Review - Theatre of Death (DOS, 1994)

War games have always been popular on DOS-based computers, but in the past year or so one particular sub-genre has seen a remarkable increase in population. I'm talking about tactical squad-level combat games. Usually played in real time, these strategy games offer the non-wargamer a good way to break into military sims without having to decipher manuals that were obviously written to confuse the Russians should they ever fall into the wrong hands. These games also lessen the player's burden by being simple and direct enough to allow play without the memorization of 2,000 years of military history.

Two of the biggest sellers of this type of game are SEAL Team and Syndicate. Although Syndicate wasn't based on (or set in) 20th century battles, its futuristic look could have easily been replaced with a more realistic military theme. Other games, like Virgin's Cannon Fodder, offer a less serious game, but still retains a certain amount of strategic involvement. Theatre of Death from Psygnosis is this sort of game, offering you much the same gameplay as Cannon Fodder, but allowing more than one squad to be used at a time.

Theatre of Death is played from an angled overhead view. You click on a member of your squad with the mouse pointer, then left-click on a position to walk to. If something worth shooting comes into view, targeting the unfortunate swine and right-clicking will unleash a deadly spew of fire from whatever weapon happens to be selected at the time. Although individual missions can have unique goals, such as rescuing hostages, the aim is still primarily to kill everything that moves. The battlefield ranges across several screens, and either the mouse or arrow keys can be used to scroll ahead to make sure your squad isn't walking into a scrimmage line of tanks.

Controlling your squad seems simple at first, but things change fast when the bullets start flying. Each squad has a squad leader, and clicking on the squad leader allows you to direct the entire squad as if they were one person. The trouble is, if your squad leader should happen to get blown into a mass of untidy red chunks, the remaining soldiers must be dealt with individually. From a tactical standpoint, individual control is definitely the smartest way to play, but realistically it's a pretty hard feat to accomplish. Your soldiers do have a limited artificial intelligence (if someone's shooting at them they'll usually shoot back), but they aren't nearly as smart as when you direct their actions. It would have been nice if the game considered your theoretical chain of command and given your next-in-line the status of squad leader.

Like most games of this type, Theatre of Death will eventually give you bigger and better toys to play with. These come in two forms: weapons and vehicles (which are really weapons with motors, but never mind). These are a pretty mixed bag. Grenades will quickly become standard equipment for your soldiers, and are great if you're the guy who throws one first. They can travel a good distance and have a respectable blast radius. Unfortunately, they travel and explode so quickly after they are thrown that there is no way to dodge one of these incoming doom fruits. Compounded with the task of controlling each soldier individually, this can make for some extremely frustrating trips to the battlefield.

The vehicles are much easier to use, although they do occasionally show off a quirk or two. Helicopters allow you to quickly intercept approaching enemy, and the 'copter's missiles are good for making holes in the opposing forces, but this craft reacts strangely to incoming fire. When hit with a non-crucial blow, the helicopter will frequently turn around, and will even fly backwards! More than once I've seen it turn tail rotor and flee without my permission, forcing me to grab it with the mouse and say, "No, I said go here."

The vehicle I had the most fun with was the armored troop transport. Naturally, they are originally intended for the safe transport of multiple troops, but anyone with a warped sense of humor can find much more amusing uses for this unit. Running over enemy soldiers may not be the transport's intended use, but it's very effective. Not to mention that squashing a foot soldier is a lot of fun! And the red splotch he leaves behind can help you turn the battleground into some grim form of art.

Theatre of Death is a good game, but it is more complex than Cannon Fodder, and therefore is harder to play. It is a good medium ground for war gamers who don't mind the bustle of commanding individual units in real time, but many are likely to find this a daunting task. For a good simple strategy game, I prefer Cannon Fodder, but if you've seen CF and thought its idea was good but its gameplay was a little to simple, Theatre of Death could well be just what you're looking for.