Remember the M60A2 Starship? Anyone? You know, that strange Patton MBT variant? Well, truth be told, neither did I prior to playing Eugen Systems’ Cold War opus. But that’s the thing about gaming and the inherent pedagogical propensity. I had just spent command points to unlock this curiously-turreted beast and was losing them in untold numbers across the green vales of the Rhineland. Just what was this Starship and why was it so terrible?!
Leaving aside a fondness for lame ducks, Wargame: European Escalation is really quite special. The French developer has been quietly carving its name on the undercarriage of the RTS fuselage for over a decade, bringing as much as style to the genre as they do innovation. They did the hero-centric squad game before Relic turned up with Dawn of War in The Gladiators: Space Circus Games. Eugen’s Act of War games injected hostages and intense urban combat to ground tilled prior by Command & Conquer: Generals. Then came RUSE, which was simply the finest operation-level World War II RTS the world has yet known, or at least one with the lowest Osprey reference library requirement. You can debate the number-crunching innards all you want, but RUSE was grandeur personified. Those Parisian folk see the importance of audio-visual motifs and ambiance as much as the strategic chains and sprockets. The stylistic elegance of RUSE came via simplicity at no cost to depth, and while the sector-based buffs and debuffs weere perhaps not as central as they could have been, directing forces over hundreds of kilometers of terrain never looked so good nor played so well.
But where RUSE revelled in its abstracted homage to that caricature of Allied and Axis generals prodding stacks across maps with croupier rakes, Wargame: European Escalation is a painstakingly-detailed catalog of erotica for Cold War era hardware fetishists. A tactical Grimoire for those wanting to churn the sods of the European countryside with tire and tread and fire. The birth of computer-assisted fire-control systems, of laser-guidance systems, the advent of helicopter gunships and their capacity to chew MBTs like cornflakes. IFVs and APCs designed to operate on the nuclear battlefield. It is just such a technologically interesting period that, for whatever reason, seems to be investigated only by the smaller, beardier wargaming studios and circles. At least, it has only hit the strategic mainstream in Massive Entertainment’s magnificent World in Conflict and, thankfully, in Wargame: European Escalation.
I really didn’t want this to turn into a love-letter, but I cannot resist. Outside of bearing one of those highly unremarkable names, Wargame: European Escalation requires celebration. The lack of interest on any level is shameful, bordering on requiring a military intervention to free the people of this particular affliction, this palsy of the mind and this tragic attraction to the same old stories.
At the front of this vanguard of freedom rumbles a column of M60A2E1 Starships.
In a nutshell, Wargame: European Escalation is a game of supply and logistics over one of simply rushing about tanks. Like RUSE, information is power. Reconnaissance is not only a way to see what’s on the horizon, but also as a way to aid other units on the field. Take, for example, my clutch of Starships. Let me just paint a picture of the real machine for a moment. The indulgence.
The Starship was a bit of a dud, let’s not beat around the bush. The E1 variant sported a chubby new M162 weapons system that could fire both conventional rounds and anti-tank guided missiles. Hilariously, due to the length of the barrel, firing conventional rounds caused so much recoil that the missile optics were shaken out of alignment and needed recalibration after nearly every shot. Couple that with no stabilizers, crew isolated from each other due to turret design, an easily-confused Shillelagh ATGM guidance mechanism and a variety of other issues, and you’ve got a vehicle better off not moving and in the company of others. An affluent military-grade drunken teen, if you will.
So, in Wargame: European Escalation, you don’t pay much for these machines. They are cheap, caterpillar-tracked missile pickets. Woeful in singular, acceptable in plural, surprising when coupled with any recon unit and backed up by supply vehicles. I could have used one of two of the more prestigious and accomplished vehicles in Wargame: European Escalation to illustrate the finer glories of the game – after all, there’s three hundred and fifty to unlock and choose from – but this sad underachiever is one of the more interesting ways to showcase the intricacies of the experience.
In Wargame: European Escalation, players need to worry about fuel and ammunition as much as they do tactical maneuvering. This is not a game where an army magically conjures ordnance, diesel or repair capabilities from thin air, thus the notion of supply vehicles becomes crucial if you want to effectively engage an enemy. Holding a position requires logistics. Moving from one area to another requires careful fuel management. Interestingly enough, Wargame: European Escalation introduces the mechanic of Move Fast. An innocuous title for a game changer. Delegate a position on the map for a ground unit using Move Fast and they’ll figure out a route that uses as much sealed road as possible. This decreases transit time and burns less fuel, but unlike traveling across dense terrain, does leave units open to attack. Off-road traversal offers situational cover, but there’s the change of throwing treads, getting bogged and other related issues to hitting unsealed turf. Terrain and land formation itself is, as Ron Burgundy so finely put it, kind of a big deal. It was the same in RUSE, where laying in wait under the cover of a forest or in towns was crucial to getting the jump on opposing forces. However, due to the sheer number of units and, like most military hardware roles, a certain multi-functional capacity, the rock-paper-scissors approach to encounters is rather blurred. Deliciously so. Helicopter-deployed special forces can take care of enemy armor lurking in forests using their LAWs with a similar efficiency to that of MBTs or a pulverizing salvo of sighted artillery, but at the same time, that same situation can have radically different outcomes over a single change in variant.
And that’s not also including unit veterancy and morale. Morale underpins a whole raft of combat capabilities. Units can become stunned, panicked and, worst of all, see no alternative but to flee from the hot zone. A more seasoned unit or squad can come under fire and remain cool under pressure. They can land hits under a barrage of hot lead.
My Starships landing hits, at least at range, is one of those blessings from on high. Even with the most grizzled of tankers helming these oddballs — incidentally, depending on your point budget, you can order reinforcements at any veterancy, from green to the thousand yard stare-types — those Shillelaghs fizz and arc over and away from their targets like one-finned fireworks. Fireworks that should not be wasted, as true to history, they have very few to their name before requiring a resupply. In conjunction with a Chinook supply chopper and a German SPz 11-2 recon, the Starships seem to do okay in the open fields, given the early firing edge by recon optics. While their ATGMs are often churning great divots out of hillsides somewhere to the side of inbound Soviet machines, the rolling plains are soon dotted with drifting plumes of ebony smoke anchored to the wrecks of shattered hardware.
The Chinooks thrum to and fro between the Forward Operating Base and frontline troops, or those units who are marshaling in key positions and require fuel for the next stage. Infantry squads move along hedgerows towards towns. Artillery — quite possibly the most satisfying artillery this side of World in Conflict – hammering enemy positions in great detonating gouts of earth, explosives and, with any luck, degrading any sense of calm before the MBT and IFV columns roll up off the highway.
It might seem utterly perverse to find such glee from such carnage, but it’s more a case of appreciating the support structures of combined arms, particularly in the Cold War era. The ability to investigate the roles and capacities of men and machines with some sense of understanding their real-world capabilities and limitations. Wargame: European Escalation does this incredibly well, and while there are obviously stylistic shortcuts and elements of gamefying otherwise alarmingly complex command and delegation, you probably won’t find a more accessible title with such a focus on detail in the real-time strategy genre. With a standalone expansion on the horizon next year, Wargame: AirLand Battle, now is the perfect time to strap into a piece of NATO or Warsaw Pact kit and throttle up. Oh, and AirLand Battle is an official US military doctrine from the ’80s, so no lack of imagination there.
The Starships, well, they keep doing their thing. Awkwardly, mind you, but in the right circumstances, they vindicate the dreams of the Chrysler and US Army design team. Forty years on, the forgotten M60A2 Starship is rolling on. Near worthlessly, but rolling on all the same.
Tactical Tuesday is Games Are Evil’s bi-monthly deep dive into the compelling and complex world of strategy games, hosted by our own Alex Connolly. Follow Alex on Twitter here.