Popular imagination has a long standing love affair with blockbuster WWII battles and operations (El Alamein, Normandy, the Bulge, Montecassino, Operation Market Garden, [put your favorite here], etc.). The Eastern Front has its own share of very popular battles and operations (Stalingrad, Operation Barbarossa, Moscow and Kursk, just to mention a few). The Third Battle of Kharkov has been more or less in the realms of hardcore WWII history discussion and war gaming. A collosal struggle of men and heavy metal as any other battle in the Eastern Front, The Third Battle of Kharkov ended with the Germans capturing the city from the north and getting some morale back after the horrendous defeat and surrender of the German Sixth Army at ... (gah! blockbuster battle incoming) ... Stalingrad. Well, I hope you see my point that big stories about big battles are difficult to not love if you suck at military history as much as I do. To my defense, let me point out that even boutique war games developers who cater the most hard core and knowledgeable grognards out there are thinking it twice before meandering onto less popular WWII battles. That's why a while ago I was mildly surprised to read about this tactical game "Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943", that puts you in command of small units (company and below) in the less sexy, kind of distant southern flank of the city during March of 1943. I always thought that I would be able to find something interesting in any combat story of any unit, of any country, at any front and at any time during WWII. After playing "Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943" I can say I am still right. But the full credit goes to the way the story is presented in this game.
Limited scope, delivered with style. A map detailing the units involved in the Third Battle for Kharkov and the sector you will be playing. Original map taken from the manual.
"Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943" (APK43 from now on), is a single player, tactical war game that focuses on a relatively narrow sector (Taranovka-Sokolove) of the fight between the Soviets and Germans over a southern access corridor towards Kharkov. The player is presented first with a turn based interface featuring a 2-D topographic map of approximately 10x10 km. This map is divided in 1x1 km squares on which units hop in a "IGOUGO" turn based mechanism, with each turn representing 4 hours. Each unit in the 1x1 Km squares is of a strenght of roughly a platoon, but sometimes they are reinforced with other support weapons. Different units have different "spotting ranges" (the amount of squares around them where they can detect enemy units), and movement ranges. The nature of the terrain at a specific square (woods, rivers, marshes and roads) has an effect on the units' movement. When either the player or the computer opponent move one unit into a square with enemy units, the fighting starts. The player is then presented with a 3-D battlefield centered in the area corresponding to the the 2-D map 1x1 Km square where the units have collided and is prompted to deploy his troops for battle. The 3-D battlefield is seamless and the player can fly with the camera to wherever place in the whole area of operations as much as he pleases. But he is allowed to deploy his troops in the 3-D Battlefield only at areas that he controls in the 2-D map. And after deployment a full blown 3-D, the real time (pausable) battle starts. The player can customize how long these 3-D battles last. Besides whacking the hell out of the enemy, every 3-D battle has terrain objectives that need to be secured in order to win that specific encounter. When the 3-D battle ends, the player is taken back to the 2-D map where he can ponder his next moves. Rinse and repeat.
The 2-D map interface. Each square in the map is 1x1 km.
Moving units in the 2-D map is way more involved than checkers or chess with military icons. I found it very useful to zoom in to see the terrain layout in some square I want to defend or attack, just to make sure that I don't leave an infantry platoon out in open terrain or that my tanks have an adequate road network for withdrawing or moving towards the objective. Also, the 2-D map only allows the reinforcement, ammunition supply and repair of vehicles/guns as far as they are not isolated by the enemy. So better watch out those interior lines. Right clicking on a unit in the 2-D map brings out a detailed roster of the unit, including morale, ammunition and other factors. I'm not very fond of knowing that private Kashlev has a sore throat this morning, but I reckon I have to pay more attention to some vital details about my troops. One thing that surprised me of the 2-D map design is that every 1x1 Km square can harbor only one platoon of tanks or infantry or one small battery of AT guns. I am a total loss about troop to terrain ratio at this particular battle, but to be fair this apparent limitation is barely noticeable because when attacking or defending a particular square I am allowed to command units from neighboring squares. Each turn in the 2-D map generally leads to 2-5 clashes, each one resolved individually in the 3-D battlefield. The anxious in me sometimes wished for an auto-resolution of battles without having to endure a shameful carnage or routing, like when a single Russian reconnaissance platoon is bullied by a full company of panzergrenadiers. As far as I know the only way around this is to enter the 3-D battlefield and press the retreat button.
Troops deployment. The squares are color-coded according to their value in cover, concealment and transitability.
The 3-D battles are played in pausable real time. While in pause mode, the player can issue orders and move through the map. I would definitively enjoy some sort of turn based mechanism in the 3-D battles. Not because APK43 is a clickfest, but rather because there are so many micro stories to savor, all going on at the same time, that it's a shame to miss any of them. I may not care about private Kashlev's health status in the roster menu, but I certainly enjoy seeing him throw a molotov cocktail to a halftrack. The relatively low troop to terrain ratio in all the 3-D battles warrants an enjoyable experience, with plenty of room to maneuver (players better sharpen up their combat patrol skills) and a user-specified time limit (I have mine set to 2 hours) that can accommodate different play styles. The 3-D battlefield is presented in exquisite detail. The snow covered expands of the countryside are rendered according to a combination of wartime maps and present day satellite imagery. Village and towns look quite realistic and the poor infrastructure of the area definitively affects the way the battles unfold. Each unit has attributes including armor, ammunition, morale, physical stamina, experience and an indicator of how suppressed by enemy fire they are. Command and control is represented by platoon headquarter units influencing the squads morale. Armor units are controlled as individual vehicles, but you can drag a rectangle over a group and control them simultaneously. The minimal infantry unit is a squad, each soldier having its own 3-D model. There is no apparent way to split an infantry squad but the troops frontage can be adjusted from very narrow to relatively wide. Groups of units can be given three types of formations (line, column and well ... no formation at all). The commands that can be issued to units are move to a position, attack a position, defend a position, fire on a specified target or terrain, and sectors/arcs of fire.
It's sure cramped in there, but I wouldn't trade it for walking.
I liked many aspects of APK43.
First, even when each scenario is played back and forth at two interfaces (one 2-D map and a 3-D battlefield) that are quite different in their mechanics, both integrate very well into a whole experience. While playing an scenario, I got a persistent illusion that events were flowing from the bottom up with the 2-D map serving just as a vehicle to pack many interconnected events into manageable chunks. Starting one 3-D battle in the darkness of the morning, then coming back in the afternoon and find out the burnt wrecks and dead soldiers of the earlier battle contributes to create a sense of continuity, of tactical ebb and flow that I haven't got from any other tactical war game with 3-D battlefields.
1:1 Representation of infantry, sometimes this feature will give you some tactical headaches.
Second, as I mentioned before, APK43 doesn't sacrifice history, scale or scope in the altar of gameplay and mainstream non-sense. If you are to delay the German panzer juggernaut with a platoon of Russian infantry, deal with it. Period. Tanks are at a four hours march from your position, so take your decisions cautiously. If your PzIIs appear to be too nimble against that wall of Russian AT guns, find your way through it. There are no Tiger tanks to save your day, and that's it.
Atomosphere ... gobs of it.
Third, let me pack some 3-D battlefield noteworthies in this paragraph, just for the sake of brevity: an area fire command that allows you to fire upon an area of your choice (great for suppressive fire, which BTW actually suppresses the enemy), enemy trenches that cannot be seen until your units have a direct line of sight on them, flexibility in having your panzergrenadiers fighting separated from their halftracks or in cooperation with them as a single unit, Russian soldiers that can ride on top of tanks and more.
Night operations will take some time to get used to. Nothing more scary than bumping into an enemy squad in all this darkness.
There are some areas where APK43 could have been better.
The game interface is less than intuitive and a better edited or informative manual would have been great. As with any war game representing every soldier on a squad, occasional irritations are not rare, like a soldier too eager to keep the geometry of a formation and exposing himself to enemy fire. It is still not clear to me how to change the facing of an infantry squad (they always seem to have a soldier looking at each direction). But thank goodness the soldiers seem to respond to fire individually. I haven't had any problems with path finding (to be sincere I'm prone to issue very short move orders) but I miss the ability to give multiple waypoints to a single unit. The line of sight calculations are sometimes a bit strange because they are calculated from a single unit in the squad (remember a single squad can be well spread over dozens of meters of terrain).
The line coming out of the panzer grenadier unit (halftrack plus infantry) is their line of sight (LOS) tool.
Since this is a single-player only war game, a comment about content, replayability and AI. There are scenarios covering 4 points of the real battle, and two of them can be played from both the German and Russian side making a total of 6 scenarios. The game includes a nice 3-D battle generator, packed with options (see screenshots below). The AI in the 3-D battles is non-scripted and seems to be driven by the victory locations. I've seen the AI pulling some nice tricks like throwing indirect fire in front of its advance. Also, the enemy AI is not suicidal and knows to take a hint, pulling back to try another approach if things are not going exactly dandy.
Scenario selection screen.The numbers in the 7th column are the number of turns in the 2-D map.
Rev up the engines, gents. We fight today!
I'm on purpose leaving comments about sounds and graphics out of this review, because I'm old, grumpy and I completely lost my bearings regarding those.
Tanks grouped and given waypoints (blue lines) by a single click.
In closing, I'm impressed with APK43 and I will be playing this war game a lot. Stay tunned for AARs and other comments.
Quick battle editor, 2-D map interface
Some of the options available for the creation of a quick battle.
Line of sight curiosities: effective immediately, the official word from this squad is that one of its members is out of sight.
Armor modelling: we don't need no stinking hit points!
A crew member on the right side (hidden by the interface) decided that his ride was in no shape to fight anymore.