Shattered Union

I unfortunately deprived myself of the opportunity to get into the turn-based tactics genre of strategy games during their heyday in the ’80s and ’90s.  Shattered Union, developed by PopTop Software and released by 2K games, was a relatively late arrival to the market upon its release in 2005 but was nevertheless my first foray into a game whose principle mechanics revolved around turn-based tactics.

Shattered Union takes place in a United States that has been divided into several region-based factions after political disunity and domestic terrorism disrupt the national government.  Seven playable factions are presented (six U.S. factions plus European Union peacekeepers) and each has its own starting difficulties and opportunities.  Players assemble a fighting force on the strategic map and choose territories to attack.  Only one territory may be attacked per turn and all units committed to an attack cannot be used again until the following turn so it is generally advisable to keep units back for defense.  Income is also received at the beginning of each turn and is based on the value of the territories controlled by the player.  Units can be purchased, repaired, and sold any time during the player’s turn on the strategic map.

When a territory is attacked the game enters the turn-based tactical battle phase and this is easily the best and most developed part.  Most of the U.S. ground arsenal is represented with the air force making a good showing but not fully filled out, likely due to redundancy issues, and there is no naval combat.  Units are divided into categories to help the player easily identify their battlefield purposes; i.e. the player may not know what an LAV or Sheridan tank is for but their assignment into the Scout and Light Armor categories respectively puts their abilities into perspective.  Each faction also gets a fictitious unique unit (a heavy armor unit for each faction except the Great Plains Federation which gets an artillery unit) with similar statistics but varying degrees of effectiveness versus specific unit types.

Tactical combat is divided into turns with the attackers always taking the first turn.  Deployment zones are chosen at the start of the map with the attacker usually sequestered against one edge while the defender can deploy into the major cities around the map.  Once units are deployed the battle begins and fog of war covers the map, even for the defender.  Each unit has a specific movement range for negotiating the hex grid map with roads and pathways allowing more movement than forests and hills.  Helicopters move and act in the same manner as ground forces but fighters and bombers are stored an in airfield structure and only move when issued a specific order (such as an air patrol or bombing run).  Units can move until their movement points are used up but can only attack once per turn.

The story behind Shattered Union’s plot is simple and mostly implemented for continuity.  Increased popular dissent across the United States coupled with the elimination of the presidential succession by a terrorist nuclear attack on Washington D.C. prompts the 48 contiguous states to either secede from the Union or simply conglomerate into regional alliances, forming the game’s principle U.S.-based factions.  Very little dynamic is added for the E.U. faction and the Europeans are mechanically treated the same for gameplay.

The Political Reputation element adds some personality to faction AIs and player choices.  The more landmarks and strategic buildings a faction destroys during a battle the more its reputation slides towards ‘evil’ (the red side of a green to red progress bar that can be viewed on the strategic map).  Conversely making attempts to avoid collateral damage and preserve landmarks will slide a faction’s bar towards ‘good’.  To facilitate this every unit in the player’s arsenal has a factor for collateral damage allowing the player to determine which units to use in urban combat versus open range combat.

The alignment of a faction’s political reputation affects some of its abilities, most importantly support powers and the number of partisan units that appear in tactical battles.  Factions with good reputation will attract partisans in defensive battles and make use of support powers that repair units and buff defense.  Evil reputation drives partisans toward a faction’s opponents but unlocks powerful offensive abilities that damage units en mass and lower unit defense.  Story-wise, political reputation does not affect the progression of scripted events but does influence the narrative of the player’s ending; different cutscenes are shown at the end of the campaign based on if the player’s faction was primarily good, evil, or neutral.

With little storyline, most of the game’s single-player content revolves around the tactical battles.  This element is by far the best developed and most important part of Shattered Union.  Players assemble a pool of up to 42 units and deploy any number of them into offensive and defensive battles.  Depictions (not to scale) of real landmarks, cities, even interstate highways make the map come alive as the factions battle over familiar locations.  Rivers, bridges, and mountains all contribute to make the tactical experience engaging and challenging while bringing the in-game world to life.

Shattered Union’s multiplayer aspect is limited to the tactical battles in the form of a skirmish mode.  Players determine beforehand the amount of funds used to purchase armies, then purchase units and engage in a tactical battle across one of the maps used in the Campaign.  Power types and levels are chosen through the assignment of a political reputation level for each player during the setup.  As turn-based game Shattered Union’s multiplayer quality demand is low and should perform adequately on lower internet speeds.

The game’s limited story, two-faction unit roster, and large but static campaign map can devolve into repeating situations and strategies.  Since the bulk of the game’s enjoyable content is found in the tactical battles this is only a partial handicap to long term replay options.  However aside from each faction’s unique unit most of the enjoyment comes from a player’s improvisation and willingness to explore new and even potentially handicapped strategies.  Certain elements of the campaign, such as how many times a player can be attacked each turn, are constrained by difficulty level.  Thus a greater challenge can be acquired by raising the campaign difficulty however the AI’s competency does not improve vs its ‘cheating’ tactics, such as ganging up on the player or knowing where the player’s units are even without scouting.  This can lead from entertainment to frustration.

The Skirmish mode offers far more variety for tactical battles.  Players can explore different unit combinations, play the Russian faction, and explore the full range of support powers in the good, evil, and neutral levels of political reputation.  This is also a much faster and easier method of exploring the factions’ unique units.

Shattered Union is almost on the level of a tactical simulation game; most of its strategic and story elements are background for the tactical battles of the campaign.  The campaign itself is enjoyable and worth playing at least once for the excitement of conquering the United States and fighting off the Russian invasion.  However this game is appropriately termed a tactical strategy game; only in the tactical battles do the game’s design elements and enjoyment value come into their own.  Shattered Union is dated by modern standards and even casual gamers will likely find it to be little more than a distraction good for a dozen or so hours of gameplay.  However the game is cheap, easy to learn, and on modern machines has virtually no load time.  Its genre is also a fairly rare perspective and focus for PC games and is worth the experience for that element alone.

Note: Shattered Union is available on Steam but has known loading errors for most recent operating systems.  The Steam Community has very helpful guides and quick fixes which should allow Shattered Union to operate with little or no difficulty.