of depth here, with almost limitless options for a variety of playstyles – from slow-rolling armored sieges to quick, deadly aerial assaults and many in between – and matches can go either way at a moment’s notice. Prominent amounts of cover, often in the form of foliage, serve as ideal ambush spots; it’s a truly sinking feeling to have a victory battalion of tanks suddenly melt under rockets that you never saw coming, and the game rewards precise positioning in a way that takes advantage of its high-end presentation. Detailed terrain and varied environments make the graphics stellar for the genre, and a high degree of zoom is almost regrettable in its welcomeness, as it shows off the work put into the levels while simultaneously being completely unviable during gameplay. This is a game best played from a bird’s eye view, as the large maps provide plenty of tactical options for choosing how to engage an opponent. Unfortunately, the extent of Red Dragon’s strategic depth is barely explained to the player.

The game’s greatest flaw is that it’s almost willfully vague. Considering that the Wargame series has a history of strong tutorials and tooltips, Red Dragon’s bland, boring text-block style instructions are a disappointing offering, and they don’t cover much of what’s necessary to play the game at an advanced level. For all the options available, telling what’s distinct about units can be nearly impossible; there’s no easy way to see many statistics, such as movement speed, critical hit rates, and even how much damage a unit can be expected to do to another, which winds up being an unintuitive battle of armor values with variables based on hidden formulas haphazardly thrown in. While most, if not all of the necessary information can be found with a bit of effort, it’s not readily available on the game’s sparse UI, which feels like it has a lot more available space than it uses.

If you know where to look, there's plenty of information to be found about units, but it's not as accessible as it should be.

If you know where to look, there’s plenty of information to be found about units, but it’s not as accessible as it should be.

These problems bleed into the new naval warfare of Red Dragon as well. In contrast to the at least semi-realistic fights that break out on the land and in the air, with units swiftly dispatching each other from fairly high range, ship battles often play out with the involved units exchanging fire until they’re nearly within spitting distance. For a game that prides itself on the spectacle of its fights, a lot of the impact – not to mention the strategy – is lost when I see a horde of battleships clipping through each other in a vain attempt to gain better positioning. By itself, this is a fairly minor complaint, but it’s exacerbated when compared to the depth and variety of the rest of the game. Without cover to take advantage of, positioning winds up meaning very little, ambushes are nearly impossible, and I quickly found myself losing interest in naval engagements.

For those looking to get the most out of Red Dragon, there’s plenty of content to be found. A single-player campaign using mostly prebuilt decks serves as an attempt at an introduction for newcomers, taking place in an alternate history version focused on eastern Asia during a re-sparked Korean War. Like the rest of the game, however, it does a poor job of helping players acclimate to the mechanics of what they’re supposed to do. Without spending about thirty to forty minutes on the text tutorials, many will be completely lost. Skirmish matches serve as a fun distraction and a place to start your own deckbuilding, and are the closest thing I found to suitable training for heading online.

Multiplayer is easily the clear focus of the game. Server lists are full of varied gametypes ranging from one-on-one matches to ten-player games, and the community is both helpful and well-populated. A lack of matchmaking, however, results in a serious problem: the game’s mostly populated by long-time veterans, and odds are, a newcomer will be placed up against someone with over a hundred wins under their belt. To call it unwelcoming is an understatement; my first few matches involved me being completely slaughtered before I even had a solid grasp of what was happening. In itself this isn’t a bad thing, but in the next round, I dominated another new player in exactly the same way. The issue isn’t a matter of winning or losing, it’s one of not being able to easily play against those who provide a fair challenge.

Naval battles inevitably degrade into a mess of ships firing into each other.

Naval battles inevitably degrade into a mess of ships firing into each other.

For some hardcore simulation fans, a lot of these criticisms will ring hollow. Most of Red Dragon’s problems are those of accessibility and clarity, issues that often don’t bother players willing to dig until they find the information that they need. The problem, though, is that accessibility needn’t compromise complexity; previous Wargame titles, as well as other games in the genre, have done a great job of providing incredible depth to players while remaining clear in how their mechanics function. Red Dragon fails to do this. For all its admirable strategic potential, it’s not an easy game to like, and it does itself a disservice with how vehemently it guards its secrets. Between this and the shoddily implemented naval warfare, it’s hard to recommend this game over its predecessor, AirLand Battle, to all but the most diehard Wargame enthusiasts.

About the Author

John Clark