Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear! Review

Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear!, developed by Academy Games and Western Civilization Software and published by Slitherine and Matrix Games.
The Good: Streamlined rules and a smaller size for relatively quick games, sides alternate moves for constant play and faster reaction, tactical commander points can enhance attack or movement capabilities, action cards grant special abilities, map and scenario editor, choose between classic board game or more computer-specific rules, online multiplayer
The Not So Good: Inconsistent AI, no campaign mode, can't choose starting units on all maps, graphics could be better
What say you? A very approachable wargame with expedited battles and comprehensible rules: 7/8

Wargames originally appeared as physical board games, where players had to keep track of tons of coded stats on tiny cardboard squares. It was hard work, made more so by inevitably losing a lot of the pieces required to play the game. As computers have become more powerful, we’ve been able to let the zeroes and ones do the calculating and keep track of game progress, leaving the humans just the strategic decisions to worry about. Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear! (you can tell it’s exciting because there is an exclamation point in the title) is a computer adaptation of the award-winning board game, adding an AI opponent and multiplayer matchmaking to the existing squad-sized turn-based strategy game, set on the Eastern Front of computer gaming’s favorite conflict, World War II. Does Conflict of Heroes provide a good computer version of solid game mechanics? Will I be able to go the entire review without calling it Company of Heroes?

Compan…I mean Conflict of Heroes accentuates the 2-D board game with 3-D graphics for both the maps and the units, if desired. You can play the game from a traditional overhead 2-D view with unit chits, but I preferred using the 3-D view with chits as it allowed you to look at more of the battlefield and simply felt “better” to look at. I did not find the 3-D unit models to be effective: they were hard to spot (especially clustered infantry units) and the sporadically animated models didn’t add to the immersion of the game. The subtle movement units exhibit when idle and falling over during death were underwhelming, and battle effects consisted of simple lines and smoke trails traversing across the map. The chits were much more informative (with unit information clearly displayed on them, once you learn the layout) and easier to find on the game map, so I much preferred using them over 3-D models. The maps are disappointing, as they consist of blurry, muddled ground textures and poorly detailed buildings. It is also sometimes hard to tell the difference between light woods and heavy woods, which is a significant tactical aspect to the game. The interface is good for a wargame, granting quick access to game components, including game length, turn history, statistics, camera view, unit representation, command action points, and action cards. The game also displays the chance of a successful attack when an enemy unit is moused over (handy if you forget what two divided by twelve is) and how many action points each unit has is indicated directly above their icon. When a unit is selected, you can also see all of the squares that are in line of sight (in yellow). Overall, I did not encounter any significant shortcomings in the interface that inhibited my ability to play the game in an efficient manner. The sound design consists of very dramatic background music, very loud battle effects, and some voice work that occurs when rallies happen and units are destroyed (I recognized some specific words from Red Orchestra 2). While Conflict of Heroes could definitely look and sound better, most wargamers will be able to look past the generally functional visuals.

Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear! takes place on the Eastern Front of World War II during 1941 and 1942 (“the Bear” being awakened is the Russian bear, the most dangerous bear known to man). The game features only Germans and Russians, which is honestly fine with me since units of the same type behave generally the same way (plus, the rest of the Conflict of Heroes board game versions no doubt will eventually make their way to the computer). Three tutorials pop-up hints during three of the scenarios; while they are useful when learning the game, more guided instruction (click here, move this) would be better. Conflict of Heroes imports ten scenarios from the board game and introduces ten additional missions, plus five others played on sections of a large map. While the latter option sort of plays out like a campaign (although specific units don’t carry over), Conflict of Heroes does lack a campaign mode (scripted, dynamic, or otherwise) that ties the scenarios together, for those that like that sort of structure. The game includes one point-based mission where you can choose your own units (this can also be done on the five large-map scenarios), but I’d like to have the ability to choose your units on every available map to increase replay value. Conflict of Heroes comes with three difficulty levels; “normal” gives the AI a couple more units and 25% more command action points, which is seemingly compensating for low-quality computer opponents. If twenty-six battles aren’t enough, the somewhat unwieldy scenario editor will allow you to create more, including initial unit placement, terrain features, and AI strategy scripting. For easier map creation, the game can import a simple image file with color-coded hexes. Multiplayer is available, in hotseat, LAN, and online configurations. Internet play includes a lobby, a system that works well, allowing you to chat with prospective opponents and set up games efficiently. There is no play by e-mail, but it would be really tedious since you only move one unit and then it’s the other person’s turn. As a trade-off, you can save multiplayer games and resume them later, which is pretty cool. Finally, Conflict of Heroes allows you to upload your game results, which is an interesting way to help the developers improve the game AI.

Conflict of Heroes is a turn-based wargame, but it has one significant innovation to the usual formula: you perform one action with one unit (move, attack, entrench, play a card, et cetera), then the opponent makes a move. The action alternates back and forth until both sides are out of action points and pass their turns. This results in a significantly faster pace with quicker games and more interesting strategy: you able to react to enemy movement instead of having to sit and wait for them to move the rest of their units. It’s a pretty brilliant adaptation of typical turn-based fare, and it feels a lot less tedious since you only have to move one unit per turn. You have the option to use the classic board game rules or choose more computer-oriented options. These include fog of war (which I always turn on, but is obviously impossible for a board game), randomized action points, and random unit quality. In addition, the board game required you to use all of the action points for a specific unit before switching control to another unit (probably for easier tracking). This computer version lets you freely switch between units each turn, which I found to be more flexible by allowing for opportunity fire and quicker response to enemy action. Of course, the classic action points model forces you to stick with a particular unit until all of its action points are expended, which in turn allows the enemy to either directly engage that unit (since they know it’s going to be the only one moving the next several turns) or choose another unit and spring an attack on somebody you can’t counter with. Another option is the ability to roll dice in front of a webcam and then use the results in the game; I am clearly not nerdy enough to use this feature. Overall, the well-developed game mechanics of Conflict of Heroes make it interesting to play on both offense and defense.

Conflict of Heroes includes a smattering of units from the time period, including rifle squads, machine guns, anti-tank emplacements, mortars, trucks, armored cars, and various tanks. Each unit is given a set of attributes, displayed on the unit counter and the pop-up information display when a unit is moused over: attack cost, soft attack, armored attack, range, forward defense, flank defense, and movement cost. Units can also be given a quality rating (from green through veteran to elite) that gives slight bonuses to these stock values. By default, each unit is given seven action points that can be spent doing various things: moving, shooting, rallying damage, hiding, constructing defenses, entering or exiting a structure, and loading or unloading from a vehicle. Unit facing is an important concept in the game (because of the lowered defense towards flank attacks), so thankfully choosing your facing after movement is handled very well with clear arrows showing the result. Conflict of Heroes does not have any unit stacking limits, but all units in a hex will receive a single attack, so I tried to avoid stacking at all times. Units that are adjacent to each other can be grouped, which allows you to move all of the units in a group before your opponent gets a turn (great for reducing tedious advancing when you know the enemy is nowhere nearby), and also grants a small bonus when a group attacks. The game maps include varied terrain that should be used strategically: trees, hills, marsh, roads, barbed wire, minefields, bunkers, and buildings. While being behind buildings and trees does obscure line of sight (preventing direct attacks even if fog of war is off), being in buildings and trees only provides a defensive bonus. I found that the unit attributes and associated game mechanics in Conflict of Heroes were easy to understand and not as confusing as other tabletop wargame systems.

So, you want your enemy to die. Damage calculations in Conflict of Heroes are relatively simple: you start with the target’s defensive rating (either forward or flanking, if you are behind them), add any terrain bonus or adjustment for a long range or close combat attack, and then subtract the attack rating of the aggressor. Then, the attacker has to roll (using two dice) equal to or higher than that number. It’s that easy! Thankfully, the game handles all of the specifics for you, and displays a simple percentage over prospective targets to make your tactical decisions easier. If an attack is successful, the target is marked as damaged and receives a randomized penalty, such as the inability to move or shoot. If a damaged unit is hit again (or if an attack roll exceeds the target number plus four), it is removed from play. In all, the way damage is handled makes sense and it’s easy to track, with bright red-and-yellow icons denoting troubled units.

Two important game mechanics remain to be discussed. The first is command action points, which can be used to add action points to a unit or add to a dice roll attack. You only have a limited number of these per round and they do not carry over, so careful planning and use at the right time can break stalemates between units. Both sides also get a random assortment of special action cards, including the ability to take one action at no cost, gain random action points, a free rally attempt, reveal hidden units, making the enemy skip a turn, and (everyone’s favorite) remove all the action points from an enemy unit. Together with the command points, the action cards give Conflict of Heroes some added depth and additional strategy that can be used. Some scenarios include the ability to call in scripted reinforcements and place artillery attacks. Victory is earned by capturing victory locations and destroying enemy units, and most of the scenarios require the attacker to constantly be on the move towards the goal, or run out of time.

The AI in Conflict of Heroes is a mixed bag. It does utilize a number of scripted strategies, especially on the larger maps where variation is more noticeable. The AI is also good at using command points, action cards, and long-range units like mortars. The computer will occasionally throw out some interesting tactic you weren’t expecting, and the generally unbalanced nature of the scenarios (“normal” or higher difficulty gives the AI extra units) provides a degree of challenge. Overall, the AI is better on defense where it doesn't have to move units much, as movement is where most of the problems lie. The AI does not use large-scale flanking maneuvers frequently (although it does attempt to flank units in close proximity), instead heading straight towards an objective along the most linear path. The computer does not move fast enough when on the attack and routinely runs out of time, which is a significant problem since most of the scenarios require the offensive player to move and move quickly. The AI gets easily distracted by unimportant units it doesn't need to kill in order to achieve the objectives and doesn't like to pivot units when needed, making it easier to flank them. The AI sometimes fails to engage vulnerable units, doesn’t always move towards cover that provides defensive bonuses, and I've never seen it use group orders. The AI also occasionally does some really stupid things, like moving units into exposed positions where they can be instantly flanked. When the AI is put on even footing with the human player, without the benefit of extra units and command points, most scenarios in Conflict of Heroes become very easy. On the "normal" setting where the computer is given more units than a human opponent would, it can use those extra forces to cover up some of its tactical blemishes. The AI certainly isn't totally inept, but there is definitely some room for improvement.

Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear! takes a solid board game foundation and creates a compelling computer wargame adaptation. Starting off, I really like how the game alternates control after each move: it makes the pace faster and allows you to react to enemy movement instantly, instead of waiting for the opponent to move all of their units and you not being able to do anything about it. The games may not actually last shorter than other wargames, but it sure feels like it, since you’re not sitting there for ten minutes waiting for the enemy to tediously move all of their units. Conflict of Heroes also has easy to understand unit attributes, with simple numerical values for attack, defense, movement, and cost to fire. The game also displays the damage probabilities, and the dice-based damage calculations are simple to comprehend. Units can be issued one order before control is passed to your opponent; these include moving, attacking, rallying to recover damage, or constructing defenses. Nearby units can also be grouped together so multiple units can move or shoot before the enemy has a chance to react. Significant tactical decisions are made regarding the use of command action points, which can allow units more actions or improve dice rolls, and special action cards that can provide other bonuses. Conflict of Heroes supports the use of the classic board game rules, or you can introduce computer gaming mechanics like fog of war, unit quality, and preserving action points. The interface allows for easy access to unit attributes, line of sight, and action point counts. My default view is 3-D terrain with chits, which gives easily accessible unit detail and a better presentation. The twenty-six maps cover a wide range of battle sizes, although I’d like to choose my starting units for every scenario. An editor is also included to expand the game even further. The AI is inconsistent enough to be noticeable (moving units into vulnerable positions, or failing to eliminate wounded or nearby enemies, for example), but does defend well and takes advantage of its extra units on “normal” and higher difficulty levels. You can also join a multiplayer match through the game’s matchmaking software that provides forums for discussion about how awesome you are. And, of course, we must mention the dice camera that allows you to use a webcam to capture actual dice rolls to compute game results: the ultimate in nerd. Overall, Conflict of Heroes benefits from the simplicity required for a board game, and the computer version is definitely approachable and appropriate for novices and veterans alike.