If there’s one genre of games we’re surprised we haven’t seen more of on consoles, it’s strategy games. While in the past, the excuse had always been that squishing the controls down onto a gamepad was too much of a challenge, the Wii, Wii U, and the PS3’s Move have all given developers ample opportunity to mimic the ease of a mouse cursor on consoles – but for some reason, strategy games have been almost as rare as flight sims were, making a game like Legends of War something of a rare breed.
Clad in History Channel branding, and set in the midst of World War Two, History: Legends of War is a turn based strategy game that puts you in control of the US Third Army, taking on the role of General Patton during Operation Overlord in the summer of 1944. With Nazi Germany having taken over most of mainland Europe, and only Britain having not yet fallen, Operation Overlord marked something of a turning point for the war, as the Allies began to push back into Europe, beginning with the infamous Normandy landings on D-Day. Unusually for a WW2 game, the story here picks up after the landings have taken place, with Patton taking his Third Army on a series of sweeping attacks against the Nazis, with the intention of pushing them all the way back to Berlin.
With a set of 21 missions to play through, covering a variety of different types (attack missions see you storming a town, base, or bunker, defence levels ask you to hold out against an enemy onslaught for a set number of turns, while in infiltration levels, you'll have to sneak through a base, undetected), Legends of War lets you take control of practically every aspect of your army. Before each mission, you’ll be given a short briefing, which may drop some hints about the sort of units you’re expected to encounter – whether it’s tanks, snipers, or bazookas, etc. Having pondered the possibilities, it’s then up to you to choose which units you want to take into battle – if you’re coming up against heavily armoured foes, you’ll want to take something with a fair amount of firepower, for example, and should probably take troops with Bazookas over those with machine guns (which don’t damage tanks, as you may expect) or grenades (which also don’t, somewhat strangely.) With a limited number of troops you can take into each mission (up to a maximum of eight), you’ll want to choose wisely, as the units you choose to take will have to last you for the whole mission. Unlike other strategy games, there’s no base building here, and no reinforcements - so you'll have to make the troops you've got last.
Actually taking control of your units can take a bit of getting used to, however. As we mentioned earlier, squeezing complex camera and unit controls down onto a controller can be quite a challenge, and it’s one Legends of War hasn’t quite managed to get right. Instead of an intuitive system, you’re left with a rather weird compromise where the left stick controls the camera (holding the shoulder buttons and triggers will let you rotate or alter its pitch), while the right stick moves a cursor that lets you choose where you want your unit to go. When you're just trying to figure out an already complex game, having to wrestle with an awkward camera is the last thing you want.
As a turn based strategy game, each mission in Legends of War sees you and your opponent taking it in turns to move your troops across the battlefield, choosing where you want them to move, whether you want them to shoot, and what weapon you want them to fire. Unlike many turn-based strategy games, though, there's no grid based system at work here. Instead, you’re free to move your unit practically anywhere you want on the map, with each unit able to move a maximum of ten metres in each turn. You can cycle between units using the shoulder buttons, and choose to leave them either crouching, or standing up at the end of your turn, while doing your best to not leave your troops anywhere they're particularly vulnerable.
But oddly, while your Nazi foes will happily let you wander around blowing things up, as they patiently wait for their go, the combat in the game is slightly less turn-based than you may imagine. All enemy units have a line-of-sight, represented by a handy cone in front of them, but should you happen to send one of your units running across it, your enemy will break out of their statuesque pose and take a pot shot at you, before you’ve even had chance to put your hand on your gun. Breaking the turn-based tradition, it’s a little bit off-putting, especially as it essentially gives your opponent the advantage on your turn! Should you want to fire at an enemy, you’ll have to press Y (on the 360), which switches your unit from move mode to fire mode. Each unit has two weapons at hand, and you can switch between them at any time to adapt to the situation – your standard troops have a rifle, and a grenade, for example, which you'll want to switch between depending on whether you find yourself coming up against a single troop, or a cluster of three, for example. With your weapon now armed and ready, it’s up to you to move a little cursor around the map to choose where you actually want to shoot. Place your cursor in the vague vicinity of an enemy unit, and the game will automatically snap to it - but that doesn’t guarantee you’ll actually manage to hit them when you fire. If you’re too far away, or just unlucky, your bullet will whizz past the kraut’s ear without leaving so much of a scratch, meaning you’ll be in for it in the next turn.
However, things get even more complex still. Although you have two weapons, each has limited ammo (only 20 shots in the rifle, for instance), and you can only fire a limited number of times per turn – either two rifle shots, or one grenade. Adding yet another layer of strategy to proceedings, should you choose not to fire at any enemies during your turn, that unit will then be able to automatically fire at any enemy that comes within their line of sight during your foe's turn. Instead of skulking around picking enemies off, it can sometimes be more effective to just set up fire zones, where four of your troops converge to simultaneously fire on anyone unlucky enough to stumble through the middle. Annoyingly, though, these 'line of site' cones don't seem to actually be all that accurate - especially when it comes to the stealth levels. Too many times we've deliberately tried to stay outside an enemy's cone of vision, only for it to mysteriously turn red as we stroll past - which makes the stealth levels, where you have to basically remain undetected, incredibly frustrating experiences.
But with so much depth, and so much complexity, Legends of War absolutely needed a good tutorial to help ease you in - and it's here the game really starts to let itself down. While the game does have a tutorial, it barely touches on half the things we've explained so far, practically teaching you only how to move your units, and fire at your enemy. In the missions themselves, it all too often feels like the controls are working against you, as you’ll spend more time rotating the camera accidentally than you will sending your troops to the next location, while there doesn’t actually seem to be a single good angle to pitch the camera at. No matter how you rotate it, no matter where it's zoomed in or out to, you’ll never be able to get a camera angle that lets you see things at least 90% of the time, leaving you to rotate, tilt, and adjust the camera on every single turn before you even start moving. Even then, things aren’t made any easier by the way the game seem to help your enemies to hide. If there’s a firefight going on behind a building, the camera won’t automatically focus to make sure you know what’s going on – instead, you get to watch from some god-awful angle as two health bars duke it out.
When you’re not wrestling with the camera, though, the majority of your time will be spent desperately trying to figure out where the game's “fog of war” starts, and where it ends. You see, although you can see the entire map, and every building, fence, and tractor on it, the vast majority of each stage is actually covered in a "fog of war", that means you can only "see" enemies when they come within a certain range of your troops. It's an idea that's intended to make games like these more strategic, as you have to send scouts, or position units carefully so you can "see" most of the map at the same time, but there's a big problem with how it's been done here. You see, it’s usually called “fog of war” because it’s exactly that – an obvious barrier that envelops everything you can’t see, scenery, troops and all - but here, there's next to no difference between things inside, and outside the supposed fog. In practice, what it means is It’s far too easy to stroll into Farmer Giles field to sniff the daisies, only to find yourself suddenly surrounded by Hitler’s finest, because you didn't notice the minute change in shade between areas in the fog of war, and those without.
The difficulty in general isn’t much more forgiving, either. Your troops carry through from mission to mission, gaining experience as they go, and can be upgraded to different classes, letting you transform your basic troop into something a bit more special, like a sniper, or a ranger. However, the downside of this is that, should you lose them in a battle, they’ll be gone forever. You can buy replacement troops, of course, but they don’t come cheap. Depending on your performance in battles, you’ll earn ‘prestige’ at the end of each mission, netting more points if you do well, which you can then spend either repairing your troops, or buying new ones. Of course, the catch 22 here is that if you aren’t very good, and you lose a lot of troops, you won’t earn as much prestige – yet you’ll be the one who needs the prestige the most to replenish your recently deceased troops. It’s entirely possible to rubbish yourself into a corner in the campaign and basically run out of troops, as they're either all dead, or far too expensive, leaving you with an even tougher challenge than the more accomplished players. And that doesn’t seem fair. Even though there’s five difficulty levels on offer, even the lowest will still provide a rock solid challenge for strategy novices, while medium ought to be enough even for veterans.
And that’s perhaps the most disappointing thing about Legends of War. Somewhere under the surface here, there’s an enjoyable turn-based strategy game waiting to be let out – but it’s buried beyond layers of poorly explained complexity, and married to a camera that constantly works against you. With a punishing permanent troop system that seems to penalise the weaker players the most, this is one for strategy starved veterans only. If you’re looking for an equally complex (but much better explained) turn based game, try Panzer General instead.