Preview - Iron Cross (DOS, 1994)

It takes a lot to make a WWII simulation distinctive these days, and it looks like Iron Cross might have a good dose of what it takes . . . when playing the copy that I was given for preparing this preview, I kept finding myself coming across new little touches that amazed me . . .

The basic scenario structure for Iron Cross is nothing new – in fact, the completed game will be focusing entirely on 12 major battles from the latter part of the war. The battles are SO major that most of them already have several computer games devoted to them . . . Iron Cross played it smart and focused on innovations in strategy, presentation and gameplay. If the finished game builds on what I've seen, it should be a fine product.

The key to enjoying this game is suspension of disbelief – the same grease that makes a good adventure game slide. The sounds and animation alone will give you the impression that you're watching a battle, but it doesn't stop there . . . When you call for an air-strike on tanks hiding out in the forest, the woods will catch fire, and (if you aren't too busy with your troops), the fire will spread. The burning terrain effects gameplay, and when the fire dies down a new terrain (Charred Forest) is left behind. Nice touch.

The issue of unit purchase and employment is another important one. With most wargames, the only way to start with variant forces in a scenario is to use whatever scenario editor the game makes available – and using an editor won't provide you with the guidance to keep your variant within the realms of historical possibility. With Iron Cross, the strategy is simply taken a logical step backwards from the battle. Deciding WHAT tank to field is as much a strategic decision as deciding where the tank will strike. Iron Cross gives you that power, by allowing you to choose from a list of available troop and hardware types that is historically accurate to the scenario.

Combat is fast and furious, and a real "fog of war" can be felt amid the dozens of explosions and puffs of smoke and flame on the screen – all with accompanying sound, of course! For novice players, game speed can be slowed to a less realistic level, and for experts (or those just too impatient to watch their squads of infantry crawl across a heavily wooded hill), game speed can also be accelerated.

Don't let the real-time element mislead you – this is a strategy wargame, not an action game or arcade design. Moving your troops carefully – and responding to an ever-changing battlefield – is what Iron Cross is all about. And while your personal reaction-time is certainly a factor, it isn't moreso than for an actual commander – and the heart of winning Iron Cross is in a cool head with a knack for efficient and strategic deployment of troops and armor – not in lightning reflexes or a fast mouse-click.

A few words need to be devoted to the many, MANY photos used to enhance the atmosphere of the game. In addition to an impressive opening-screen slideshow, EVERY part of the game is accompanied by real wartime photography and even brief photo-animations. Everything from firing tanks and artillery to shell-hits on buildings (or at least the resulting collapse) is here . . . and every type of terrain and combat unit has an accompanying photo as well. The constant visual reminders of the real look of the war are a necessary and skillfully-used supplement to the visuals of the game. Iron Cross is a computer game, and has to be clear and colorful – the grim and grainy look of the old photos helps counterbalance this and maintain both a "historical" atmosphere and a less "cartoonish" visual feel than the graphics alone would provide. And the choices of photographs were excellent!

Players familiar with the boardgame classic Squad Leader will know the scale at play here – each tank is one tank, not an armor division, and an infantry counter represents a single squad of men. This level of close-up detail adds a lot to the feel of the game. But Squad Leader players might feel strange without a world designed to fit a hex-grid . . . not only are the units free-moving, but (for armor) even unit facing is important – a tank taking a hit on its side is more likely to get cracked open than one taking it on the nose. Other features (like moving units attacking less effectively than stationary ones) add even more to the realism.

Gameplay in Iron Cross will not be campaign-based, but players will have the option of playing a continuing commander – more victory means higher rank, and the game includes a display of your rank insignia.

Our fascination with a time when our world was at war has produced a LOT of products for the computer, each bringing us a different window to the strategic side of warfare. The particular window offered by Iron Cross is a very exciting one, and this looks to be an impressive member of the winter's strategy releases.