Monday, April 30, 2007

Air Assault Task Force Review

Air Assault Task Force, developed by ProSim Company and published by Shrapnel Games.
The Good: Unique theme for a wargame, improved commands, deep gameplay, multiplayer matchmaking, can play scenarios from previous ATF titles
The Not So Good: User interface needs work, simplified actions are tacked on and not integrated into the rest of the game
What say you? A distinctive focus helps this helicopter assault wargame differentiate itself: 6/8

By now, we’ve seen a fair number of wargames developed in a variety of environments: eastern Europe during World War II, western Europe during World War II, Greece during World War II, and Italy during World War II. Despite the obvious setting of focus, there have been some games that taken wargaming to new locales, such as the Middle East in The Star and the Crescent. The team behind that game is back with a slightly new engine and a new focus: high-speed helicopter assaults. This is a much different approach that we’re used to, replacing engagements that took place over several days with battles that only last for a couple of hours. Will this new slant make Air Assault Task Force a distinguished title?

The graphics of Air Assault Task Force are essentially identical to those seen in The Star and the Crescent: NATO symbols on a 2-D topographical map. Pretty much everything I said in the previous review still holds true, although this newer version does come with overhead pictures of all of the game's units (I played with the NATO icons on). Air Assault Task Force hasn’t caught up to the slick graphics of Conquest of the Aegean. The game runs pretty slow as well, and zooming in (or out) takes much longer than it should, especially when games like Supreme Commander do it so effortlessly. One of the most important aspects of a wargame, the user interface, isn’t quite as effective as it needs to be: current orders are shown with only an icon, idle units are not indicated at all, and it’s hard to tell if a unit is executing their orders until they start moving. This kind of limited feedback makes strategy games hard to play, and Air Assault Task Force imposes a learning curve due to the user interface. The sound is almost non-existent in the game, and the sound effects that are present are too grating. I suppose it’s better than having no sound at all, but Air Assault Task Force can’t match the more realistic environment of Conquest of the Aegean. Time is starting to catch up to Air Assault Task Force, and the graphics and sound are becoming too outdated.

Air Assault Task Force is a wargame that simulates three rapid assaults throughout U.S. military history: the Ia Drang valley in Vietnam, the battle of Mogadishu (made famous in the movie Black Hawk Down, and the first phase of the War on Terror in Afghanistan called Operation Anaconda. These unique settings are enough to separate Air Assault Task Force from the rest of the wargame community, and this title continues the trend set by The Star and the Crescent in offering different locations for enemy annihilation. Air Assault Task Force features an adequate selection of scenarios, and you can import scenarios from any other ProSim ATF engine game. Air Assault Task Force does feature some very nice matchmaking features for multiplayer through an in-game system, which is far above and beyond what’s present in most wargames. Getting into a game like this can be tough, and Air Assault Task Force does have a set of tutorials that can be watched outside of the game, showing animations on how to do basic things in the game. You can get the same information by reading the manual, and while the tutorials are decent, Air Assault Task Force still has a somewhat steep learning curve.

Like most wargames, Air Assault Task Force involves ordering units around to secure objective locations. What makes this game different is the speed of the scenarios and the focus on helicopters for transport in and out of hot zones. The quick pace of Air Assault Task Force is certainly refreshing in a genre where most games grind through long winded scenarios with slow units like tanks and infantry. While there are tanks in the game, most of them will be on the opposition and you’ll be given helicopters and infantry to complete your missions, along with artillery support and the occasional jeep. There is some initial uncertainly dealing with the helicopters, since so few games feature them so prominently. Which helicopters are for transport and which are for attacking isn’t clearly defined in the manual (air assault, air cavalry, attack, or recon?), but I eventually figured it out by piecing together parts of the manual and tutorials.

Air Assault Task Force is really designed to be used at the company or brigade level, giving orders to the commanding unit and letting them worry about tactical decisions on their own. You can instruct individual units if you so choose, but I just let the AI handle the micromanagement. Air Assault Task Force has three sets of commands: missions, actions, and orders. Missions are the same overly detailed instructions intended for large scale operations that were present in The Star and the Crescent: assault, breaching obstacles, supporting other units. Thankfully, Air Assault Task Force gives additional options beyond the complex missions that frankly were too detailed for their own good. You can now issue actions that are basic instructions, more reminiscent of commands seen in real time strategy games: move, suppress, TRP, fire mission, mount and dismount, and load ammo. Suppressing is good for protecting incoming shipments of troops or general smackdown of the enemy, while using target reference points (TRP) makes sure that all of your units aren’t focusing on just one enemy unit. These commands are more straightforward and a lot simpler than using the missions, but actions should have been integrated better with the missions. Offering more than one way of doing the same action can be confusing to new players, and the game doesn’t give a clear indication of a unit’s current orders and you don’t generally know if they are being executed until units start to move. There’s probably a nice compromise between military command depth and reducing the complexity, and Air Assault Task Force is almost there. If you choose to micromanage your forces, you are given a set of orders you can use to modify their behavior. Seeking cover, using smoke, and marching at a uniform speed are just some of the very specific commands you can issue. Again, if you issue missions or actions, all of these things are taken care of automatically by the AI commander, but it’s nice to include them. Speaking of the AI, the computer opponent offers up a good challenge but it’s mostly due to mission design: you’re given a small set of forces that must quickly achieve an objective against superior numbers. Good planning will trump any AI opponent, though. Overall, the mechanics of the game, while similar to The Star and the Crescent, streamline the gameplay and add more options for people who don’t want overly sophisticated commands and don’t need to micromanage their forces. The improvements made since The Star and the Crescent are meaningful and make Air Assault Task Force a good niche game.

Air Assault Task Force takes the ATF engine and adds some meaningful improvements that make the game more usable and more approachable than previous titles. The unique setting and theme is enough to draw some attention to the game and the focus on helicopter operations is refreshing. Air Assault Task Force may not be the most user friendly game in the world, but it’s much better off than previous titles. I will give Air Assault Task Force points (specifically, one more than The Star and the Crescent) for adding a unique approach, distinctive settings, and an improved interface. The game editors and ability to import scenarios from other ProSim games extends the life of the title and also means that there are already hundreds of scenarios for the game. Joining a multiplayer game is very easy and the in-game browser is one of the best proprietary engines seen in a wargame. The inherent complexity of Air Assault Task Force won’t appeal to everyone, but gamers looking for a unique approach and a focus on helicopter operations will find a lot to like in this title.