By Tim Stone on December 6th, 2011 at 8:15 pm.
Did you know that by counting the number of ‘R’s in a cold person’s ‘BRRRRRRRRRR!’ you can tell the temperature of their surroundings? My ‘BRRRRRRRRRR!’ for instance, indicates my room is currently -10C. Why is it so fffffffffflippin (it also works with ‘f’s) cold? I blame greedy British energy companies and the bitter Siberian wind that has been gusting from my monitor all week. Stick a scarf round your throat and a vodka down your neck (or vice versa) and you’ll be ready to hear Wot I Think of Graviteam’s latest Eastern Front wargame.
Your first wargame probably had it easy. Back then your young mind hadn’t had time to dig those dugouts of discernment, and sow those Schu-minefields of cynicism. Was Arnhem really ‘skill’ or whatever praise-phrase MasterTimothy Stone Esq used back in the 80s? Search me. All I can say for sure, is that it was lucky to lead the charge.
By the time your 100th wargame comes along, the barbed wire entanglement of experience can be so thick, the MG nests of knowledge-based negativity so numerous and fiendishly sited, the unlucky assaulter is fortunate if it makes it off its start-line.
Achtung Panzer: Operation Star is my 100th wargame. Or maybe my 93rd. Or 135th – the exact number isn’t really important. To be hailed as a hero this real-time company-level tactical simulation has to match the likes of Close Combat in close combat, and puncture Panzers as plausibly as Combat Mission. Impressively, it does just that.
But mastery of WW2 skirmish basics isn’t the main reason APOPSTAR (As I insist it’s known for short) will be sitting very high on my Games of the Year list this year. I yearn to spend my evenings in blizzard-blasted hamlets and eerily quiet – too quiet – pine plantations because this wargame offers me challenges and experiences none of those other 99, 92 or 134 wargames offer.
Most of those challenges involve the game’s secret weapon –
the Panzer XII ‘SnowTiger’ Mech Uncertainty. Thanks to massive venues, and battle shapes dictated by an inspired turn-based strat layer, a lot of the time you have no real idea where the enemy is, what his strength is, or what he’s up to. There’s none of that ‘I’m attacking, he’s defending’, ‘I’m in the south, he’s in the north’ certainty you get with most grog fodder. There’s none of that ‘If I was the scenario designer I’d position a nasty Pak 40 over there on that forest edge and liven up the final phase of the scrap by injecting some Panther tank reinforcements at around the forty-minute mark’.
Because there’s no scenario designers behind the frosty firefights – well, no human ones anyway – there’s none of that predictability and eagerness to entertain and test that often comes with hand-crafted missions. At times you roll into a major victory location and find it completely deserted. On other occasions your men are tramping through a godforsaken tract of frozen pines and birch en-route to some faraway forming-up point when they blunder into a trudging column of foes doing exactly the same thing. I’ve (thankfully) never had any direct experience of war, but I’ve read enough about it to know that’ it’s an unpredictable and untidy business. The game captures that unkemptness perfectly.
Couldn’t be arsed to read my recent 1000-word rant about wargame and sim campaigns? No problem, here’s the short version: “Why can’t more games have campaign systems like Achtung Panzer Operation Star?”. Where most wargames blindfold you, bundle you into the back of truck and drive you miles to a new unfamiliar battlefield, after every victory or defeat, this one forces you to push on, and confront the sometimes-grim consequences of previous actions. Threw away half your halftracks in a reckless push across an open hillside last turn? You muppet. Now you’ll have to take that collective farm without vehicular support. Sent your lone StuG platoon up the east side of the op map? If you run into tanky trouble on the west side, it’ may be a few turns before help arrives.
The 8 historically-inspired operations are composed of up ten turns. Every turn you get to push platoon-sized counters around a gridded map. If platoons end-up sharing the same map square at the end of a turn then a real-time battle is generated. Some turns end with the map peppered with flaming engagement icons (the order you choose to play them is up to you). On other turns, cautiousness, wound-licking or freakish twists of fate mean you hurry onto the next phase without a shot being fired.
It’s not a perfect mechanism. Though generated battles involve the units and terrain from adjacent map squares, scraps can feel sparsely populated, especially late-on when companies are often severely depleted. What it is though is an immersion swamp. You stumble in on turn #1, emerging however many turns later, exhausted, chilled to the bone, and stinking of the Eastern Front. I’ve just finished an op that spanned several evenings (my evenings) and several miles (game miles) and my head and screenshot folder is crowded with vivid memories.
Closing my eyes I can see Panzergrenadiers (mine) assaulting a de-tracked T-34 besides a demolished dacha. I can see one of my StuGs bulldozing wrecked Universal Carriers off a corpse-strewn forest trail, Sturmoviks wheeling away from burning halftracks… The incredible thing about all these mental pictures is that they are all frames in the same gritty war movie, pages in the same war memoir chapter. I don’t feel like I’ve hopscotched my way along a fragmented mission sequence. I feel like I’ve spent 10 unforgettable hrs in the same drafty Sd.Kfz. 250 command halftrack.
There is a man way down there in the comments section holding a Mosin-Nagant sniper rifle in one hand and a big ‘NOW TALK ABOUT THE AI’ placard in the other. I am now going to talk about the AI.
I’d be lying if I claimed not to have seen anything outlandish during my time with APOPSTAR. On a couple of occasions I’ve watched tanks trundle stupidly close to occupied trench systems and get thoroughly Molotoved as a result. I’ve witnessed some bloody reckless infantry assaults across open ground. Oh, yes, and then there’s the halftracks and light tanks that immobilise themselves by trying to drive through rather than round trees and buildings. There’s definitely room for refinement in the AI department, but most of the time the enemy does a pretty respectable job of siting its heavy weapons and moving its troops and vehicles effectively. I suspect a few of the more improbable behaviours actually have more to do with the strat layer than the tacAI. Due to the one-unit-per-operation-grid-square rule there are times when the AI simply doesn’t have the means at its disposal to mount proper combined arms attacks.
While you won’t see grunts using building corners as cover, diving away from grenades, or huddling in the lee of wrecked vehicles, they will go to ground, withdraw and surrender occasionally. The little blighters are definitely at their happiest/deadliest when standing in slit trenches and squatting in gun pits, but expect to be hustled out of a few villages and copses by rapid, leap-frogging infantry assaults.
It would be interesting to know whether the AI utilizes the same selection of customisable unit commands as the player. Overhauled since the original Achtung Panzer, commands can be dished-out via a pop-up Close Combat-style menu, or by picking and choosing custom mixes of stances and behaviours from a selection of interface buttons. The shiniest buttons on my panel are ‘use roads’ (great for getting vehicles to bypass potentially treacherous thickets), ‘hide’ (when used in combination with move, this routes units via cover like woods and buildings) and ‘priority target’. In the past I’ve had a pop at CMx2 for offering too many order types. I reckon APOPSTAR gets the balance between simplicity and subtlety just about right – though the documentation explaining how everything works could be much better.
Disappointingly, the English version of the game comes without a proper manual. The Quick Start pdf introduces the basics adequately, but doesn’t explain operations in nearly enough detail. I’m only just beginning to grasp how to replenish and repair units between battles, and would be fascinated to read a detailed explanation of how the all-important op victory points are calculated.
In a run-of-the-mill wargame, rough-edged AI and dodgy documentation might be reasons to hang back. In a creation as atmospheric, surprise-stuffed, and ridiculously replayable as this, I suggest they’re just things you take on the chin… birch-crosses you bear. I’m more than happy to put up with the odd disobedient tank and reckless infantry platoon, in return for some of the finest and freshest wargaming action I’ve experienced in years.