Word War II real-time strategy game exhaustion is so well established in gaming these days that the genre seems incapable of surprising anybody. Even the standouts, such as Company of Heroes, follow a template so well worn that it has grooves; thus, Theatre of War comes as a shock. 1C Company's take on the old Axis-versus-Allies thing replaces RTS conventions with realistic battlefields, line of sight, and weapon range. Its tactical focus and total absence of resource gathering or base building make the learning curve a little twisty for tank-rush types. However, the authenticity and atmosphere bring the Second World War to life in impressive fashion.
Uh-oh, here comes Hitler's finest.
Scope and scale are the biggest differences between Theatre of War and the usual WWII RTS. Five campaigns, plus a handful of standalone battles, let you guide troops from the US and UK, USSR, France, Poland, and Germany through more than 40 lengthy engagements. Multiplayer support for up to eight players also lets you take your fight to the Net or a LAN. There's a full suite of tutorials and a mission editor if you want to roll your own battles. However, it's the scale of each mission that is most notable. While the standard gaming re-creation of something like the aftermath of D-Day or the siege of Stalingrad shrinks the battlefield and adds artificial elements like fog of war, the average map here is at least a few kilometers across. You can see all the way across this expanse unless you're blocked by trees, hills, or buildings. Such tremendous size gives the game a feel that's considerably grittier than the standard, scrunched-together RTS and an authenticity that makes every engagement seem like a chapter out of a history book.
It may take you a little while to get used to this rigorous accuracy because weapon ranges and damage effects are as realistic as the breadth of the maps. For example, instead of blitzing forward into an enemy-held village, you have to carefully advance because snipers and tanks far off in the distance can pick you to pieces the moment you step out of cover. Examining the entire battlefield before committing to any action is crucial. Just looking at what's in the immediate vicinity of your troops will quickly turn a farmer's field into an impromptu graveyard because you have to take into account such factors as artillery a couple of kilometers away or machine gunners hidden behind a hedgerow in the distance.
Thankfully, the interface makes scouting easy to handle. All information is spread out perfectly for you in menu boxes below the main map screen. These numbers include soldier and weapon stats, such as range, so ignorance is never an excuse. Units are also highlighted by icons over their heads, which lets you check out the field of battle in a glance. You can also freely scroll across the entire map to get up close and personal with enemy positions. You need to take full advantage of these features to line up artillery strikes and call in air support. Also, the loss of units can be devastating. There are no gimmicks here, such as on-the-fly reinforcements (although a points system allows you to tweak your forces before going into battle by swapping default troops with reserves), so scratching just a couple of tanks can put you behind the eight ball.