Reviewing Ultimate General: Civil War
By: Elijah Blackwell
A wave of grey uniformed soldiers came marching over the hill. I ordered my troops to stand in place. My artillery fires at will in hopes to soften the approaching brigades.
A bloody battle is about to commence and I’m not sure I’m ready.
Ultimate General: Civil War was released in 2017. It’s an American Civil War strategy game that has some intense moments, but the experience is hampered by questionable mechanics.
American Civil War video games are not nearly as common as games set during other conflicts. The majority of the releases are strategy games. Since strategy games don’t age well (the further back you go the more inaccessible they become), I find myself coming back to Ultimate General: Civil War. For brevity I will be referring to the game as UG:CW from here on out.
Today, you can buy it for $29.99 on Steam and it runs in Windows 10 just fine. I’ve seen the price drop to $8 so if you are iffy about this one just be patient for a sale.
Ultimate General is a series by the indie developer Game Labs Inc. The first in the series was Ultimate General: Gettysburg released in 2014. As the title suggests, it only focuses on the Battle of Gettysburg. It holds an 83% user score on Steam. It’s not worth detailing as most of the mechanics carried over to the sequel.
I played Gettysburg and wished that the game covered the entire war. A few years later I got my wish. It was a bittersweet moment.
The Beautiful Battlefield
I love these graphics. Each battlefield looks like a painting straight from the 1860s. It helps immerse the player into the time period while also making it really easy to see the combatants.
When brigades fire there is a wall of smoke that follows the muskets. This creates such an intense image that contrasts the beautiful landscape.
Sections of the map have different values. Tall grass or farm fields conceal troops. Trees do the same while also providing some defense. Towns, fences, forts, and camps also have high defense bonuses.
Elevation plays a role. Artillery can fire further if perched on a hill. It sounds obvious, but sometimes from the screenshots you might not be able to tell that there is elevation. Thankfully, the game does allow the player to tilt the camera to better gauge height.
The only drawback is the lack of destruction. The environment doesn’t change with warfare. Buildings never crumble, trees don’t fall. Honestly, after the fight the map looks the exact same as it did when the battle started.
This is a minor nitpick as I don’t think map destructibility would add much to the experience. The map is gorgeous and definitely fits with the time period the game is set in.
This is the only part of UG:CW that I can say is universally good. From here on out, it’s lost potential and frustration.
A Career in the Military
There are two main game modes to choose from: historical battles and the campaign. The campaign allows you to create your own general and lead an army through the entirety of the war.
At the start you get to make a few decisions that determine your starting stats. From Logistics to Organization, your general has his own RPG like attributes.
In addition to the player general, the individual brigades can also be customized. You buy better weapons or add more bodies to the lines. The cost is tied to whatever the general’s stats are.
All of this sounds good so far, but for me there’s one giant issue. To explain I need to give some context.
The campaign is reminiscent of classic real-time strategy games. In those, you have a list of missions you need to do in a set order. Sometimes there is choice and in some games your troops carry over from mission to mission. This is classic and a fine way to go about a single player strategy game experience.
However, I don’t think the developers were sure what kind of campaign they wanted UG:CW to have. There’s two types of battles. There’s optional battles that aren’t super important but winning them grants you rewards. Then there’s the important battles that match historic events.
Winning the optional battles always gets you more support from the government, which leads to better funding. When I first played this game I fought as many as I could. My thought process was that if I won the battle the enemy would have less troops to fight me with. General Blackwell was massively disappointed when a fully staffed Confederate army came marching over the hills after killing 90% of them in the last encounter. What’s worse is you don’t get the same treatment. Lose 50% or more of your troops? The rest of the campaign is going to be a desperate struggle.
This issue isn’t exclusive with the optional battles. It’s actually more apparent in the main ones.
The game’s tone makes it seem like you have influence over the course of the war, which is a fantastic game mechanic all strategy people love. Being able to change history is fun especially when it’s making the historical losers the victors. With UG:CW there’s not much room for alternate history. As the Confederacy it feels like a constant struggle to push the Union back. If you decimate the Union army at an important battle the course of the war doesn’t change. It’s historically railroaded. Every battle is a hardship.
Even as the Union, the historical victors, it feels like you are constantly being pushed back. It’s weird. It’s like the developers are stacking the odds to ensure history stays the same.
It’s hard to explain. It’s something you have to experience yourself. It makes the campaign feel endless and out of your control.
At least the battles are still amazing
The campaign infuriated me back then and it infuriates me now. Luckily, there’s the historical battles game mode. Picking a battle will give you roughly the same amount of soldiers, equipment and starting positions as the real world events.
This is where it’s possible to change history without having to fight a railroaded campaign. The above screenshot is me preparing to command Pickett’s charge as the Confederates.
You see, in 1863, on the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg, General Pickett of the Confederates commanded his troops to charge at line of Union brigades. It did not go super well and it was kind of the nail in the coffin for the Confederates.
This is an oversimplification, but you get the general idea. Pickett’s charge was a grave mistake and now we can try and correct it in UG:CW.
Commanding the charge was an insane task. So many brigades to keep track of and a well dug in Union defense. This is the highlight of UC:GW, grand battles.
Each battle has an objective. It’s either taking a position or holding one for a certain amount of time. If the enemy is crashing your lines and making your troops retreat, this is a clear defeat. But if the battle timer hits zero and you still have the position, it’s a victory for you. The next day you are re-positioned and ready to fight again.
This might be an issue for some. For me it depends on the game mode I am playing.
The historical battles make it to where the stakes aren’t as high. These issues are much worse when you’ve been playing a campaign for dozens of hours, only start losing due to a battle timer. When I do boot up the game it’s usually just to play a historical battle or two.
I love watching my artillery soften up the enemy as my troops march into position. Each battle is a tense tug of war scenario where the tiniest decisions affect the outcome.
It’s a stressful but fun experience.
I recommend it even with the flaws
American Civil War games are hard to come by. It’s slim pickings. It’s nice to have a good one that’s relatively new.
UG:CW is a great game with some flaws that are unfortunately hard to ignore. I still recommend it as it can be a harrowing experience. It’s a fun strategy game that will test your strategic mind. Check it out on Steam!
Got any games you’d like to see covered? Let me know in the comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org!