Monday, August 22, 2005

T-72: Balkans on Fire Review

T-72: Balkans on Fire PC, developed by IDDK and published by
The Good: Variety of targets, dynamic environments, multi-job tanks, platoon command, realistic ballistics, thorough damage model
The Not So Good: Atrocious documentation, average graphics with high requirements, small number of missions, limited multiplayer
What say you? A very average tank simulation: 5/8

Ever since nerds who didn’t want to become casualties got their hands on a computer, simulation games have been around. There have been a lot of technical sims on the PC, replicating everything from planes, helicopters, aircraft carriers, and trains. T-72: Balkans on Fire focuses on the tank warfare of the Yugoslavian civil war of the early 1990s. In the game, you are given command of three playable tanks, and are ordered to drive around and blow stuff up.

T-72 looks like it came from the period of computer gaming where simulations ruled, specifically during the time all those Jane’s games came out (along with about 50 games with the name "Panzer" in them). The graphics don’t have the modern polish that other games have, such as Battlefield 2, which also features tanks. The tanks and environments look much, much better in Battlefield 2, and actually run a lot smoother. I get about 10 frames per second better in Battlefield using medium-high settings than in T-72 using the lowest settings at the same resolution. Looks like some more optimization of the graphics engine was needed, eh? In another annoyance, the entire level must be reloaded all over again if you decide you want to retry a level. This process can take upwards of one minute. There are some good effects in the game, however. T-72 has day to night changes, dynamic weather, deformable terrain, and destroyable structures, something BF2 does not have. Still, why does it run so slow? In the sound department, you are given Russian-accented voices (since you’re playing a Russian squad, and, coincidentally, the game was developed by Russians) and basic tank noises, like the grinding of the tracks and firing of shells. There is also subdued background music that I never really noticed much.

T-72 ships with a single player campaign of 18 missions, where you play a Russian volunteer for Serbian forces to take on those evil Croatians (but I like their flag). To get you started, there are seven training missions. I guess this is a good place as any to say that the training missions and manual are woefully vague for this game. If you are a beginner to tank games, you’ll have an extremely difficult time trying to learn some of the aspects of commanding an armored vehicle. For instance, I’d like to know how to use the vertical scale, so that I can actually hit something. So, I take a look in the manual and it says to set the sight mark at the target and report the range. So far, so good. So, how do I incorporate the range into the vertical scale? The manual says, and I quote: “Fire.” Well, thanks! Maybe the training missions will inform me. Once you get to a place where you can fire on enemy positions, it says exactly the same thing: “Fire!” Why must people make things pointlessly difficult? By the way, you can also encounter the frustration over a LAN. T-72 features three controllable tanks: the T-72 (surprise!), T-55, and T-34. There are 13 vehicles that will serve as targets, ranging from jeeps to helicopters. Each tank has a comprehensive damage model: different locations in the tank have different armor, and the damage received depends on what systems are housed in the specific location that was hit. The developers have tried to stay true to a realistic simulation, but have made some concessions for improved gameplay, such as additional AA machineguns or thermal vision in tanks that don’t really have them. The website also states that a “powerful mission, map and structure editor [is] available.” Too bad the location of the editor(s) is not mentioned in the manual or in documentation on the disks. The tutorial on how to use the mission editor begins with: “open the mission editor.” I would if I knew where it was!

Each tank has three main positions: driver, gunner, and commander. The driver is responsible for, uh, driving, and gunner fires the weapons, and the commander sights targets. Each of these areas appears to be fairly realistic in approach; for example, you have to shift gears as the driver. Since you can only control one position at a time, you must give orders to other members of the crew, such as “open fire” or “find hull-down position.” The AI will try their best to fulfill your orders, so they can be commended for that. Of course, the obsessive person in all of us will want to hop between positions during the game, and this is allowed: you’re not stuck being commander the entire round, unless you are playing a cooperative multiplayer mission and decided to do so, then it’s all your fault. You can also command attached units (infantry and armor) up to a full tank platoon in the same method. T-72 features realistic ballistics, which for some means bothersome ballistics, with wind effects and shell aerodynamics. As I mentioned earlier, the damage model in T-72 is quite complete: the game calculates detailed armor penetration results and individual system damage modeling including track damage, engine overheats, fuel leaks, turret jams, and crew casualties. There are so many ways to die!

Despite all the realism, T-72 ends up being not that much fun. For every good thing the game has, there is something else that balances it out, resulting in an average attempt. I suppose that those with more experience in tank simulations might find more enjoyment in T-72, but novices will be left scratching their heads. T-72 needs much better documentation and tutorials for beginners and the graphics don’t look as well as they should for how slow the game runs. To extend the value of the game, it could use some more missions, or a quick mission generator, instead of the phantom mission editor. However, the dynamic environments are nice and AI commands works well most of the time. For me, it is a lot more fun to play tanks in other games (see BF2). I can go for a super technical sim (see Dangerous Waters), but T-72 is just not user-friendly enough for the majority of gamers.