The American Civil War has never really been a popular subject in gaming circles. It often appears to exist in a limbo between the first-person shooter market of the World Wars and the strategic markets of Medieval to Napoleonic conflicts. It also tends to suffer from a lack of appeal to anyone who is not actively interested in American history, or anyone who isn’t American in general. Therefore, as a Brit with an interest in American history, Game-Labs’ attempts to rekindle the genre with Ultimate General: Civil War and its predecessor Ultimate General: Gettysburg are a welcome addition to my steam library.
The framing of the game is fairly simple, you play as either a Union or Confederate General, commanding your own Corps across various battles throughout the Civil War, consisting of both historical conflicts and side missions, (at the time of writing, the game is still in early access, so some historical battles are unavailable). The General creation system allows you to select three background traits that affect your starting skills, serving as somewhat of a blunt instrument in play-style tailoring, but a nice addition that most strategy games often forego to focus more on army creation. Over the course of your army career you will have the option to use points to advance several general skills including improving recruitment, unit replenishment, and starting supplies. Ultimate General: Civil War also allows you a more intricate army building structure than more prominent titles such as Total War. You are given complete control not only over the types of unit each of your Corps will contain, but also their size, their weaponry, and the officers you choose to command them. The larger a unit gets, the more difficult it is to move efficiently or keep steady under fire. Larger units will often require more focused attention from your generals to stop their morale from collapsing at a critical moment. This leads to an interesting balancing act outside of actual engagements and you will find yourself often thinking about what functions each Corps may serve in a battle. Will the Corps be a skirmish focused force with smaller units of scouts and a small artillery brigade, or a stronger force of large infantry regiments designed to push the enemy back through sheer force alone? The same questions arise when investigating the weapons you decide to equip to your units. Some may be slower firing but better in melee engagements, while others will serve well at range but leave the unit as a sitting duck if the enemy reaches them with their bayonets.
Visually, Ultimate General: Civil War appears much like a table-top game with toy soldiers moving around on a terrain map. While the game does not achieve the visual depth that Total War manages, the tilt-shift sprites serve just as well considering the reliance on large regiments and field movements that are typical of the period. The campaign map is also an interesting geographical representation of the eastern USA, giving a little artistic flair outside of actual combat. The battle map perspective also allows you to survey terrain elevations more easily without relying on the topographical overlays that were present in Ultimate General: Gettysburg, giving a little more realism during strategy building.
Regarding the actual combat, the mechanics of Ultimate General: Civil War are fairly simple, although mastering them effectively in battle can often prove challenging. Different terrain types exists across each map, including forests, settlements, corn fields and rivers. Each offers different advantages and pitfalls depending on your needs. A river may be useful in slowing an enemy advance but could also prove disastrous for any counter-attack you might attempt. Morale also plays a much more prominent role than other popular strategy games on the market. A unit can easily break into uncontrollable retreat if they are flanked or engaged in melee for a prolonged period, and will often need to tactically fall back or be supported by morale bonuses from general units. While this is a more accurate depiction of unit behavior, there seems to be some balancing issues against the enemy AI, which often seems capable of engaging in melee and charging across long distances with little to no effect on its own morale (often despite continuous cannon and musket fire raining down on them). While this might be a forgivable oversight in early access, it will need amending to avoid continual player frustration. Army composition issues also seem to be a main sticking point from making this game particularly enjoyable. What seems to be a recurring issue is while you will have to preserve your own soldiers throughout an engagement (with all the morale loss and casualties of fighting), the enemy often re-emerges with fresh units and little to no carryover of battle effects. Longer battles often move through separate stages, with different parts of the field becoming tactically important at different times. However, while the player is often tasked with maneuvering already battle damaged units to new strategic points. Frequently, the AI forces bring in fresh units which often re-balance the battle with little ability for the player to counter the new threat. A feature for emergency reinforcement could be a welcome addition here, perhaps with a penalty but still allowing fresh units against the AI. Scaling mechanics also feed into this issue as the enemy will always have equal or better troops regardless of the outcome of a previous engagement.
Ultimate General: Civil War also prides itself on a dynamic campaign. Besides optional missions that can affect your skill point collection and finances, there is little evidence of your victories affecting the outcome of the war. This also becomes a sticking point in engagements, as objectives will be more linked to historical battle objectives rather than what is occurring on the field. These objectives can serve to completely wreck any strategy you may have or allow the enemy to win by simply controlling an area that may be historically important but not in line with how the battle is progressing in reality. This means you either brush up on Civil War military history or learn to think incredibly quickly. For those of us who aren’t genius tacticians, this mechanic will require improvement so player’s decisions actually matter in the heat of battle.
Overall, Ultimate General: Civil War is an addition that any strategy gamer with an interest in the Civil War period should take a look at. Despite it lacking the graphical scale of more established strategy games, the tactical system makes it easy for newcomers to grasp, but with enough detailed unit management and strategy features to build a steep learning curve and provide an actual sense of challenge that requires long-term planning. However, the issues with unit scaling, historic flexibility of battle objectives, and advantages of AI morale will need amending to prevent players eventually giving up out of frustration towards what would otherwise be an engaging strategic retelling of the Civil War.
More information on Ultimate General: Civil War can be found here