By Joseph Luster

Back in 2014, developer Game-Labs released a nice little strategy game called Ultimate General: Gettysburg, which was met with generally high praise. The game put players in charge of thousands of soldiers in the Battle of Gettysburg, which they could tackle as either the Confederate or Union Army. One of the secrets to its success was that it came more or less out of nowhere from one of the best Total War mod creators in the world, and the results were about as impressive as one would imagine. Now, two years later, a much more robust sequel is available via Steam Early Access, and what we’ve seen so far shows an abundance of promise.

The sequel in question is Ultimate General: Civil War, which zooms out from Gettysburg to the much bigger picture that surrounded it. The period of 1861-1865 is certainly a far cry from our typical World War II stomping grounds, but fans of WWII-set strategy games will want to see what Game-Labs is cooking up here. One of the initial features that stands out is Ultimate General’s variety as far as level of control is concerned. While players take on the role of a general, with full control over the composition of the army, they can decide how much of that control they want to take on directly. Those who feel like getting into the nitty gritty of the campaign can command each unit individually, or you can simply assign a primary goal and see what happens as a result. In the case of the latter option, division commanders will make decisions on their own, making it much easier to control increasingly large armies.

Ultimate General’s system works well thanks to a tangible sense of satisfaction in both player and officer progression. As you succeed and develop a reputation, you will have more access to divisions and brigades, and soldiers who survive battle will learn to fight more effectively moving forward. These survivors will go from rookies to veterans over the course of the campaign, ranking up and giving them a chance to command even larger units. While significant bonuses can be gained through victory, defeat brings with it its own unique circumstances. Just because a handful of officers have ranked up during the war doesn’t make them any less likely to die in the midst of it all. The more soldiers you lose, the lower army morale and your own reputation will drop, and if it gets bad enough you’ll have to hand in your resignation.

There’s something here for history buffs and experienced strategy game players alike. For the former there are accurate historical weapons and units, and in the case of weapons they’ve taken historical availability into account. If you want certain weapons that weren’t historically available to your troops, for instance, you will need to take them directly from enemy hands or raid their supplies. For the maps, Game-Labs used a combination of satellite data and historical maps to create accurately hand-drawn landscapes. The results go above and beyond the visuals you typically see in hardcore PC strategy games, and the attention to detail pays off in terms of immersion and tactical planning. The lovingly crafted terrain plays a major role in this. Everything from trenches to houses and fields can be used to your advantage, and poor positioning can easily come back to haunt you.

One of the most noticeable differences between Civil War and Gettysburg is the scale. The shining light of Game-Labs’ previous effort was the battle system, but the portrayal of the subject matter wasn’t quite complete. Players were able to play through connected events, of course, but Civil War aims to recreate the full war from beginning to end. Since the focus of Civil War is on a single army rather than your entire side of the conflict, that means it’s up to your units to see that it makes it far enough in to experience the last hurrah. At this point one of the few downsides we’ve experienced is the act of recovering from losses, which can be a bit tedious at times. The reward, however, is a real sense that this is your army, over which you have full control.

As of right now, Civil War includes battles such as Battle of Aquia Creek, Battle of Philippi, First Battle of Bull Run, Battle of Shiloh, Battle of Gaines’ Mill, Battle of Malvern Hill, Second Battle of Bull Run, and Battle of Antietam, along with 10 minor engagements for each side of the war. Once it’s fully ready they will be adding eight more key battles and a handful of minor engagements, so there’s more to look forward to in the near future.

Hopefully the success of Ultimate General: Gettysburg and Ultimate General: Civil War will lead Game-Labs to iterate on those with followups based on other conflicts. Naturally, we would love to see what they do with a World War II setting, so by all means keep the tactical goodness coming.

Publisher: Game-labs • Genre: Strategy • System: PC • Available: Now (Steam Early Access)

Back to the issue this appears in