Friday, September 16, 2005

Flashpoint Germany Review

Flashpoint Germany PC, developed by Simulations Canada and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Straightforward and streamlined, exceptionally easy to use scenario editor, rapid pace, supposedly dynamic AI
The Not So Good: Small number of scenarios, wargame-quality graphics, user input can feel irrelevant at times, turn resolution can be very slow
What say you? A good introductory wargame with limited micromanagement: 6/8

Ah, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: a plucky little country that sent people in orbit and had a fairly decent hockey team. But nay, Russia has fallen on hard times, dividing itself into countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Mynameisnotstanitisdave. What if the U.S.S.R. had not dissolved quietly into the night? What if had lunged one last attack in the hope of preserving its union? Flashpoint Germany examines this scenario, where the Warsaw Pact countries have initiated an attack against Germany and other NATO nations in 1989. Using a wargame turn-based strategy approach, Simulations Canada hopes to deliver an intriguing and n00b-friendly game to the masses.

Flashpoint Germany is a classic wargame, and subsequently has wargame style graphics and sound. This means 2-D sprites on a 2-D map background and basic sounds of combat. The game interface is actually well designed, which is important for a data-intensive game such as this. It is easier to access information and change settings in Flashpoint Germany than in comparable wargames such as Battles in Italy, and for this the game must be commended. The sounds are a slight upgrade when compared to other wargames as well. In Flashpoint Germany, the explosions seem more muscular than in other games, and are also more varied. While you won’t confuse Flashpoint Germany for a top of the line RTS, the graphics and sound are above average for its genre.

Flashpoint Germany features combat against the computer, in hot seat mode against another human using the same computer, over a LAN, or play by e-mail (PBEM), a standard with wargames. Flashpoint Germany does have a very good scenario editor, which is both powerful and easy to use. You can quickly set up custom scenarios using the ad-hoc editor where, through a series of screens, you can easily set the properties of the scenario from the available choices. It takes around one minute to set up a custom scenario, which is rather quick compared to other scenario editors that most people won’t use due to their complexity.

The game features 19 scenarios (including 2 tutorials) covering various parts of the Russian invasion and NATO defense of Germany. These scenarios take place over four different maps, which I assume are realistic, as I have never been to Germany and didn’t want to look it up. Each scenario is won by accumulating the most victory points, gained by occupying objectives and killing enemy troops. You can also win if the enemy’s troops are reduced to 20% of their initial strength, which is a nice way to end a game that is essentially over.

To appeal to all levels of experience, Flashpoint Germany allows the user to customize the level of realism in the game. For example, you can choose to reveal all the enemy units on the map, automatically resupply units, or restrict the number of orders available each turn. The last option I mentioned is one of the original aspects of the game, as you can be limited in the number of orders you can issue per turn. This is due to “electronic jamming” of your radio broadcasts by the enemy, and puts a premium on only issuing important orders and planning in advance.

Flashpoint Germany has almost 200 different platforms (units) in the game, all of which are mechanical units. Infantry is not modeled in the game as individual units, but always tied to some sort of machinery, together called “mechanized infantry.” This is fine with me, as most modern day infantry is usually supported by some kind of hardware. Each unit has several characteristics, namely its strength, morale, ammo supply, and fatigue. All of this information is relayed to the commander (that’s you!) through situation reports submitted at time intervals you determine, not in real time (also realistic). Each of these counts against your radio activity cap; if you use the radio too much in issuing orders or getting information back, your headquarters can be discovered and destroyed by the enemy (usually not a good thing). Units can also be given standard operating procedures (SOP), which determines how close units will get to the enemy, and how far away they can be before opening fire. Also, the staff summary displays victory point locations and information, the number of spotted units on the map, and the average order delay for each side. This is a good synopsis of the current status of the battle. Most of the game, you will be…

Before each battle begins, you are given the opportunity to place your units anywhere in your area of control (defined by the scenario designer). This is one of the most important parts of the game, as the initial placement of your units will go a long way in determining how successful you are. All of the commands are issued in the orders phase. Most units can be given three basic movement instructions: route march, move, and assault. Route march is used when you do not expect any enemy opposition, and can move quickly at the detriment of defense. Assaults are used when enemy contact is expected, and come at a price, as the unit’s fatigue levels will rise quickly. Air and artillery units can be ordered to strike a particular area, and you can resupply units that are running low on ammunition by ordering a rest and refit command. Since you are the commander, most of the individual unit actions (such as using cover or the unit’s formation) are done automatically, and you don’t need to worry about them. Once both sides have given orders, the orders resolution phase takes over, executing both sides’ orders at the game time. This simultaneous implementation (WEGO) of the orders is a recent trend in turn-based games that I really like, as it seems more akin to what happens in real life. You must plan what you want to accomplish along with a defense against the enemy at the same time. Once units come close enough to each other, it’s time for…

Every unit has a specific maximum distance they can spot units, and also a minimum distance they can be spotted. Once units are spotted, they will normally engage in combat as long as their SOP says they can. Combat is calculated in five-minute intervals, during which units that can attack engage as many units as their type allows. This means that sending a dribble of single units into the enemy encampment means certain death, as attacks will be computed every five minutes. Because of this, Flashpoint Germany has a waypoint editor where you can add delays to a unit’s orders, so that a group of units with different speeds will arrive at their destination at the same time. The game automatically calculates this on the fly as you change them, and you can verify that all your troops will do what you want when you want by previewing the turn resolution, which will move your troops as ordered in a simulation. Combat has some complications, as Flashpoint Germany features dynamic weather that can change every 20 minutes. In a cool twist, the time of dusk and dawn are realistic for the area of Germany the game covers, and changes from winter to summer (I appreciate this as a Earth Science teacher).

Unlike some other wargames, supply is done semi-automatically in Flashpoint Germany. In other games, you must order supply trucks around the map in order to ensure that all units are properly equipped. In Flashpoint Germany, all you need to do is issue a rest and refit order for the turn, and a unit will be supplied during the turn resolution. This is very beginner-friendly, as most games become painstakingly confusing when dealing with supply.

Flashpoint Germany is interesting, as it has some good and some not so good qualities. Overall, the mechanics of the game are very easy to learn, and the tone of the game is beginner-friendly. This will appeal to those people who do not have a background in wargaming, as most of the complications found in other games are streamlined or removed. Most of the game involves moving units around the map, placing them in proper locations, and correctly anticipating what the enemy is going to do. Since the AI does most of the work for individual units, the game can sometimes feel like it’s running itself, and that user input is limited. Once the fighting starts, since the total number of orders is limited, there isn’t much to do, other than issue a small number of commands to specific units. Flashpoint Germany is more about the preparation for battle than commanding the troops during battle. Because of this, the game can drag on, especially in the orders resolution mode. Turn resolution happens very, very slowly, as each individual battle is animated every five minutes or turn time. A single battle animation can take 10-15 seconds, and since turns (by default) are 30 minutes long and you can have clashes between 10 units at once, a single animated turn can take 15 minutes. This is entirely too long to sit there and watch the action on-screen with no way to skip it, speed it up, or exit. I like Combat Mission’s approach better, where each turn was a real-time minute and animated in real-time, but you could also fast forward or even skip to the end of the turn. I have found no way to do this in Flashpoint Germany. The game does feature fairly good AI, which changes its strategy every scenario, so no two encounters will be exactly alike (although they may be very similar). The AI is a good opponent, but of course is not match for a human foe.

Flashpoint Germany is a good wargame that’s skewed more towards the novice crowd. Since a lot micromanagement has been removed from the game, there are sometimes limits to the strategies you can employ, as you are essentially restricted to positioning units and waiting for an attack. The game has good features, such as above average graphics and an easy to use scenario editor, along with an interesting setting. There are things I like about the game, especially the user interface, WEGO combat model, and relatively quick battles (not counting the time spent in the turn resolution, of course). I suppose that I want a little more depth to my wargame than Flashpoint Germany has to offer, but I do suggest this for any person who’s never played a wargame before to acclimated to the genre. Personally, I prefer the Decisive Battles engine of Battles in Italy to Flashpoint Germany, but you’ll definitely find things to like in this package.