Posts Tagged ‘ review

Book Review – Mark Thompson’s The White War

I never thought much about Italy’s experience in the First World War. What I knew about it was an offhand remark from the narrator of The Sun Also Rises, who was emasculated on “a joke front like the Italian”. I knew Erwin Rommel had first come to glory there, putting into practice the theories of warfare that would drive German success early in World War Two, at a time before those theories had even crystallized. And I knew that Italy performed in-line with jokes about its military incompetence..

But it turns out there is a remarkable and important story to be told about the Italian front. I only happened on it by chance in the remaindered section of the Harvard Bookstore, where I picked up a copy of Mark Thompson’s The White War for $5, after it had likely sat ignored on the history shelves in the same way that “history buffs” like me tend to ignore its subject matter.

In the main, Thompson’s book fulfills its most important obligation: it tells an interesting and unfamiliar story, and it tells it very well. The White War is stocked with scarcely believable characters, like the proto-Fascist poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, who styled himself as the poet laureate of the Italian right and was basically allowed to treat the battlefield as a kind of muse-for-hire. One day he is seen giving pep talks to headquarters staff, the next he is flying over Austrian lines, dropping propaganda leaflets. The next time he pops up, he is arranging some kind of absurd raid to capture a distant castle and raise the Italian flag over its ramparts, thereby boosting morale across the entire front.

In a way, a character like D’Annunzio is laughable, and stereotypically Italian. Look at him bluster, look at his vainglory. Look at this failure.

But the horror of Thompson’s book is that millions of men and women were caught up in this joke, and at the mercy of the pure viciousness that lay behind the strutting vainglory. As the Italian raid on the Austrian castle fell apart at a river crossing, under heavy Austrian fire, stranded Italian troops began advancing toward the Austrians to surrender. D’Annunzio, watching from across the river, was disgusted by their “cowardice” and orders the artillery to execute a fire mission against the Italian “traitors”. And such was the poet’s power in this Italian army that the batteries did indeed open fire and on the victims of D’Annunzio’s own folly.

But all that pales next to the character of Luigi Cadorna, a general whose name I had never heard prior to this book.

Discovering Cadorna and his place in the annals of history’s worst commanders is like discovering there is an extra planet in the solar system that nobody ever mentions. He’s so profoundly awful, as a general and as a human being, that the mind reels.

In fact, The White War warms to its task as Thompson really begins dissecting Cadorna’s record, and shifts focus from the front lines to the rear echelons and headquarters. Cadorna revealed himself to be an ineffectual martinet in the opening stages of the war, as he squandered massive opportunities and then, for good measure, squandered immense numbers of lives trying to crack impregnable Austrian positions across the Alps. Yet he was so arrogant, and so coddled by an Italian government that feared his prestige, that he was neither shaken by his failures nor fearful of their consequences.

But as the war dragged on, Cadorna’s lack of accountability and belief in iron discipline began going to darker and darker places, and Thompson follows right along. Cadorna, so contemptuous of the soldiers he was charged with leading, became convinced that Italian setbacks were due to poor morale, poor discipline, and outright cowardice.

His solution, at first, was limited to trying to remake the Italian soldiery in his image: ascetic, hard-working, and fanatically dedicated to duty. Soldiers barely received any leave and, on the rare occasions their units were rotated off the front lines, they were sent not for R&R but for hard-labor behind the lines, lest they become soft. The theory was that soldiers should greet their return to the front with zeal and relief, and go about each day without a thought of home and peacetime pursuits.

But as years of hopeless slaughter took their toll (Thompson’s descriptions of combat along the varied and universally forbidding terrain of the Austro-Italian border are frequently jaw-dropping, like when he describes Italian “lines” where soldiers were living in tents anchored to cliff faces), the Italian troops became increasingly hopeless and their performance seemingly declined. There were more instances of indiscipline and routing.

Cadorna escalated matters, taking a “the beatings will continue until morale improves” approach, instituting an entirely extralegal regime of summary executions for all manner of infractions, to be pursued at the discretion of officers in the field. Courts martial, he decided, were too lenient for the weak, slovenly Italian army. He openly called it a policy of decimation.

The incidents Thompson brings to light are shocking. Cadorna is a real-life version of General Broulard in Paths of Glory, only far worse than even Stanley Kubrick could plausibly make out. Under his regime, subordinate commanders began looking for reasons to execute soldiers, so that they could demonstrate their fealty and zeal to the generalissimo’s vision.

In one gut-twisting example, Italy’s Ravenna Brigade “mutinies” when it discovers it is being sent back to the line after only a short respite. A few drunk soldiers fire guns in the air, and many soldiers refuse to go. Then the assistant division commander and brigade CO hear out the men’s grievances, summon military police to restore order, and pack the brigade on its way.

Except the division commander and eventually the corps commander get wind of the incident and began demanding executions. First a handful of men are shot and then, as each higher-ranking officer hears of the incident, ever more executions are demanded. In the end, Thompson writes, “29 men died to punish a minor rebellion in one battalion that lasted a few hours, causing no casualties.” (p. 265)

This is just one, unusually well-documented example, Thompson writes. The actual death toll for Cadorna’s summary executions goes as high as 750, if not higher.

Months later, in the autumn of 1917, Cadorna was stunned when a joint German-Austrian offensive hammered his lines at Caporetto and his army collapsed, with entire formations refusing to obey his order to fight to the death.

The Undertow of Progress

This would all make for a riveting account of a disastrous military campaign, but what elevates The White War is Thompson’s broader interest in Italian politics and culture. Cadorna as a general is a villain. But Cadorna’s absolute authority in Italy, his aimless brutality…. all these are harbingers of what is to come.

Over the course of The White War, Thompson shows the seeds of Fascism taking root in a soil rich with political, social, and cultural dysfunction. Italy, a young state in 1915, immediately began drifting toward militaristic hyper-nationalism and authoritarianism as soon as war was declared. The press was promptly muzzled, and happily went along with the policy of official censorship. Civilians were denounced and jailed for defeatism and lack of patriotism. Italy would not become formally fascist until 1924, but its slide in that direction started early in the war.

This had real consequences during the war and lent Italy’s ultimate victory a toxic legacy. There were always more delusions and excuses that enabled Cadorna’s mismanagement of the war. Socialist agitators sapped the soldiers of their will to fight. Italy’s allies weren’t helping enough. Unpatriotic politicians were shaking the army’s belief in itself every time they raised questions about the campaign. The soldiers were weak, lazy, ignorant who broke faith when victory was at hand. Each of these stories became a part of the right-wing’s founding myth of fascist Italy.

Cadorna himself was called “Il Duce” long before Mussolini (who lurks at the margins of his narrative, a minor player in the unfolding political drama, and not yet sure of his own beliefs). He was actively indulgent of suggestions that he be made dictator. Cocooned by a restricted press that parroted his own propaganda back at him, and a quiescent general staff that had been conditioned to flattery and mimicry, Cadorna became convinced of these “facts” that he’d helped invent.

Thompson also shows how Cadorna’s mindless credos, his oft-disproven and oft-repeated belief in the power of the offensive and the “irresistible spirit” of a good army, had their underpinnings in a widely-shared, somewhat incoherent set of beliefs called vitalism, which valued intuition personal character over intellect or material goods. In an insightful and important passage that helps explain the entire era, he writes:

“Vitalism appealed to the anti-intellectual bent of intellectuals who already doubted the rationalist rules of their game. Trapped in the vast dynamics of nationalism, imperialism, militarism, industrialisation and commerce, and by the theories of natural evolution, human history and the unconscious mind discovered by Darwin, Marx and Freud, what room was left for individual reason and moral will? How should men not succumb to the dark currents running below Progress (justly called ‘the political principle of the nineteenth century’), namely a gnawing sense of degeneration and impotence, merging fear of technology with fear of women? In hindsight, vitalism was a resistance movement, a late-romantic defence of the individual male and his solitary resources, a consolation after the ‘death of God’ in the mid-nineteenth century and before the birth of ‘human rights’ after 1945. For the vitalist vision is self-deifying, promising to restore mankind to his rightful place in the scheme of things, able to master all species and materials through mystical life-force.” (p. 229-230)

This is a passage that immediately helps crystallize a lot of the thinking that went into World War I, and even more of what came out of it. It’s fascinating that the Italian Front provides such a perfect window into the 20th century, in Thompson’s telling.

The ultimate tragedy of The White War, beyond all the lives lost, is that Thompson convincingly demonstrates that this incoherent mix of self-loathing and denial never really left Italy. Italy, a young country at the time of World War 1, was traumatized by its monumental failures against the Austrians. It promoted the idea that Italy itself was broken and needed to be fixed, and Fascism took advantage of that impulse when it sought to rehabilitate the war and sell it as a “founding myth” of Mussolini’s fledgling empire. When that was discredited, the self-doubt crept back into Italian politics.

In Thompson’s view, Italy is stuck with the memory of Caporetto, and the sudden disintegration of their army, their confidence, their view of themselves as a nation. In one form or another, the Italian front unleashed forces and beliefs that have twisted Italian politics ever since.

I’m Big in Herring

What do you get when you put my busy schedule together with GameShark’s technological sophistication? Timeliness, my friends. Like this review of Patrician IV (NA release date: September 21).

GameShark assigned the game to me while I was digging myself out of a massive hole, and it went to the back of the line. Truth be told, it wasn’t something I was particularly excited to play, and so I installed it feeling nothing beyond professional obligation and unprofessional annoyance.

Naturally, it turned out to be a very pleasant surprise.

The F1 2010 Review

After at least 50 hours of play and 1.5 seasons across PC and 360, my review of F1 2010 is complete and ready for your perusal at GameShark.

There is just one thing I’ll add for now, and that is a wish for the future of this series. Right now you are kind of chucked into the deep end of open-wheel racing. By having your career start with a low-ranking team, the game is actually more difficult than it would be if you started with a good team. Bad cars are much harder to handle and taxing to drive than good ones.

I would consider adding F1′s feeder series, GP2 (I know there are others but GP2 is probably the best fit) and having careers start there. The cars are more manageable and the field is more closely grouped, so it would be easier to know if you’re struggling with the track. With my crummy Lotus, I’m not always sure whether I’m struggling because I’m attacking the track wrong, driving the car wrong, or setting up the car wrong.

Plus, racing in GP2 has a reputation for being a little more wheel-to-wheel, which F1 really isn’t. To their credit, Codemasters didn’t sugarcoat F1 too much. Overtaking is easier than in real life, it is true, but the intervals between cars are still pretty daunting. So while you can pass another car, catching it might be out of the question.

Anyway, go my review covers just about everything you might want to know about F1. So go read it.

Struggling with Victoria

To my astonishment and horror, Metacritic decided that my B- is a 67 / 100 for Victoria II. Personally I’d put the game in the neighborhood of 75 if I were grading on that scale.

It’s annoying, because Metacritic already weighs on my mind when I’m assigning a score. I had a hard time deciding whether Victoria II was a C+ or a B-, and I decided that Metacritic’s penchant for low-balling letter grades would be the tie breaker. I didn’t realize that it would still interpret a B as disdain. But if I weight Metacritic any more heavily, the scores I assign will be useless for GameShark readers.

However, the Metacritic score is emblematic of a problem I’m having when I talk about Victoria II: I keep coming across as more negative than I strictly want to be. I know why this is, of course. You can analyze and explain problems much more easily than you can express praise, and Victoria II’s best aspects are difficult to put into coherent thoughts. Zoom in on any part of Victoria II, and a lot of problems appear. Look at it more holistically, and it’s virtues are clearer.

The other week on Three Moves Ahead I brought up my concern that it’s harder to strike a middle-ground with reviewing games than it is with other media. For one thing, so much of the audience for games writing seem to interpret reviews and scores through a thumbs-up or thumbs-down lens. For another, games are kind of expensive and playing them takes a lot time, two factors that I think discourage risk-taking on the part consumers. When I write a review of a new game, I have this fear that for a lot of people the decision they make on launch day will be final. That they won’t remember what I or other reviewers said in 3 months when the game is on sale, just that the game didn’t sound like it was worth buying. Plus, anyone who follows the industry knows that publishers and developers live and die with early sales.

Maybe none of this should be my concern. But it’s hard to ignore.

Victoria II is a game that I would buy regardless of its problems. I wrote the opening of my review with myself in mind: someone who loves history and the Victorian Era. Someone whose daydreams are filled with Prussian armies, British ministers, and American progressives. Someone who mourns the world that was lost in the trenches, and the stolen future that might have been ours, if cooler heads and better angels had prevailed. Even though I ultimately shift gears and criticize Victoria II as a strategy game, I think it’s an important game for a certain kind of player. And I hope he’ll read my opening paragraphs and decide that’s enough for him.

Hope Is the First Step on the Road to Disappointment

Would you believe I volunteered to do this review of Real Warfare: 1242? Me either.

This is the price you pay for optimism. I installed the game and played the first level, and while I didn’t think it looked brilliant, it looked like it might be a pleasant diversion. Since most games like this don’t get reviewed, I thought I would take a crack at it.

L.B. Jeffries once wrote about why he sometimes takes a detour into shovelware. He said it applies a corrective to the “quality bias” that sometimes colors a lot of game criticism.

Almost all reviewers and critics that I read suffer from a quality bias. If all you do is play highly polished, sophisticated AAA games or acclaimed indie titles then you’re only playing the cream of the crop. This leads to a lot of nitpicking. Complaints that the controls “could be smoother” or “the story is a bit dull” are all a bit grating because these are highly personal, impossible to perfect attributes.

Basic achievements like the game working, having a coherent story, and me not wanting to quit after ten minutes of play are all things that are difficult to put into words.

I’m torn on this. On the one hand, I want to believe him here, so that the hours and hours I spent on Real Warfare: 1242 are something more than a life-stealing waste. But I’m not sure I grant the premise that playing bottom-of-the-barrel disasters really helps us get the right critical perspective. In fact, I think it might be harmful.

Reviewers love to complain about the 7 to 10 or 7 to 9 grading scale that afflicts game criticism, especially with big-budget titles. A crummy AAA game gets a score of 7, and a really good one gets a 9. There are a lot of reasons for this. It’s probably exhausting fighting battles against vindictive publishers and their PR people. Review aggregation and the deafening volume of instant opinions on Twitter push everyone, subconsciously or not, toward the median judgment. And maybe most of the people reviewing games are just bad at it, for one reason or another.

But I think something else is at work, too. Most review scales are using an out-of-date calibration. The 1 to 10 scale, or whatever scale you want to use, used to reserve the lowest scores for hopelessly broken and buggy games. There were a lot more of them twenty years ago. “Unplayably bad” was a common verdict. These days, it isn’t. Quality control really has improved throughout the industry. These days a buggy game means features that don’t work right, or an AI that misses some important tricks. Twenty-year ago, a buggy game crashed every time you opened a certain window, or had a number of commands that simply did not work.

By those standards, yes, most games are pretty good these days. The standards for incompetence have changed. Real Warfare: 1242 works just fine, for instance, except for the fact it’s awful.

So should we play terrible games to cure ourselves of the Quality Bias? Or should we celebration the general rise in standards, and stop pretending that the bottom of the review scale should be reserved for the most incompetent and non-functional products? Manohla Dargis isn’t watching Youtube videos and student films to help her keep studio pictures in perspective. Technical competence is the least we should expect from our entertainment. No more points for being better than the worst possibility.

Rise of Prussia Review

GameShark just published my review of Rise of Prussia. This was a big disappointment for me, since I’m a Seven Years’ War nerd. Metacritic will convert my “C” into something much harsher than it actually is, but there is no avoiding the fact that I did not enjoy myself a great deal with this game, and was really put off by the whole package.

That’s where I put most of my focus in this review. I could have gotten into a much more nuts-and-bolts discussion about how the game models Frederican warfare and whether or not the AGEOD system really does a good job of modeling it. It does and it doesn’t. There are far too many battles where only a fraction of the forces in a given territory actually take part in a battle. The AI, although generally quite good, is too fond of laying siege to every fort, everywhere, rather than concentrating its efforts. I was astonished when the Austrian army practically dissolved itself along the Oder river, laying simultaneous sieges and Breslau, Schweidnitz, and a bunch of other places.

I could have talked about some of the annoying gameplay quirks, like the maddening ease with which you can destroy a friendly army simply by forgetting to triple-check its rules of engagement, thus destroying the work of over a hundred turns.

A section on the astonishing amount of administrative tasks you have to perform would not be out of place. I loved building and organizing armies, but the frequency with which I had to reorganize was off-putting. I also had stacks of unassigned generals roving the map looking for brigade commands, who seemed never to be where I needed them.

But I focused on the other elements of the Rise of Prussia package, things you could argue are external to the core game, because they are where the whole experience started to turn sour. It just did not seem very interesting to rehash the AGEOD wargame system again, especially since most of the people who are genuinely interested in Rise of Prussia probably already know what they think about it. AGEOD’s bare-bones approach is what really dragged this game down.

So let me be honest about some of my expectations. With a mature series like this one, I start to look for more refinement and polish in later titles. When Birth of America came out I thought it was a breath of fresh air: handsome art assets, a solid and inventive portrayal of Revolutionary warfare, and a smart treatment of command and logistics. I wrestled with the interface a bit, and always felt like I was being asked to hunt down and interpret too much information. That paled beside the game’s obvious achievements.

But with Rise of Prussia, I find that I’m still battling the same problems. The core game is as good as ever, and AGEOD have made some nice improvements, but shouldn’t the presentation be better by now? Should I still be tasked with being my own supply officer? Couldn’t the ledger have some better sorting options by now, so that I spend less time hunting for specific units and generals?

On top of that, there are far fewer scenarios, and everything is large-scale. With the first game, Birth of America, AGEOD wrote a lot of different scenarios at different scales. I could try a grand campaign covering an entire war, I could focus on Montcalm’s opening offensive against the British, or Amherst’s sprint up the St. Lawrence. I could play Birth of America on my own terms. Rise of Prussia can be played one way.

Even little things, like the way you run email games, seem clumsy and user-unfriendly. Why do I have to do so much file management for a play-by-email game? Why can’t the game do it for me?

Personally, with experienced developers iterating on a familiar design, I look for signs of caring, thoughtful craftsmanship. Rise of Prussia did not have them.