Wot I Think: Achtung Panzer – Operation Star

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.

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75 Comments »

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  1. Spinoza says:

    Spasiba towariszcz.Я тебя люблю.

    • Paul Dean says:

      Spasibo, surely?

    • noilly says:

      Pronunciation is closer to spasiba. unstressed ‘o’ or somesuch

      /pedantry

    • Paul Dean says:

      Aye, that’s correct, but isn’t the standard romanisation of Спасибо with the “o” on the end? Or is that now considered old fashioned? I hear that romanisation is morphing somewhat.

  2. Synesthesia says:

    yay! i wish i was not rubbish at these games.

  3. Zeewolf says:

    I am the man. I’m glad I didn’t have to shoot.

  4. Echo Black says:

    Is there MP on this?

    • iucounu says:

      Yeah, Keith Vaz is complaining that it turns kids into giant killer tanks.

  5. Sigh says:

    ‘NOW TALK ABOUT THE AI’

    • Sigh says:

      Great Wot I Think. I wasn’t aware of this game before and now it is on my radar due to your excited writing.

    • Alex Bakke says:

      If you ‘close the breech’ on a bolt action rifle, you’re ‘closing the bolt’. You can’t bring the bolt to the rear, otherwise you’d have an open breach.

    • Quine says:

      We shall slight them on the ‘breeches’…

    • Dozer says:

      @Quine that brought a tear to my eye.

  6. pepper says:

    I fear that if I ever started playing this game I would not stop.

    • Dozer says:

      @Pepper consider this! If you never start playing this game, you’ll never stop!

    • pepper says:

      Oww, and you do this to me in the morning when im drinking my coffee? Harsh!

  7. scorcher24 says:

    Why always WW2??
    I won’t buy any WW2 Game anymore… never. I refuse.

    • Megadyptes says:

      Because it was a huge war with hundreds of different operations on many fronts with huge amounts of military equipment and various strategies being used by different countries and thus it’s perfect fodder for more serious war games. Now if you were complaining about yet another high budget FPS you may have a point, when it comes to war games that hardly anyone plays unless they usually have a huge interest in the subject there is no point crying about WW2 games.

    • Brun says:

      Because WW2 was really the last true “Total War” between major powers – to clarify, that means that both sides of the conflict were investing their entire economies toward fighting each other. As a pure strategy game it’s a logical choice.

    • Janek says:

      If it makes you feel any better, their next game features the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq war and the Angolan civil war.

      See, they’re listening.

    • Squirrelfanatic says:

      I don’t think the point of his question was why WW2 at all, but why ALWAYS WW2, seeing as there are other scenarios you could use. WW2 has been done over and over and over and over again.

      I understand that it might be interesting for history / military buffs, but it really is the Super Mario of strategy games.

    • scut says:

      ‘Super Mario of strategy’ genres is a perfect way to put it. I know developers do WW2 because it’s safe and easy, but that doesn’t stop it from being stale.

    • jRides says:

      I would love a game this deep and intricate – but set in the 40k universe.

    • Torgen says:

      Well, to be honest, not only has there really been no mass armor engagements since 1945 (though I suppose some of the Arab/Israeli dustups would qualify,) engagement ranges and lethality have increased to the point where many units are hit/destroyed while never seeing it coming. Add the huge advances in tactical air support since WWII, and it’s a very different beast to make a game from. (Unless you just arbitrarily not include things like air support.)

    • MadMatty says:

      Easy, Nazis are like zombies, not quite likable.
      Its also distant enough from modern conflicts not to seem in poor taste (which according to Modern Warfare sales, is a bit low on the priority list for some)

    • Tac Error says:

      @Torgen
      Certainly for present-day (post-1991) conflicts dominated by precision-guided weapons and other high-tech gizmos, but I believe that the mechanized fights that happened from 1945 to the end of the Cold War were certainly *not* the “if it moves it dies”, “they’ll never see it coming” and “if it is hit, it is dead, period” that popular perception has led us to believe, and therefore suitable to depict in a wargame. Tactical air power was still mainly based around unguided munitions, too. (Don’t think anyone’s going to be playing whack-a-mole with scarce laser-guided bombs and Mavericks on targets that are not high-value during that time period!)

      Analyst Chris Donnelly once said that warfare as it was in 1988/1989 was not radically different from 1945, but warfare 10-15 years later would definitely be on another level with the advanced technology, contactless/noncontact warfare, and the extreme increases in lethality you speak of we are accustomed to when we speak of modern war.

      And now Graviteam will give us Steel Armor later in January!

  8. OJSlaughter says:

    This game does look interesting but there is way too much on my plate! Oh well, games like these only get better with time, will crack open this game in a few months

  9. Nighthood says:

    I might not like the games, but I like when Tim Stone writes about them.

  10. Jae Armstrong says:

    Achtung Panzer: still one of the best- if not the best- names for a computer game ever devised by man.

    Brings a tear to my eye. :'(

    • westyfield says:

      I read a lot of Commando Comics (if you don’t know what they are, you’re missing out) when I was younger, and as such Achtung Panzer is a phrase forever burned into my brain.

    • Inigo says:

      We need a strategy game based on Commando Comics, or at least a game with dialogue like “For you, Tommy, zer var is over” and “AIEEEEE!”

  11. Tim James says:

    If you (or anyone else) loves this game, I implore you to create a series of YouTube videos showing a random 30-60 minutes of play, with commentary through a microphone. I can’t turn the corner on this game because of the bizarre tutorial and lack of direction in combat. It’s so far removed from the beautiful simplicity of Chance Encounter from the Combat Mission demo.

    I want to play it and like it, but I just can’t do it. Help me out.

    • tigershuffle says:

      Exactly how i feel about it

      Ive got the first Achtung Panzer and really, really want to enjoy it but just dont have the time to put in that the game deserves…..im easily baffled nowadays

    • Torgen says:

      @Tim James:

      This. Oh so much this.

    • Roshin says:

      Even an old fart and PC gamer like myself was completely stumped by the first game and how incredibly not helpful it was. I just sat there looking at the screen and going “Huh?”. I clicked randomly on things, but couldn’t make any sense of it. It’s a strange situation, because I really want to like the game(s). Yes, there was a quickstart PDF, but come on now.

    • Tim Stone says:

      I recommend disabling the confusing tutorial mode, and just jumping in. Because there’s a Close Combat/Combat Mission-style ‘space-bar’ menu (Move/Recon/Assault/Hunt etc…) now as well as GUI buttons, it’s a lot friendlier.

      On the field of battle, if in doubt, just head for enemy flags.

  12. Raiyan 1.0 says:

    SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME WHAT EVERY SINGLE OF THOSE COMMAND ICONS DO IN THE THIRD SCREENSHOT! I MUST KNOW!

    (Great write-up, Tim.)

  13. Ranger33 says:

    The CMx2 Eastern Front game is going to feel *extremely* dated by the time it comes out if they don’t introduce some new features. I’m not going to hold my breath on that one though.

    • Phillip Culliton says:

      We plan to continue improving Combat Mission over time, just like we always have. This’ll include a UI upgrade that has been discussed on the forums for months. CMx1 introduced features with each new title, CMSF did as well (and added some features in patches too), CMBN has done so again, and we’re not going to stop anytime soon. :)

      CMx2 Eastern Front is a ways off, but you can rest assured we’ll be adding and improving things in the meantime.

      I think I recognize your name from our forums. If you’re the same Ranger33, hi! Just like anyone that visits our forums (or plays our game), you’re always welcome to get in touch with me if you have questions or suggestions.

    • Ranger33 says:

      Ah! You’ve hunted me down across the internets! I know you guys are going to improve the UI and stuff, I guess my comment there was meant to be more about having a strategic layer or dynamic campaign. Dynamic campaign in the sense of it being randomly generated and reactive to some extent a la Falcon 4.0 (probably not that in depth, but just as an example) and letting you choose your own force pool. Now that I think about it, I saw that the German campaign for Commonwealth is implementing force selection to some extent, which has me excited. Any additional info on how that will work? I take back my previous comment, I was tired and not thinking straight.

    • Premium User Badge

      ChrisN says:

      RE: the Commonwealth Campaign force selection. Nothing of the sort has been promised or hinted at at all. Someone mis-read the press release and then others started repeating it.

    • Ranger33 says:

      So the information in last week’s “The Flare Path” was false or was it just misinterpreted? It seemed to suggest that you would get a fairly basic core force, and then have “the opportunity” to add new forces to it, which kind of implies a choice of some sort, but I guess not. I think the response to the “Devil’s Descent” campaign showed that people really enjoy having some say in how a campaign plays out. Choices like waiting for reinforcements or pressing the attack really adds some flavor to things.

  14. misterT0AST says:

    hmm… the enemy getting his tanks jammed in obstacles, and throwing his infantry away in reckless charges?
    Bad AI or historically accurate Russian military maneuvers?

  15. Nallen says:

    Doesn’t Achtung Panzer mean Attention Tank? What the fuck kind of name is that.

    • MD says:

      I’m pretty sure it’s more like “Watch out: tank!”

    • Gooring says:

      It’s also the name of a book by Heinz Guderian which helped lay the groundworks for German operational warfare during WWII.

  16. AsubstanceD says:

    “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.”

    This is an outrage! Having to confront the decisions of your previous battlefield tactics! I demand regen health… or regen units… or something….

  17. Torgen says:

    Platform:PC
    File size:1 563.51 MB
    Categories:Strategy, Simulator, Real-time Strategy, Combat Simulator
    Publisher:Graviteam
    DRM:SecuROM

    NOOOOOOO!

    • MellowKrogoth says:

      Yeah, that’s a deal breaker for me as well.

      I’m always tempted to go to the developer’s forum holding their game hostage, saying “remove SecuROM or I click on this Pirate Bay link” :P . Then again, these days I usually just abstain from playing these games and get interested in something else instead. I must have at least a hundred purchased and unplayed games.

      • Vercinger says:

        Thirded! Death to DRM!

        But it seems the devs got the messages. Gamersgate now lists the game as DRM-free. So go get it!

  18. Vinraith says:

    Thanks for this, Tim, it sounds fantastic. I’m curious, is there any reason to play the first game over this one, or should people just go with Operation Star from the outset?

    • dmastri says:

      Curious about this too… I bought the first one some time ago, installed, and played about 20 minutes before giving up. So many unlabeled buttons, no idea what the hell was going on, etc. Seems like the interface got a little help — enough to notice or might I as well slog through the first game before taking on this sequel?

    • Tim Stone says:

      Four reasons for going with Op Star over the original:

      Improved interface (more tool-tips, toggleable information overlays, CC-style order menu…)
      Mid-battle saves
      Tiger tanks
      More ops

    • Vinraith says:

      That’s the sense I was getting, thanks for the confirmation!

  19. TheBlobThing says:

    So errr, are you supposed to be smashed into oblivion in the first German campaign as the 320th infantry? I ended up pressing “flee” all the time because it was either that or wait half an hour until their tanks were on top of me and squishing all of my poor footsloggers into paste. Same result, took less time.

  20. Squirrelfanatic says:

    So, the 6th screenshot depicts the standard procedure for successful urban Christmas shopping, yes?

    On a side note: Why do these games still look like they were made in the late 90’s? Apart from the tanks, most landscape textures, bushes, even the soldiers are really nothing to get excited about.

  21. wodin says:

    The only RTS game I like and I more than like it…(I play CMBN WEGO)….

    Oh and the reason they don’t look the best graphically is becasue unlike your FPS an awful lot is going on under the hood…

    • Squirrelfanatic says:

      Yet somehow, games like Shogun 2 get it right.

    • Wilson says:

      I’m guessing Shogun 2 has a bigger budget. Also, show me a strategy game that looked like this from the late 90’s.

    • Squirrelfanatic says:

      True, budget surely has something to do with it. But wasn’t ‘Achtung Panzer’ published by Paradox? They aren’t exactly a small publisher. However, I was wondering about that in general. Seeing that WW2 games are so popular you would expect a bit more polish (and I think there were some frontpage posts recently that showed other WW2 strategy games that looked more up-to-date).

      @The 90’s: I did not say that this game looks like a specific wargame released in the 90’s but that it looks like it was made in the 90’s, with ugly landscape textures and all that.

    • Tac Error says:

      @Squirrelfanatic
      IIRC, Graviteam had Paradox distribute the game for non-CIS countries, but otherwise they funded AP:K43 all by themselves.

    • Phillip Culliton says:

      Budget: Shogun 2’s budget was probably several dozen times that of CM: Battle for Normandy. Their team is much, much larger as well.

      Going on under the hood: every soldier and crewman (in CMBN at least) has his own AI. There can be *thousands* of soldiers in a scenario, all making complex decisions. In the TW series AI is at the unit level. Having seen their AI tables I’d go out on a limb and say their units are making decisions on the same order of complexity as one of our soldiers. Therefore: they’ve got a lot more computing power to throw at graphics.

      That’s not to say the TW series isn’t awesome (thanks for having me down for the Napoleon preview, CA!), just that their goals are very different from ours, and parts of our goals (budget aside) means our engine can’t rely on having heaps of bandwidth to make graphics the priority. That’s also not to say Combat Mission (and probably Achtung Panzer, as their series progresses) won’t improve looks-wise as time goes on, just that our priorities are different so the TW series isn’t strictly comparable.

    • Squirrelfanatic says:

      I stand corrected then. :) And thank you, Mr. Culliton, for explaining the details to me. It was not my intention to be insulting in my comments in case you got that impression.

  22. Premium User Badge

    phuzz says:

    My flatmate claims that the chilly draughts in our house add to the atmospherics when he’s roaming around skyrim.
    I think he’s just to tight to put the heating on.

  23. MadMatty says:

    Great, i was looking for a replacement for Close Combat, but ive had to wait 10 years now.
    The original Achtung Panzer got it just about right, but it was singleplayer only, which i suppose this is aswell?

    • Tac Error says:

      Yes, but the developers are now currently experimenting with multiplayer modes. If it goes all well then they’ll introduce it into OPStar and later Steel Armor as well.

  24. Tac Error says:

    If the one platoon per square limitation seems like a turnoff, the developers plan on revamping the campaign map to have multiple platoons per square to be introduced in a future patch.

    • MadMatty says:

      +1 to you dude

    • wodin says:

      Which is OK, aslongas it doesn’t end up a clickfest with to many units…

      Shogun 2 probably doesn’t have things like accurate penetration tables and ballistics etc etc which is what a combat simulator like CMBN and AP have going on under the hood. Most wargamers I’m sure would say that Shogun 2 doesn’t have the complexity with regards to what goes on under the hood as say CMBN or AP.

      I’d take realsitc and detailed gameplay over great graphics anyday of the week. Take a look at most of the AAA titles that have come out over thelast couple of months…many look great but have left me with a feeling of anti climax…even Skyrim…looks beautiful but strip it down it’s just the same quests over and over again. Not saying it’s a bad game as I really do enjoy it but it is rinse and repeat pretty much all the way through.

      Also AP graphics in my humble opinion look great. The AFV’s look superb. It also (similar to Skyrim) actually looks cold. Not sure what games the poster above wa splaying in the inites that looked as good as AP…I sure as hell didn’t play them.

      Anyway if you think AP looks bad then you’d have a heart attack if you where to see screenshots of a game I’m getting for Xmas that gets released on friday. Tigers Unleashed. Even I looik at it a think abit more could have been done, but I also no the detail in the game for me will more than make up for the graphics.

  25. Spinoza says:

    @ Vinraith all above correct but, If you have some money to spare, good to support them by buying the original , which is ,if somehow obscure at first ,a great wargame.

  26. Damn You Socrates says:

    Tim you were right on the money about this game. First level I’m sitting in a small village with just a rifle company at 3am, no idea what is going to be coming at me. Then out of the darkness soldiers attack, but I mow them down from my emplacement in the buildings. I’m feeling pretty badass.

    More silence, then I hear a noise, a faint rumble. No contact. Then suddenly there’s a tank, and another. Shit! GTFO! The village is destroyed, my men scattered.

    On to the next battle to the north. 4am. Still dark while I defend a cross roads with no idea what’s coming down the road towards me. I hear another rumble in the darkness….

  27. Vercinger says:

    It’s now featured on Indie Game Stand, in case anyone was on the fence about buying it.