One of the very first strategy and war games I ever played was the Defend the Alamo demo. This was back in the 1990s when the internet wasn’t even such a big thing yet. I downloaded the demo and got hooked on American history in the process of playing around with the game. Back then the company was called Incredible Simulations, today it is called Digital Gameworks, a one-man band faithfully trekking its own path in the world of computer wargaming.

ZULU DAWN! The Battle of Isandlwana is the newest production from DG, though at times the game feels more like a single scenario demo. It pits the indomitable Zulus against the overconfident Brits and their allies, in what is the single biggest defeat the British military has had at the hands of a native force.

Rifles and Spears

The combat system is quite easy to understand. The mission for the British is to inflict casualties at long range, picking out units one by one, while the Zulu aim to get into close contact and overwhelm the enemy with numbers. The British begin the battle encamped at their secure base, whilst the Zulus come out from the woods in waves.

The British are armed with Martini-Henry Rifles for the regulars, with some levies toting muzzle-loading muskets. They also have one cannon and a rocket battery. The muskets have less range and do less damage than rifles. The Zulus get their assegai spears and a few muskets for long-range combat, with bayonets and spears fighting up close.

There are a few additions to make this a bit more interesting. Units can run out of ammo and need to be resupplied, the Zulus can be forced to the ground and the British can get disorganised. The regulars can choose to make a last stand to protect the camps, and the Zulus may charge to break the enemy.

Units have a strength value, which is a simple percentage. Once this goes down to zero only a puddle of blood remains where your or your enemy’s troops once stood. For the British, each unit lost is a step towards defeat, while the Zulus enjoy the advantage of considerable reserves.

Turn-based tactics with a twist

Command is activated randomly, which means that the computer moves in between your moves. Shoot at the wrong unit and the one next to it might activate and jump you or watch in frustration as your charge peters out when the British pick out your units one by one. Though the system is nothing complicated it makes for some nerve-wracking moments, where you hope the computer concentrates on something completely irrational instead of tackling your obvious game-saving move.

The Zulu play concentrates on engaging the enemy units, while the British simply aim to keep them as far away as possible. Killing enemy units score points, yet most of the time your aim is to simply rout them, so you can pile on the remaining units. Once the Zulus manage to break or disarray the British line the game is pretty much over, as is what happened in history. The way the game engine runs makes it possible to fight separate battles in different parts of the map.

Modern-day interface issues

Though the engine used in ZULU DAWN! is light years ahead of the previous games from the company it still suffers from some issues. The buttons and scrolling seem to be mobile-friendly, at the cost of some frustrating moments for a PC player. The scrolling is done via arrow buttons, though you can zoom in with the mouse wheel. Why you can’t simply roll the map one way or another with the mouse is beyond me and seems entirely countering the point of having a 3D-map in the first place.

The game is also missing an exit button or any kind of menu. All you can do is close the game via the big red X we are all familiar with. The game controls themselves are quite easy to use: click to choose, click to move, click to select the target and double click to shoot. Most actions can be done via buttons at the bottom of the screen.

The most frustrating part of the interface is the different unit types. Cannons and infantry are easy to tell apart but in order to find out where your mounted police are, or which units are native levies, and which are regular companies. You need to either zoom in or click the unit, in either case going through your whole line unit by unit. The same issue arises with units that have already moved or fired, units that are on the ground or being routed. The point of an intuitive interface is lost when you need to drill down into the details to see the details.

One scenario and one scenario only

The one obvious shortcoming of the title is the fact that there just isn’t too much to play here. The game is a one scenario stand-alone, with a couple of choices to complicate the matter. When playing as the British this means that you need a few playthroughs to learn how to beat the game, and as the Zulu once is usually enough.

This is a bit of a shame since the engine itself is quite good. What the game, or the next game, needs is a few more scenarios to keep it interesting. This is indeed the case with the other titles from the same producer, so perhaps we can expect a bit more replayability next time around. Luckily, the price of the game is not considerable. If you are looking for a Zulu-themed game, there’s pretty much nothing else on the market to tickle your interest. ZULU DAWN! The Battle of Isandlwana is fun for a few afternoon sessions, and perhaps to entice the odd stray gamer into the wonderful world of history and wargames.