Review - Iron Cross (DOS, 1994)

Wargamers on the electronic front have a running debate about the nature of computer strategy – real-time or turn-based? The turn-based side of the fence is where the traditionalists sit, self-assured and backed up by years of turn-based boardgame tradition. The real-time crowd are the revolutionaries, the ones that insists that the power of the computer should be fully exploited, creating a simulation of a battle that is a REAL simulation of a battle . . .

The real-timers are in the minority. Real-time games, without question, strip the noblest elements of pure strategy from any game they are applied to. Sure, you can slow the game down to have more time to plot out your moves – but THAT destroys the entire point of the simulation in the first place, and is unsatisfactory in the extreme.

And the most effective attack against a real-timer is to point out that most programmers do real-time strategy because it's EASIER. AI design for traditional turn-based efforts is DIFFICULT, and some of the most promising games in the field have been ruined by a weak AI design. If the program doesn't provide a challenge, there's simply no point to it, except perhaps as a PBEM or modem game.

But there is value in real-time wargames, and Iron Cross demonstrates that. While it's far from the be-all and end-all of the subgenre, Iron Cross does manage to use the computer's powers effectively, creating battle scenes reminiscent of some sort of interactive war movie.

The basic structure of the game is fairly simple, and impressively intuitive – after selecting a scenario, you're taken to a screen to purchase units. The scenarios limit what you can buy according to quasi-historical limits on the actual forces involved in the conflict. Beyond that limit on your "shopping list," however, you're free to bend the ordinary rules of warfare as much as you please. If you want to take nothing but infantry into what was historically a battle between two tank divisions, you can give it a go. THEORETICALLY, the fight should balance the same regardless, and in play it seems to hit close enough to the mark that I can't gripe.

The scenario choices aren't bad – the focus is on the last stage of the war in Europe, with most of the classics and a few interesting "footnote battles" included. You can also play a "custom" battle in which you pick the battlefield map, and determine what is available to either side in terms of points, unit shopping, and such stuff as available air- and artillery-strikes. You can also set the time limit, anywhere from five to 45 minutes of real-time.

For each scenario, you also pick a commanding officer . . . Iron Cross unfortunately doesn't support "campaign play" in the traditional sense – there are no linked series' of battles available. But you can increase in score and rank with your commander, and the scenarios provided include dates so you can choose whether or not to ignore historical chronology. And if you find a battle that you're particularly adept at winning, there's nothing to keep you from re-fighting it with the same commander to increase rank. This probably qualifies as "cheating" in some sort of pure sense, but I claim no understanding of that kind of purity, and got a kick out of it.

Play is straightforward and adequately entertaining, but it has a few sets of problems that need to be addressed. The first is speed – on some of the scenarios, you'll spend 10 minutes just directing your forces' movement as it crawls across an empty valley. A quick exchange of gunfire at the end and the scenario is over. Ick. This might be realistic, but I would have preferred a scenario that started me a LITTLE bit closer to the enemy.

The second problem is visual – mildly upbeat style aside (it's a problem, but compared to Koei's Operation Europe it's absolutely grim) – the problem is the infantry. Each infantry unit is represented by a tiny cluster of flailing stick-figures, about as tall as a hefty strand of DNA. The allies have blue stick-figures, and the Nazis have red ones – astonishingly similar to army ants when clustered on the screen. The trick is that you can't tell them apart – a unit with only their rifles looks EXACTLY the same as a unit armed with flame-throwers and bazookas – and that kind of information is important at a glance, particularly in a real-time simulation when you might need a tank taken care of NOW. That gets a MAJOR thumbs-down from me, and New World should know better.

The nice parts about play ARE nice – the sound effects are numerous and realistic – the game SOUNDS like a battle. It's impressive. The score is a trifle too friendly and happy-go-lucky for my tastes, but enough fire drowns it out, and it can be toggled off with no trouble. Finally, the air-strikes and artillery-strikes are a joy to watch.

I've saved the worst for last – Iron Cross has one HECK of an irritating drawback: you can't save a game. If you have to shut down the machine for a while – or if you want to try a particularly risky tactic – you're simply out of luck. This is the kind of shortsightedness that can send a game into the halls of infamy, and the code-hacks at New World deserve a punch in the snoot for this kind of negligence. I've found shareware TIC-TAC-TOE software that allows me to save a game in progress, for pete's sake – it's a feature that is simply EXPECTED. No go, New World – keep the thinking caps ON next time.