The American Civil War has long vied with the exploits of Napoleon and Wellington as the war gamer's favourite gaming period, and there have been a few mostly ill-fated attempts to bring the sweep of this continental struggle to the small screen over the years.
Impressions, whose games have in the past covered just about every other area of conflict, have entered the fray with a game aimed at those who enjoy marshalling lead figures around a tabletop, and those who prefer a more behind-the-
Creating a playable computer game which mimics the movement of thousands of troops on a battlefield is notoriously difficult, and when this is paired with a strategic overview of a four-year war, the task becomes a little daunting. Can Impressions pull it off?
When the South began the bombardment of Fort Sumter, Charleston, in April 1861, they were taking the first armed steps in a war which was to last four years and cost the lives of 617,000 Americans, two-thirds of whom were destined to die in the charnel houses that were the hospitals of the time.
Despite the initial successes of the Confederate forces, their early military superiority, dashing tactics (particularly in the Shenandoah valley under Jackson and Longstreet), and fanatical commitment could only delay the day when northern industrial and numerical superiority ground them into the dust.
Bull Run, where Stonewall Jackson earned his nickname, was to be followed by a succession of victories and defeats until the turning point of the war at Gettysburg. There the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania died, along with 23,000 Union troops and 28,000 Confederates, and Robert E Lee had suffered his first defeat.
The psychological effect of the battle on both sides was immense, and the North gradually pushed the Rebs back until, on April 9, 1865, Lee signed the terms of his surrender to his old rival Ulysses S Grant in the courthouse of a tiny town called Appomattox.
It had been the bloodiest war in US history, more costly even than World War 2 was to prove.
There is nothing left for me to do but go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths
General Robert E Lee just before his surrender to Grant
Split into strategical and tactical sections, the game's simulation of the Civil War is by no means perfect, but it is good enough given the limitations of a two-disk package and a four-year continental war.
Strategy is probably the weakest section, and players are limited in what they can do to affect the outcome of the war. Using train and ship transports properly, destroying railway lines, and judging where and when to commit reserves or raise new divisions are the only real strategic decisions.
As the north's victory was so dependent upon its numerical and economic strength aided by a naval blockade, some sort of economic dimension to the game would have helped. However, as the war itself consisted mostly of attempts to locate and destroy as many enemy troops as possible, the lack of more subtle elements is acceptable.
In battle mode, poor graphics don't help much, but the battle system itself is well worked out. Troops can be grouped into large formations or used as individual units, and they can be told to form lines two deep, assume skirmishing formation, or even squares.
Each unit has its own firepower, attack, and defence ratings as well as troop quality and morale, all of which have a direct result on gameplay, and different weapons can have an effect too.
Union troops, for example, have the Sharps and Enfield carbines whereas Confederates use mostly older muskets, and cavalry can be told to use either sabres for maximum effect in charges, or carbines for more static manoeuvres.
In play, moving troops around can be a real pain, and the control system during battles is rather clunky at times. However, so long as the battle speed is kept down (there are ten settings), tabletop players should feel at home with most elements.
If you can see past the graphics and have the patience to play a full battle, then there is a good war gaming system trying to break free of the game design, and fans fo the genre should find enough depth to keep them going.65%
Without becoming too gruesome, the game does make an attempt at battle noises, with musket volleys, neighing horses and booming cannons at the appropriate moment, but there's a distinct lack of other touches.
I would have liked a Rebel Yell when the Confederates charge (which, true to life, they often do in this game), and some sort of general battle hubbub, but overall the sound isn't too bad. Music is OK, as far as it goes,which isn't far, and there are a couple of attempts at the battle hymns of the time.50%
The game's graphics vary in quality and consistency depending upon which screen is being viewed, so while the static information screens and the strategic maps are quite well drawn, the representation of battle is poor and based entirely on the existing Impressions battle system which hasn't changed much for a couple of years.
To the tabletop fanatic used to pushing immaculately modelled and painted figures across intricately detailed fake countryside the battle scenes will be a particular disappointment. Soldiers are drawn in blocky lo-res and move jerkily across the screen, and the battlefields themselves are about as basic as one can get.
On the other hand, information screens showing historical events from the war itself are easy on the eye, and the map of North America is up to the task.
Graphics during the manoeuvre and strategic phases of the game don't impress in an artistic sense, but they are good enough and the various control options are presented clearly and neatly.
More realistic battle scenes would have given The Blue and the Gray a much better visual appeal, but as this is a more cerebral game than most, it is not as damaging a weakness as it might otherwise have been.50%
Sixty per cent might seem a generous score for a game which falls over in the graphics side and has a few simulation flaws, but as Impressions are aiming at the war gaming fan and as the battle system is basically sound, The Blue and the Gray comes over as a reasonable attempt at an extensive and unwieldy subject.
The superb manuals help a great deal, and as there are good campaign and battle tutorials the game should be approachable by non-war gamers as well as the experienced weekend general.
To aid the beginner, there's also an excellent 180-page history of the Civil War which covers the material in some depth and in a very readable style.
It takes some time and lots of patience to get to grips with this game, particularly as the early battles are made more infuriating by the difficult mouse control across the battlefield.
After a few practice battles, though (in one of which my three division Union army was routed by a single under-
Fighting out a huge affair, such as the first battle of Bull Run, can take a very long time, because when there are 30,000 soldiers on each side you have to knock speed right down and scroll back and forward like a mad thing to keep track of what's going on.
Add the fog of war option and unit re-supply and things become even trickier and time-
On the whole, though, the war gaming fan will find enough in this game to warrant buying it, particularly as the tabletop variety takes even longer to organise and play. Other gamers will scratch their chins in a thoughtful manner and give it a wide berth, but that's only to be expected.