Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Norm Koger’s The Operational Art of War III Review

Norm Koger’s The Operational Art of War III, developed by Talonsoft and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Over 200 scenarios from Napoleon to the near future, scenario editor, challenging AI, PBEM, low system requirements, splendid user interface
The Not So Good: Very outdated graphics and sound, demanding difficulty
What say you? The large scope makes it a must-have for hardcore wargamers: 7/8

When one talks about renowned computer wargames (and who doesn’t?), The Operational Art of War will typically come up. Known as TOAW to “insiders” (and by “insiders” I mean “nerds”), the original game was published by grognard-friendly Talonsoft back in 1998. Talonsoft’s library of computer games has recently been purchased by Matrix Games, who is now re-releasing some of the titles with updated scenarios and compatibilities with more recent operating systems. This brings us to Norm Koger’s The Operational Art of War III, not as much a sequel in the series but a collection of a whole bunch of scenarios and support for Windows XP. How has the eight-year-old game held up when compared against more modern titles? Are there seriously over 200 scenarios? Seriously?

Unfortunetly, we (as always) have to start out by talking about the graphics and sound. The Operational Art of War III looks like an eight-year-old wargame. Keep in mind that wargames look old when they are released, and you can imagine that nobody will experience earth-shattering awe while glancing in the general direction of TOAW III. While real time strategy games look better all the time (just look at Rush for Berlin, for example), wargames are content with their hex-based, low detail flat maps. Part of this has to do with the fact that a lot of these games are developed by small teams that don’t have the money to invest in spectacular graphics, but it’s still disappointing. I’d like to see one hardcore wargame that looks really good, but I’m still waiting. Of course, most people who play wargames don’t care about cutting-edge 3-D graphics, so The Operational Art of War III won’t make your eyes bleed. Much. On the sound side of the equation, the sound is typical of a wargame: short soundbites that are appropriate for the particular unit that is moving/shooting and some ambient effects. I really like the background battle noises, and much prefer them over the music, which is generally annoying. Luckily, you can choose to turn the music off and listen to the sweet sounds of death and destruction. There is one advantage to having sub-par graphics and sound: low system requirements. You only need an 800 MHz processor to enjoy The Operational Art of War III; there’s probably a CPU more powerful than that sitting in an automatic hand dryer. As long as you’re not offended by low production values, you won’t mind the archaic graphics and sound of The Operational Art of War III.

The Operational Art of War III covers pretty much every conflict from the mid-1800’s to today. That’s quite a large scope for a game; most wargames cover just a single war (or sometimes just a single battle), and it’s a testament to the flexibility of the engine. The third version of the series includes all 70 scenarios from the Century of Warfare collection (which is TOAW 1 and 2) plus another 130 user-made scenarios from the vast vastness of the Internet. That’s a whole lot of gameplay for a relatively small price. Each of the scenarios can be played as a hot seat game, against the computer, or by e-mail (an old wargame favorite). The Operational Art of War III has some excellent AI that will exploit your weaknesses to the fullest extent of the law. Considering that the AI is not hard-coded (because it could be playing any of the game’s 200 scenarios), it’s an amazing feat to provide a capable computer opponent that can control hundreds of units at a time and still kick your ass. Most wargames seem to have pretty competent AI, but bearing in mind the scope of The Operational Art of War III, the AI here is that much more impressive. The game provides four read-along tutorials that are pretty average to get you up to speed with the game. Since the game is windowed and can be resized, you can just read along and play at the same time. All of the game’s scenarios were created using the editor. It’s pretty easy to use, although creating a playable scenario will take some time.

Unlike other games, such as The Star and the Crescent, commanding troops in The Operational Art of War III is pretty straightforward, especially for a hardcore wargame. The game can be played using standard or advanced rules. Standard rules strip away a lot of the game’s components (no weather, no supplies, no bridge blowing, et cetera), so it’s advised to just play with advanced rules, you wuss. In either event, the game’s user interface is well done. Most everything can be accessed by right-clicking on a unit (just make sure you are using advanced rules) or the menu bar above, and all of the options are straightforward and clear to the user. There’s limited military jargon used in The Operational Art of War III, which is a good thing, especially for new players. That’s not to say the game isn’t advanced, but it uses words and phrases that most everyone is familiar with. The game features all of the types of units used on the battlefield in the past 150 years. Each unit is rated in strength, proficiency (experience), readiness (level of exhaustion), and supply level. These are used to compute a unit’s overall morale. Each unit is given a set of movement points per turn, which they can use to move, attack enemy units, or perform some special action. You can attack more than once per turn, as attacking only uses up a portion of your movement points proportional to the amount of time the battle took. Thus, attackers are interested in quick battles, while defenders like long, drawn out confrontations. In The Operational Art of War III, defending seems to be more realistic than other games: your goal is to slow down the attackers by making them spend time fighting instead of advancing, which is close to what’s it’s like in real life. I like the system that’s used here, and it seems to result in more realistic outcomes. You can spend the remaining portion of your movement points by giving a deployment order. Deployment orders include things like defending/entrenching/fortifying (greater degrees of the same thing) and putting units in reserves. You can also assign units loss tolerance levels (how many deaths before retreating), split units in order to cover more territory, and give special orders such as blowing bridges and boarding trains for fast transport to the front lines. Each unit belongs to a formation (such as a division), and will perform better when fighting along side their other members.

Moving units can be as simple as right-clicking on a destination; you can move a single unit or the entire stack of units from a particular location. Moving units may undergo interdiction (planes shooting at you) or attrition (especially during bad weather). Combat is done by selecting and attacker and their target. Because of the large scope of some of the force involved, you can plan your attacks with more detail. A window can be brought up that displays the target, forces in all the surrounding hexes, and available support. The game will indicate the probability of success and amount of losses depending on how many surrounding troops you have currently selected to take place in the battle (this is really helpful). There are other factors to consider when engaging in combat, including weather, supply, and reinforcements. Victory is determined by a combination of objective locations and losses.

As most people in the wargamer community already know, The Operational Art of War is one of the most comprehensive wargames available. The third version of the software includes a lot of user-made scenarios, minor tweaks, and support for Windows XP. The Operational Art of War III is really geared towards hardcore gamers, with its numerous options and excellent AI. Once you learn the mechanics of the game, playing The Operational Art of War III becomes quite fun (albeit challenging), and the sheer amount of scenarios available makes the replay value extremely high. Although there aren’t many large changes from previous version of the game (especially in the graphics department), The Operational Art of War III is still a really good wargame that lives up to the pedigree of the series. While simpler wargames may make it easier on new players, no other game can touch the flexibility of The Operational Art of War III.