The Right to Buy Weapons is the Right to be Free.
In my previous post, I found that the Theatre of War 3: Korea package didn’t quite measure up. Yet it seemed close enough that perhaps there is a possibility of redemption. Many of my criticisms were a function of scenario design, and so I wanted to look into putting together a historical scenario and if that improves my opinion.
To help out, I go to a game that, despite its age, is still one of the best treatments of this level of tactical warfare available. I am speaking of Steel Panthers. In one of its current incarnations, Steel Panthers: Main Battle Tank, the second scenario is a potential test for for my ideas.
The battlefield focuses on a ridge between two low-lying areas of rice farming. The North Korean invaders had crossed the Naktong River, where the armies of the South were holding a defensive perimeter centered at the city of Pusan. The ridge at Obong-Ni was a natural defensive point and became the focus of intense fighting over the course of several battles in August and September of 1950. From a wargaming standpoint, these battles were an inflection point, where the U.S. Marines began turning their desperate defensive position into an offensive to retake South Korea.
The particular focus of this scenario on the first hour of the North Korean counter-offensive on August 17th. The communists had overwhelming numbers as well as superiority across different weapon classes (advantages in artillery and armor as well). The advantage wasn’t to last. As the US was able to bring up both superior numbers and weapons, they were able to overwhelm the Korea positions and force them back across the river within a matter of days. In this brief snapshot of the battle, however, the Marines were attempting to turn back an assault with T-34s using bazookas and Recoilless Rifles. However, the U.S./UN had air superiority. The Marines’ advantage is that, while they are likely unable to stop the enemy tanks on their own, they can call in airstrike after airstrike.
Pixelated Soldiers of a Forgotten War
Amazingly, before this exercise, I’ve never played Steel Panthers. The game itself is old enough to drink, having been released by SSI in 1995 (see timeline here).
I think I initially didn’t get it because of the price. Later, it began to look dated and criticisms of the computer opponent and “gaminess” deterred me. Even when the price was “nothing,” there was some on-line arguing about the functionality of the game and whether it actually ran properly. Long story short, I never got the game until just now when I wanted a comparison scenario.
I’m playing with the free version, which has a limited resolution. The choice is either to have a very small window that graphically looks decent, but is kind of hard for me to see text and other details – or to run it in full screen mode where, to quote someone far more articulate than I am, it “looks like every element on the screen was printed with a boiled potato.” I haven’t done enough to really evaluate the AI, but I’ll assume from the on-line criticism it remains a weakness. Nevertheless, in many ways Steel Panthers has yet to be surpassed for what it does. It provides a highly historical (see previous) treatment of small-unit action from World War II through to the present. It does so with a wealth of available scenarios, a battle generator, and editing tools that are limited only by the skills of the program’s fans. I won’t dwell too much on either the game system or this scenario, but I’m sure I’ll be back to it later.
I will mention a couple things that really stood out as I played this. The system seems to have struck a pretty good balance between simplicity and realism. The number of “attacks” per turn feels pretty decent, while “defensive fire” is completely automated (subject to user-defined parameters). It’s slow compared to the more-modern “real time” systems, but better than most out there. Second – smoke. The computer uses smoke to mask its movements both retreating and attacking. This is one of the few games I’ve seen it used properly. I also like the mechanic where sustained firing on a defending hex creates smoke, which then obscures future shots into and through the hex. I’m sure it has been done elsewhere, but it hit me as something I hadn’t seen before.
As to the details of this battle, I found an archived turn-by-turn description for your viewing pleasure.
Initially, the UN troops found themselves facing North Korean armor with infantry, generally a distinct disadvantage. One of the reasons is that the American high command didn’t consider Korea to be “tank country,” and so neglected to deploy armor formations. The necessity of countering T 34/85 attacks made them rethink that position.
The first step in creating the battle was to recreate the battlefield. One of the reasons I chose this particular battle is there are multiple sources available to recreate the battle down to the level of detail necessary for the Theatre of War engine.
My first thought was to attempt to edit terrain in one of the existing maps. The game comes with a map editor, which appears to support tools for everything from creating a new map from scratch to editing an existing one. Unfortunately, there is no documentation so I simply tried everything. As far as I can tell, the basic terrain cannot be modified. Terrain height and type appear to be fixed on the provided maps, essentially limiting all scenarios to the nine provided maps. This also seems to apply to the trees, for which an extensive set of menu options exist, but all appear to do nothing.
What is editable are the roads, and what they call “statics,” basically buildings and trenches. Add to this that the each map is actually larger than the playing area, and there is some variation to be had. The terrain can be repositioned within the battlefield window and then the villages, roads, etc. moved to create a wide variety of setups.
So my next step was to find some terrain that seem to approximate the battlefield in question, and then reposition roads, trenches and buildings to get something semi-historic. The process was tedious, but not impossible.
With all this material to work with, I thought I had done pretty well at reproducing it on my TOW3 map.
Once I zoomed into the ground level view, however, it was clear to me that while the map may look fine, the terrain I was working with was far from what I was trying to model.
What looked like a good-enough approximation of the historic ridge line was really just a patch of rough terrain that really did nothing to block sight lines. The entire battlefield has pretty good Line Of Sight from one end to the other, meaning that as soon as I start running, everyone starts shooting at everyone else.
The TOW3 scenarios I’ve played start out with opposing forces separated by those large mountains you see in the background. If everyone starts out on the same side of those mountains, there does not seem to be much to limit contact.
Still, this is a learning exercise so, aside from the lost effort of placing all those trenches, what else did I learn. Is there still hope?
The next step, having created my terrain, was the placement of the forces. I started with the American side, and was able to mostly recreate the forces defending the ridge, as provided by the Steel Panthers order of battle. I left out the reinforcements scheduled to arrive through the scenario and also limited the off-board artillery and air support to what fit into the TOW3 editors parameters. But having got things pretty close to how I wanted them, I moved on to set up the North Korean attack.
And found that any more than about 3 tanks and a couple of mortars maxed out the unit allowance.
I’ve seen video of large numbers of units on screen at any one time. So the unit limit is likely in the editor and not the game. The game comes with, in addition to the map editor, an “Editor” and a “Simple Editor” for creating scenarios. I’ve used the “Simple Editor” in this. The battle itself is saved in an XML file, so there seem to be ways around the limit if needed.
But again, still a learning exercise. So I decided to scale down the scenario to the first 20 minutes, and exclude everything that wasn’t either initially on the front lines (for the U.S.) or in the first wave (for the North Koreans).
Even with my best efforts, I still couldn’t populate the North Korean side with enough for their human-wave style attacks. The key challenge of this scenario, however, are the North Korean T-34s, so I focused on getting the tank and mortar count right.
Upon running the scenario, the terrain problems were immediately apparent. I had placed the North Korea infantry at the far edge of the map, intending them to provide indirect fire (as in the SP scenario). I did not build any defensive system for them, which meant they were immediately targeted and fairly quickly destroyed. Absent any ability to alter terrain, it may be possible to shield indirect fire units with a combination of trenches and buildings, which can be moved in the editor.
In the Steel Panther’s scenario, the infantry advanced to a point where smoke could be targeted, which then covered the final advance. In the TOW3 version, the advancing infantry was both fewer in number and without terrain cover, and was eliminated before closing. The armor, on the other hand, had similar feel in both games – pretty much immune to infantry. One different was the U.S. recoiless rifle. Not effective against tanks in SP but deadly in TOW3.
Overall, the inability to add off-board support except through “purchases” limits the ability to get the historical situation correct. U.S. superiority via artillery and in the air is a key component of any Cold War or Modern conflict. On board artillery is an option, although that exacerbates the until limitation issue. In my setup, I added two 155mm howitzers to substitute for the missing off-board options. It should have been two 155mm batteries.
Furthermore, the on-board artillery seems to have targeting problems. As nearly as I can figure, the problem is that artillery cannot fire indirect under several circumstances. If the guns are loaded with direct-fire ammunition (i.e. AP shells), they cannot target indirect fire until the loaded ammunition is discharged at a direct fire target. Secondly, if the guns can shoot at targets directly, it seems that they will not fire indirectly. Or maybe not. Whenever I think I have it figured out, I seem to quickly find holes in my explanations. I can say it is very difficult to target the enemy with indirect howitzer fire, although indirect mortar fire and off-board artillery fire will work in the same circumstances.
The manual is of limited use. There are a few bits and pieces of information, but not the kind of detail necessary to resolve the problems I have. The manual seems primary written to explain the intricacies of armor penetration modeling. I assume the details are because the models are, in fact, implemented in the game, although even that wasn’t entirely clear. While it is nice to know that your game has high-fidelity models, the actual effect on gameplay (the experience of playing) would seem to be minimal.
Other Battles, Other Shortcomings
Following my Obong-Ni Ridge scenario, I looked at some of the other Steel Panther scenarios created for this same time frame. That is, the beginning of the U.S. offensive in the fall of 1950. I have not yet tried to implement matching TOW3 scenarios.
A few parting thoughts.
The units and weapons available in TOW3 are “representative” rather than exhaustive. Meaning, creating a historically accurate battle will almost certainly involve some substitutions. In all of the SP scenarios that I’m looking at, the U.S. Marines are using the M26 Pershing. This vehicle was already out-of-date at the start of the Korean War, but as the Marines were caught with a shortage of armor (because Korea wasn’t really tank country), they were forced to use what was available. In TOW3, one can use the M4 (Sherman) or the M46 (Patton). Only.
One of the available SP scenarios is very similar to what the automated Mission Builder will create in TOW3. The U.S. is move a small, mixed armor and infantry force along a road with poor sight lines and a village. Along that road, the North Koreans have units set up for an ambush. The U.S. has no air or artillery to call in. If there were a bit more customization capability to the TOW3 Mission generator, a satisfying approximation could be created. However, if I want strictly limit the types of units, I’d probably need to create the mission in the editor. I have yet to do so.
Another one of the SP missions involves repelling an assault on the recently recaptured Kimpo airport. The Steel Panthers documentation is lacking in this case, but it would seem to be a night action. Visibility is restricted to 150 yards, meaning the large flat ground of the airport does not allow engagement at a distance. This is another shortcoming of the TOW3 engine in which the variations in weather conditions seem, to me, to impact only the lighting effects rather than actual game play.
The last scenario I tried in Steel Panthers was simulating an island landing, securing the harbor in preparation for the main Inch’on landings. It served as an illustration of how much is missing from TOW3. The scenario uses landing craft to place the U.S. Marines on the board and massive naval artillery bombardment to prepare the ground. The available air assets exceed my ability to properly use them, and there are also spotter aircraft both off board and on board (a helicopter). On the North Korean side, there are a variety of defensive positions, bunkers, caves and other cover as well as terrain that prevents the Marines from engaging at a safe distance. The size of the battlefield and the numbers engaged also clearly exceed what I could do with TOW3.
While I wouldn’t expect TOW3 to do all these things, its inability to do most of them points to why I have to, despite giving TOW3 a second chance, once again withhold a mark of approval.
The sun shining down on these green fields of France
The warm wind blows gently and the red poppies dance
The trenches have vanished long under the plow
No gas, no barbed wire, no guns firing now
But here in this graveyard that’s still no mans land
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man
And a whole generation were butchered and damned
This case, involving legal requirements for the content and labeling of meat products such as frankfurters, affords a rare opportunity to explore simultaneously both parts of Bismarck’s aphorism that ‘No man should see how laws or sausages are made.’
- Community Nutrition Institute v. Block, 749 F.2d 50, 51 (D.C. Cir. 1984) ; decided December 5, 1984.
What makes a fun game? That’s a question easier asked than answered. If the formula were out there, then every game on the market would be oodles of fun, wouldn’t it?
I’ll continue to consider this in future posts, as there are a lot of different genres each with different formulas that make them fun and successful. Hopefully there is a correlation between the two. When it comes to wargames, there seem to be some rules that apply, or rather, some additional specifics that are required.
Naturally, the game should still be a “good one” by the measure that games in general are judged. Although, sometimes that might be secondary to its wargamey-ness. Wargamers may put up with a lot of rough game design if the game gets the battle right.
So for a wargame, it should be an accurate simulation, it should be historically accurate, and the play should be related to the period. That is, for a historical wargame, the package is graded on some or all of these three factors in addition to the gameplay. This may sound like three ways of stating the same thing, but I’ll try to explain the differences.
Some gamers are most concerned that the game “model” something of the battle in question. You might want to see penetration factors and fuel/ammo consumption, not “hit points” in your WWII tank game. But this can be a matter of degree. A mechanized infantry regiment could determine its strength by counting up men, guns, halftracks, ammo, etc. Or it could use “factors” for combat and movement based on decades of wargame experience. How much abstraction is tolerable could be quite a discussion.
Of course, no matter how detailed or abstract the modelling, the proof of the pudding is in how well it simulates historical puddings of the time in question. Or something like that. That is to say, the detail of the model is no good if it doesn’t recreate the historical outcome of the battle. This can be a real trick. Would a simulation (absent the knowledge of the historical outcome) ever actually predict the Battle of Midway? But if yours doesn’t, how can it be considered a good Midway game?
Then there is the gameplay. A game that gets every bit of detail that it is modelling exactly right, but doesn’t lend itself to “play” isn’t a game: it’s just a simulator of military operations. You might think I’m talking about the “fun” factor I mentioned in the beginning. But I’m trying to make a distinction. For example, a system that lets you line up every soldier, cannon and horse in Napoleon’s army and accurately simulates casualties, morale, fatigue, etc. might make a beautiful simulator, but an awful game if you are literally spending your time lining them up. A game where you sit in a tent sending and receiving dispatches might actually make an excellent game, because you’re getting the experience of reliving a battle exactly as Napoleon may have lived it.
But is that fun? Don’t we want to see sunlight glancing off the bayonets, the horses charging, and the cannons belching fire, even if the commander never would have actually seen these things? I remember one of the earliest of the John Tiller games, then under Talonsoft, for the Gettysburg battle. Each volley resolution was accompanied by actual video of reenactors firing a salvo. The live-action video was an expensive-to-produce resource hog that was left out in the subsequent version of that series. Players and reviewers said it was the first thing they would turn off when they played the game. But I would actually leave it on. Seeing actual men actually shooting brought life to the pixilated squares to which I was giving orders.
So my two games today are looking at the next phase of the Korean War. In the last post, I was watching the Northern troops completely overwhelming the South Koreans. In the weeks after, it only got worse. But what happens after the U.S. troops start to show up? Do they stop the red menace at Pusan? Can they retake Seoul? Can they toss Kim’s government out of the North? And, most importantly, can the game be both historical and fun?
Both of the games have a gameplay formula in place to get things right. For the first, it is based on tried-and-true board game designs upgraded to the PC’s capabilities. The player’s experience is enhanced by the computer’s ability to track complexity transparent to the player, eliminating some of the tedium that players sitting with board, counters, and paper would have. It has every hope of being an improvement on what we looked at earlier. As for the second, it traces its roots to the very-popular RTS genre, where we know what a blockbuster looks like. But do either of them take the ball and run?
The War, the Whole War, and Nothing but The War
As I said, the Operational Art of War scenario has has something of a pedigree. The general concept, scale, play is familiar to those who’ve played board-based, hex-and-counter wargames. In fact, games of this scale did predate the computer versions, although I don’t know well enough to say whether they were a direct, indirect, or incidental inspiration here.
Secondly, the author of both the scenario and the game itself, Norm Kroger, released an earlier Korean War game. Again, I have no direct knowledge of that earlier version, but I believe it sold well enough. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to think that this Korean War scenario was, while not the sole inspiration, perhaps one of the key battles the designer had in mind when creating his Operational Art of War package.
The Korean scenario is one that shipped with the original version 1 of the game, and continued through the various improvements in the re-releases. They certainly had the opportunity to get this one right. And so they did.
Already we see improvements over the previous scenario. The scale helps – quite a bit. The scenario design seems to be more involved as well (I didn’t try it in the editor, that’s just my impression from playing through it). And, of course, the fact that there was a real war and we can compare what’s going on to that – this helps out enormously.
As to the scale, we now have an interesting map. There’s the entire Korean Peninsula, with historic coastlines, major cities, rivers mountains, etc. Along with the significant political boundaries – the 38th parallel, The Chinese border. Some of the advantage is that we are far more zoomed out than with that map of Czechoslovakia. This can be done because the turns are now week long, rather than one day long, and so it is 15 km per hex rather than 5 km. With Korea being smaller than central Europe, the map can fit it all in.
The week-long turns also help with the operational scale. At one day /one turn the game felt either too abstracted (the makeup of the units didn’t matter) or not abstracted enough (too many units too maneuver, with no incentive to maintain unit integrity). In this battle, the maneuver and battle seem to have a better feel relative to the regimental unit scale. At least that’s my sense.
As I said, while I didn’t look at the scenario to analyze the modeling, there is a load of events that constrain and enhance the play to create more than a hex-and-counter simulation. There are political triggers which simulate the results of one side or the other being too successful. If the initial U.S./ROK losses are too high, will the U.S. use nukes? Will the conflict spread when the U.S. crosses the 38th parallel, transitioning from a defensive to an offensive war? What if they approach China? What if they cross into China? Additionally, the scenario models away some micro-management. Reinforcements are placed on the map by the scenario engine, not player movement. (Although some units are deployed to Japan, and the U.N. player has the ability to chose where to land them in Korea). For the Inch’on invasion, the Marine force was delivered in Japan on the correct date, and the Inch’on harbor remains a U.N. controlled port, thus simulating the ease of the initial landings rather than forcing the game to play out an amphibious operation.
Which brings us back to the historical aspect. It’s mid-September. I know that I’ve got to land my marines in Inch’on, and then use my Army units to try to trap the fleeing North Korean units while they’re overextended. I know that because… that’s what happened. In a hypothetical scenario, I never would come up with an Inch’on landing. It seems too unlikely to succeed – perhaps even more so if it is subject to dice rolling, beach defense modifiers and the like. I may not have even retreated onto the Puson perimeter, if I didn’t know that’s what happened.
As in the real world, once I landed at Inch’on and retook Seoul, it was a matter of chasing, isolating, and wiping out the vastly outclassed North Korean enemy. I did so, and apparently successfully. My game ended as an overwhelming victory at the end of 1950, as I was isolating the last of the North Korean holdouts in the northern portion of North Korea. I did not trigger the Chinese intervention. There was a nice bit of afterward as it predicted various effects of my total victory, including a re-united Korea under Western influence, a coup in China, and a timid Soviet Union unable to respond forcefully to the Hungarian revolution.
Having won as the U.S./U.N., I’m thinking the game may be more interesting and challenging as the communist player. Getting the triggers just right would be the name of the game. You might win by beating the historical performance of the North and take Pusan, but might lose if that triggers a nuclear counter attack by the U.S. Failing an initial knockout blow, it would be necessary to trigger the entry of China or even the Russians in order to even replicate the “draw” that history seemed to achieve. I’ll leave that to another day, should I ever feel like taking on the role of evil.
If you’re a game developer from Russia, playing the Soviets in a historical game probably feels more like being the “good guys” rather than the unmitigated bad actors that most of us of a certain age from the United States see. A few rumors of overpowered Russian units in certain games aside, however, the roles are not reversed. More typical is a simple equality between the historical sides in a conflict.
Take Theatre of War 3: Korea. There are three sides; North Korea, United States and the Soviet Union. All are nicely balanced, presumably making for good multiplayer scenarios. It makes for good gameplay, but does it all make a good game?
As I said at the beginning, this game starts out by taking tried and true formulas to create that elusive fun factor. Rather than start with the traditional wargaming world of board games, it is fundamentally based in the Real-Time Strategy (RTS) genre. The 3 in the name indicates, presumably, a mature series and the developers are veterans of a range of historically-themed war games.
Let’s start with RTS.
Real Time Strategy
From its start with titles like Herzog Zwei and Dune II, the category has advanced, refined and perfected gameplay into a hugely popular, and hugely successful gaming category. Recent titles will be expected to build on the streamlined UI conventions and gameplay elements developed over multiple generations of many successful series.
The RTS formula usually consists of a combination of resources, technology and military units. Territory is developed, by building “bases” or “cities” or some such element, which are then used to exploit the resources, develop technology, and create new units (or repair existing ones). Battle then takes place between the opposing forces in which victory generally consists of destroying or seizing the enemy base.
A key element in the “fun factor” is often described as a “rock, paper, scissors” mechanic. At its simplest, Unit A is vulnerable to Unit B which is vulnerable to Unit C. But modern iterations will consist of complex layers involving, perhaps multiple cycles of units, multiple resources, and new technologies. The quantity versus quality trade-off is often a key mechanic, forcing players to choose between producing more units, or investing in technology to produce fewer, but better, units, often later in the game.
Even in some of its earliest iterations, the genre used “realistic” or “historical” settings, in ways that were integral to gameplay. However, I would credit Company of Heroes as an early attempt to cross over from the “RTS” genre into the “wargames” genre, particularly for the 20th century battlefield.
I’m probably heavily biased by my own personal experience. I found both the Company of Heroes series and the Theatre of War series when searching for something beyond the first iteration of the Combat Mission games.
The first three Combat Mission games; Beyond Overlord, Barbarossa to Berlin, and Afrika Korp were first released in 2000 and were revolutionary in taking the serious simulation-style wargaming and putting it into a real-time, 3D environment. The games were very popular, both in terms of sales and with the fan base. They featured a huge database of vehicles and formations, allowing coverage of most of the war available in an easy-to-use scenario editor. On top of that, the quick mission generator could allow an instant fix, approximating almost any battle in the covered fronts.
Combat Mission continues to expand on the series to this day, but largely managed to drop the ball after that first go. I’ll not dwell on the details here; maybe another time. Suffice to say, I found myself searching for the “next decade’s” take on the Combat Mission magic. Small unit action, but realistically simulated.
Company of Heroes (CoH) was not that game, although it has been a huge success being what it is. It tweaks the RTS strategy to eliminate the base building and resource collection components traditional to the genre. Instead, battles are fought within realistic-looking environments, where control over key points substitute for the construction of buildings. There remains, though, within that context an accumulation of points based on that control that, along with the nature of the buildings controlled, allow the construction and repair of replacements, similar to traditional RTS play.
The popularity of the series seems to be, at least to a large extent, the detailed and realistic graphics. This produces a movie-like quality to battles wherein the historic context and makeup of the armies are grounded in the actual events. Obviously, the ability to (as an example) generate new engineering units if you’ve controlled The Church for long enough is a long way from the “realism” of the Combat Mission scenarios. Worse yet, the actual fighting looks a lot more like a traditional RTS game than an actual, historical battle. Units swarm at each other at very close range and then trade hitpoint damage until one side’s unit prevails (after some impressive destruction graphics). All the while, both sides are frantically building and repairing units, and feeding them up to the front line (assuming they haven’t hit some system-imposed unit cap).
Theatre of War (ToW) (and I’ll talk about particularly the Korea game, even though up ’til now I’ve used World War II as the discussion’s point of departure) promised to do things differently. It was developed by the same team responsible for the IL-2 simulator, meaning they should understand the realism angle. The game uses realistic modelling of weapons and armor, allowing the units to function at historically-realistic ranges rather than the nose-to-nose combat often found in the RTS genre. It also forgoes not only resource collection, but also the map-control system of CoH. The concept is still there (it’s still meant to have RTS-style gameplay), but points are awarded only for eliminating the enemy. Scenarios are (in my experience so far) focused on a single geographic objective, with one side tasked to defend and one to attack, and the combination of seizing the object and eliminating the enemy (while minimizing one’s own losses) determine victory or defeat. The point system is still there, but is used for more limited purchases. Sometimes reinforcements are available, or the player might call in an off-map artillery or air strike. Not exactly realistic (“Captain, we’ll have some air support available, but first you’ve got to show us that you deserve it!”), but also not a game killer if it works.
Another key gameplay element is taken from the Total War series. While individual scenarios can be played, they can also be played in the context of campaigns where units are moved from territory to territory on the full map of the Korean peninsula and, when opposing units meet, that generates a detailed, tactical battle. The outcome of the tactical battle then determines who occupies the territory back in the turn-based campaign. ToW incorporates the mechanic where the units involved in the battle earn “experience” which is then carried over to their next encounter. Supply and losses carry over to future battles, so repeatedly catching and defeating the same enemy will make each following encounter that much easier. This, too, has been an immensely popular genre.
The Good Guys Strike Back, or try to at any rate…
I started out the U.S. campaign, which begins right where the US goes on the offensive with the invasion of Inch’on and the rapid reoccupation of South Korea. Since we’ve seen where that’s headed (in the screenshot of TOAW), I start right up using the X Corp to invade the beaches and my I and II Corp to push north.
And things start to go wrong.
The Total War -style campaign does add to the game play. I’ll give it that. But it completely wrecks an semblance of a historically accurate game. I started with my X Corps, which in game encountered the North Korean 21st Ind. Marine Regiment, defending the Seoul area. Not the historical lineup, but no matter. That encounter then launches me into the tactical battle.
When taking territories in the strategic map, it appears that all the generated tactical battles are pretty similar. You have a force consisting of anywhere from a couple to a dozen vehicles, supported by a platoon or two or three of infantry and some indirect fire (usually 2-4 mortars) and some transportation units, which consists of some mix of trucks, halftracks and helicopters. Always the helicopters. In this Korea, it seems, no matter how small your command, you’ve got at least a pair of helicopters at your disposal.
The maps are not terrible. But they give me an impression less of historical Korean locations than computer-generated maps with Korea-like features. But they are not even that. There is a limit of something like 9 battle maps. They have that “optimized for multiplayer” feel, so they almost all consist of a pair of villages, separated by mountains and passes (so there is no line of sight to the enemy positions at opening). In between is, sometimes, some other villages and a series of prepared positions – trenches, tank pits and gun emplacements. These seem to be pre-positioned, independent of the details of the battle. So you are generally launching your attack out of a fortified position, moving through some (perhaps) unoccupied trench-works to encounter the enemy in their own fortified position.
Contrast this to the formula of Combat Mission’s success. Scenarios were on an infinite variety of maps, either generated or designed to duplicate the key features of a historic battlefield. Scenario times were short, but units were positioned at their launching-off point and so the game depicted the key elements of the historic battle right from the scenario start.
I note that the size of the battles are approximately the same as in Combat Mission, but the mix of units and the random nature of the match-up (you can build your force, subject to limitations in unit mix based on type and a total points) make the forces feel wrong. For the size of the battle – mixed infantry, artillery, air and armor, trying to capture a fortified village – a couple of platoons of infantry with a few tanks in support seems way too small.
The campaigns seem to be set up so that, to progress, you have to win each individual battle. So any failure at the tactical level leads to replaying until victory. Again, this ruins the historic immersion. If I’ve encountered unexpected resistance in taking a village, maybe the campaign should have me collect up greater resources and try again. Not just keep at it until I “beat the level,” as it were.
So back to Seoul. In order to take “Seoul,” I have a mission where my 2 platoons of infantry, with 6 tanks and 3 helicopters in support, have to dislodge a North Korean unit of, also, approximately company size from a fortified village. Having done so, I win “Seoul.”
There’s absolutely no character of the battle that reflects the actual “Second Battle of Seoul,” which incidentally could make a great campaign.
Think about it, the Americans have some initial fights on their hand to defend their beachheads against North Korean armor, but quickly develop overwhelming superiority. However, unless that superiority is quickly exploited, veteran reinforcements to the North Korean defenses pour in. Ultimately, the fight for Seoul turns into a tough battle with, I’m sure, many opportunities for small unit action.
But, instead, I keep retaking the same 2-3 villages, dislodging a very similar mix of North Korean infantry and armor.
So close and yet so far.
Even as I write this, I have to wonder if I’m not missing something. Taken on its individual parts, this game has so much to offer – features that I wish we’d see in many more games. The detailed modeling of the vehicles and individual soldiers, down to each grenade and bullet. Armor is modeled in tremendous detail, and there is a hotkey to show each hit with direction and penetration – perhaps one of the better UIs for this. There is small unit AI, including effects such as morale, fatigue and minor injuries. Although, I have to say, the AI is frustrating at times. You’ve really got to babysit all your units (fortunately they aren’t that many). A unit may decide it’s just not gonna advance no more, for no obvious reason, while another unit decides to rush off to the sound of the guns. And this despite the fact that your orders were to deploy in a line abreast behind a ridge in preparation for a coordinated assault.
The manual boasts an open system for modding and expansion. In theory, if I could get the details of that historical, small-unit action between Inch’on and Seoul, I should be able to put it together in the game. Unfortunately, the section of the manual documenting the editors for the maps and the mission is all of four sentences. Combined!
So my bottom line is while I’m left with some pretty graphics that genuinely look like the Korean War and some confidence that I’m modelling the Korean War, I come away with no insight into the war. Except that tanks are good to have around.
So win one, lose one.