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Ultimate General: Civil War - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Detailed recreations of historic battles
  • Generally competent A.I.
  • Maneuvering units in complex paths
  • "Fallback" command creates ebb and flow in battles
  • Sense of ownership over your army
  • Sometimes you have to lose a battle to win the war

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • A lot of rote memorization of battles
  • Exploitable victory conditions
  • A.I. tends to leave artillery exposed
  • Lacks some advanced unit commands
  • Lacks some graphical effects present in UG: Gettysburg

Overall Impression :B-
Movement and falling back mechanics should become standard in all RTSes

Ultimate General: Civil War - cover

Developer:
Game Labs

Publisher:
Game Labs

Platforms:
PC (via Steam)

MSRP: $30 USD

Original release date:
14 July 2017

Genre:
historical strategy

ESRB Rating: N/A

Player(s):
single player

Official site:
ultimategeneral.com/

Colbert: Total War Civil War, give it to me!

I've asked on numerous occasion for Creative Assembly to build a Total War game based on the American Civil War. I thought for sure that Total War: Shogun 2's second expansion Fall of the Samurai -- with its focus on industrialization, trains, telegraphs, gatling guns, and ironclads -- was setting the series up for a Civil War game. Sadly, that wasn't the case. Creative Assembly decided to move onto Rome II, then to Attila, before diving into all-out fantasy with -- not one, but two -- Total War: Warhammer games!

I've heard that the Total War: Warhammer games are actually pretty awesome, but I have zero interest in Warhammer, so I skipped them entirely. I'll admit that part of that was also because I was a bit bitter that I still hadn't gotten the Total War: Civil War game that I had wanted. Maybe Creative Assembly, being a studio based in the U.K. simply isn't that interested in the American Civil War? Or maybe they felt that Empire's American Revolution campaign already focused enough on the United States?

Addressing Gettysburg

But even though Creative Assembly isn't giving my that game [yet], there's no shortage of Civil War games from other developers. A few years ago, a little indie dev studio called Game Labs released one such game on Steam: Ultimate General: Gettysburg. It was a $15 budget title exclusively about the battle of Gettysburg. Not the entire Civil War, not battles surrounding or related to Gettysburg. Just Gettysburg. The game was praised for its simple UI, its historic details, and realistic, competitive, and highly-customizable A.I..

I played the game very briefly last year, but never actually finished the single battle provided, nor felt that the game was substantive enough (or that I had played enough of it) to warrant a full review. I was fairly impressed with the difficulty and challenge that the game provided, as well as the way in which it presented the actual history of the battle, while still leaving many individual tactical decisions up to the player.

If I had any complaints with that game, it probably only would have been that its narrow scope made it feel a bit overpriced at $15. I had bought it during a sale, so I didn't feel cheated, but I could easily see other people being upset by paying $15 for (basically) a tech demo of a single battle. $10 or less probably would have been the sweet spot.

Well, it turns out that Ultimate General: Gettysburg was basically a tech demo (and a financing plan) for Game Labs' larger, more ambitious project: Ultimate General: Civil War. The new game's scope encompasses the entire Civil War and includes a full campaign. It also sports a cleaner interface that clearly displays your objectives, better controls, and other improvements.

Ultimate General: Gettysburg - Seminary Ridge
UG: Gettysburg labeled historical points of interest on the map.
When it says, "Fall back to Seminary Ridge", you know exactly where that place is.

Oddly enough, UG: Civil War isn't a strict upgrade from UG: Gettysburg. There's a few features from UG: Gettysburg that have strangely been removed. The original Gettysburg game had some very pretty battlefield artwork that displayed the names of the various locations on the map. Hills, ridges, forests, and even some individual buildings and roads were all labeled with their real-life names! McPherson's Ranch, Culp Hill, Cemetery Ridge, and more are all here. It was an excellent way of providing a sense of place to the player, as well as some historic context. Sadly that feature has been removed from the full Civil War game. I wonder if the developer just didn't have the time or resources to research that level of detail for every battle included. Or maybe it's just because the smaller skirmish sites of battles like Bull Run, Shiloh, and Antietam aren't as infamous as the sites in Gettysburg? Or maybe there were licensing issues with some of the sites, and they decided that if they couldn't include some names, then they'd rather just not include any?

Ultimate General: Gettysburg

The maps of UG: Gettysburg also had a stylized, polished look to them, the movement arrows were bigger and stood out more (and they stayed on screen to remind you of where the units were headed, and to give the game a textbook-like appearance), elevation and line-of-sight were a bit easier to determine, and so on. This isn't to say that UG: Civil War is a particularly ugly game to look at. If you can get past the simplistic unit sprites, then the game still looks fine. It's just that UG: Gettyburg looked noticeably better!

A House Divided Against Itself...

The campaign of Ultimate General: Civil War will take the player through most of the major battles of the American Civil War. Not just Gettysburg. It also includes some optional smaller skirmishes and situations. In between battles, you'll be tasked with spending money and character prestige to replenish your troops, recruit new and larger regiments, equip your troops with better weapons, and assigning officers to command your corps and divisions. As you win battles, you'll be awarded experience levels that you can spend to upgrade your custom general in several different categories. Upgrading your economy skill will lower the cost of troops and provisions. Increasing your organization skill will increase the size of your army. Increasing your training skill will improve the fighting ability of your regiments. And so on.

Ultimate General: Civil War - army
You recruit troops, hire generals, equip your brigades, and supply them with ammunition.

Each regiment and its officer(s) will also gain experience and various level perks that will improve their performance. Having an officer wounded or killed can take those perks away, and having a veteran division depleted in a futile battle may force you to hire raw recruits that will lower the training level of that entire division. In the end, however, I've found that pumping your points into army organization and having as many bodies as possible seems to be the easiest path to victory.

What you won't be doing in the campaign is deciding which battles to fight. After all, you're not in charge of the entire Union or the entire Confederacy; you're just a single general in charge of a single army. The campaign basically acts as a guided tour of historic battles. Each major battle will have a couple smaller battles that you can fight in order to earn extra money, recruits, and prestige. These smaller battles can also provide passive bonuses in the larger historic battles by reducing the enemy numbers or taking away their access to certain weapons or supplies. There's rarely ever any reason to not fight these side battles, as the reward is almost always worth the risk.

Ultimate General: Civil War - campaign
The campaign will take you through detailed recreations of historic battles.

Focusing the player on a single army (rather than on the entire nation) really does provide a sense of familiarity and ownership over your army. I felt genuinely upset when one of my generals got wounded, and having one killed almost made me rage quit and restart a battle -- especially if that general and his division had just courageously held a chokepoint against overwhelming odds in the previous battle. But I didn't rage quit, because the other thing that the game really sells me on is the sense of consequence for my decisions. If a general died because I was reckless with his division, then in subsequent battles, I'd be much more careful with all my troops.

Testing whether any nation, so conceived and dedicated, shall long endure

Playing as the Union seems to be the game's unlabeled "hard" mode -- at least at the beginning. You're told up front that the Confederates have a better organized and better trained army, but that the Union has more manpower, more money, and better logistical support (as was the case in real life). You'd think that these would provide some trade-offs. I expected that my Union army would have more troops on the field, but that any one regiment would lose any one-on-one engagement with a similarly-sized, but better trained, Confederate regiment.

That may be the case over the course of the entire campaign, but it certainly isn't the case in the individual early battles -- at least, not in my experience. Not only were the Confederate troops better, but I also often found myself severely outnumbered in early engagements. Even battles that the Union is "supposed to win", like Shiloh, proved to be exceedingly difficult for me to even pull out a draw because of the Confederacy's overwhelming numbers. Their individual regiments were twice the size of mine, and they had more regiments in total.

Ultimate General: Civil War - Pittsburg's Landing
I was consistently outnumbered and overwhelmed in the Union campaign.

Something that piled onto this problem was that the game didn't always clearly explain certain aspects of the missions up front. Some battles are better explained than others. The poorly-explained battles sometimes wouldn't tell me where I was supposed to retreat to if things went bad. Maybe this would have worked better if the names of places were labeled on the map (like in UG: Gettysburg). It also wouldn't always explain when I should expect reinforcements, or how many (and what type) of reinforcements I would receive. Would they be additional regiments from my own corps that would cost me my own resources? Or would they be historical "NPC" regiments that I could throw at the enemy as cannon fodder without any consequence?

The combination of being severely outnumbered, and not always knowing what I'd be expected to do in the battles would force me to have to replay many of the early battles. So if I won, it wasn't via clever or brilliant tactics, it would be via rote memorization. That's not really a very fun way to have to play a strategy game. Granted, this is a game based on real history, and the individual battles follow this history almost to the "T" (even moreso than UG: Gettysburg), but I'd still like to feel like it's my own moment-by-moment decisions that are winning me the battle, not a series of rotely-memorized steps and movements.

The Confederate campaign seems much friendlier to newcomers.

The Confederate campaign, on the other hand, starts out much easier, and is a much gentler introduction to the game. Though even the very first battle of that campaign might require you replay it a few times before you're able to capture that fort, since you will easily lose if you don't know to bee-line directly to cut off the reinforcing Union infantry. The scenario tells you that this is what you're supposed to do, but it leaves very little margin for error. If this is your very first battle (and you're still learning the controls), then you probably won't make it in time to stop the reinforcements from reaching the fort, which makes the mission all but impossible.

The smart, the dumb, and the ugly

The actual gameplay of Ultimate General is fairly solid, though it does have some significant and noticeable flaws.

Ultimate General: Civil War - drawing paths
Click-and-drag to draw flanking maneuvers, or to move your units along paths that provide cover.

The primary gimmick of the game is its novel tactical controls. Instead of simply clicking on a location to have a unit move there, you are able to click-and-drag to draw a path for your unit to follow. This allows you to easily move your unit through the cover of woods or wheat fields, or to easily execute flanking maneuvers, or to easily move your units across your formation along the back lines. And all this is done without the need for shift-clicking or setting up complicated way-points.

Another neat feature is the inclusion of a "fallback" command. This command is used when you need to escape from an assault, or if you want to cede some ground to your enemy in order to better position yourself or bait the enemy into a trap. If you simply order your unit to move to a position to their rear, they'll turn around and get shot in the back. This can often lead to the unit panicking or routing. Falling back, on the other hand, allows them to retreat in a safer manner. Proper use of this technique is absolutely key to the game.

Ultimate General: Civil War - falling back
Falling back is a critical technique to learn and utilize.

In other games like Total War, I often find myself simply lining up my units and crashing them into the enemy. Then I just wait for one side or the other to retreat or die. In Ultimate General, however, I find myself using one or two brigades to provide suppressing fire while a third brigade charges into melee with the enemy. Tactics like this create an ebb and flow in the battles that keeps them feeling dynamic and engaging. The front lines of every battle are constantly moving, and it always feels like your attention is needed somewhere, but never feels like you have to babysit each individual unit. It's also very helpful that your own cannons do not (as far as I can tell) do friendly or collateral damage -- not very realistic, but very helpful!

Ultimate General: Civil War - undefended A.I. artillery
The A.I. tends to leave artillery undefended.

The best part, however, is that the A.I. is actually pretty competent (compared to my skill level, anyway). The A.I. does a pretty good job of creating solid lines, covering its flanks, protecting defensive positions, executing the occasional flanking maneuver, and even taking opportunistic assaults if you leave a position vulnerable. The only real consistent weakness that I noticed with the A.I. was that the A.I. never seemed to bother defending its artillery. The A.I. consistently just parks its artillery far behind its front lines, where it's trivially easy for me to send a detachment of one or two cavalry divisions to run behind the lines and pick them off. Routed units also have a frustrating habit of running through opposing units (instead of back towards their own lines), and then regrouping behind the enemy lines and attacking. It feels like an outright cheat.

I also have some U.I. hangups with the game. I find myself consistently frustrated by the inability to issue commands when multiple units are selected. If you're being outgunned, you can't simply drag and select all your brigades to tell them to fall back. Instead, you have to click on each one individually and give the "fallback" order. Similarly, you can't tell multiple infantry brigades to dispatch skirmishers, or tell multiple cavalry brigades to mount or dismount. There isn't a multi-player mode, but if there was, then having to assign orders to units one at a time like this (without the benefit of being able to pause) would probably be an outright deal-breaker. Especially considering how important the "fallback" command is.

Supply wagons and artillery are also excessively slow, and cavalry and generals are blindingly fast, so the lack of an "escort" command is also a pretty unwelcome oversight. And even though you can select multiple units and drag them into a formation at their destination, you can't order them to march in formation or to match speeds (as you can in Total War). In light of the game's innovative new concepts, the lack of some of these other basic concepts just seems even more egregious. I guess that's the difference between an small indie team and a massive, "Triple-A" developer.

Ultimate General: Civil War - create a line
You can also click and drag with multiple units in order to freely draw a defensive line.

There's also some easily exploitable win conditions in many battles. When the timer runs out, you have the option to end the battle or to continue fighting for some extra duration. If you lose a victory point to the enemy, you can simply withhold finishing the battle, bait them out of the victory point, then move your own skirmisher or cavalry in to claim the victory point. You can then immediately hit the "Finish" button to "win" the battle, even if you can't possibly hold that victory point, and even if you are actually being completely pushed back by the enemy. Of course, whether or not you do that is completely up to you. I have, however, seen the A.I. accidentally stumble onto executing this trick once or twice.

A new birth of freedom

Ultimate General: Civil War is a solid indie Civil War game and is well worth checking out for strategy fans and for people interested in the American Civil War. It's not quite the deep, complex, free-form game that I've been hoping to see from Creative Assembly's Total War series, but I can't really expect it to be. Overall, I recommend the game! It doesn't have the polish of a bigger-budget title, but what it does do well, it does really well, and it provides some deep and compelling strategy gaming.

Those of you who do try it out will find a game that does have some genuine innovations. Strategy game developers like Creative Assembly should definitely look closely at Ultimate General's unit movement commands. Drawing movement paths and including a "fall back" command are things that should probably become standard in real-time strategy games -- especially those with historical or realistic settings.

Ultimate General: Civil War - defeat
There's a bit of a learning curve, and my first campaign did not last long.

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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