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Pick your battles

BreakAway’s “Waterloo” is the most realistic depiction yet of Napoleon’s downfall. Games hed: Pick your battles dek: BreakAway’s “Waterloo” is the most realistic depiction yet of Napoleon’s downfall.

Going back to the earliest days of Avalon-Hill tabletop war games, the battle of Waterloo has held a special place in the hearts of gamers and historians. Computerized renditions of such storied events have had little trouble amassing troops to shoot at each other in a static turn-based format, but seldom has any game has captured the details and nuances.

Strategy First/BreakAway Games’ “Waterloo: Napoleon’s Last Battle” puts you smack in the middle of the 1815 battle between Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington, giving revisionist historians the chance to recreate–or even rewrite–history. The game, based on the Sid Meier’s award-winning “Gettysburg” war-gaming engine, features more than 30 historical and speculative scenarios depicting all phases of the battle. It lets you design your own battles and pick your own forces and battle objectives.

As with similar games, players move their units around the battlefield by clicking and dragging them to a map location on the battlefield. You can then issue a maneuver command to the unit to get it to move into position. Depending on what’s happening in the battle, you can order cavalry charges, vary the rate of rifle fire, and pinpoint which segments of enemy units to target.

What will probably excite gamers the most is “Waterloo”‘s artificial-intelligence (AI) feature. The game will react to each player’s successes and failures, impressively simulating the momentum that can overcome an artillery unit after a successful charge–or the plummeting morale of a unit that’s taken an especially hard hit.

“Waterloo” not only portrays virtually every occurrence that took place during the battle, it also offers the option of throwing in hypothetical scenarios. Mixing and matching the 36 scenarios means no two rounds of “Waterloo” will ever be exactly alike.

But the magic of “Waterloo” is in the details, many courtesy of renowned artist Keith Rocco. The game contains more than 60 historical uniforms, from French light infantry to the Old Guard, the King’s German Legion, Polish Lancers, and Scots Greys. It also boasts dozens of historical landmarks, including the Chateau Hougoumont, La Haye Sainte, and Plancenoit Church. Most impressive are the battlefields, which provide a nice mix of well-proportioned overhead panoramas and down-to-earth glimpses of life on the firing line.

Despite these words of endorsement, your enthusiasm for the game will depend entirely on your experience and expectations. Gaming newsgroups have seen a handful of dissenting voices that claim, among other things, that the AI element of “Waterloo” isn’t all it should be, allowing certain cavalries much more leeway in their charges than they should have had under the circumstances. Gamers with greater-than-average historical knowledge and playing background might lodge similar complaints, while newbies will likely be too wowed by the scope and spectacle of the game to find time to split hairs.

“Waterloo” requires a Pentium II-266 or higher, at least 64MB of RAM, a 4MB video graphics card, Windows 95 or later, and a Windows-compatible sound card.

P.S. Whether you’re an expert on the Napoleonic era or a curious neophyte, BreakAway’s Web site contains a fine links page to a wealth of material about Waterloo and its historical background.

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