Mr. Exposition reviews: Shattered Union

Shattered Union. To be honest, i do not even recall how this game ended up on my shelf. Maybe i fished it out of the bargain bin, maybe borrowed it and forgot to return. But does that matter now? A week or two ago i've installed it to research hexagonal grid and artistic solutions for my own project, only to discover that the game itself is really really good.

This game was made by PopTop Software (who have now merged with Firaxis Games) in 2005. These guys also made Railroad Tycoon 2 and 3, Tropico (a simulator of banana republic dictator) and Tropico 2 (a simulator of pirate island ruler) before Shattered Union.

The aesthetic

The graphics in Shattered Union are nothing to speak of by the standards of 2005... or by today's standards. They're just average - not on the level of Crysis, naturally, but not eye-strainingly bad either. So i will tell you about other, more important parts.

For example, the scale. Units in game are obviously not to it - if compared to vehicles, infantry and helicopters are oversized, and the units themselves are gigantic compared to landscape. The landscape details themselves - buildings, trees - are bigger than they should be compared to terrain (mountains, rivers). You have to percieve the map and units as a "big table" of some strategist, then it all looks very nice. Another thing i should bring up are maps. They are surprisingly realistic. Not one-to-one accurate, but not completely abstract either. You can easily recognize some of the more noticeable landmarks and their surroundings (Hoover Dam, Missisipi Delta, Golden Gate Bridge).

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Yes, the maps in this game are big. Very very big.

Then there's the soundtrack. My goodness, the soundtrack. It's composed mostly of patriotic marches and motifs (flute, anyone?), and some of those are really, really, REALLY catchy. Really. You'll probably find yourself whistling and humming those especially catchy ones.

The premise

So, after a tie vote (and a tie-breaker by the House of Representatives) D. J. Adams - the most unpopular president in the entire history of United States - is elected in 2008. People start rioting, Adams declares martial law in some parts of the country. In 2012, he eliminates all competition and basically hands himself a second term in the office. On inauguration day - January 21, 2013 - that idiot gets nuked along with the rest of Washington DC. California and Texas secede from the Union, by 2014 so does everyone else (hence the game's title). Before you can say "Lombax tail-wrestling tournament", it's the Second American Civil War right on a front lawn! And of course EU can't stay out of it, deploying a peacekeeper force. The result:

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Of course, now that we are in 2010, this whole story looks sort of ridiculous.

The gameplay

You start out on a strategic map, where you can pick one of seven factions - California Commonwealth (inventive and individualistic, orange), Pacifica (hippie cyber-bolsheviks, green), The Republic of Texas (hi-tech anarchist cowboys, red), Great Plains Federation (good ol' farmers just hangin' 'round, yellow), The Confederacy (traditionalists but not rednecks, white), New England Alliance (proud and patriotic, teal), or European Union (peacekeepers and piss-takers, blue). On strategic map, each turn is a "week". Each week you get a heap of cash off of your territories, you can attack someone else once per week, and get attacked one or multiple times per week (so you'll have to defend or give up the contested territory). You can go to Unit Menu, from which you can buy new units, sell units already in your army, or repair those of your units that are damaged. You can view territories, and select those next to your land to try and take.

If you have enemy territory flanked by yours from multiple sides, you can choose the direction your army will attack from. If you decide to attack, the Unit Menu opens, and you can choose which units you want to attack with. Taking every single one is not recommended - you'll need to leave some at the base in case one of your territories will need defending. You can choose to deploy units manually or let computer handle this. Deployment zones for the attacker are placed along the edge of the map he's attacking from, while DZs for the defender are located in and around cities. Besides normal units, you can also deploy airfields (if you take planes along) and single-use units (bought like any others, but you'll have to buy another for another battle).

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Contrary to this image, nuclear explosions are quite rare in-game. But they sure look good!

Tactical battles are also turn-based (no shit, Sherlock), only each turn is counted as a "day" instead. Victory is achieved in one of three ways.
Way 1: Kill all enemy units.
Way 2: Take and hold neccesary amount of strategic towns.
Way 3: The enemy may resign battle himself to save some units.
Game uses hexagonal grid for tactical battles. Lighter units have firing distance of one hex, heavier - two hexes, artillery and anti-air - three or four hexes. Two units, enemies or allies, cannot occupy same hex at once (but friendly units can pass through eachother).

The landscape also plays a role in battles. Roads increase movement distance (pathfinding algorithm prefers units to travel by roads), but lower defense stat. Hills and forests add defense while decreasing movement distance. Cities provide additional defense, but the drawback is collateral damage from firefights (see below). Rivers can be hard to traverse for some units and outright impassable for others - you may need to go look for a bridge. Another factor with movement is fuel reserve - one point of fuel is expended per one hex. Different units have different fuel reserves. Unit stops in place (but still can attack) if it runs out of fuel. Of course, infantry does not require fuel.

The combat is simple. Attacking unit fires first, attacked unit retaliates - if survives. There's only one chance to attack and one to retaliate per turn, special powers notwithstanding. On the other hand, units with anti-air capacity always retaliate against airplanes. Every unit has four stats for attacking: effectiveness vs. infantry (EvI), vs. vehicles (EvV), vs. aircraft (EvA), and collateral damage. Each unit also has defensive rating.

Attack formula: ATK rating against that type of unit [minus] attacked unit's DEF rating [equals] damage dealt.

If DEF rating is higher than ATK rating, no damage will be dealt. Some units have average capability against all types of targets, others have higher but specialized damage. Types of units are: single-use ones, infantry (best in the forest/city), light armor (fast but fragile), medium armor (good all-rounders), heavy armor (main battering ram), artillery (long range, huge power, thin armour), anti-air (again, big range, but useful only against air targets), helicopters (obscene damage, obscene speed, obscene cost), and airplanes. Airplanes are not controlled normally - they are called in via "Airstrike" button. In addition to shooting down helicopters, a fighter plane can patrol sector for one turn.

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Each side of the huge battle you see here takes up all units a player can have... or about that.

A small note on units: six American factions have similar set of units, except for one "supertank" per each side. Californians have FCS Jackson flamethrower tanks, Pacifica - FCS Stuart gatling tanks, Texans - FCS Hood plasma cannon tanks, Great Plains - large FCS Grant howitzers, Confederacy - FCS Lee laser tanks, New England - FCS Bragg rocket tanks. European Union and Russia (why yes, Evil Russians - why do you ask?) have completely different sets of units.

Finally, special powers. Sidebar on a left contains powers of varying effectiveness. After you use the ability, it has to recharge for a certain amount of turns - the more powerful it is, the longer it takes to recharge. There's a whole lot of stuff, from electromagnetic pulses to repair nanorobots to spy satellites to corrosive solutions to nuclear warheads. And that's where collateral damage comes in: if you just ruin everyone's shit, your political reputation plummets down and you get progressively more and more careless powers up to such fine things as Black Plague and cassete bombs. Go on, kids, have fun!

Alternatively, you can avoid collateral damage and improve your reputation, getting other - and dare i say, better - things, such as healing powers and precision-guided rockets. As with every moral choice system (yes, there will be different endings), the main problem is that you have to take a good or bad route if you want to have the best toys... then again, best toys have ridiculous recharge times.

The drawbacks

The biggest drawback of Shattered Union is that it's a turn-based strategy. Not everyone likes those, obviously. I, for example, currently play the campaign for the first time. Not being a TBS veteran, i'm playing on an easy difficulty, and at the start it was still pretty hard. On the other hand, now that i took 3/4 of USA, i'm pretty much steamrolling the opposition. I'm not even gonna imagine how it is on a hard difficulty.

Unit Menu could certainly be better. The mode switch (allowing you to select buy mode, sell/repair mode, and deployment mode) is not obvious enough, and i went without repairing my units for some time because of this. Units on the table cannot be dragged around, which means it'll be rather disorganized.

There's also the case of "misfires" - you can accidentially order unit to move farther than intended, shoot the wrong enemy unit, or miss when you use a special power. You can't take those blunders back, so you have to be accurate. But meh, now i'm just nitpicking.

And finally, "The Warhammer 40k Problem". For those of you who do not speak nerd, it means "complete lack of any diplomacy whatsoever, even when it would be reasonable and fully expected". Not a big problem for me, but other people may expect that United States will be... well, united, back toghether with something other than military action.

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Artillery, tanks, helicopters... the glorious symphony of fiery death and destruction.

I have retroactively moved screenshots into the main body of a review, because "wall of text" didn't look that good.

Please note that graphics in game look better than these screenshots. Those must be from beta or something.

Recommendation: Shattered Union is a solid turn-based strategy. Whether you'll like it depends entirely on whether you like turn-based strategies or not. If you do, you should try to seek it out. If you don't - consider buying it if you see it, it's still good (and cheap) game. And if you are a hyperactive 13-year old who considers Halo slow-paced and talks like overcaffeinated chipmunk, don't even bother.

Website of Shattered Union is here.

My other reviews:
Freedom Force
Cortex Command

My early reviews:
Machinarium
Platypus

Please don't comment on those, as they are very old. Send me a PM if you want to ask something. On the other hand, i'd like you to comment here - on this review. If you took time to read it, please take some more time to feed my ego a little bit.

"We must all hang together, or assuredly we will all hang separately" - Benjamin Franklin.

On a completely unrelated note, i'd pay a very large amount of money to see a Lombax tail-wrestling tournament.

Very good indeed, this sounds like an interesting game to say the least, though odds are I'm not going to end up playing it.
Still, for a guy who likes reviewing things not everyone is aware of you certainly know how to stack praise and critcisms quite fairly and also make it entertaining to read, I especially liked the little note about how the game is set in 2014 and yet now that we are living in 2010 it seems unlikely. I like it mostly because I remember thinking a similar thought about Back to the Future 2.

Still in any case, great review, and keep up the good work.

Sounds like an interesting game although one that is not for me. Personally, I hate the report style of review with subheadings pertaining to the game and prefer to write it essay style, but that's just me. In terms of your analysis and criticism of the game I thought it was average.

Not average in the sense it's mediocre, but among a sea of decent and fairly talented writers, you are one too.

starfox444:
Personally, I hate the report style of review with subheadings pertaining to the game and prefer to write it essay style, but that's just me.

Funny thing there. My first review was, in fact, in essay style... well, sort of, anyway. But that was because the game itself (Platypus) was extremely fast-paced, and i wrote that first review immediately after jumping out of it. Plus, it's easier for me to write if i divide review in sections - i guess i'm just lazy.

Just felt like I should point out, this is half-off (so $5 USD) on Impulse right now.

 

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