Not many people know this, but Ultimate General: Civil War was the first game I wrote about back when I started as a freelancer. The piece was, admittedly, not my finest work, nor was it published, as I had submitted it as part of my initial pitch. Nevertheless, I have an immense fondness for the game as both the stepping stone that allowed me to be here on this blog and podcast, as well as for the fact that, in my opinion, the game just rules.
The Ultimate General series has roots back in the Total War games, part of the development team being Nick Thomadis, otherwise known as good ol’ Darth of the DarthMod mod series, an excellent series of enhancements to the mainline Total War games up to Shogun 2. These enhancements typically involved improving the AI, making the battles more realistic by changing unit sizes and stats, as well as adjusting the campaign AI, economy, and buildings. These were very popular mods, and the team took that experience into Ultimate General: Gettysburg, what was essentially a spiritual successor to the earlier Sid Meier’s Antietam and Gettysburg games.
And it was great! The AI reacted in largely intelligent ways, and had scaling difficulties and personalities you could set it to (a feature I wish more games would copy), and had fewer but more distinct unit types than its forebears, painting arrows for them to march along the battlefield. These units controlled much like the units in Total War, but in lieu of a bunch of abilities they can activate, turning battles into an APM mess (I still love you Total War), battles are much more about proper planning and placement of troops. Troops that are camped in the woods take less damage from incoming volleys, wheat fields hide units until they can see the whites of the enemies’ eyes, and river crossings slow units down and make them far more susceptible to incoming fire.
Gettysburg was a solid, if small, experience, allowing the player to go through multiple scenarios of the three day battle, with alternating paths based on how well the player fought. This formed a sort of prototype for Civil War, which said “what if we give the whole war the Gettysburg experience?” The result is an imperfect game, but its quirks make it all the more charming and have kept me returning to it over the past few years.
So, what changed from Gettysburg, other than the fact that the whole game doesn’t take place over one battle? Well for starters, individual units and officers are far more important, as Civil War features a persistent campaign. Those soldiers you start the game with improve over time with experience, becoming better sharpshooters, better melee fighters, or having better morale as they’re exposed to combat. Similarly, your officers are promoted as they survive engagements, and higher ranking officers are considered to be better at commanding their troops, leading to buffs from officers who manage to dodge bullets. This leads to a surprisingly intimate relationship with your army over time, as you want to keep those troops and officers who were with you from the beginning alive, not just for the sake of keeping your army in fighting shape, but because they’ve been with you since 1st Bull Run, and now the man who was a Captain of skirmishers lays dead at the head of his division in Gettysburg. It’s built to tell stories by telling you the names of these officers.
In between the real-time engagements, you’re return to your army’s camp, where you can bring in new recruits, create new units, and equip your men with new manners of weaponry, such as rifled muskets, 20lb cannon, or even repeaters toward the end of the campaign. Juggling what little resources you have to replace losses and upgrade your troops with better equipment is tough, and you’ll be forced to play favorites just by the nature of the game, as you want your best units (the ones that started out under your avatar’s command, likely) to have the best guns so they can kick the most ass, leaving the new corps you form with old 1842 muskets. Or at least, that’s one way to play it.
Here however, I must mention the faults of Civil War, beginning with the most egregious and blatant sin: it’s too damn linear. I’m not just saying that because 95% of all strategic wargames ever are American Civil War games and yes we know the whole story by now, but the campaign is structured into a series of set scenarios, which is and was disappointing. You’re basically role-playing as either the Army of the Potomac or the Army of Northern Virginia, based on which side you choose. If you, as the Army of the Potomac, decimate the rebels at Antietam, that should be it! It should be game over! But the campaign is structured to take you through a series of levels. I’m not adverse to linear design in strategy games, as I am fond of this game, as well as of Unity of Command 2 and Panzer Corps 2… but at this level, more freedom of choice would be welcome. I should get to decide on better strategies as the leader of 5 corps running around, rather than McClellan’s legendarily shitty “wait and see” approach.
The linearity is felt in missions as well. The AI adapts pretty well at all difficulty levels, but the main battle of the campaign that you can fight are scripted. These can offer memorable experiences, but if you know exactly where and when scripted enemy forces are going to appear from your last failed attempt at a campaign, they don’t stand much of a chance against you. Similarly, if you reach one of the time milestones in battle and you’re not where the game expects you to be, things can get… weird. Take my most recent Union campaign, for example. At the 2nd Battle of Bull Run, I managed to break through Confederate lines and capture their headquarters on the first day of battle, after initial skirmishing. However, the game did not grant me a victory and let the battle end when the clock ran out. Instead, we were brought to day 2 of the battle, with the Confederates now reformed and reinforced in the woods around the point I had captured. It was irritating, to say the least, that my success had been punished in that manner.
That being said, despite the fact that playing the game can feel repetitive, especially when new players will get their faces stomped in by the AI, the core gameplay is fun. The combat feels nice, directing troops feels natural, building your army can be very zen-like, managing the balances between pushing for goals in battle or just keeping your boys alive… there’s an appeal to that. Other persistent games feel very satisfying to play, but I don’t think they get the human element down as well as Ultimate General: Civil War does. Maybe I’m just a softie, but in a game where you can fight for the freedom of fellow men (or to own them, I guess), it’s nice to be as connected with your men as you are here.