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Wot I Think: Achtung Panzer

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Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun

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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