A Challenge For Professional Warriors
(Hardcore hobbyists can also have fun here)
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These days developers seem to be falling all over each other to try to dumb down their games to the least common denominator. In other words, if more people can play a game, then there is a bigger potential market, even if that means bringing in your grandmother at the expense of truly deep gameplay. However, Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 takes an opposite approach. They say that only wargame connoisseurs should even try Achtung Panzer. And they mean it.
Back in college I was in the ROTC, thinking about joining the army. Some of the training we used to do was planning out attacks on enemy positions. We used transparency sheets and sat them overtop of terrain maps. Good commanders do this well. And a good part of Achtung Panzer will be doing that same thing. In fact, the planning stages really brought back a lot of memories.
The game itself, as the name probably implies, is based on the fighting between the Germans and the Russians in and around Kharkov in 1943. It was the largest tank battle of World War II, and was a real turning point on the always bloody, vicious Eastern Front. After Kharkov, the German's fate was sealed. I could go into the whole history of the battle, how the Russians had broken the German's code and were ready for the fight, how the war of attrition was already turning in Russia's favor, and a bunch of other factors, but I won't. It's sufficient to say the battle took place over several days and involved men and machines in numbers the world had never seen.
The developers at Graviteam are obviously experts on the battle, if not the entire Eastern Front. Here, the entire area around Kharkov has been recreated using actual military maps from the time, historical accounts of survivors and other records. You will be amazed at the scope of the battle shown here, and probably a little overwhelmed at first too.
You can play as either the Russians or the Germans in a variety of battles or through the entire campaign. Both sides are (and historically were) fairly evenly matched at the onset of the battle. You will surely feel it when you lose a unit, as everything available to you on either side is going to be a significant key to victory.
The game is played in two main stages. The first is the strategic view. Here is where you will see all the circles and squares, lines of fire, expected or observed positions of the enemy and various lines of advance. Here is where a lot of battles will be won and lost. You really do have control over everything. Thankfully, everything is paused when you're giving orders, or at least can be, so you won't feel rushed. Do you want to use your artillery to cover an infantry advance, or could it be better used trying to blow up a bridge to prevent the enemy from reinforcing? Do you risk a recon unit and try to sneak them up to get a better idea of the enemy's movement, or move up with a larger force and try to surprise them? You CAN also time attacks to coincide with things like darkness or fog, trying to get an advantage from the natural environment. But you HAVE to pay attention to terrain. And everything on the map is destroyable, just in case you need to bring something down to gain an advantage or simply to deprive the enemy from using it.
Ultimately your goal will be to capture or hold strategic points, high ground or some type of needed resource for the war effort. You don't actually have to annihilate the enemy. You can make it so continuing to fight would be pointless for them.
The enemy AI is pretty amazing. Every dirty little trick you can think of, they will probably attempt as well. I've seen them bait me with either weak units or powerful ones that I would like to knock out, using it as a ruse to draw me into an area where I'll get flanked. Particularly on defense, the AI is really good at using what it has to great advantage. Unlike some games where "cheats" are used to make the enemy seem smarter, here the AI actually is smart. It will beat you at least some of the time, but will do so by following all the rules. You can beat the AI sometimes with far inferior numbers of troops if you play smart, but you can also see armies get crushed in front of your eyes if you make stupid mistakes.
The second stage of the game is the tactical level. Here is where you zoom in and watch all your units trying to follow your strategic orders. You can look at individual tanks or even men if you like, or follow groups as they try to complete their tasks. You can also change orders and direct them from the tactical level. This is helpful if you need groups to execute really finely tuned orders, like following a railroad track or hiking up a narrow pass. The danger of spending too much time here is that you can lose control of the rest of the battle very easily if things start to go wrong elsewhere. But if you have units doing something critical, it's best to watch over them.
Some of the visual flaws in the game come into play on the tactical level. The game just does not look very pretty. Things are too dark mostly, and the units sort of look a touch fake rolling around on the photorealistic terrain. I realize this is a hardcore wargame and not an eye candy festival, but it's worth mentioning.
In terms of replayability, Achtung Panzer is nearly infinite for two reasons. First off, there is a map editor that lets you create your own scenarios. Online I found and downloaded a few really good ones made by fans. While not historically accurate at all, they were fun and extended the gameplay. Secondly, the AI reacts to your strategy. If you constantly attack at night to try and gain surprise for example, don't be surprised yourself if the AI is waiting for you the next time you try it. So different techniques will yield different results.
I rated the fun factor as 4 GiN Gems. However, this is based on someone who plays a lot of wargames. There is not much of a tutorial to speak of in Achtung Panzer. Someone who doesn't read the thick instruction manual or who doesn't have a deep understanding of wargames, is going to be lost. They might rate the fun factor a lot, lot lower. But at least they will have been warned.
The Eastern Front was a gritty, tough place to be, and Kharkov claimed a lot of lives on both sides. If you feel you're up to the challenge, Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 will give you a chance to prove your metal. If you can make it here, you truly deserve the title of armchair general, and I for one, salute you.
Dominic reviews odd games for GiN that don't exactly fit into main categories. He loves the odds and ends of the industry, and sometimes finds a real gem.