Sunday, March 07, 2010

Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 Review

Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943, developed by Graviteam and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Turn-based operational and real-time tactical gameplay, genuine ballistics and damage, usually intelligent pathfinding and automated unit behavior, very large authentic map of the region, generally helpful interface, quick mission builder
The Not So Good: Limited operational strategies, no multiplayer, no tutorial, can't save a battle in progress, can't restart a campaign, poor performance when time is accelerated in large battles, unpleasant sound design
What say you? A very detailed World War II real time strategy game dripping with realism but slowed by a throwaway turn-based mode and a lack of multiplayer: 6/8

It’s been a long six weeks since we’ve tackled a World War II strategy game, and dare I say it’s time yet again! This time, the attention turns towards the Eastern Front and the quagmire that was (is?) Kharkov. We’ve been here before and Achtung (no, not “acting,” stupid Microsoft Word) Panzer: Kharkov 1943 highlights action the third time around, focusing on the battles outside of the city. The game goes the Total War route, combining both operational-level strategic gameplay with tactical battles involving squads of troops. Does Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 deliver some strategy gaming goodness?

Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 looks decent enough for a 3-D strategy game. There are some aspects to the game that look very nice, namely the terrain and foliage that dots said terrain. The game is reminiscent of World War II: General Commander, with realistically muted environments. The game successfully evokes a setting that is downright cold and generally depressing. Models look excellent from up close (especially armored units), with nice animations when guns are being reloaded and tracks are being laid. Explosions and damage are disappointing, with low-res smoke billowing from destroyed vehicles. Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 has deformable terrain and structures, and this produces an ever-changing landscape. Additionally, there are some nice weather and time-of-day effects. Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 does have poor performance while time is accelerated, though, so those of us with modest systems should be somewhat wary. Ironically, in some large battles 4X time acceleration actually goes slower than real time for me; time for a new processor! The sound effects are not the best: the weapon sounds are terrible and lack the punch required of powerful equipment. Additionally, Kharkov seems to be populated with a large amount of dogs, as that's the effects that dominates the soundtrack. Other effects, like running into fencing, repeat themselves too often and a grating. This aspect of the game could be a lot better. Still, Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 offers some nice visuals, and it’s certainly no worse off than similar competitors.

Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 takes place in Kharkov in 1943. See how well I can read the game title? There are six scenarios with different starting forces and positions that summarize the hot World War II action from March 2nd to 8th. Each scenario has between five and fifteen turns, during which you move your forces around. The game features some large maps, nine square kilometers at maximum, giving you room to make some interesting strategic plans. Automated saving in Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 frankly makes no sense: you can’t restart an operation (campaign) once you have begun, and the interface uses some weird lighting system to indicate progress. I can’t find the saved game files are stored, so once you start, you’re stuck with your decisions until you are done. Couple this with the inability to save during an hour-long battle and you have a strange, annoying, and eerily console-like system. Beyond the six scenarios, you can utilize the excellent quick battle editor, which allows you customize the troops involved, battlefield, time of day, and weather: pretty neat. This almost (but doesn’t) make up for the lack of multiplayer. That’s right: Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 features no competition against humans, either over a LAN, direct IP connection, or online. Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 gets the basics down, but the features could be more complete.

Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 consists of two game modes: a turn-based operational game and real-time battles. You’ll start out in the turn-based mode, with your troops scattered around Kharkov and the surrounding vicinity. The maps consist of square kilometer squares (not hexes? Blasphemy!) which puts a limit on your strategic options, since only one unit can occupy a single square at a time. You can move multiple units into a square for an attack, though, so battles can get large. Victory points are given out for occupied squares, and certain locations have more points assigned to them; surrounded squares only grant one-third of the points. The turn-based mode isn’t terribly interesting because you are limited to (a) movement and (b) repairing. Movement is restricted by the terrain as well, so there are many instances when you simply cannot move anywhere (since units cannot be stacked). Surrounded units cannot be repaired or refueled, so the general strategy involves encircling enemy units and taking important victory locations. The turn-based mode of Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 is more like a placeholder rather than an integral part of the game, and additional features would make this aspect of the game feel more complete.

Better are the real-time tactical battles, which add a heavy dose of realism to make for an authentic atmosphere. The objective is simple: kill more stuff. There are flags you can capture along the way, the proportion of which is used to determine who controls the area after the battle has finished. Most battles have a time limit of one hour, although the AI will submit a cease-fire request if things are unbalanced before then. You must play the entire battle in one sitting, as Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 does not allow you to save your progress. Because you can’t possibly have anything else to do, right? All Panzer, all the time! The first thing you’ll do is deploy your forces: you can place one unit in every 32x32 meter square. Each square indicates the type of unit that can be placed there and the amount of cover it offers. The maps are quite large (each deployment area is a square kilometer, and most maps consist of three to four of them, plus the middle area where most of the battle will take place), so there is a good amount of strategic freedom given to the player.

The interface of Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 does an excellent job displaying useful information and giving you quick access to all of your units. First, the game puts all of your units in a two-column hierarchical list in the upper right corner of the screen: extremely helpful. The game can also display tactical information on the map using a series of colored circles and lines, displaying command range, weapon range, movement orders, and current attack target. Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 also gives you a comprehensive assortment of orders: move, attack, fire, defend, target priority, mount/dismount, and firing arcs are all available. In addition, you can customize a formation, from the shape (line or column) to the width and height. You can also tell tanks to move at the front of a formation, move along roads or through forest, and spot targets for off-map artillery. There are a lot of options at your disposal, and Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 makes it easy to access all of these by placing them on the screen using large, easily identifiable icons. Confusingly, though, friendly units are colored red and enemy units are blue (a disturbing trend). Still, this is a minor complaint in what otherwise is a very helpful interface.

Because you can manually tell units to utilize roads during travel, pathfinding in Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 is generally good. Problems arise when issuing orders to many units along a narrow road, but nothing too terrible. The up-close battlefield camera reveals that infantry units do a poor job using buildings and cover, spreading out over a large area and exposing several units to untimely death. Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 features some realistic features when computing battlefield results, like line of sight, cover, and armor penetration graphs. The small command radii means that infantry units must be kept close to their commander to receive the morale bonus, which can (realistically) reduce your tactics somewhat. Damage is handled well in the game, with individual components (tracks, weapons, crew) being destroyed rather than the whole vehicle at once. The AI is fine, working better as a defender since large maps can mean a lot of waiting for an incoming attack. The computer usually goes for the objective locations and keeps units organized well. Units also behave nicely on their own, automatically engaging enemy units when appropriate (unless told to hold fire). There are lots of unknowns in the game, since the setup area is so large and there are usually multiple waypoints to capture and not enough forces to cover them all. You can hear the sounds but not see the units if they are not in your line of sight; I don't know if that is intentional or not, but it is helpful. Overall, the combination of realistic damage and unit attributes with large, varied maps produces some interesting tactical gameplay.

Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 has a remarkable attention to detail that permeates everything throughout the game. Everything, that is, except for the auxiliary features. The game comes with six scenarios detailing the struggle for in Kharkov; the battles take place across large maps that are rendered in high detail. Unfortunately, the turn-based mode never gets beyond “move” and “reinforce,” and further reduces potential strategies with extremely large map squares that can only contain a single unit. The long battles (an hour, usually) cannot be saved mid-conflict and progress in a campaign cannot be reset. The quick mission builder is very nice, offering a lot of flexibility for continued play. This feature is offset by the complete lack of multiplayer options. A strategy game without multiplayer is like a Southerner without moonshine: it just doesn’t work. The tactical battles are good fun, though, with a great attention to detail, from weapon ballistics (with armor penetration graphs!) to unit morale. The maps are large enough to allow for some variety in planning your attacks, and you are never quite sure where the AI is coming from. The interface makes finding units and other pertinent information a breeze, and the pathfinding is good as long as you keep units organized and tracked vehicles confined to roads. The battles rival the quality action of Men of War, minus direct control. Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 is certainly better than similar titles like Officers, and those willing to look past the occasional missteps will find a core game that is highly enjoyable in its realistic tilt.