Saturday, 25 February 2012

Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land

Call of Cthulhu: Wasted Land is the brainchild of Red Wasp Design, a UK-based game studio. It’s a turn-based strategic skirmish wargame based loosely on the writings of H.P Lovecraft, though its gameplay reminds me more of the X-Com series than it does Call of Cthulhu. I’ve had a lot of fun with it this week!

The year is 1915. The Schlieffen Plan hasn’t worked, and Germany’s advance on Paris has stalled. The trenches that are to become symbolic of the Great War have just been dug, and your main protagonist, Captain Hill, is an ordinary soldier fighting on the Front. A mysterious branch of military intelligence sends a boffin, Professor Brightmeer, to help him root out and destroy a particularly insidious foe: Kaul, a nominal ally of the Germans who is using the carnage for his own ends. Brightmeer is joined soon afterwards by Carl Green, martial arts expert, and Emma Gold, a student of Freud, and they join forces with Hill’s platoon to rid the world of Cthulhoid horrors. Together they advance through No-Man’s-Land, at first gathering clues, trying to fathom Kraul’s plan, and later penetrating the villain’s lair to confront him once and for all.

Wasted Land is a strategy game. Your units (Hill, Brightmeer and their allies) have a certain number of Action Points, which they spend moving from place to place, shooting, or performing other actions.  When their turn is done, the enemy have a go, and then the cycle repeats. The victory condition for the scenario changes each time; your goal could be to survive, or to shepherd Brightmeer to the objective so he can study it or blow it up. Win one scenario and you move to the next, until the end is reached. It’s a pulp-action plot complete with moustache-twirling villain but the writing is entertaining with some nice asides from Cornishman Sid Brown, the artillery spotter whose pigeons helped me out of more than one scrape.

Cthulhu tabletop gamers are known for their love of historical accuracy, and Wasted Land does an excellent job. I only caught one duff note, a reference to Salvador Dali’s artwork when, at the time of the scenario, Dali would have been eleven years old. Otherwise Red Wasp did a good job of tying together their timeline.

Veteran tabletop players may be a little surprised by the emphasis on combat. Generally speaking Call of Cthulhu teaches you to run away from, say, Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath as they’re extremely dangerous and nigh-on impossible to kill. When three of them turned up at once, my immediate reaction was to order my units to flee. What I ought to have done, as I soon discovered, was order my sniper to shoot holes in the lead monster while bringing my martial artist into close range for a few bayonet-hacks. By the time the campaign is over you’ll have depopulated an entire regiment of Dark Young, as well as many other Mythos beasties.

Sanity is another famous Call of Cthulhu mechanic, mental hit points that run out very quickly when your character faces off against horrors from beyond. In Wasted Land you lose Sanity for encountering horrors, but you also lose them each time you attack one, which means if one unit attacks a zombie three times they lose three doses of Sanity, and then they’ll lose more when the zombie attacks them. When Sanity runs out either the unit is paralyzed for a turn and loses all their Action Points, or goes manic. Mania gives them a double dose of Action Points, but at the end of their manic period they’ll fall unconscious and die unless someone helps them. Mania can be a godsend, but when your sniper, heavy weapons guy and martial arts expert all go manic in the same round you do start to feel sorry for the enemy, who’ll be on the receiving end of all that rage.

Sanity can recover naturally after a period of mania or paralysis, but if you want to keep your units in fighting trim then Psychoanalysis will plug those holes in their brains. Gold and Brightmeer start off with this skill, but anyone can learn it. This tends to result in a front line of hardened killers with a support character or two standing directly behind them muttering ‘tell me about your relationship with your mother’ as the undead close in, but needs must!

As a skirmish wargame it has a few flaws, chief among them lack of a Fog of War mechanic. The player always gets to see where everyone is, which does detract from the horror of what is meant to be a horror game. X-Com had this nailed, and it’s a bit puzzling when a series that’s nearly twenty years old has chops that an app released in 2012 doesn’t. The AI sometimes spawns new enemies in inconvenient places, so you can be attacked from the rear while facing off against something nasty, but as a general rule you’ll have plenty of warning of any attack. Most of your opponents are close combat specialists, so your sniper will have a field day as they charge in and your martial artist will enjoy ripping up whatever’s left. This is where Sanity really starts to make a difference, as the last thing you need is a unit in a vital strategic role suddenly lapsing into paralysis.

Another minor gripe is the battlefield itself. It’s beautifully laid out and there are plenty of obstacles, like poison gas or muddy ground, which either slow your units or injure them. However it can be difficult to tell the difference between open ground, which you can shoot over or move through, and an obstacle blocking your line of sight and movement. Level design is also occasionally uninspired, so that what could have been an interesting tangle of barbed wire and poison gas through which you have to choose one of several paths to your objective, becomes instead a linear route the boundaries of which are very clearly marked.   

That said, there were enough challenges here to keep me occupied and I soon learned to tell the difference between terrain types, so my sniper never ended up in a useless location. Though the enemy started to feel slightly outclassed towards the end, the final showdown was appropriately climactic, and were I Field Marshal Haig I’d not have been stingy with the medals afterward!

On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being abysmal and 5 being near-perfect, I’d rate Wasted Land as a solid 3. A Fog of War mechanic would have made this a really great game, but it wasn’t to be. Even so, as a tactical skirmish horror game it works very well, and the atmospheric art design really drives home the feel of being on a Great War battlefield. Here’s hoping Red Wasp come out with a sequel sometime soon!

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