RAF Tornados wheel like hungry buzzards while a line of British Army Centurions pushes northward, pulverising everything in its path. Another chunk of Denmark is on the verge of liberation when the bottom left corner of the mini-map suddenly contracts a bad case of the measles.
There are Soviet T-55s and BMPs running amok in my rear echelons! My foe has used a wiggly coast road to bypass my carefully placed defences. I'm about to congratulate him on his canniness when I remember I've been playing solo for the last hour. Eugen's latest Cold War RTS features an unusually artful artificial adversary.
Eugene – as I like to call him – loves to attack from unexpected directions, understands the importance of recon and air cover, and isn't afraid to turn coy when the situation warrants it. The sly devil will even use smoke shells to cover threats. Together with a visionary overhaul of the campaign system, he is evidence that the French devs care as much about their solitary customers as their sociable ones. Those familiar with Wargame: European Escalation, the minor masterpiece that was AirLand 's predecessor, won't be surprised to hear that this is another fast-moving tactics game focused on manoeuvre and territorial control rather than base building, resource gathering and tech-tree clambering.
Your watch towers are keen-eyed scout cars and helos. Your HQs are the tracked or wheeled command vehicles necessary for seizing map zones. Strongpoints are the villages, towns and thickets occupied during an advance. Depending on game mode, victories can be achieved by eliminating enemies, capturing a set number of map zones or destroying all hostile HQs.
In the new Scandinavian dynamic campaigns, all battles end rather abruptly at the 20-minute mark. The tight time limits seem restrictive until you realise that outright wins are rarely essential. Because campaigns run for up to 20 days and involve turn-based strategy map conquest, draws and defeats are delays and setbacks rather than exasperating cues to replay scripted scenarios. That East German battlegroup in Malmo might have survived 1,200 seconds of breathless British belligerence, but it has lost ground and weakened. Tomorrow you can have another bash.
Embellishing the high-level strategy map decision-making are interesting Europa Universal is - style event dialogues – should I transfer my Screamin' Eagles battlegroup to off-map South Korea, in the hope it persuades Kim Il-sung to stay out of the European war? – and a tempting array of strategic instruments. The same territory-linked Political Points that fund the deployment of new battlegroups also pay for pre-combat actions like recon sorties, naval bombardments and tactical nuclear strikes.
Like the singleplayer, multiplayer feels honed and brimming with possibilities – the handiwork of an experienced studio at the top of their game. Participate in one of the large team matches and you'll find that inexperience is no obstacle to fun.
While the player that memorises the stats of all 800+ unit types will inevitably enjoy an advantage, a bit of commonsense goes an awfully long way here: recon diligently, and don't advance without some form of anti-air capability close at hand. AirLand's survival secrets are simply the survival secrets of 20th century ground warfare.
Wargame AirLand Battle is European Escalation escalated: more Cold War kit, more tactical tension and more replayability.