Wot I Think: Achtung Panzer

By Tim Stone on March 7th, 2010 at 1:31 pm.

This week I’ve been finding out what happens when a Ukrainian tank sim developer has a bash at WW2 strategy. If you’ve ever owned a game with War, Front or Combat in the title, you might be interested to read Wot I Think.

Graviteam are Kharkivites through and through. In 2008 they whelped a game that let us trundle about in their city’s most famous product. This year they’ve supplied one that lets us orchestrate some of the March 1943 battles that culminated in the fall of the place to the SS.

On the face of it, moving from the rarefied world of armour simulation to the crowded cattle market that is WW2 RTS, seems like an odd move. Steel Fury needed to outshine one ten-year-old tank sim (admittedly a very good ten-year-old tank sim) to succeed. Achtung Panzer must survive comparisons with the likes of Close Combat, Combat Mission, and Theatre of War to prosper. Does it have that kind of mettle?

The short answer is yes. I’ve been dabbling for the best part of a week now, and what a memorable week of wargaming it’s been. AP (acronyms don’t come any apter) hits you with refreshing unorthodoxy from the word go. Pick any of the six available operations and you’re immediately presented with a gridded map dotted with intriguing icons. This is the chess-like strat layer that dynamically generates the game’s real-time engagements and, over the course of five to fifteen turns, moulds those engagements into a meaningful whole. By moving platoon-sized forces from cell to cell, then waiting anxiously as your opponent does the same, a rash of unscripted skirmishes are sparked. Sit tight in a square and your force will be able to dig trenches and foxholes if assaulted. Allow one of your units to become cut-off and it will no longer get to draw on reserves or replenish ammo and fuel.

On clicking your first combat icon (created when two forces contest a single square)
there’s a good chance you’ll be confronted with another of AP’s wilful idiosyncrasies – its enthusiasm for nocturnal warfare. With strat layer turns representing roughly 4 hours, ops inevitably include battles where curtains must be drawn and lights extinguished, if you’re to have any hope of following the duels in the dark. Actually, it’s not always that inky black. Parachute flares, burning vehicles, and men set afire by Molotov cocktails, cast a merry glow over proceedings from time to time.

Once your eyes have adjusted to the Stygian, human-torch-punctuated gloom, another of AP’s unique charms becomes apparent. Where most WW2 tactical wargames pen their units in cramped pocket-handkerchief arenas, Graviteam let theirs run free on vast swathes of authentic real-estate. Not only is the strat layer square of the skirmish included in a battle, bordering ones are too, meaning nearby forces, both friend and foe, can join the fray. The battle might have been triggered by two depleted infantry units clashing over some one-horse hamlet, but it could end up dragging in nearby armour, artillery, and grunts from miles around.

The massive battlefields and scattered forces combine to create some deliciously unpredictable scraps. Often enemy attacks arrive from unexpected directions, the first warning of an assault the squeaky clank of halftracks on a neglected flank, a thread of tracer arcing from a previously scouted gully. It’s not uncommon for several separate firefights to be raging at the same time. Here, tanks slug it out in a blasted village. There, beyond that hill, infantry grapple at a road junction. And over there – way over there – a battered light tank column blunders into a couple of scurrying armoured cars. In these airy venues there’s room to flank, room to bypass, room to hide. Recon vehicles are actually useful and tank guns get to fire at targets at the limits of their range.

Coming from an outfit that lived and breathed AFVs for the first four years of its existence, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to learn that AP’s chariots of ire don’t come with hit points or chronic myopia. Every shell, grenade or molotov that passes the relevant penetration test, has a chance of damaging a dozen different mechanical systems not to mention individual crew. Part of the pleasure of a tank duel is reading the damage labels that briefly blossom after each penetration. Shed tracks, jammed turrets, kindled fires… it’s all lovingly chronicled. Some hapless steel beasts take a painfully long time to die.

Steel Fury’s fascinating post-battle ballistics analysis has been ported lock, stock, and rifled barrel, meaning you can wander the battlefield after everyone has gone home, reliving the drama through the colour-coded impact arrows that bristle from every vehicle. There’s a grim satisfaction in finding out exactly where the killshot entered your doughtiest T-34, or who slung the shell that finally nailed that annoying Marder. Not that it’s always munitions that do for vehicles.

Physics isn’t a word used too often in connection with wargames, but it plays a minor yet pleasing role here. The same lines of code that cause a KV-1S to struggle clambering up a steep slope, or a Panzer II to slide when cornering at speed, can, on rare occasions, have more serious consequences. I’ve witnessed halftracks irrevocably bogged while crossing trenches, armoured cars knocked onto their sides by artillery blasts, and tanks floundering in rivers after overstressing elderly wooden bridges. Heavyweights never crash through ice or disappear into marshes, but it’s an excellent start down that road.

I think I’m right in saying disabled vehicles are recovered between turns – assuming you hold the ground at the end of the battle. Knocked-out AFVs on the other hand, are left as spooky memorials. There was a chilling moment in my first op when, watching some squads of friendly grunts scamper across a frozen field, I noticed the hulks of burnt-out half-tracks and realised I was back at the scene of an earlier calamitous assault. That ingenious strat layer means it’s not uncommon for a hill or hamlet to change hands several times during the course of an op.

One small advantage of revisiting ravaged acreage is your men are able to take advantage of shell craters for cover. Sensibly controlled as indivisible squads rather than fiddly individuals, infantry will seek nearby cover without encouragement, but the behaviour isn’t quite as honed or obvious as it is in titles like Men of War or the Close Combats. Don’t expect to see men using building corners or individual trees as bulwarks against the bullets, for instance. AP isn’t quite that granular.

What they will do, is scavenge weapons from corpses, enter buildings, ride on tanks, dig in, rout and surrender on occasions. In other words, AP avoids most of the realism tank-traps that have snared other Close Combat aspirants over the years. In terms of tactical functionality, the only mud I can sling relates to AT guns, and defensive measures. Barbed wire and mines don’t appear to figure in the game at all, and tin-openers like the Pak 40 and ZiS-3 can’t be re-crewed by regular infantry in emergencies. While I can understand tanks being classified as specialist-only kit, there’s no good reason why an average Ivan or Fritz couldn’t operate an abandoned AT gun.

Right, time to wrestle with the tattooed Penal Battalion thug that is AI. How smart are computer-controlled forces and how credible are their tactics? Well, the good news is they are about as good as anything else out there. At the strat level, foes will combine strength, assaulting vulnerable squares from multiple directions. At the tac level they’ll retreat and call for ceasefires if things start going pear-shaped, reverse AFVs if they don’t fancy the odds, and halt tanks allowing them to engage from distance. All that said, there’s certainly room for further tweaking. Artificial adversaries aren’t particularly good at using quirky kit like mortar halftracks and tank destroyers. The Marder II’s thin armour and exposed crew make it a poor choice for close infantry support yet the AI often employs them in this way. I’d like to see all vehicles especially German armour and halftracks being a tad more backward in coming forward.

Infantry would also benefit from a sharpened self-preservation instinct. At the moment too many of the poor buggers perish while advancing gamely into the teeth of chattering machine-guns. If Graviteam could get them to use covered routes more often (admittedly not always possible in the hedgeless Ukrainian terrain) and lay down more suppressive fire before assaulting (again, not always possible) then defending would be an even more challenging business.           

Don’t mistake these grumblings for serious discontent. The majority of battles I’ve overseen over the last few days have been strikingly resonant affairs. If I close my eyes and think back, I see soldiers spilling from half-tracks then pushing forward while those same halftracks provide motherly support. I see defences crumbling one trench or one house at a time, brutal midnight knifefights for bridges, rail crossings and anonymous thickets. Oh yes, here’s another minor complaint. AP’s AI is guided by victory locations some of which are historical – villages, key buildings etc -  others randomly generated. The latter can feel pretty arbitrary at times. Watching the AI waste blood and lead securing an unremarkable field at the bottom of a valley, doesn’t feel right. If flags were placed a little more thoughtfully, favouring hilltops, hamlets, copses and road junctions, topographical fixation would feel more natural.

Graviteam also need to work on their instruction. AP’s manual would benefit from a few more pages, its tool-tips from better translation. The devs have gone for a stripped down RTS-style interface rather than CC/CM-esque pop-up menus. There’s sense in this approach, but the result is too condensed for its own good. It takes a few days of experimentation to discover the impact of different combinations of movement, attack, and formation modes. The mouse controls and camera system are pretty slick and intuitive. Once you’ve got used to the nasty way the camera pitches down when lifted to its maximum ceiling, and the fact there’s no on-screen compass (a mad omission) navigating the battlefields and locating troops becomes a breeze.

Criticizing wargame visuals is like fishing with hand grenades. Here it’s hard but not impossible to find fault. AP scrubs up nicely by genre standards, but poor pyrotechnics, crude shadows and limited infantry animations, are always there gnawing at the edges of the illusion. Hopefully the coming add-on Operation Star will add extra beauty. It certainly looks to be moving in the right direction vis-à-vis unit variety.

As AP only models a small fragment of the Third Battle of Kharkov, it can get away with leaving out Ost Front notables like the Tiger, Matilda, and SU-76. That narrow focus gives the game power and rootedness, but inevitably impacts replayability to a degree. Though the strat layer ensures no two battles are ever the same and the quick battle system (pick a section of the map plus participating platoons) means customisable combat is available if you want it, I can see a point somewhere down the road where I start longing for fields that aren’t shrouded by snow and rivers that aren’t frozen in their beds. It would be fascinating to see how the the AP engine would cope with Normandy or North Africa.

Whatever Graviteam’s plans are, I hope they realise they’ve got a gem on their hands here. Achtung Panzer is that rare thing – a convincing WW2 wargame with a campaign system that doesn’t feel like an afterthought. If you’ve been searching for the next step in the Steel Panthers – Close Combat – CMx1 march of progress, this is it.

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43 Comments »

  1. BIG D says:

    Nice write up Tim, will give this a look!

  2. Serenegoose says:

    This is why I like Wot I thinks more than actual reviews. Not that I can access reviews in my preferred PC gaming magazines anymore, thanks to being IDless and the magazines garnering an 18 rating. Apparently 23 year olds will be corrupted by evil videogames.

    oh dear, I tangented quite a bit there. But seriously, I wasn’t sure whether I was going to pick this game up. Now it’s a definite.

    • Wulf says:

      Have to agree.

      The only problem with scoring systems is that often I’ve read a glowing review that reads like a 90 but doesn’t score that way, or a review that’s particularly damning (like Alec’s BioShock 2 review) but would garner 90 anyway, instead of the 40-ish it really deserves.

      One recent example was with VVVVVV in PC Gamer, the review describes a game of 90+, it was glowing with no real complaints, and any mainstream game would’ve gotten 96 with that kind of review, but instead it got 86, it was as though the reviewer was scared to rate it higher than most the other games (mainstream ones) reviewed, even though it actually deserved it.

      If it were my choice, I’d just stick with a thumbs up/down system, or nothing at all.

  3. blaargh says:

    Played the demo a bit and liked it, but I didn’t get any armor encounters. Looks like I might have to pick this one up!

    As an aside, is Steel Fury available digitally anywhere?

  4. Cooper says:

    What’s that coming over the hill?

    Is it a Panzer? Is it a Panzer?

  5. Shadrach says:

    I bought this last night, not had time for a lot of playing and *really* need to print that manual at work come Monday :) The user interface lacks a bit but is friendly enough.

    From the little I’ve seen there’s a lot of complexity hidden beneath pretty slick gfx (for a wargame). Tim’s damaged tank screenshot leaves me wanting to play some more to see the same myself.

  6. andrew says:

    so…. not on steam apparently.
    what’s the best place to buy this from if I want a steamy experience (re: infinite re-downloads, nothing to crazy as far as DRM)?

  7. DMJ says:

    Thank you for giving me the phrase “chariots of ire”. I don’t know how, but I’m going to use that today.

  8. Heliosicle says:

    will check this out, RPS put me onto MoW which I loved, so I’ll see whether this interests me.

  9. Lemon scented apocalypse says:

    Sold.
    Although that was admittedly a given.

  10. tka says:

    Thanks Tim!
    Gotta try the demo.

  11. JB says:

    Tried the demo when it came out, but didn’t get on with it as much as I’d hoped. Having read Mr. Stone’s W.I.T. I think I’ll have to give it another try.

  12. Heliosicle says:

    tried the demo, i think once I find out what the hell is going on I could enjoy it…

  13. Tacroy says:

    I want this game, but with Bolos.

  14. Alex Bakke says:

    Ballistics?

    Fuck yes. I can be the Grissom of the Red Army.

    Comerade Grissom!

  15. Fumarole says:

    Regarding the compass – if I recall correctly, the demo has a red triangle on the minimap. I assumed this pointed north. It certainly always pointed in one direction, at least.

    • Tim Stone says:

      Well spotted. I didn’t get on with the minimap (very limited zoom, nasty habit of changing camera direction when used for rapid relocation) and tend to turn it off now. That’ll be why I missed it.

  16. Andrew Dunn says:

    The campaign mode – particularly the persistence of elements on both levels – sounds great.

    Think I’ll have to look this one up, despite the TOO MANY GAMES that plagues me.

  17. Vinraith says:

    Sold. God I love games with dynamic strategic context. I’ve been pining for a game that would let me fight back and forth over the same rotten patch of ground while the war evolved around me ala Close Combat for ages, this sounds like something that might actually fit the bill.

    At $20 I’d be a fool not to buy it.

  18. G Morgan says:

    Well, seeing as I have Steel Panthers: World at War running in the background, I might have to take a look at this. After a patch or two, of course. I’m not a masochist.

  19. Walsh says:

    It’s available from Impulse.

  20. Jaz says:

    I wrote that VVVVVV review, and I loved it for every reason I stated in there. I knew it wouldn’t last long, and I knew that it wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, so I worked out how those sentiments translated into PC Gamer review score speak and that’s what score it got. If I’d given it 96 percent, I’d be leaving myself 4% of career room for an 8-page mega review that alters the way I look at games and doesn’t leave my hard drive for a decade. I’d be saying, “Everyone will love this game because it’s almost perfect.” That’s definitely not what I wanted to say.

    Saying that, I mainly replied because it was hovering at 90% in my head for a while. While I utterly refute the idea that I’d give the same game a bigger score if it was ‘mainstream’, I think it’s healthy to be scared of high scores. These are the highest accolades I can give a game, that top 10%, and I’m biding my time.

  21. MadMatty says:

    gave it a good go, and its like Close Combat, which is good news!

    • MadMatty says:

      …but wait a minute ….. no multiplayer??

    • MadMatty says:

      nope – no multiplayer, which is almost a warcrime of omission.
      I had a truly great experience playing Close Combat 3 & 4 in the multiplayer campaign mode, so i can only hope they get around do adding it sooner rather than later ….

      Graviteam: plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plz plzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz multiplayer!!?

  22. Spinoza says:

    best purchase for me this year.. hope it will start nice round series.

  23. BooleanBob says:

    Ach, mein Gott.

    First thing I thought when I saw this on game trailers was ‘but how can it compare to Steel Panthers?’

    Then I immediately reinstalled Steel Panthers from the discs and started another full-war campaign as the Germans.

    By the end of the week I’d forgotten about it. Then KG posted the latest trailer, I angsted about my long-dilapidated grasp of my designated GCSE foreign language, projected that guilt onto the entire English-speaking world, got chewed out by some free-thinking we-are-the-world Kerouac wannabe, and started another two long campaigns as the British and the Japanese. I then dug out my copy of the World at Arms, read four chapters, played the Stinging the Bear scenario (to this day the only thing I’ve ever actually finished in SP), mined Wikipedia dry on the subjects of Guderian and whether Blitzkrieg actually exists/ed, then fired up Company of Heroes and started the Commonwealth campaign. Then I downloaded the Company of Heroes soundtrack and listened to it on repeat while playing Steel Panthers.

    I’ve lost a fortnight to this nonsense! I don’t need any more time sink strategy gaming or history buffing! I’m not fifteen any more, damnit! And now you post this fantastic review of this incredible looking game.. ach.

    Damn you, sir. Thricely be damn’d. If anyone needs me, I’ll be on an hillock outlying Belgorod, urging my men on with promises that their new boots are waiting in the hands of the Sixth army quartermasters.

    • pistolhamster says:

      Urgh! I suffer that with submarines. I just recently reinstalled SH IV and mods and what not. Happily skipper’ing away around the Straits of Jawa and the Philipine sea. And a week passes. And it just keeps on pouring in with new games. This came after a binge of Europa Universalis III Magna Mundi 2 Platinum. Stop it, please. I cannae play all these between living a life, working, walking the dog, playing the piano and actually finding time to watch movies and sleep. Stop it! I am so lured by this game. Panzers. Ost Front. Graphics. Too good.

      And they say pc gaming has died. Its defo kicking up a lot of dust as it dies, then!

    • BooleanBob says:

      Man, Amen!

  24. WCG says:

    I don’t care about multiplayer, but another review said that you can’t save the game during hour-long battles. Yeah, none of us have anything else to do but play this game, right? Between that and the very dark night battles, it doesn’t sound very appealing.

    But nothing about the actual mechanics of gameplay? That’s what I care about the MOST in a review. None of the rest of this means a thing if it’s not the kind of game I can – or will – play. “Real-time” battles, apparently, but can you easily pause to look around and give orders? Can you adjust the speed?

    Frankly, I don’t care if YOU enjoy the game. What I’m trying to find out in any game review is whether I will like the game.

    • Vinraith says:

      @WCG

      The easy way to determine whether you’ll like the game is to give the demo a try.

    • Tim Stone says:

      There’s a ‘no night battles’ tickbox in the options, so don’t let the darkness put you off.

      To be honest, I didn’t notice that saving was impossible within battles. Too engrossed. Also, with ceasefires and time acceleration (4x max) you can shorten engagements when necessary.

  25. BooleanBob says:

    If I remember my history correctly, Caesar defeated the ancient Celts and Britons because at five o’clock each evening they had to quit their battles to take afternoon tea.

    But then five o’clock falls in that murky twilight hour between afternoon and evening, so it’s entirely possible that the entire account is apocryphal.

  26. Tim Stone says:

    Two sweet moments from my last skirmish:

    While my main force tackles a concentration of German infantry and halftracks dug in west of Sokolovo, I send a single SMG squad and a T-60 light tank north to secure two distant victory locations. After about ten minutes of trudging/trundling they reach the first one (happily, unnoccupied) and set off for the second. The next time I check their progress, I see only one icon. Assuming the grunts have fallen behind, I do a quick aerial search only to realise the infantry are in fact perched atop the tiny T-60. The clever buggers, exhausted after tabbing across miles of snow and ice, have decided to hitch a ride.

    A bit later that same T-60 is immobilised on the edge of a pine wood. I’ve given up on it, but it seems the crew haven’t. When the coast is clear, one of them jumps out and starts belting the broken track with a sledgehammer. He’s still doing it when the battle ends, but I appreciate the enthusiasm.

    It’s details like these that make AP so special.

  27. Spinoza says:

    AP Operation Star demo ,in russian, UI this same thought

  28. SF says:

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