The President is dead. Washington has been destroyed by a nuclear explosion. The country is divided. Are you a bad enough dude to lead your people to victory?
Avoiding using cliches while discussing 2K Game's and Pop Top Software's turn based strategy game "Shattered Union" is difficult, but let me begin with them to get them all out of the way. Turn based, played on a hex map from the top down. Still with me? A larger campaign map to select where you will attack and a smaller strategic map where your military maneuvers are performed are the focus of the game. You command a mix of real world and fantasy military units in an effort to guide one of seven factions to dominance over the "shattered union" of a United States embroiled in a civil war. Got all that. Now the final cliche: easy to learn, hard to master.
What is presented is a straight forward turn based military game. It's very easy to pick up and play the battles. A simple point and click interface either moves your units or attacks nearby enemies that are highlighted. The battles are won by holding strategic locations around the map, once again, pretty standard stuff here. Even resupplying and repairing units in the field is handled automatically, no worries there. The magic of the game comes with the variety of the units and their strengths and weaknesses, a rock, paper, scissors dynamic; only in this case it is amour, infantry, and aircraft. The only mis-step in the learning curve of the game is that Pop Top has only included a video tutorial of how the game is played, far from the ideal hands on learning most games offer. At the players disposal are a full array of infantry, tanks, jeeps, artillery, helicopters, jets, bombers, and anti-air units. Some battles are almost decided by bringing the right mix of units to do battle and how you deploy them around the map. Each faction also has special powers that can be deployed in battle which add more texture to the game, bringing a bit of a wild card element to what would just be a straight numbers game without them.
You do not have an unlimited supply of units in the game. The larger strategic map comes into play here. Controlling more territories around the map means more money to buy and repair units. Ideally your army should have a good mix of units. Anti-air vehicles to guard against enemy helicopters and bombers, tanks to guard the vulnerable AA trucks, jeeps to quickly secure objectives, infantry to guard those objectives, helicopters to hunt down unguarded enemies, and bombers and artillery to pound the enemy to pieces. The problem arises when you realize that your units are not invincible, and they die, sometimes too easily.
As your forces are slowly hacked apart as the campaign advances across fully destructible battlefields, you come to another realization, the money you are loosing in units being lost each battle is more than you are bringing in each turn. The game handily reminds you of this at the end of each battle where it compares the amount of money you lost in the battle compared to your opponent. Soon the numbers start to pile up and the game becomes not just winning the battles, but winning at a reasonable cost. Obviously, whatever faction controls the most territories has a huge numbers advantage in any battle. Fortunately, the biggest faction can't just steamroll over the map.
Each turn on the campaign map you can only attack one adjacent territory. This balances the game, and prevents a player from having his entire force wiped out in one turn. The defending faction also has an advantage over the attacker. Objectives are located within cities which grant defensive bonuses and to capture an objective all opposing units must be cleared out. In addition, infantry are some of the best defense units in the game and are also the least expensive. The defender also has time on his side as each battle only lasts 14 turns, so every move counts. You will need a plan from the time you deploy your units if you want to have any hope of winning. With no plan you will find your units running out of fuel as they drive around the map, or even worse, destroyed when they face superior numbers.
With seven factions warring over 24 territories at one attack per turn, the campaign is of epic proportions from the start. The full campaign will take many sessions over days to complete. Each battle takes about thirty minutes to play, so if in each campaign turn you attack once and are attacked once, there is an hour of play before you. Multiply that by a minimum of twenty turns to conquer all of the territories on the map, and it is about twenty hours to complete a game where you win every battle. Winning every battle against these AI opponents is a daunting task, even on the easy setting. There doesn't seem to be much of a difference between the computer opponent's strategy between the difficulty levels, they all seem to be uniformly good at making sound unit deployments and attack plans, most of the time that is. However, sometimes the computer will make some moves that will leave you scratching your head. For example, driving a tank straight into a river where it can be easily destroyed, or stubbornly defending one map objective while you roll over all the others on the map and win the battle. Those are not isolated incidents either, sometimes it seems like the AI is trying to simulate an opponent who is falling asleep.
Other annoyances include the fog of war which obscures the map. With most units able to see only two or three hexes but able to move two or three times that distance, the enemy can roll right past your units or be sitting across the river firing on you and some of your units will not even be able to see them. Related to this problem is the fact that there is no sentry mode on the units. If attacked a unit will fire back, but only against the first attacker, but will not fire on enemies who drive past them. This allows your opponent to roll right past your tough units to take out your soft but necessary anti-air units. This is extremely frustrating while trying to defend an objective because it seems like the only way to defend your valuable anti-air units is to surround them with other units two deep, which is not really practical. Also, the objectives on each battleground, arguably the most important feature on the map, can only be accessed through a sub menu which points out the objective with a large inexact arrow.
Another annoyance is the dubious Russian aid crates scattered around the map. Racing after them with your jeeps is usually a waste of time as the crates usually only contain repairs, an upgrade for your jeep (not worth it as they usually blow up the first time they are hit), and at best, another jeep will be in there. Your units are best committed to the battle instead of chasing after "goodies" around the map.
It all adds up to Shattered Union being a game with sound foundation, but with some structural flaws on the upper floors. The more I played this, game the more I became dissatisfied with it. It is doubtful very many people will have the patience to devote to a full campaign as the game's shortcomings become more obvious. The final question: Is this game worth your money? Short answer, yes. Long answer, yes, but only if it is on the reduced rack. There is just not enough here to make it an A-list game. Too simple for the hardened computer general but requiring too much time and patience for the green initiate just beginning the genre. Pop Top tried to make concessions to both kinds of gamer, and in the end neither will come away satisfied with the end result.