…there is this thing called the Steam Summer Sale.
Lurking on the edges of Steam’s recommendations for me is a title called Cuban Missile Crisis: The Aftermath. No, not that aftermath. This is a 2005 game, published by 1C and created by independent developers G5. The game was added to Steam in 2015, and so sort-of shows up as a “new” title, depending on how you’re looking at it.
Obviously, the game has some appeal to me, based on the other articles I’ve written recently. The game is sparsely played on Steam and so doesn’t have all that many reviews. The reviews are “Mostly Positive” (in Steam’s own terminology) with both very positive and very negative reviews. When the Steam sale came upon me, the game was discounted to $1.24 with further discounts available if purchased in conjunction with the games sequel (Cuban Missile Crisis: Ice Crusade). Hard to say no to that.
The game might be considered a follow-on to the Blitzkrieg series, taking the World War II combat into the Cold War. Both games have been described as extensions of Sudden Strike, a game originally released in 2000 by CDV (the German publisher of Robin Hood: The Legend of Sherwood, to whom I referred albeit indirectly). Looking at screenshots of Sudden Strike, it is certainly easy to imagine Cuban Missile Crisis as a reskinning of that World War II title. However, the development of Sudden Strike, Blitzkrieg, and Cuban Missile Crisis have all proceeded independently and concurrently, with different developers working on them, despite the commonality among the publishers.
Perhaps in 2000 (for reference, this is the same time as the release of the original Total War) the mechanics of Sudden Strike felt novel for the RTS genre. Building bases, mining resources, and purchasing/upgrading units were no longer part of the battles. The games were intended to be much more “realistic” and were lauded for the effort. From the beginning, terrain was important both for sighting and cover. At some point on the way to Cuban Missile Crisis, the terrain itself became destructible, adding to this sense of realism. Of course that’s relative. None of these games are reasonable simulations of small unit actions in World War II or otherwise.
There is a closer link between Cuban Missile Crisis to the Blitzkrieg series. The former uses the latter’s Enigma engine as the basis for the games graphics and physics.
As I said, looking at all the riffs on this theme, a key motif was the praise about the increased realism. The combination of the addition tactical factors (line-of-sight) and the removal of classic RTS features (base-building) meant that this was considered more of a hard-core “strategy” title than your typical RTS. But as I said, this by no means translates into a realistic depiction of combat. While some of these factors might combine in ways to reward realistic strategies and tactics, you have to suspend quite a bit of belief before you start to feel that you’re in command of actual units in a historical war.
Cuban Missile Crisis makes a big jump away from even that tenuous hold on “historical war” with its setting. The game assumes that the U.S. did invade Cuba and that during the (mostly successful) invasion, some of the Soviet launchers attacked the continental United States before they could be taken out. That further escalated into a full-scale nuclear war between the United States and Russia. The game begins after the nuclear war has completed and has you fighting a conventional war in the post-Armageddon world.
There were dozens of ways that World War III might have played out and, while games usually start with a conventional war with the risk of going nuclear superimposed on top of it, the reverse is also possible. We can imagine leading with the nuclear strike and then whoever is left has to squabble over the rubble. A compelling and imaginative back story can add depth to a game. In supposing such a scenario, it also frees the developers from having to adhere to any historical plans, make-up of armies, supply issues, etc. The units on the battlefield are whatever they want to say they are, because the narrative is created from whole cloth.
In this spirit, the various campaigns assume some re-alignments of the major powers, post-destruction. The U.S. is closely aligned with England such that units of the U.S./U.K. mix the unit types of the two nationalities. Likewise, Germany and France have united. Russia and China remain independent.
Lastly, the conceptualizing of a post-apocalyptic world allows certain RTS mechanics to be made part of the story. The idea that supply of your units comes about from seizing enemy supply dumps is a staple of the RTS world, but makes a lot less sense when trying to use it in a scenario based on reality. In this game, we have to accept that the nuclear war has created shortages in fuel, units, and ammunition. Any odd construct of a scenario – be it a mixing and matching of units or a goal to seize a fuel supply – can be attributed to this greater theme.
So enough blither-blather. How does the game actually play? Well, that’s the bad news.
It’s Not the Real Thing
First, some good news. Or at least, the news isn’t as bad as it looked like it was going to be. After the initial install, nothing worked. Clicking on buttons didn’t perform an action. I realized I had another hard-coded right-handed mouse game on my system. I spent a while combing through all of the options, but was unable to find any solution. I spent some time Googling for solutions, but I don’t think this game ever became popular enough to generate an on-line “community.”
Finally, I took a look at the installation itself and I realized there were *.cfg files, composed in XML, that contained references to controls including MOUSE_0 and MOUSE_1. Without bothering to look at all the setting in detail, I reversed every reference to these variables in two different files. Surprisingly enough, this seems to have no holdouts. Firing up the game, everything seems to play correctly. Absent a simple in-game interface, this would be the way to go. +1 for the developers.
Now I was ready to play the game.
In the review that I linked to above, the game comes under some heavy criticism. If I had read that review before I bought the game, I probably would have kept my $3. The criticism there pretty much aligns with my own experience, with a few notable deviations.
First of all, if you just figure that you know how to play RTSs and start playing (yes, I did this), you’re going to get walloped. Even experienced players are going to need to start with the tutorial campaign to understand what needs to be micromanaged and what needs to be delegated.
The tutorial scenario wasn’t bad, but it is pretty much without challenge. There is no actual battle to “win” using the demonstrated tactics. The scenario only takes you through how to use the controls for each unit. An intermediate version, where your hand is held while using different units in combination, might have been a nice addition.
The tutorials also highlight some fiddliness of the game. Even the simple selection of units can be difficult. Often I have to forgo clicking on them and “rubber band” whatever unit I’m trying to control, which itself doesn’t work when units are bunched together. Similarly it is difficult to be sure that you are selecting the target which you intend. To give one example, I’ll look at the part of the game where one manages the depletion of fuel and ammunition. An ammunition truck is provided in-game to transport resupply to fighting units. To make this work, you select the ammunition truck (left-click) and then the unit that requires supply (right-click). But just as selecting the ammunition truck can be hard, so can selecting the target, meaning I’m never entirely sure that my order is going to do something until after having waited to see if the ammo actually arrives at its destination.
Then there are other pieces that I’m not sure if I just don’t know how to use them or if they don’t work. Parked there next to the ammunition truck is a medical truck. The manual states “[t]hose who are seriously wounded lose the ability to move and shoot, and remain still in their places waiting for medical assistance.” Medical assistance, again per the manual, can be rendered by regular units or the medical truck. However, there is no command to order the truck to provide such medical assistance. I’ve also never witnessed that my injured soldiers are somehow recovering from their injuries. Is it working? Would it work if I knew how to do it right? Who knows.
The linked review explains how the AI is instantly-deadly under certain circumstances. A unit which is creeping forward is suddenly blown up. By something. You now have no idea who shot at you or from where. The only way to find out is to move another unit forward to get blown up and hope the shooter is revealed. Maybe there is a certain realism to this, but it is not a fun game. The worst culprit may be, as the review explains, the enemy artillery. In this case, once your unit is spotted, artillery fire rains down until your unit is pulverized. In this case, there is no returning fire as the spotting unit is likely not even shooting and thus can’t be spotted unless you roll right up on top of it.
The tutorial teaches that one of the keys to this is to command your units to advance under an “auto-engage” setting. It’s not the default, so you have to be meticulous in making sure to choose the setting before each command. In this way, you leave it to the computer AI to identify and engage targets, which would otherwise destroy you before you realize what’s going on. On the other hand, when you are on the offensive, the enemy AI will still have a jump on the friendly AI, and can probably destroy you anyway.
Fortunately, there is one more setting that said review didn’t mention. The default setting puts friendly and enemy units on equal “toughness.” There is an easiest setting that gives the advantage to the player. For me, this tilting is necessary to win battles from the offensive (and also makes them a cake-walk while on defense). I can now move into the range of enemy fire and, while absorbing a few hits, identify the enemy and organize a plan to destroy him.
Another welcomed design feature is that the speed setting is very adjustable. By default, the motorized vehicles can whip around pretty fast and so slowing down the clock helps a non-RTS guy like me to take it all in better. Even still, I end up playing the game by hitting pause every time something happens. “Giving orders while paused” is a feature I pretty much require to make an RTS playable, but when I spend more of my time paused than running, I begin to question how much “fun” I’m having.
Fun or not, there is something oddly addictive about this gameplay. With the speed toned down, the balance on “easy,” and with constant hits of the pause button, I can make my way through, and even win, the scenarios. The offensive scenarios present themselves as puzzles that need to be solved. Given the initial unit mix, it seems like the only units that count are your main battle tanks. You move them forward to identify enemy locations and then hope they kill the enemy before he kills you. Sometimes there is a chance to bring up some artillery to help out, but do that within the range of the wrong enemy unit and you’ll lose it within a few seconds.
The connection to any kind of reality is tenuous and occasionally weird. Artillery on hills, as an example, remains unspotted by units on the ground (that’s a hill in the lower right corner of the middle screenshot). There’s a logic to it all, but as I said, the net result seems more to represent realistic factors rather than in any way simulate them. The game makes much ado about its physics simulation, but with the extremely short engagement distances (and even shorter spotting distances), it is not really a “simulation” of anything. It is just the way that spotting, trajectories, and damage are calculated internally. Now as I said, virtually any of the game’s mechanics can be rationalized as another effect of the nuclear devastation. If you are so inclined, you are invited to accept the game world as it comes.
As a simulation of anything to do with Cold War combat circa 1963-4, we don’t have much to work with here. As a pure RTS with some 60s period chrome, it has its charm. But most of the charm is drowned in the confusing interfaces and the walls of badly-translated text.