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Unity of Command 2 review

Embrace the octopus

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The awesome destructive might and continent-shrinking mobility of a WW2 army came with strings. While an antique army could fragment at will and locust everything it needed from the countryside it passed through, its 1939-45 equivalent was an essentially indivisible organism, a tangle of dangerous tentacles emanating from a cumbersome organ-clump of vital support staff, equipment, and stores. The unmissable Unity of Command 2 recognises this with a set of mechanisms that are masterpieces of abstraction, and in doing so, breathes new life into operations ludologised countless times before.

 

Although 2×2’s second hex-clad, IGOUGO WW2 offering can trace its origins all the way back to Panzer General, unlike the clutch of modern PG descendants, it’s a game silver-templed strategists like myself can play without risk of déjà vu.

Innovative treatments of things like supply and HQs (In it’s own way, UoC2 is just as bold, just as ‘New Wave’, as Radio Commander, Rebel Inc and Afghanistan 11) together with unusually accomplished AI, give UoC2 the novelty, plausibility, and tough adversaries it needs to win-over even the most jaded grogs. Logical basics, decent tooltips, and top-notch presentation provide it with the smooth edges necessary to snare genre-curious outsiders.

Transfer to Tunisia (UoC2’s basically linear campaign starts in North Africa, and travels to Normandy and the Low Countries, via Italy and the South of France) straight from the Eastern Front, and, once you’ve admired the bust-free, Fog-of-War shrouded, fully rotatable 3D maps, what’s likely to strike you most forcibly is the way 2×2 have broadened and enriched decision-making.

Turns in the minimalist 2011 original – pictured above – were dominated by two questions: “Where should I move this unit?” and “What, if any, foe should it attack?”. There was a dash of bomber tasking, bridge building, and unit reinforcing/customising, but UoC was, at root, a pared-down game of thoughtful manoeuvre and careful Schwerpunkting. In the sequel things are a bit more involved and a lot more colourful.

Units within range of their parent HQ can, assuming that HQ is suitably upgraded (you customise your brassy base units at intervals in the campaign) and still has Command Points in the bank, execute fancy attacks like feints, set-piece assaults, and contested river crossings, and prepare for special defensive roles like rearguarding, forlorn hopes, and sly counter-attacks. Selected with a roll of the mousewheel, these variations offer low-risk, low-gain alternatives to conventional attacks, and alter the way your units react to attacks.

Replenished at the end of every turn, CPs may also be frittered away on entrenching, motorising, reorganising, reinforcing and manually supplying units, and building, demolishing and repairing bridges. All these choices make for much more interesting and replayable ops.

UoC was a veritable Artful Dodger when it came to pocketing and the follow-up is no different. Aware that units cut off from supply quickly wither, you’re constantly looking for opportunities to turn enemy-stuffed salients into enemy-stuffed pockets .

One new distraction from the encircling is mopping-up. Because units now shed AI-controlled ‘stragglers’ when savaged, and these sorry remnants (represented by light blue man-shaped icons in the image above) try to make their way back to the supply dumps and HQs which eventually feed them back into the fray as replacements, it generally pays to apprehend after you’ve annihilated. Not always possible, straggler round-ups sometimes furnish intel about enemies hidden by FoW in addition to depriving your opponent of potential reinforcements. If rolling into hexes occupied by disordered skedaddlers didn’t also slow movement, you’d do it every chance you got.

Other sage additions to the tried and tested UoC formula include hand-placeable/sizeable supply dumps and footloose on-screen HQ units. The former push supplies into backwaters far from roads and railways and are an important element in many scenarios. The latter fund/enable all those special combat and engineering initiatives mentioned earlier, and, because of limited range must be shifted at regular intervals to keep pace with advances. Timing is everything when it comes to relocating your REMFs and supply caches, as on the turn following the move, the disturbed guerre greasers are too disorganised to function.

Para drops, amphibious landings, naval bombardments, saturation bombing and photo-recon planes are among other new features that enrich without slowing pace, compromising accessibility, or overwhelming one of the sharpest AIs in the business.

Sharing a map with the Germans in UoC2 is like sharing a flat with a family of hungry hyenas. If you wield your broom skilfully you may survive, but get careless – let your guard down for a moment – and you’re probably done for. On the back foot during most of the scenarios, Axis forces are tenacious defenders when the terrain suits defence and nimble retreaters when it doesn’t. Watching them backpedal over open country, blowing bridges as they go, is a delight. Woe betide anyone who mistakes that willingness to withdraw for a lack of offensive spirit though. Give the enemy the opportunity to counterattack, pocket, snatch a supply dump, or overrun an HQ and it will snatch it with both hands.

At times opponents can seem infallible. Your heart will sink when, during the foe’s half of the turn, it withdraws that VL-guarding unit you’ve painstakingly denuded, and replaces it with a fighting fit one from its rear. However, on the ‘normal’ difficulty at least, it isn’t totally machine-like. Occasionally, in its eagerness to exploit an opportunity, it will over-reach.

Difficulty, a sore point in the original UoC, is beautifully judged in the sequel. Played at ‘normal’ the second of four difficulty settings, the campaign will tax most players but is unlikely to cause apoplexy. During my first playthrough – a playthrough that occupied me for roughly 20 hours – I was compelled to replay two or three scenarios because of failures, and had a fair few close run things. There were sweaty moments, but a pleasant/historically appropriate feeling of irresistible forward momentum never entirely vanished.

Having recently embarked on ‘Victory in the West’ for a second time, this time at ‘classic’ difficulty, the next rung up on the challenge ladder, I’m finding things significantly tougher. Attacks must be carefully sequenced, units thoughtfully rotated, and CPs spent wisely to have any chance of taking non-negotiable VLs by the final turn of a scenario. In my last game, victory slipped through my fingers in the cruellest way imaginable. On the verge of taking Messina, the one remaining mandatory objective, on turn 10 of 10, I reduced the defenders to a single suppressed strength step only to realise that none of the units waiting to deliver the coup de grâce could do so because of blocked paths (units must be adjacent to an enemy to attack it, and in this instance neither of the units next to the Sicilian capital had sufficient action points left to move out of the way). Maddening? Not really. UoC2’s scenarios are of relatively brief duration (seldom more than 13 turns) and are so absorbing and dynamic, the thought of a second attempt isn’t unpleasant.

Ramping up difficulty in UoC2 means invoking cannier foes, harsher time limits, meaner Prestige awards, and a smaller hand of cards. Prestige, the in-game currency that buys reinforcements and unit-boosting ‘special’ strength steps like AT guns, commandos, and artillery, is dished out at the conferences that punctuate the campaign, and as a reward for taking primary objectives promptly. You can also earn it by seizing certain secondary objectives (secondary objectives also furnish cards, and extra fuel barrels). Cards, like HQ customisation, are UoC2’s way of letting you sculpt the game’s persistent armies to suit your play style and cope with anticipated challenges ahead. As immersion aids and replay incentives, they function well.

The campaign itself is crafted with the same care and skill Tomislav and Co. have lavished on the AI, GUI, and core rules. While low on geographical freedom (scenario choices are few) it’s not short of variety or internationalism. A two front approach involving, on the Allied side, British US, Canadian, Indian, Polish, South African, New Zealand, French, Brazilian and Italian units, means you regularly jump between Europe’s ‘soft underbelly’ and its muscular upper abdomen. Slow, claustrophobic slogging matches in the Apennines alternate with lightning advances on airy maps in France and the Low Countries. No wargame I know of conveys the thrills and pitfalls of pell-mell WW2 breakouts better than this one. After several turns of patient chiselling suddenly your rangy mechanized units find themselves uncontained in open country. The temptation to race ahead, to attempt audacious envelopments, can be hard to resist. Yet, throw caution to the wind and all too easily you can find that your overextended supply lines have been severed and your HQs left far behind.

One of the few criticisms I can level at this close-to-perfect piece of hexiana is that the campaign chapters sometimes don’t dovetail as neatly as they might. Taking some secondary objectives improves your starting position in the next scenario, but at several junctures in the campaign I found myself commencing an op in a worse position than I’d finished the previous one. Monte Cassino, Avranches, and Caen were amongst VLs I was forced to take twice.

Another minor moan. As a connoisseur of Market Garden recreations, I found the campaign finale mildly disappointing. An unnecessarily cramped battlespace (UoC2’s hex size is elastic so the map could have been much larger) made 2×2’s interpretation of Monty’s cheeky attempt to shorten the war, one of the most claustrophobic and puzzle-like scenarios in the game.

I counted around a dozen scenarios in the single battle folder that I didn’t encounter during my initial campaign (some of these come with variants). With user-made scraps an inevitability (an editor is included), hotseat multiplayer offered, and multiple campaign playthroughs awfully hard to resist, I’d be amazed to see longevity complaints appearing in the official forum.

And anyone who asks for a refund after realising that playing from a German perspective in single-player isn’t possible, deserves a kick up the Maknassy Pass. Wargames this canny, attractive, friendly and historically literate come along extremely rarely. Boycotting them for inconsequential omissions that will doubtless be addressed by DLC is stupidity of the first water.

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This way to the foxer

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