Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tigers Unleashed Review

Tigers Unleashed, developed by Scott Hamilton and Jeff Lapkoff and published by HPS Simulations.
The Good: Authentic enemy targeting with complex calculations of weapon effects, realistic communication and command structure, detailed military units, varied difficulty levels can simplify most actions, powerful and easy-to-use quick mission and map builders, competent tactical AI, group formation movement, supports PBEM
The Not So Good: Immediate engagement reduces tactical flexibility, lengthy turn resolution during large battles, level of automation leaves little to do, archaic graphics
What say you? An extreme attention to realistic detail makes this turn-based World War II wargame a notable simulation but less an actual game: 5/8

This review also appears at

You can understand why I was initially hesitant to review this game, considering the subject matter: who wants to be mauled by large cats? But then I found out that the “Tigers” being “Unleashed” are actually German tanks…although that might actually be more frightening, as Germans can’t be tamed as easily with a piece of raw steak as their feline counterparts (sausage, maybe). This continuation of the Tactical Studies Series, first encountered in Point of Attack, takes its realistic take on modern combat back to the Eastern Front of World War II, a time of Germans, Russians, and lots of snow. Tigers Unleashed strives for the ultimate level of detail, from unit attributes to communication to weapons. Does this realism come at a cumbersome price?

The graphics of Tigers Unleashed are decidedly minimal, utilizing simple 2-D NATO icons lain on top of 2-D tile-based map graphics. It’s pretty underwhelming stuff, which is as expected in a game that favors under-the-hood realism over authentic graphics. The most advanced effect in the game is dust, which is still a 2-D sprite superimposed on top of the terrain tile. The game does use some historical photographs for unit descriptions, but the majority of Tigers Unleashed is driven by simple displays. More important for any strategy game is the interface, and the one featured in Tigers Unleashed is generally decent enough. The game is driven by menus, where you can access options regarding unit movement, targeting, air missions, assigning maneuver groups, altering display options, and accessing reports. Most of these options can also be accessed by right-clicking on any unit, giving terrain information, detailed unit attributes, and the ability to give orders, create detatchments, target enemies, and blow up bridges. Your staff officers also give detailed information regarding both friendly and enemy units, including current orders, unit strength, morale, ammunition levels, and objectives. The order of battle is always displayed along the right side of the screen for easy access as well. My main complaint about the interface is that it’s hard to quickly find ranges to enemy units so you can tweak your unit combat settings to prevent the AI from firing from long distances; you can use the detailed line of sight tool, but it involves more steps than I’d like to see. Like the graphics, the sound is very minimal: there are some weapon-specific effects while combat is being calculated, but no music to put you in the mood for military domination. Still, I found Tigers Unleashed to be easy enough to navigate once you learn where everything is placed.

Tigers Unleashed is a turn-based (with minute-long turns) tactical wargame that covers the Eastern Front of World War II, as the Germans marched towards Moscow. The first tip is to install the game to the default directory; not doing so (as I quickly learned) brings all sorts of issues since files are not where the game thinks they should be. While Tigers Unleashed does not feature any campaigns, there are thirty-five scenarios of varying sizes (company to division) and complexities that cover some highlights of the conflict. Some of the smaller battles feature some really bland maps, and the scenario design leaves a lot to be desired: you usually start out so close to the enemy that some units end up dying on the first turn before you can do anything about it. While I appreciate not having to wait three or four (or more) turns to encounter the enemy, it is annoying to lose a number of your units through no fault of your own. The scenario designers can also include pre-scripted events to surprise human tacticians.

Tigers Unleashed features four difficulty levels that change the amount of minutiae the AI controls; this serves as a good way to ease into the game, as you can allow the AI to specify artillery ammunition, for example. The game also has a series of very simple tutorials, where you read what to do in the scenario briefing and then attempt to execute, with no additional feedback. It’s a small step up from reading along in a manual. Tigers Unleashed does feature play by e-mail multiplayer, so some of the more balanced scenarios can be enjoyed with friends. A notable feature is the mission builder, a comprehensive tool that allows you to quickly make full battles in a matter of minutes. Depending on the level of human interaction chosen (the computer can adjust most of the options automatically if you’d like), each scenario can have the weather conditions, fog of war, number of civilians, army attributes, and victory conditions customized. The computer can also pick the units involved (you can choose the number and size, such as three battalions), although it does a poor job naming them, which leads to confusion later on. Objectives, units, and obstacles are then placed on the map. Speaking of, the quick map builder is equally impressive, using pre-designed sets of terrain you can place next to each to make a complete map. The mission options should keep the replay value of Tigers Unleashed high.

Tigers Unleashed features units typical for the theatre, organized into their seemingly historically accurate hierarchies. Each individual unit is rated in many different areas: strength, ammunition, light emission discipline, radio discipline, training level, camouflage level, morale, information processing time, shoot and scoot ability, and the amount of ammunition that’s likely to be duds. Over the course of the battle, a single unit may experience changes in morale, fatigue, suppression, damage, and speed, all of which affect a unit’s capabilities during warfare. To ease in handling large numbers of units, a single movement order may be issued to a leader unit, which will then move its subordinate units in formation towards the waypoint. This is quite handy and is much better than having to move individual units around one at a time. To simplify things even further, units in the same hex may be stacked at the beginning of the scenario, acting as a single attacking force for the duration of the battle. Specialized units can also load (or unload) other units, or undertake engineering operations like placing mines, blowing up bridges, or constructing trenches.

Tigers Unleashed features a realistic communications system that models how long messages take to propagate through the army chain of command. As the task force commander, you might be receiving out of date or completely incorrect information on both enemy and friendly units, depending on what fog of war level you have chosen. Situation reports, move orders, and artillery requests must all be sent in real-time as each turn is processed. Even the transmission rates are authentic: for example, a 2,000-bit message will take twenty seconds to send by radio, adding to the delay time. The result is more calculated outcomes, as opposed to using an arbitrary fixed number for message delays.

Targeting enemy units is meant to be handled by your AI subordinate officers, but you can also manually choose important targets if you don’t trust the computer. The most direct form of targeting is called “direct fire” (surprise!), where parameters including rate of fire and ammunition (complete with kill, damage, and suppression probabilities) can be chosen. You can also right-click any enemy unit and the game will list the best units you can engage with. Again, the units will automatically engage enemy units as long as they fall within their maximum range of engagement, even if their chance of success is low; you’ll need to go in and tweak range values manually to get the most out of your assets. Artillery units can fire specific ammunition at set times towards a specific unit or over an area, even shifting their barrage over time (to continually bombard a moving tank column, for example). Before the scenario begins, target reference points can be designated to improve artillery accuracy as well. Air support is done in the same fashion: choosing a plane squadron and a target to hit, and the specific flight path is automatically calculated. Overall, I found targeting to be fairly intuitive, although those looking for more direct control over their units will feel disconnected as your tanks and infantry open fire automatically when a target presents itself. Unless you go in and manually change weapon engagement ranges and unit behavior, it can feel like Tigers Unleashed is playing itself. Of course, I'm sure that's what it's like for commanders in the field, watching their subordinate leaders poorly execute their orders.

A lot of work goes into determining whether or not an attack is successful. All rounds, whether they are kinetic, high explosive, anti-personnel, incendiary, or otherwise, undergo intense computations involving projectile flight path, air drag, deformation, blast effects like cratering, range, cloud cover, sun shadow effects, armor angles, and atmospheric radiation attenuation. With all of this fidelity, turns can take several minutes to resolve (the game only uses one processing core, slowing down the process), but the results are seemingly ultra-realistic. Of course, despite all of these fancy calculations, it still boils down to a percentage chance of success and things blowing up, just like all strategy games. But it’s the thought that counts.

Coupled with the weapons modeling is fog of war, which goes hand-in-hand with the communications system outlined earlier. Fog of war can vary in opacity, from “I see everyone all the time” to “are my units really located there?” Enemy units can be sighted using visual clues, noise, light, or radar, and increasingly accurate information is gained over time concerning their quantity, model, facing, and movement. The terrain can also affect spotting enemy units, with line of sight, dust, and the weather affecting your ability to see the enemy. If the opposition does sneak up on you and tries to blow up your tanks, reaction orders can be specified, which are automated orders for movement, targeting, and rate of fire when being shot at. The complex fog of war system modeled in Tigers Unleashed really makes scouting important, which makes the constricted scenario design even more troublesome.

What happens when units are attacked? They panic and die (in my case), according to their morale ratings and the lethality of the incoming rounds. The detailed text reports of each turn’s action clues you in to the robust calculations that were done to blow up half of your units on the first turn before you move anybody. The AI provides a capable foe, generally conservative as it rather stay put while racking up the kills: the computer is quite adept at picking out vulnerable targets. On the more strategic side, the AI likes to use the more direct path towards an objective, which can make defense a bit easier, but since where they start can be somewhat unpredictable (especially in generated scenarios), all possibilities must be covered.

Despite the inherent complexity, I actually found Tigers Unleashed not to be that difficult to learn, because you can place some (or most) of the more minute details (armor type, artillery rate of fire) under the control of the subordinate AI officers, subject to engagement values you specify in the game. Of course, those who want more direct control can increase the expert level of the simulation and tweak values as they see fit. And tweak you can, with options available to govern the range at which different types of enemies are engaged for all of your units and the behavior units will (hopefully) exhibit when under attack. Comprehensive stats are also given, from radio discipline to fatigue to the likelihood that rounds will be duds. Movement is straightforward enough, and subordinate units can be ordered to travel in formation with their leader, which makes controlling large numbers easier. Of course, you’ll have to contend with the realistic communication delays and detailed fog of war while on the battlefield. Tigers Unleashed also uses some impressively complex calculations for damage, using the flight path, atmospheric drag, and armor angles to determine how successful a barrage will be. Of course, these complex battle calculations mean minutes-long turn resolutions, so that’s the price you pay for ultimate simulated realism. Also, it can feel at times like the game is too automated; the real task force commander does not tell individual tanks whom to shoot, so while handing off these details to the AI is accurate, it's not necessarily fun. The scenario designs, though, place units way too close to the enemy initially, giving you little room to maneuver at the start before things start getting destroyed. In general, the tactical AI handles things well, engaging appropriate enemies, although it would rather sit and shoot than get closer and engage more accurately (kills seem to happen at range anyway, at least to me). The interface is good enough albeit outdated, and the mission and map builders make it very, very easy to expand the game’s content. Overall, fans of detail in authentic tactical games might enjoy what Tigers Unleashed has to offer, but the title is more of an exercise in simulation than an engrossing wargame.