"Basing a game of strategy on the terrible First World War is a daring Enterprise," claims the instruction manual proudly. Quite a strange statement I thought, not personally being able to depict any particular evidence of derring-do in simply cashing in on one of the bloodiest conflicts the world has ever seen.
Then I realised where developers Blue Byte hail from, and was able to appreciate that a WW1 strategy game by a German company is indeed a risky venture.
The USA is well known for its stout refusal to accept that the Vietnam War was anything but a complete shambles, earning the country nothing more than tens of thousands of pensionable teenagers and world-wide humiliation, and my initial reaction to Historyline was that it was a similar refute from the natives of the Fatherland, intent on justifying their failure in combat as a successful contribution to the great patriotic cause.
But apparently not - it's made perfectly clear right from the start that the game is precisely that, a game, and that no attempt has been made to gloss over the realities of what actually took place.
So what did take place then? Basically, two opposing parties spent the best part of four years killing each other in any manner they saw fit. Great, sounds good - plenty of scope here to integrate a few grisly scenes of carnage, one would have thought. But again, no.
Blue Byte believe - and not unreasonably so - that of utmost importance in an affair such as this is tactical planning and, above all, enjoyment. It is to this end that they have devised Historyline in such a way as to be instantly accessible, rewarding and educational.
Dwelling not so much on the war, but on the gaming aspect as it does, none of the campaigns in Historyline are exact recreations of what actually took place, although the basic aim obviously remains the same. After a gorgeously presented but lengthy intro which seems to narrate virtually every event leading up to the war, and having decided as to whether you wish to pit your wits against a friend or the ever-willing computer (and which side you wish to represent), the game screen finally arrives, and it is here where a pleasant surprise occurs.
Unlike most games of this ilk, where the only control option consists of a combination of mouse clicks and keyboard controls, HL can be operated safely by a single joystick, proving Blue Byte's claim regarding its ease of use.
Two multi-scrolling maps make up the game screen - one yours and one your opponent's - which in turn combine to form a larger, overall map of the battle area. On every map each side has its own stronghold, the idea being to take up occupancy inside the enemy walls to emerge as victor. Of course you can if you wish don your Norman Schwartzkopf hat and run amok destroying everything in sight it provides the same end result if executed properly, although losses of artillery and troops tend to be heavier.
On the subject of artillery, your army is quite limited at first, since the game closely follows the technological advancements of the war; let me explain...
There are 24 battlegrounds in all, and game lore has it that a period of two months elapses between each of the 24 individual battles (totalling four years - the length of the war).
Towards the end of the conflict you will be controlling such mechanical pioneers as the legendary Fokker biplanes. Spad fighters and British Mark IV tanks, but initially your weapons will be a more basic nature, such as mobile cannon, cavalry, and disease-ridden ground troops. Your controlling cursor is in the form of a hexagon, which when your army is in Movement Mode dictates the positioning of your troops and it really is very simple to operate.
The range of movement will obviously depend on what unit is involved, and against what kind of artillery you are fighting. The whole scene becomes darkened, leaving only a few light hexagons into which you can move, the process being repeated for every controllable unit.
Since the game spans the entire length of the war, the weather varies with the changing seasons, and your troops will find themselves coping with snow, ice and other conditions, all of which affect their effectiveness. Although the individual battle maps are quite small, range of movement is extremely limited early on, and it takes many minutes before the game begins to take shape. When the opposing sides finally meet an animated sequence accompanies each head-on battle, all of which are well drawn, and are accompanied by realistic sound effects.
At first these seem like a nice addition, but as the game progress I found them to be increasingly more tiresome, particularly for those with single drive machines, which is the vast majority.
The problem is that when in extended battle mode - that is fighting out the whole war - a huge amount of disk swapping is required, and even on an A1200, which is what I used for the most part of the review, a single animated sequence can take three or four minutes to complete.
Not only that, but as the game progresses, a few individual battles may be taking place at once, meaning several minutes of nothing but disk swapping.
The animation can be skipped, once loaded, but there is no option to toggle them off, and the resulting tedium detracts from the game in a big way. On some of the battlefields there are factories, in which you can rebuild or repair vehicles and weaponry. Depots can also be built, which on completion become an extra stronghold that doesn't need to be captured.
The depth in, and thought behind Historline is undeniable, and it is presented in such a way as to bear out the programmers' claim that it is one of the most accessible games of its type. It can virtually serve as a history lesson in its own right thanks to the massive intro and occasional in-game snippets. Throughout its course the game concentrates heavily on strategy and tactics and steers purposely away from the bloodshed of the conflict.
A brave step - commendable too, since there are any number of games on the shelves which can easily quench our thirst for gore. Much of this gore is unnecessary though, whereas one bloody scenes in Historyline would simply serve as a stark reminder of reality, and leave the game minus an element with their exclusion.
This is not to say what we have here is a half-
Due to its slow progression and tedious loading processes though, what could so easily have been an outstanding product instead finds itself standing shoulder to shoulder with the rest.