Righty-ho, this is going to be the last of this batch of strategy game lookbacks because, as I might have intimated here before, I find writing strategy titles up an enormous rectal discomfort. This is because so damn few games in this genre are simple and straightforward and the articles always end-up being about the various features and rules of the games rather than what they feel like to play, whether they’ve weathered time well, and any crude jokes I can wrangle out of them. The next batch of games are going to be straightforward action games; oh yes.
Luckily, this last strategy title is a bit simpler than the others. Theatre Europe is not, as the title might suggest to some, about putting on a Continental performance of As You Like It (although I imagine some boring bastard has written just such a game) but about the balloon going up and the military juggernauts of NATO and the Warsaw Pact going at it tooth and claw in the mid 1980s. This jolly, upbeat little game was published in 1985 by PSS (which stands for Personal Software Services which can’t help but remind me of a film called Personal Services which was all about prostitution, but anyway…) for the ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Atari 8-bit and Commodore 64. Because of my appalling Spectrum bias so far I’ve decided to play the C64 version for the purposes of this article, although all versions of the game are very similar from what I’ve seen.
The plot is built-on Cold War politics of the mid-80s. A conventional war has started between the superpowers and their allies; essentially the Warsaw Pact is trying to secure control of West Germany and NATO is trying to prevent them from doing the same with the player being able to choose either side (I plumped for NATO). There are also neutral armies which will defend their respective countries from invasion by either side. Both sides have a number of different armies (represented with blue and red blobs on the strategic map) which, over a number of different phases per turn, can be moved, ordered to attack and “rebuilt” (ie resupplied with equipment and air support). After these orders have been given the player is shown a screen detailing Special Missions which mean ordering either a chemical or nuclear strategic attack.
The game has “arcade screens” and the player can opt to have these turned on or off at the options screen before starting a game. These appear when the orders to attack have been given (by either side) with the player choosing an in-combat army to represent at which point the game displays a backdrop of countryside (if fighting outside a city) or a city (if fighting… well… in a city). The player controls a target and must fire missiles at the enemy which is represented by little tank-things rolling from the horizon to the middle of the screen whilst protecting friendly vehicles which roll along from side to side at the bottom of the screen. Additionally enemy aircraft fly overhead. This arcade section is, to be blunt, a bit confusing. According to the instructions I’m supposed to fire my missiles and then keep the target aimed on enemy vehicles in order to destroy them but it doesn’t seem to work like that at all and the best way (as far as I could see) way of blowing up the Soviet army seemed to be to fire a missile and then arrange for it to fly into the side of the approaching T72s (or whatever they’re supposed to be). Aircraft can be destroyed by the player as well according to the instructions but from my experience they simply exploded by themselves every so often (or was that down to my vehicles occasionally throwing into the air what looked like bunches of white dots, I’m not sure). Apparently, how you fare in this one fight will have a knock-on effect on all the battles your troops are involved in that turn so destroying as many enemy as possible is important. This is all reasonably entertaining at first but you’ll soon grow tired or it and turn it off in favour of proper strategy.
The proper strategy, as it happens, is mostly pretty straightforward. You move armies, order them to attack (or leave them to defend) and replenish what you can during the “rebuild” stage. There’s also some stuff about air power which involves prioritising air superiority, counter air (ie attacking airstrips and the like), interdict (trashing the supply lines of the enemy) and reconnaissance. Apparently, these affect the chances of the ground troops you control directly, I’m told it’s an important part of the strategy that can turn the tide of the war if used correctly but I can’t say I noticed it making much difference.
The Special Missions is the most dramatic part of the game. There are three types of attack you can order: chemical weapon attack (the computer chooses the target for you, Moscow in the case of the game I was playing), strategic single nuclear strike (nuke a city in other words) and a full nuclear strike which basically blows the entire world up. In order to use nuclear weapons, the player originally had to call a real-life phone number to obtain the authorisation code (“Midnight Sun” as wikipedia kindly told me). My game ended with a full nuclear strike; what a silly sausage I am. Still, at least I didn’t end-up having to spend my days in a re-education camp carving a marble bust of Marx and composing Das Kapital: The Musical, eh readers?
It’s clear from the manual that the programmers put a lot of thought and detail into this game with the two power blocs represented roughly accurately and the various war options open to the players roughly what was available to commanders at the time, even the suicidal Mutually Assured Destruction option of a full nuclear strike. The instructions list a bibliography used to inform the game including various books on (then contemporary) NATO/Warsaw Pact capabilities, leaflets from the American and Soviet embassies and documentation from CND. Playing the game itself feels like a simulation of the basics of a European Western/Soviet face-off as well. There’s no exciting dashes for Moscow for NATO troops or marching into Paris if you’re playing as the Soviets, it’s all purely about control of West Germany and much of the strategic map doesn’t even get used.
So how does it all come together? Is it a magnificent piece of wargaming or a pile of poo? Well, neither to be honest. It’s all well-detailed without being confusing or full of tedious minutae and playing it is certainly fairly interesting but limitations in gameplay really put a dampner on a lot of things. For example, the manual mentions some “assumptions” the game made which effect how the war plays out such as: that the Warsaw Pact won’t start the war with a nuclear bombardment, that NATO will control the Atlantic, that the French will enter the war immediately. It would have been better to either let the player decide or randomise these factors making for a more realistic scenario. The “action” sequences are also very crude, poorly-implemented and don’t seem to add much to the game. I thought having “closeup” representations of the battle was a good idea but it should have been done in a way other than a confusing shooting-gallery. The strategic part of the game isn’t too bad and works quite well but the player only really has control of ground forces and can only really tell them to move and attack; things like air support/warfare and naval engagements are taken care of by the computer offscreen and it’s all a bit vague as to how they effect gameplay. The Special Missions also seem to be a bit limited with any nuclear or chemical strike being immediately responded to in kind and with one option basically ending the game. I suppose there’s a strong real-world point being made here about what happens when one nuclear power attacks another nuclear power but, from the point of just playing a strategic game, it doesn’t really add much.
Theatre Europe isn’t a bad piece of software at all, it’s certainly interesting for a couple of games, but it all looks a bit primitive and limited to modern eyes. A shame, since it’s the only game I can think of off-hand that’s a strategic simulation of a cold war superpower confrontation on this sort of scale. When thinking of other cold war videogames I can only really think of Steel Panthers which simulates things at the individual battle scale rather than an overall war and the realist FPS Operation Flashpoint which again takes place at a small scale and is also somewhat hampered by a very silly plot and (sigh) being set for no good reason in a made-up country. The Red Alert games, I think we can safely say, don’t really count. Theatre Europe is an interesting title in an under-represented sub-genre and it’s worth a look but it really hasn’t aged that well.