Philippa Irving


There’s been an alarming slump in the number of wargames finding their way to my garret in north Oxford. Either all those brave people who write wargames and expose themselves to my sarcasm have decided to go on holiday, or the Post Office has eaten the parcel containing them...

A couple of months ago I explained my ratings system in detail in Manoeuvres, my column in CRASH’s Commodore sister ZZAP! 64, and it seems fair that I should do the same in Frontline.

Ratings are very artificial, and quite unscientific; but they are the accepted way of summing up impressions in the world of computer-game reviews, and a percentage breakdown system such as CRASH uses is a lot more accurate and interesting than just giving single figures. This is the way I think about each rating:

Presentation is sometimes difficult to disentangle from Graphics, but in theory it covers every aspect of the game except the game. The packaging, the ease with which orders can be given, and the general aesthetic impression the screen display gives are all considered. Presentation isn’t everything in a strategy game, but just as an exam candidate with neat handwriting is more likely to get a sympathetic marker than an illegible scrawler, a tidy and professional appearance makes an immediate impression on consumers and reviewers.

Graphics in wargames are always a compromise. They can rarely do as much to conjure up an atmosphere as arcade graphics can, and have to be content with being representational. But this doesn’t mean that well-drawn and clearly-set-out graphics can’t improve a wargame.

Rules are extremely important in a wargame, particularly a historical one. It isn’t so much the case with Spectrum wargames, but some Commodore games are virtually rulebooks with a bit of computer animation. I always commend historical material and complain about its absence. It’s important that if the game structure is complex it should be explained in sequential and idiot-proof detail, and personally I like to see the game mechanics exposed — though other people don’t.

Authenticity: taken with any literalness, no wargame is particularly authentic. If you think about it, you wouldn’t really want it to be — all the blood and dead bodies and deafening shells and gunfire would not be entertaining. But games can create their own atmosphere, and the player can feel involved in the world the game reflects. It’s the equivalent of our willing suspension of disbelief when watching drama, and it helps, of course, if there are no obvious factual blunders or intrusive bits of gameplay.

Playability: all computer gamers know what playability is. It’s the quality that stops you pressing the reset switch, or pulling out the power lead if you’re still running a rubber model. It’s the quality that can have you zapping or collecting or assault-breaking into the early hours. Though wargames, like adventures, are more sedate and detached than arcade shoot-’em-ups , you can still find seven hours slipping by undetected if you get involved in a really playable game. Playability can be disrupted by the smallest things, such as computer-opponent turns which take just a little too long and or scrolling menus which are just slightly too complex to work. A lot of shallow and dead-end games can be quite playable at first, and I comment on that honestly.

Overall: a game can be greater than the sum of its parts, and I don’t feel that the Overall percentage rating has to be a cocktail of the preceding ratings. Beautiful graphics or badly-produced rules may be irrelevant if the game itself is a turkey or a classic. The ratings are only my personal assessment. In the main body of the reviews I try to be as descriptive as possible so you can decide, irrespective of what final percentage it gets, whether you want to buy the game or not.