Battleground Europe (BE) is a subscription based historical combat simulator for the PC and Mac platforms. It is published by Playnet and developed by studio Cornered Rat Software. It was originally released in June 2001 under the name World War II Online (WWIIOL) and has seen several enhancements over the years. As of this writing, the title has seen 30 releases. The current name is “World War II Online: Battleground Europe”. This article covers version 1.30.
The concept is a massive multiplayer online (MMO) game with a full-fledged multi-unit simulation engine set in the Northern European war theater from 1940 to 1941. The goal is simple: find ever new ways of outsmarting your “real” player opponents, capturing the other side’s terrain using a combination of infantry, ground, air and navy assets, and probably most of all, teamwork. This is accomplished through the use of an impressive selection of no less than ninety six (96) individually modeled air, ground and navy assets appropriate for the period. Each unit type has its own historically accurate weapons, ballistics and damage model tied to a physics model.
There is no offline mode except for basic tutorials where the control mechanics can be mastered. The training is conducted online on a dedicated server where you can find volunteer trainers from the player community. The player base is from around the world, which allows the game server to be active on a 24 x 7 basis. Playnet is planning a release of a version of the game specially designed for China, and is about to release version 1.31. The primary language in my experience has been English. I have played with players from the U.S., Canada, U.K., Netherlands, Australia, Spain, Italy, France, Germany and Belgium. Time zone differences matter little it seems as the game is played day and night.
To say that the learning curve is steep is an understatement.
The game world pits these different unit types in reasonably close quarters which allows for an ever changing set of circumstances. The game is built on nuances and variety of the equipment framed by strict supply and military unit movement rules. Learning how to use units effectively is a grand challenge. At the more strategic level, player decisions affect the outcome of the campaign. BE is almost entirely a player driven environment.
typical duties in Battleground Europe are to
Above all, the game requires teamwork and good communication, which is probably where the heart of the experience is. The player community thinks in terms of “squad nights” which are preset times where squad units meet, and each member of the squad assumes unique roles based on their expertise.
Documentation for Battleground Europe is available online on the wiki at http://wiki.wwiionline.com/index.php/Play_Guide. In-game documentation is minimal.
The player forums are a good source of information as well, and help is primarily available through those channels. Playnet also has a support mechanism based on e-mail (I have not had the need). Training is primarily hands on, and some volunteer players offer their services on the online training server. Most players will readily assist new “recruits”, as new players are readily identified by their low rank insigne over their names in game.
In game, there is a dedicated help radio channel, and generally speaking, players around you provide the best training available, which is probably preferred over the documentation itself. The game is rather complex, and learning it completely is a tall order.
The title is available on-line direct through the publisher, and some e-tailers in Europe. There is a PC version and a MAC version; both play the same game, just different clients. Access to the game servers requires an active subscription, even for the trial, although a 15 day trial period is available upon signup. Subscriptions can be cancelled at anytime, there is no reactivation charge. If a subscription lapses, the avatars are suspended, and can be resumed later – there is no loss of rank or progress.
The base subscription is a monthly charge, and extended subscriptions exist at a discounted rate. Bronze, silver and gold “builder” programs are available as well. In exchange for a hefty up-front fee, the Gold level provides lifetime play along with your own statue placed in the game world along with a virtual plaque in the game world.
The full version of the game, approximately 400Mb, can be downloaded from the web site. On disk, it expands to some 830Mb. The game installs a utility called Playgate. It controls access and launches the game proper, as well as connects it to the game server.
To be able to connect, you need a valid username and password which is created during the registration process online. During this process, you get to select a unique avatar name, your subscription and payment information, and you may select some icons that will show on your aircraft or vehicle depending on how long you’ve subscribed. A 14 day free trial is offered, the offer is valid through January 2010. After the 14 day trial, subscription fees kick in. First time users also get 30 free days once they signup. A constant network connection is required during play.
The installer creates the program files and lets you select language, screen resolution and which version of the game to run. A special version for SSE2 enabled processor exists on the PC, which takes advantage of the special instruction set of these processors, theoretically making the game faster. The MAC version is identical in all respects to the PC version.
From there, configuration is primarily done in game. Options such as sound, effects and the like are relatively simple and few. The game has a sophisticated key mapping screen to bind game commands to input devices; this is covered in some detail later in this review.
Patches are detected on launch, and the size of the update varies depending on the patch, in my experience between 10Mb to 500Mb. Because the entire player community must run the same patch level, there can be a significant load on the patch server, and Playnet has been able to keep up with the demand in my experience. Patches are mandatory, meaning that when a patch is issued, the entire player base must download it.
Installation is a simple affair. Only issues encountered are the video drivers that sometimes need to be upgraded. In some cases, some players have reported corrupt patch sets, and have had to uninstall/reinstall the entire game to get running. In general, patches are stable and Playnet makes the betas available to the public weeks in advance. This helps getting the bugs out.
The game world
The game world simply put is, enormous. Set in northern Europe, 10 kilometers of “real world” distance is equal to 5 in the BE world. A real time status and the scale of the game map can be seen at this link. Traveling from one point to another in the game world can take a very long time, even in relatively high speed fighters. Think of crossing the channel from England in a Supermarine Spitfire? That will take about 20 minutes. Driving from one town to the next can take thirty minutes or more, if you really want to.
The good news is that there is no reason to travel very far or very long. First, the enemy will do everything possible to make your in-game stay as short as possible. Then, game mechanics ensure all players are somewhere along the front on the map and within reasonably short distances so that travel time is not a factor. I found this to mean 10 minutes or less. Some supply runs (moving equipment from the rear to the front) can take 30 minutes or so, assuming enemy air lets you use the roads safely, a level of dedication infrequently needed.
The game world contains multiple “spawn” points where you can enter the game. That can be a special building (depot, base) or certain trucks (mobile spawn points). Where and what depends on yet more rules, and in general, it will be near or in a combat zone. There are several combat zones typically active at any time; it is hard not to run into action. This is a major departure from the early versions of the game where one could fly, drive or walk for hours before finding any action.
The terrain is divided into tiles that represent different terrain types, from bogs to grass to forest to rock. Outside of the trees, terrain for all intents and purpose looks about the same no matter what type of terrain type you’re in. Your vehicle however will behave quite differently according to the terrain type. It is an odd experience to be driving over terrain which looks like a lush green meadow, when all of a sudden your truck starts to bounce around like a pinball. That's because you have crossed into a new tile classified as “rocky”, even if visually it is similar. This is a point of improvement for the visuals, and one that takes a bit of getting used to. Hopefully release 1.31 will improve on this.
The road system is also greatly simplified. Roads, rivers and railroads are stylized, and they are aligned with the “connection links”, or supply model in the game. Links between brigades determine supply lines, and drives which objectives can be attacked or defended. Objectives must be reachable by the supply system, and spawning is only allowed where supply and a brigade is available.
The link system is very important as it drives the entire game, and in particular, only allows players to spawn into the game world at specific points on front lines. This helps to keep all players in close quarters.
There is only one active campaign game world, and all players participate in the same instance.
Weather and effects
As of this writing (version 1.30), the virtual battlefield in BE only knows of moonlit nights and sunny days, and one season (spring/summer). A few years ago, Cornered Rat introduced fog, which was very exciting. However, the player base complained it couldn’t see targets, frame rates were dismal and the feature was pulled quickly. I should also note that when the game was initially released, the night was so dark players couldn’t see a thing. This is not helped by the fact that there are no lights in the game world (no lamps, headlights or city/street lights). Players would pass one another and not even know they did. Moonlight was added to help, so night now has some visibility to it.
The upcoming 1.31 release promises new weather effects, including rain and approaching clouds. There are also new effects thanks to an update to Cornered Rat’s proprietary rendering engine called Unity 3D which supports new eye candy. That will be a welcome addition.
Wind is represented a little in terms of leaves and bushes swaying, and I have not noticed any impact on flying or ballistics, we’ll wait for 1.31 and see what happens there. Effects include explosions, concussion effects (such as when being on the receiving end of a bomb), smoke and tracers. Tracers are very important because they are often the only indication of where shots are coming from.
Battleground Europe has complex game rules. A comprehensive explanation of game mechanics can be found in the online wiki, and I’ll cover the highlights here.
The game clock is accelerated from normal (real) time. The game clock moves even faster at night to make the game “night” shorter than daytime. Timers in game are prevalent and attached to all kinds of rules, such as resupply time, time to capture a flag, time to recapture a flag, time for destroyed structures to rebuild, time to spawn, etc… The research development production (RDP) cycle advances over weeks of real time. RDP has its own sophisticated rules that I’m not going to get into here, but suffices to say that the general idea is to bomb or capture the other side’s factories to slow production down, and to disrupt supply lines so equipment doesn’t make it to the front.
Campaigns and special events
The primary mode of play is the campaign mode on the single campaign server. The other modes are off-line (local) and online training. Off-line mode is for familiarization with game controls and tuning the sophisticated key-mapper, the tool that allows game controls to be mapped to various keys and other input devices. Online training is there to learn the game mechanics with assistance from volunteer trainer players. Lastly, when Cornered Rat makes a beta version “public”, they setup a special server that active players can test out.
A single campaign runs weeks, if not months depending on how well the sides are doing. The campaign does not stop, even if you do. The campaign map often looks very different from day to day. In fact, it often prompts the rhetorical question “what happened”? Things may look up for your side one day, and turn around drastically the next, and vice versa.
Once a campaign is won by one side, which means, most of the terrain is owned by one side, the campaign server switches over to an intermission which typically lasts a few days. Online player presence can drop significantly during intermission play because it is not considered “real play”. Intermissions are short and are usually used to test different theories, new game rules, and “what if” scenarios. While scoring counts, it’s a good time to test new tactics without impacting the war effort.
Then there are special scenarios, usually historical in nature, such as torpedo attacks in the channel or the Allied landing near Calais. These usually run for a few hours and are setup as specific times a few times a year by the developer. Registration for the events may be required, as slots may be limited, and players must be assigned to specific roles for the recreation of the historical event.
Some special events are non-historical and conducted in the live game world, such as “Kill a Rat”, wherein the entire player community has one goal in mind: find the Cornered Rat developers in game before they find you, and hope for the best. Members of the team have a special “rat” icon next to their in-game name.
BE includes a plethora of playable units, between infantry, wheeled/tracked vehicles, guns, anti-air, naval and fighter aircraft, transports and bombers. Equipment availability is tied to the research and development cycle in the game, the rank of the player and the actual number of units of that type available in each brigade. Destroyed or damaged units are not be replaced immediately, and some types are often more readily available than others. Equipment gets better over time as research advances, and older types are phased out when they become ineffective. Each unit type is modeled independently, has its own damage model, armament and characteristics appropriate for the type.
Because some of this equipment has been introduced at different release intervals as content evolved over the years, the level of detail for each can be a bit different. Some have been redone completely, some have only been tweaked.
The variety and availability of equipment on the battlefield creates a constantly changing combat dynamic. It also allows the players to use different tactics to address surpluses or attrition depending on the situation. I find this a very interesting aspect of the game because it keeps things moving and always challenging in different ways.
I should also note that in the game, the French have access to US manufactured equipment under the Lend-Lease program. This is why the French side gets to drive Sherman tanks.
Each player can choose between army, air or navy personas, per side (Axis or Allied). Army persona provides access to infantry, vehicles and anti-tank or anti-air guns of various types. Air provides access to fighters, bombers, transports pilot and paratroopers. Navy provides access to ships and naval infantry. Personas each have their unique rank, so that if you play infantry in the navy, it is distinct from the infantry in the army.
The game environment currently lets the player select either the Axis or Allied. While it is possible to switch sides, there is an hour long delay that kicks in once a side is selected unless there is a player imbalance, in which case, side switching is possible at first login. The idea is to prevent the obvious “spy” problem where one can theoretically briefly switch sides and spy for the other side. Personas can be switched as often as needed, so long as this “side lock” is respected.
Some players have requested that once a campaign side is selected, side switching becomes locked for the duration of the campaign. This aims at eliminating the problem of some players only willing to play for the winning side, thus creating a player balance issue. Cornered Rat has for the moment not forced this to happen, and has implemented a spawn delay feature which is proportional to the side imbalance. The more the imbalance of players, the longer it takes for the side with overpopulation to spawn. This can become frustrating enough that players switch sides, at least, so goes the theory. In practice, spawn delays can exceed 2 minutes, and a lot can happen in two minutes of game play.
Personas spawn into the game at the various entry points available in available missions. Each mission must start at a spawn point, and may have an optional mobile spawn – a truck, that can be “deployed” and allow players to spawn at the truck directly. The mobile spawn is a good example of team tactics because someone on the mission must drive a truck and manage to deploy the spawn point without being detected or damaged. Squad commanders typically ask for volunteer truck drivers, and someone in my experience always jumps to the plate.
Many vehicles (boats, aircraft, tanks) can be multi-crewed by two players. This is a largely underused feature of the game in my experience, which is a shame really. In MC mode, one player assumes driving/piloting, the other mans the guns or bomb sights. This form of play is very effective, and I’m not sure why it doesn’t appear to be used often. Perhaps it’s just that coordinating the communication in MC is harder.
Under the multi-crew umbrella, I’ll add that teamwork is virtually required to survive. BE is not a title for lone wolf players, and the game has a feature where squads can “auto-recruit” new players which helps with training and easing up on the learning curve. Players are free of course to switch squads and do what they wish. I have not seen anyone not affiliated with a squad for very long. In game, members of the squad show in one color, and non-squad members in another. This also helps to locate your teammates in the field, and is true of all units. Also, each unit has their name, rank and squad affiliation shown.
Another form of multi-crew has to do with riding in other vehicles such as trucks, air transports or tanks. Players spawn a vehicle (transport, cargo, truck or tank) that has the ability to tow equipment or carry infantry. For example, anti-air and anti-tank guns are towed by trucks. Unfortunately, tanks and other wheeled vehicles cannot tow, and some will not even accept riders. The ability to transport guns and infantry is very important to the tactical aspects of the game.
provides several communication methods used to exchange information
between players and about the status of the campaign.
If this happens, the enemy will on be able to read gibberish on their chat, because of the simulated language barrier, however they will know you are there as well. It’s also possible to yell or whisper, and to message other players directly and privately. Use of chat is imperative. It often rolls by so quickly that it is necessary to scroll up and find out what happened. Occasionally, the game provides status updates and intelligence via the chat, such as when a city is being attacked, and some officers can send side wide broadcasts over the radio which helps keeping everyone informed.
Voice communication is also provided by a TeamSpeak server provided by Playnet. Action can be fast and furious and intelligence and reports travel much faster by voice than they do via keyboard chat. Attempts to text while shooting is usually a terrible idea as distractions cause swift death. In fact, many have had a virtual death by simply attending to the chat instead of paying attention to what’s going on around them. There is a TeamSpeak instance for each side.
Voice adds significant realism to the game. Not all players have voice communication available, and it is customary to designate a team member to be the “comm” Officer, in charge of relaying voice reports to the text chat. It’s also important because voice communications are primarily employed at the squad level, thus only heard by squad members. It is of course possible to change voice channels as well, and talk to other squads or officers online.
The “early warning system” also extends to the map, where a color grid indicates enemy air activity, and icons represent the level of threat against cities and towns. Also, on-map player reported markings can be approved by mission commanders. Players get to report activity on the map, and the mission lead can approve the contact report. Map contacts are useful to communicate visually the approximate location and type of threats. They are associated with a time stamp so other players can determine how old the reports are.
Every player gets to fight the war by playing in a squad at the tactical level. Every unit in game follows an accurate order of battle. Each squad must be aligned in a brigade within that side’s military organization. This sets the command structure for orders. Squads can still play anywhere in the order of battle, including outside their normal unit, they just have a primary affiliation. Each has a commanding officer, one of more executive officers, members and recruits. Promotions within the squad are possible. It is the smallest unit in the game, and one of the first things that happens when a new player joins the game, he or she gets recruited into a squad.
This can be done by proximity (some squad officers have an auto-recruit flag that tells the game to auto-join unaffiliated players). Once in a squad, the player can opt to stay or join another unit. The idea is to get the player to experience team work, as lone wolf operations spell doom very quickly, and squad operations are very necessary.
Some players decide to apply for a command position with one of the two high commands: The axis side has the German High Command (GHC); the allies have the Allied High Command (AHC). High Commands control the strategic level of the war. It decides where the battles occur, what objectives to attack or defend, what units are where, and the supply lines. After completing the player run HC training program, which can take weeks, the office candidate gets a commission that lets you become a virtual field commander in the military hierarchy of the high command.
This provides new commands to the player, and enables brigade movements, ability to remove or place attack or defense orders on objectives. It also provides access to restricted radio channels, and special chat functions. Having been in that role several years ago, I have found that playing the game at this strategic level is very interesting. I also found it similar to a full time job, especially because unlike the “real” military, getting virtual units to do what you want them to do and in the right sequence presents its own challenges, and the resources available to you change all the time based on the online presence. It is as rewarding as it is demanding.
There is very little AI in the game, which is a very good thing. AI is only found for base defense near towns, and consists of anti-aircraft, machine-gun and anti-tank gun emplacements. When ownership of a flag changes, the AI gets destroyed, and rebuilds over time for the side owning the flag. The AI is somewhat unrealistic: It has x-ray vision through walls and terrain. It can see through solid objects and bushes and hills. AI has an extreme detection range, and can see a threat before anyone else does, starting a “twitch” animation in game.
In fact, a common trick to find the enemy’s location is to look at what your side’s AI is doing and follow its lead. AI accuracy improves quickly and it is absolutely deadly, even at range. It was extremely difficult to shoot down aircraft with the AAA of the time, and players know this well. AI in BE is so good that it probably will outperform a battery of Patriot missiles on any day (or night).
AI is best avoided by having a good map that shows where they are and known firing angles. Fortunately, AI can be destroyed by bombs, shells, grenades, and heavy machine gun. The simplest thing to do is capturing the choke point (CP) associated with it.
AI is the least realistic aspects of the game in my view. At the same time, it serves a purpose when towns are undefended, even if it feels so out of place when every other aspect of the game is player driven. Perhaps if the AI had less Superman-esque capabilities, it would not have this terrible reputation.
Upon reaching a certain rank, personas gain the ability to post missions. Missions are the heart of the activity in BE. Each has a spawn point, which can be an army base, airfield, depot or forward base. Each mission has either an attack objective, or a defense objective.
Once the mission is created, the player who created the mission becomes the mission leader, and gets a new officer uniform, thus making the player a prime target for the other side. Players can spawn on the mission, get a truck and setup a mobile spawn point, etc… Multiple missions can exist at the same time, the only requirement is that the mission must be out of a spawn linked somehow back to a brigade. Supply is shared among all missions, and it’s very easy to run out of equipment. The mission leader provides leadership at the tactical level, and also approves contacts on the map, set waypoints, etc…
Combat simulation and unit types
With some founding members of Cornered Rat Software of the old online game Warbirds pedigree, the air simulation is very strong in Battleground Europe. Each aircraft has its own flight characteristics, armament and of course, quirks. Bombers are of the “light” variety, limited to the two engines type. Heavy bombers like B-17s or He-177s are not in the game.
Air force personas can spawn in at any airfield where an air brigade is stationed. It is possible to spawn a fighter, bomber or transport, and airborne infantry (paratroopers). As with other personas, available equipment depends on rank and supply. Transports can ferry infantry or paratroopers, and it is not advised to jump without a parachute. Para drops are very dangerous, first because the transport is a prime target for enemy fighters, and second, paratroopers are helpless while floating down on their parachute. It is possible to steer the chute somewhat. Paratroopers are the only infantry type, outside of sappers, who carry satchel charges.
Novice pilots must get over the fact that some of these flying machines are often deathtraps on the ground due to poor handling characteristics. Then, as the campaign progresses, new pilots have a progressively harder time gaining the upper hand in air engagements because their low rank does not allow access to the better equipment.
Dogfights should be avoided when outgunned and outperformed by better enemy planes, which in turn reduces the chance of scoring. Of course, the enemy may make a mistake or the pilot gets lucky, or both. Pilot players are excellent, some have years of experience, and they take no prisoners.
Gaining rank in the air force is best done early in the campaign when equipment is fairly balanced, and the more advanced types are not researched yet. An alternative, equally dangerous, is to take a light bomber. This requires mastery of the bomb sight for level bombing, which is recreated in detail (must adjust altitude and speed manually). Bombing accurately and flying is difficult to do at the same time unless multi-crew is used. This is a challenge as it is, without having enemy fighters chasing you or ground based anti-air batteries intent on not letting you through.
Often finding myself on the receiving end of Ju-87 bombs, I found that Stuka pilots are incredibly good – they can hit a moving truck or tank with incredible accuracy, and do it over and over. This kind of advantage can only be countered by the cooperation of all air and ground forces, with air covering the ground, and ground covering the air.
I find air combat very difficult in the game, and easily frustrating. Flying can often be described as a one way trip starting with a fairly long commute (airfields are usually not in the front lines) and instant death unless you get lucky, or have good equipment. Mastery of evasive and attack maneuvers is extremely important for the successful pilot, as is a good understanding of what the aircraft can and cannot do. After this hard work, there is nothing more satisfying than taking an enemy bomber, or better yet, a transport full of troopers out, or seeing improvement in your own bombing skills rewarded by decimating a base full of enemy equipment.
Ground combat - Infantry
Infantry combat is probably the easiest in the game. There is no need to learn how to operate complex equipment – except how to properly use a weapon. There are multiple infantry weapon types to select from, the basic unit being the standard rifle. Rifles can be very accurate, even at a distance, and understanding how to set the sights, lead the target and judge their distance is important. Rifles are plentiful and very good all around. Submachine guns are for close quarter defense or attack, and while the shots are not very accurate, the firing rate will suppress anything up close.
A favorite tactic of the sub machine gunner is to learn how to shoot from the hip while moving. Light machine gunners are the long range suppression type, and can even take out light armor. Some infantry units have knives and pistols as well. Knives are very quiet, but they require getting close to the enemy without being heard or seen.
With newer buildings in the game with multiple floors and windows, the LMG can be particularly effective by hiding in a window sill. They are however limited by low ammunition, and they can be resupplied by rifles. Grenadiers and anti-tank rifles are a mixed bag, being more effective early in the campaign when armor is thinner. The anti-tank rifle is only effective at a 90 degree angle on hard targets with thin armor, and otherwise can be quite effective as a sniper gun without the optics, due largely because of the high power rifle and straight path of the shell.
Snipers have scopes and usually don’t last very long in game unless the player is very patient. They can be very effective so long as they are not detected, which is hard due to the muzzle flash and the unsuppressed sound. Mortars have a range of 500 meters and lob smoke or high explosive shells, which can be effective to suppress soft targets, and harder targets to some extent. Lastly, sappers have satchel charges and are the only units who can destroy forward bases. Satchels are also used to destroy bridges and tanks. Sapper duty is extremely dangerous, usually because it requires running in the open after some target hopping to place a charge on it, and then having to run away quickly to get away from the blast.
Paratroopers follow infantry types, except they also have satchel charges to increase versatility, and of course they also can jump out of airplanes (once). Once the chute is used, it’s used (you cannot jump again on the same chute).
Infantry play is the basis of the game with all other units primarily in a support function: only infantry can capture flags (choke points), thus at some point or another, the campaign can only be won by using infantry.
When I was online, I happened to see a new recruit spawned in as a rifleman, I chatted with the player asking for his/her experience. The answer was “if only I could figure out what killed me”. Unfortunately, that is a very common theme when playing infantry in the game.
Ground combat – tracked and wheeled vehicles
Battleground Europe has four truck types used to ferry troops and equipment to the front lines. The Opel, Bedford and Laffly can also be used as mobile spawn points for infantry, one per mission. The trucks also provide ammunition resupply to deployed troops and equipment – they are the logistics arm of ground operations.
Truck drivers are invaluable in the game, and I find they are the least rewarded and recognized. Truly a thankless job, truck drivers get no points for supplying ammunition or ferrying troops around. They only points they can get is if they setup a mobile spawn and infantry uses their truck to spawn, and survival rate is very low as trucks are a prime target because of what they do.
Reconnaissance units such as the 232 or the Panhard are fast wheeled vehicles used to scout and hunt soft targets. Infantry generally hates these things because they are fast, have deadly machine guns mounted on fast moving turrets that mow infantry down quickly. Some players insist of using these vehicles against heavier armor, and are not very successful. Some of the vehicles have affectionate names, such as the “teapot” for a Vickers.
Light, medium and heavy tanks make for formidable battles on the ground. Armor in the game provides largely suppressive power for infantry, such as the destruction of AI defenses, and of course, anti-tank roles. I have witnessed battles involving more than fifty tanks on the allied side supported by infantry and air, confronting panzers and anti-tank guns and a battle that lasted two hours or real time.
Armored vehicles are complicated to operate from the standpoint that they have a manual transmission, and differential brakes and clutches. While default controls simplify the driving a bit, driving a tank can require a set of pedals, a throttle and a joystick to get the most of it. Armor doesn’t typically last very long in an engagement, although some of the heavier tanks with very heavy armor plating are very difficult to kill. Tanks can be tracked, which immobilizes them. Track repair is not possible, neither is crew replacement or taking over someone else’s vehicle.
Anti-tank and anti-air guns can all be pushed/pulled, although this gets tedious very quickly. The heavier guns are impractical to move except for very short distances and must be towed by trucks. These guns can easily be disabled by eliminating the crew. Even the smaller guns can destroy the heaviest tanks if they are close enough, although most use will be for ranged combat using either armor piercing or high explosive rounds.
There is no artillery in Battleground Europe, so anti-tank guns are the closest to it. AAA guns are used not only to suppress air, but they can also be used against infantry. The anti-tank or anti-air guns are best used in ambush type scenarios, as they blend quite well in the terrain. Because they must be towed and protected from infantry, the towed guns require teamwork with other players.
assets are probably the least used unit type in the game. One obvious
reason is the game map is largely land based, providing few access
points for navy docks. Then, assuming a river and a dock is nearby,
ships are very slow and it can take significant time to move into
a position where they can be effective. The northern part of the
game world (Netherlands) is best suited for naval warfare when
the front line is located there. It is largely unused otherwise,
and I generally noticed that the player base has very little rank
in navy units, a reflection of low usage.
The game provides only one type of river gunboat, the Fairmile, which is essentially an anti-tank gun on water along with a couple of anti-aircraft units. Fairmiles can go on rivers and will be found anywhere near a navy dock. Destroyers are used to blockade ports and primarily suppress bases from the water. While they are fitted with torpedo launchers, the only practical use is against other destroyers. Destroyers have large caliber guns with very significant range, and can destroy just about anything in the vicinity of the shot, except the indestructible objects in the game such as some buildings and of course, trees. Destroyers can be attacked by bombers and other destroyers, land based guns are typically too small of a caliber to do any real damage, at least in the time available before the target has found you.
The last type of navy asset is the freighter. I have never seen cargo ships used in practice, which is a shame really as they are quite sophisticated, down to the ability to load armor into their holds using a crane.
The game world
BE has seen many graphical updates over the years. As of this writing, I find that it is generally behind in terms of level of detail and “eye candy” compared to other game titles depicting the world. I need to preface this with the fact that BE is unique in its scale and ability to render so many player objects at once in a very large game world. To be fair, the rendering of Belgium is a bit different from the rendering of a one square mile tropical island, so comparing the terrain in BE to other titles should be taken with a grain of salt.
As it stands in 1.30, almost all game objects except for the most recent updates (bridges for example) are faceted up close due to heavy use of polygon reduction to help with frame rates. Then again, some newer objects are very detailed, such as the bridge in Dinant (below). The game world is a constant re-use of a set selection of trees, bushes and buildings, except for a few landmarks (example, the castle in Willemstadt). Objects look good at a distance, but can look very simple up close. Building and bridges are destructible, which is rendered as states – usually up or destroyed, although some buildings also have a partially destroyed state.
Clouds are 2D; many building walls are one pixel thin, going back to 2001 where all buildings were the thickness of a texture. This has changed as many towns have newer 3-D buildings and objects. Some of the terrain is rather mountainous, yet the hills are heavily triangulated, slopes are flat, and the breaks in the terrain abrupt. In fact, some are so abrupt it’s possible to “fall” through the game world in some places, although this is quite rare. Nothing in the game curves smoothly. Roads have sharp 30 degree angles, if not direct 90 right angles in some spots. River edges are flat.
Over the years, the game has seen improvements, such as new 3D bushes, the addition of berms and mini-hills across the terrain to fight the “flat” tile. Low level grasses are rendered by the client although they have no real tactical value because this eye-candy “clutter” is not a server based object, thus not seen by other players.
There are very few structures in the game world outside of cities and towns. Some features that are missed are rocks and creeks or dirt paths. You cannot visually tell if the terrain is a bog or a meadow. BE has a long history, and thus combined old and new material. Some aspects really show the terrain’s age, with visuals that truly look dated. Yet, we find in the middle of the “old” some brand new things.
Version 1.31 is currently in beta, and it promises a new generation of visuals, including improved building detail, better textures, and overhauled terrain. Because a copy of 1.31 is not available, the screenshots are from the developer and used with permission.
Another disappointing aspect is the lack of destructible terrain objects. Trees and bushes cannot be destroyed; neither can sheep herds or barriers. Static content is just that, static.
effects are smoke, explosions, concussion (shaking), and obligatory
red-out / black-out for pilots pulling too many “Gs”.
The BE visuals clearly show that some design decisions were made. The focus seems to be less on eye candy and more on essentials that directly contribute to the tactical elements of combat. Version 1.31 looks to make significant improvements in this area, so we will reserve final judgment later.
The cockpit of each vehicle is a “virtual cockpit”. The game supports Track-IR although only for head rotation – lateral movement (vector) is not supported. It is possible however to look around, even without a head tracking device using “mouse look”. Head tracking is very valuable to operate equipment such as anti-air guns, where a wide patch of sky must be constantly observed.
The cockpits include functional levers and gauges, although they are not interactive. Each cockpit is unique and has presumably an accurate layout. Ground vehicles include speedometer, tachometer (RPMs) and a temperature/fuel gauge. Aircraft also have the basics such as altimeter, tachometer, artificial horizon and side slip indicators, compass, temperature and fuel. Ships add a ship's compass rose.
Gun sights are accurate for the time and equipment type. In fact, the models realistically depict that axis equipment had vastly superior optical sights which gave them an edge. All sights are adjustable (if historically accurate) including rifles. Some sights are fixed (mostly French equipment). Some tank commanders and ship spotters also have the ability to compute range to targets, although there is no “sight” for this except for a cross-hair marker and a keyboard command. Some sights have no optics, such as the Bofors, but most do. Some have high magnification, and some do not. In other words, gunnery practice requires learning the particulars of each sight, the particulars of each shell type, and there’s an entire article that can be written on this topic alone. Some example sights are below.
Vehicle models tend to have a fairly low polygon count inside (the virtual cockpit), and generally look better from third person view. Older models look worse than the newer units introduced in the game. The emphasis, more than looks, is that the important “parts” are there, such as, flaps, gear, hatches and cockpits that open and close, tracks and wheels that turn, etc…
Damage model visuals are far and few, as the only animations presented are smoke, fire and the “turret toss”, where the exploding turret blows up in the air and falls to the ground. Aircraft may lose portions of the fuselage and other surfaces in the air, and are probably the most detailed when it comes to damage visuals. Recent versions of the game though have added new damage animations with wheeled vehicles for example.
The textures are not very high resolution either and can be a bit pixilated in some cases, although they do the job. 1.31 looks to have much improved detail in textures as the screenshots show. Bump maps are not available in the current models. Decals are a fairly new feature where player units have numbers and brigade identification markers. Players also get to select some special decals in their account configuration screen.
Overall, the level of details for player objects is sufficient to provide an immersive feel with good realism, although some objects feel a bit Spartan, especially if they have not seen any recent “revisions”.
Sound is a central aspect of Battleground Europe. All sound is surround sound, complete with Doppler effect and are spatially correct. The whistle of bombs is terrifying as it moves side to side, front to back and hopefully not on top of you. There is the rumble of engines specific to each vehicle and aircraft (noting that some objects share the same sound set). Infantry make different sounds whether crawling, walking or running, which is important tactical element when approaching a target as you can be heard if you’re not careful.
Sound is a critical part of game play: It allows for target recognition and obtaining a bearing before a target is seen. It is usually possible to tell if a tank is going uphill or downhill based on the sound the engine makes. The low rumble approach of the Heinkel 111 bomber or the siren on the Ju87 Stuka is quite the experience. All this adds to the immersion.
As great at it is, the sound is not consistent, again probably due to various stages of development over the years. Infantry riding a vehicle (truck, tank, and aircraft) will only hear the engine on or off, the pitch will not change with gears or RPMs. Some sounds do not attenuate according to distance, for example, satchel charges, making it difficult to gauge distance. Also, a few units share the same engine sounds so sound cannot be used to tell them apart.
Even with these shortcomings, the sound in Battleground Europe is very well executed.
The physics model applied to vehicles and infantry is generally quite realistic. Vehicles respond to terrain changes, damage models are computed based on ballistics, ricochet and energy transfers. Clearly, we have a sophisticated physics engine behind the scenes, but only applied to player vehicles.
Unfortunately, the work that seems to happen behind the scenes doesn’t always translate into a visual damage cue. Those that are implemented are quite good: Hit a target’s ammunition store and watch satisfying fireworks with metal flying everywhere and falling to the ground. Shoot a wheel on a 232 and see parts of a wheel fly. Chop a wing off a plane and watch it enter a spiral of death followed by debris. Bombs shake the ground with a pleasing concussion effect.
However, bombs do not damage static objects. Shoot a wall and nothing happens except for a little mark, shoot it again and it will eventually change states, although not where you necessarily shot it. Damage armor and it won’t show until the target is destroyed (usually indicated by smoke or fire).
Players looking at your persona from a third-person angle will not visually see what part of you is no longer functional, although text messages will tell you where the crew is hit and smoke usually indicates an engine problem.
Ballistics is a strong point of the game. First, shells of the day, especially allied shells, were notoriously inaccurate. Fire five shots the same way, and they will follow different trajectories, especially at range. High velocity shells are very flat, slow velocity shells lob about quite a bit. Shells can traverse a target if it’s too soft without doing any damage.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that the physics do not apply to the environment. Bombs can impact players but not trees. It would be very nice to have damage model and physics apply to more of the game world outside of player objects.
game also has a few quirks I will mention here. Nearly all
of it has to do with the collisions model in my view. Some examples:
The physics model is believable and realistic although the game clearly has a few remaining issues tied to specific equipment, and some terrain “bugs”. This is mostly due to a collision model that seems to overreact in some cases. This is a point of frustration for some players because if this happens during a mission, the equipment will be lost and cannot be replaced easily.
Base capture is a complex subject by itself, and here are the basics:
Choke Points (CPs) control terrain. In 1.30, CPs are in the form of flag (or CP) buildings that contain a radio table. The radio can be captured by an infantry unit standing next to it until the capture timer has completed. When that happens, all sorts of alarm bells come on. This is all designed to let the enemy know that you captured one of their CPs, and to ensure their prompt reaction. Their goal of course is to dislodge you as quickly as possible and to get the CP “recapped”.
CPs are spread around towns and cities, the bigger the city, the more CPs, and the harder it becomes to attack and defend. There is one CP by link (road/railroad/river) into a town. Each army base is a CP (in the bunker), so are boat docks, railroad stations, and airfields.
There are many rules governing the capture of CPs, such as when it becomes possible to capture a CP, how long a CP must be held before the main base CPs (bunkers) can be captured, spawning rules around CPs, etc…
It suffices to say that the entire war effort has to do with getting to, capturing and holding these choke points using whatever means available.
The point system
Scoring in the game advances the rank of your different personas. The higher the rank, better the access to more sophisticated weapons, although this levels off very quickly after the first four or so “field promotions”. Until recently, low rank infantry didn’t get to use binoculars. This is no longer the case. Players with little experience get rank quickly. The rate of progress slows down drastically as your rank progresses, and it is in fact nearly impossible to reach rank above Colonel. General and above are ranks by “appointment”, meaning, reserved to the high commands.
Scoring in BE is based on critical kills. Disabling a tank or an aircraft counts as a kill even if the target is not fully destroyed. Take a gun out of operation or blow a wheel off a vehicle is considered critical because it disables the target. Partial credit for assisting is really not a strong feature of the game, although points are awarded for “assists”, such as, being in the vicinity of the player who captured a base.
Scoring is uneven, almost unfair to some extent. The scoring model heavily favors infantry. For the other disciplines, such as air, navy or armor, it can be very tedious to get any rank because so few points are awarded. Also, truck drivers and transport pilots get no points at all, even if presumably their impact can be very significant.
More points are obtained if you make it back to base safely (called an RTB, return to base). Missing in Action gets the least points, rescue is better, RTB is best.
Then again, at some level, game isn’t played for points. Once players have enough points to get the equipment, the scoring doesn’t seem to have any impact outside of personal satisfaction. An online website is setup to track statistics of each player and how they are doing against the rest.
The keymapper in BE is used to map input devices to the various game controls and commands. It is a jewel of input choices. While inputs can be configured to a great level of detail to all the commands available within the game interface, the keymapper is also entirely XML based.
The configuration files can be manually edited for unique functionally, such as overlaying multiple commands on multiple input devices, adjusting joystick sensitivity by command type or by vehicle etc... BE even makes a distinction between a full joystick axis, and a half axis. For example, on half of my X axis controls the right clutch, the other half controls the left clutch.
BE supports any keyboard and DirectX/Mac gaming device and TrackIR axes. Commands can be mapped by vehicle class, or by each unit type. It is one of the more sophisticated and flexible game input mapping I have encountered.
Interview with Cornered Rat
I wish to extend my sincere thanks to Amy-Lynn Engelbrecht at Cornered Rat/Playnet for her assistance getting my questions to the right people, and to the development team for taking the time to answer.
Can you share a bit about the history of Cornered Rat Software
and Playnet? How did this idea come along?
The game has existed for almost 10 years and has such has survived
longer than most subscription based MMORPGs. What do you attribute
this success to?
Why did the name change from World War II Online to Battleground
What are you main development priorities for the next few years?
There is a big upgrade in the Unity graphic engine you have advertised.
Any big features in the works for Unity and other new game features?
WWIIOL early on prided itself by modeling complex projectile ballistics
and even featured ricochet and energy transfer to determine damage.
Can you elaborate on the damage model in BE and how it is simulated?
By today’s standards, the geometry of the models as rendered
looks a bit polygonal and simplified, and there are inconsistencies
in the level of detail, for example, building detail. The same
is true of some of the terrain that is still very triangular, especially
hills. Is this a limitation of the current graphics engine, and
are there any plans to increase the level of detail of the various
models in the game?
You have added the ability to track bodies and tank hulks in recent
years so that eliminated targets persist in the terrain for all
to see. Are more damaged objects going to be persisted along those
lines, and do you visualize the game world having destructible
objects such as trees and bushes?
You’ve worked recently on a release of the game specific
to China. Can you speak a bit as to why China specifically?
Early on in the game (back in 2001), icons from many different
countries were available (Spain, Italy, etc…). Any plans
to add countries to personas outside of German/French/British?
Why not go the entire period of the war? The equipment in game
goes from 1940 to 1943, why not 1939 to 1945?
Do you plan to add other vehicle types in the game such as trains?
There are many empty railway stations and tracks.
Will Battleground Europe ever provide the ability for players to
take-over equipment if its crew has been disabled? Similarly, will
vehicle multi-play support taking over a disabled crew position?
Can you talk a bit about the special event scenarios you hold,
what they are, and why you do have them?
is always a lot going on in BE at the same time, and performance
widely varies. Generally speaking, flying in the air takes the
least performance hit, whereas heavy town battles with hundreds
of players will see frame rates drop in the low double digits.
The frame rate is not so much driven by the resolution or eye candy
of the game as it is by the number of objects being rendered. It
follows that the larger the battle, the lower the performance,
still the player “bubble” system which hides non-critical
objects helps with maintaining very playable frame rates.
Battleground Europe has many aspects and layers. A few pages simply cannot begin to describe all of it. BE is certainly unique in the combat simulator genre, if not a niche: It is almost entirely player driven, it provides an enormous game-world, probably the widest choice of historically accurate units attached to a capable simulator engine able to handle air, ground and ships, all at once, and in very large numbers.
It is backed up by solid game mechanics at the strategic level and it has a player-run command structure. The development team is very much involved with the player community and often participates in the game too.
At the same time, the game carries a daunting learning curve. Staying alive in BE for any period of time is incredibly hard. The game can cause extreme frustration one second and bring extreme satisfaction the next.
Some of the graphics are dated, and the game contains a mixed bag of old and new. Outside of player controlled objects, few things in the game world can be damaged or destroyed which will disappoint some. There are also a few quirks here and there, primarily with the behavior of some vehicles that need to be worked out.
To the developer’s credit, content and quality of the visuals constantly evolve with each patch. Significant new features are announced for the version 1.31 update such as rag-doll physics for infantry, a weather engine, and increased visual eye candy. If the visuals shared by Cornered Rat keep true, it will give the game visuals a significant facelift.
BE is not the kind of game you can casually play, and it is not a “whiz-bang shooter”. It falls squarely in the “serious strategy” category, in a narrow historical context to boot. This will likely delight military buffs and the patient player who favors team based tactical play, planning and outsmarting a very smart opponent. It will also do for anyone looking for a good dogfight or tank battle for that matter.
BE has been around for over eight years, which is more than most MMOs. It is a testament that BE is not only special, but that it has steadfastly succeeded in creating one of the better experiences in the virtual combat genre.
What I Like About Battleground Europe
What I Don't Like About Battleground Europe
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