Article Type: PC Game Review
Developer: John Tiller
Related Categories: Eastern Front, WWII, Turn Based, tactical
Massive Sieges. Grandiose flanking maneuvers. Armored clashes so large and utterly fierce, George Patton may have considered a bit of caution. The Eastern Front of the Second World War has always served as an armor advocates dream come true and the operational wargamers filet mignon.
Though many games have covered the Russo-German War from the widely appealing perspectives mentioned above, very few have given grizzly detail to the actions of the most common, effective and overlooked combatant to cross the wide open steppes of the former Soviet Union; the infantryman.
From the opening stages of Operation Barbarossa to the deadly streets of Stalingrad, John Tiller and HPS Simulations'', Squad Battles 6: Advance of the Reich, attempts to do exactly that.
AS THE HOBNAILS RHYTHMICALLY POUND
By the Summer of 1941 the world had known no armed force as seemingly unstoppable as the Deutsche Wehrmacht. Fortress Europe was nailed down tight as all but England had fallen to the might of the German War Machine. The world held it's breath indeed as Adolf Hitler's eyes turned East and the Blitzkrieg rolled across the threshold into what would come to be known as "The War of the Century". A war whose brutality was unable to be fathomed and has not since been rivaled.
No one would witness the carnage as personally as the foot soldier of each country involved. Historically, no one would play a larger role in the outcome of the war or pay a higher price for victory or defeat. Glory often evades the "Queen of Battle" and is bestowed upon the machines that Advance of the Reich often leaves immobilized in the quagmires of the Russian steppes. A long time in the coming, the previously unsung mudrollers of the East Front now decide the future of the pixel free world through the iron sights of their bolt action rifles.
Advance of the Reich tests your skill as a World War II small unit leader in 33 scenarios that range from commands as low as the platoon to operations involving understrength battalions. The player controls forces consisting of heavy weapon crews, individual vehicles and squads of infantry in their crusade against Bolshevism or their expulsion of the invading hun and his fascist minions.
The battlefield is comprised of 40 meter hexes and five minute turns decide your fate as a Heer, Waffen SS, Italian, Rumanian, Russian, Russian Guard, Soviet Naval Infantry or Partisan commander. Boasting 2D and 3D views, an extensive database of weaponry and armored fighting vehicles, as well as a massive 494x114 hexmap that covers the entirety of Stalingrad (in addition to other maps), John Tiller and HPS Simulations attempt to appeal to the rifleman in us all.
Pick Your Poison
INSTALLATION AND DOCUMENTATION
Advance of the Reich installs via the installation wizard and requires a very conservative 250MB of your machines' hard disk space. The program is launched through the start menu and the game enjoys on line documentation from the publisher, numerous parameter charts and a printable manual that comes on the CD.
As the manual contains topics for the entire SB series to date, newer players of the series may be befuddled as to why rules covering equipment such as helicopters are present in a manual of a game that covers WWII. Fear not, what one needs to reference is present and even a little of what one does not for that matter.
Tauchpanzers in action and options galore.
SOUND EFFECTS AND GRAPHICAL CONTENT
Advance of the Reich is not for those with a state of the art palate when it comes to graphical content in their wargames. In comparison to a few of the bitmap beauties out in the wargaming world in this day and age, HPS is undeniably years behind.
In parry to these graphical comparisons, the game does offer a very functional 3D view (previously only available in SB4: Eagles Strike) that is often pined for by series newcomers. However, it remains loyal to the traditional wargaming approach by offering an excellent 2D view that improves drastically with each game.
Veterans of Squad Battles have watched Joseph Amoral's unit artwork mature from US troops who somewhat resembled paper dolls in the series maiden voyage (2001's Wargame of the Year - Squad Battles Vietnam) to handsome hand painted unit images that are Picasso-esque in comparison in this sixth installment of the Squad Battles arsenal.
As expected with this genre, Tiller's crew abandons all of the bells and whistles and goes for an approach that makes game play immersed and detailed, yet distinct and easy to follow. Many graphical command and control options exist to assist and speed up game play such as company markings, moving leaders and special counters to the top of stacks, and even NATO symbols for the truly hardcore. The map offers a total of 4 battlefield views and a jump map setting that provides an excellent grasp of the lay of the land, while other map options include viewing contours, lines of sight and all of the basics that no serious wargame would be complete without.
Combat sounds are rich and the background .wav files set the mood. Pulling you into the fury of bitmap warfare, squad leaders shout commands and MG42 bursts rip out at stragglers as the player decides their path to glory or certain death on the killing fields of Stalin's Russia.
Stalingrad in 3D
EASY TO LEARN - DIFFICULT TO MASTER
Learning the ropes in Advance of the Reich is not a difficult task, but becoming highly skilled in the art of small unit warfare takes more than a few sessions with the game.
Squad Battles games often receive scorn for the "impossibility" of their scenarios and though a few may be very difficult, this is far from the truth on average. It is only fair however that one must mention that this simulation definitely makes one conduct themselves in a military manner that may be worthy of a commission on a few occasions. I have a gut feeling that John Tiller and his crew would want it no other way.
In regard to the previous, for those serious wargamers who enjoy entertaining the fantasy that they have what it takes to conduct realistic military operations, this is your medicine. The result of a serious gut stomping in Advance of the Reich is usually berthed from a poor understanding of infantry formations in maneuver to contact and in the defense, or just a stroke of bad fortune for those who may.
Taking into consideration the above, the game is easy to learn, but difficult to master. In the opinion of the reviewer, this is a definite plus as infantry operations traditionally have been very tedious and frustrating endeavors that send the best of officers off pounding their heads into the sand bags in disbelief. Nothing is certain in warfare and questions that can and have presented themselves to the field officers are alive and well in Advance of the Reich.
As far as the borderline to full blown grognard is concerned, whilst indulged in many scenarios you may be found by the wife mumbling any of the following at the screen while she slowly dials 911 in doubt of your sanity if you are prone to lines like the following....
"Tell me how in the hell 15 men and an anti-tank gun can be effectively holding this piece of &#$% hamlet against my entire company?!!!
While comical, these are circumstances that are commonplace on the battlefield and in my opinion, situations that make SB6 an excellent game by forcing the player keep their thinking cap on at all times and making no guarantees for victory. Besides, winning all the time gets to be VERY boring, unless one has a mild psychological affliction of some sort.
Doin' it for the Grogs
Moving troops to and from contact and firing on the enemy is a series of drags and drops and left and right clicks that keeps 90% of gameplay within the abilities of ones' mouse. A toolbar also exists as well as numerous pull down menus that offer reports and personal preferences.
Fire combat is relatively simple and involves selecting your firing unit and then either holding you CTRL button and right clicking on your chosen target or by selecting "toggle move/fire mode" on the tool bar. Weapons can be fired individually or simultaneously and a hold fire option is also available for preparing ambushes or saving that precious effectiveness from select weapons for optimum ranges.
As units fall under fire, morale checks are made that if failed result in the target being plummeted into varying states of disruption that effect morale and effectiveness. These conditions span from disrupted status itself (the least severe) to a state of being pinned or demoralized (the latter being the most severe). To lift the effects of having troops in the states, the intervention of a leader is required as they have the ability to rally their troops back into action.
Rallying broken and routed squads is not the only use of leaders in Advance of the Reich. Officers and NCO's are also required to call in air and artillery support and in the event of the Russian commander, to invoke a "human wave" attack that is akin to the Japanese Banzai charge or the Chinese assault of the same name thst is present in SB: The Korean War.
In addition to enemy squads and vehicles, obstacles of all forms of nastiness exist from barbed wire to flame mines and will remorselessly mince and gnarl a players troops to ribbons if one is unfortunate enough to come into contact with these tools of woe.
Unlike many contemporary tactical games,the actual bloodshed is left to the imagination of the pixel warrior at the helm. When a squad takes a casualty, a weapon counter (the weapon that was carried by the poor sod who got zapped) is left in the hex of their peril and when a vehicle is destroyed, a wreck counter is placed in the formerly occupied hex. In the 3D view the weapons remain the same for infantry, but a smoldering wreck is present for knocked out vehicles.
The detail of game play is comprehensive and includes individual attributes for each weapon included in the game. Alternate loads are available for large caliber guns and support weapons and aircraft. Switching these weapons to the best load for the job can win or lose the player the day as it succeeds or fails in producing results on the intended target(s).
Vehicle Rules are kept relatively general in comparison to the rules covering foot mobile units. In discussion with Mr. Tiller, this has been explained as a desire to keep the focus of these games on the infantry and to prohibit the game from slowly developing into an AFV simulator. In my own opinion, this seems to work rather well due to the fact that most wargames of this nature tend to become immersed in "tank worship" and armored vehicles (known historically to fall victim to a myriad of difficulties) tend to become more akin to a contemporary M1A2 Abrams than an actual main battle tank of the Second World War era.
Smokin' the flanks at Balta
Squads and Vehicles are assigned morale ratings from A to F that reflect their training and discipline under fire and learning the extent to which one can push these varying qualities of troops and equipment will play a very large part in your success. Individual and support weapons are also assigned reliability ratings that degrade in effectiveness at various levels as they are used depending on the predetermined quality of said weaponry. A wealth of "special weapons" also exist that range from binoculars to satchel charges.
Game play is conducted in the classic turn based formula otherwise known as the "I go - You go" format. Movement and fire combat are present in each turn for each side and game play ends at the conclusion of the scenarios designated number of turns.
4 Optional Rules are present. "Optional Assault and Fire Results" allow for casualties that offer less high and low end variation in fire combat and the same is applied when dealing with losses associated with assault success or failure. These rules offer a somewhat more predictable and "middle of the road" type of result for those who do not take as kindly to surprises.
"Vehicle Fire Over" allows vehicles to provide support while firing over the heads of friendly infantry that are in the AFV's line of sight. This is possible as long as your grunts are toggled in ground mode. The last option "Variable Ending" provides for a bit of variation when replaying a scenario by adding a random number of turns to it's length.
Ultimately, using a very sound tactical approach in every scenario is required to become a formidable foe in the squad battles realm. Going "Hey Diddle-Diddle - Straight up the Middle" will get you nothing but dead....and in a hurry.
Advance of the Reich's AI continues to live up to the tradition enjoyed by all Squad Battles games as being very good. This is a direct result of the scripting option that is available in the scenario editor. With this option, commands can be programmed and range from orders as simple as withdrawals to snipers and saboteurs popping up in rear areas when least expected and chucking satchel charges into your command vehicles. Only then do they evade your vengeance as they run for their lives off of the map.
Basically, the more talented a scenario designer becomes with the AI scripting, the degree of how witty and devious your pixel adversary can become are limitless.
Units controlled by the AI are programmed individually or in varying levels of organization. Although the AI conducts itself in a more than satisfactory way in Advance of the Reich, I am of the opinion that previous Squad Battles games (namely Proud and Few and Korea) seem to do a slightly better job of catching you off guard.
The AI also has this knack of targeting vehicles and support weapons in addition to seeming to apply a priority of fire to each individual squads weaponry. I'll be a monkey's uncle if the first troop who bites the dust in the majority of my squads is not my LMG gunner or someone carrying a satchel charge or something else of considerable firepower.
Detailed AI Programming
EDITORS, MULTIPLAYER OPTIONS AND REPLAY VALUE
The lack of a map editor has always been an issue with HPS Simulations games, yet they seem to be becoming more and more liberal with the issue as the series marches on. A wonderful utility called Geo Mapper has been created by Robert Heinz that is compatible with Advance of the Reich and Eagles Strike and although it does not permit the building of maps from scratch, it allows up to 8 maps to be pasted together in an arrangement determined by the designer.
These maps are 100% legal and are from a series of over 30 new maps that have been created by Dave Blackburn and Lee Hook with the consent of John Tiller.
This drastically increases the replay value to a level previously unkown by the Squad Battles series as the owners of the European theme games enjoy a blessing all their own.
In the multiplayer realm, TCP/IP play is supported for those with a hunger for on line action and the standard PBEM option also exists. It must also be mentioned that the amount of stock scenarios that were geared for H2H play were a bit slimmer than what fans of the series had hoped for, yet due to the fact that this game has been on the market for about 6 months, that has been remedied by over 25 custom scenarios and more surface everyday.
The Dreaded KV-1 torches PzIIIE's with ease
Squad Battles is undeniably for borderline to full blown grognards who demand detailed game play first and foremost and graphics only as a fringe benefit. As the majority of those who consider themselves serious wargamers start throwing down copies of games once considered to possess brilliant graphics (Talonsoft's East Front II for example) for games like Combat Mission, the amount of gamers who will still play and enjoy games that posses these types of graphics are almost guaranteed to have a strong background in the hobby of board wargaming.
Although not as extremely detailed as an exclusively grognard game like Tac Ops IV, the game definitely takes more than a few man hours to get a grasp of and is rather rich in details, statistics and requires tactical procedure not all too distant from the real deal. This tends to frustrate newcomers without a good amount of patience or long timers who are out of touch with or never played titles that focus on tactics on the small unit level.
The best analogy I can manage is that Advance of the Reich (and the entire Squad Battles series for that matter) is to tactical wargames like taking your coffee black is to drinking java. It may not be as pleasing to the senses as it lacks all of the cream and sugar, but it gets the job done better than any other mix of beans to be had.
I recommend any of the Squad Battles games to those serious about wargaming on the tactical level. One coffee, Black please.
200 MHz Pentium
32 MB RAM
250 MB Hard drive space
800 MHz Pentium III
256 MB RAM
About the Author
F.Lee Harmon Jr.
Frank Lee Harmon Jr. (32) is a former infantryman that served with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. His interest in military history is ground warfare from the first spear thrown to the present and he turned exclusively to PC wargaming with Talonsofts' East Front. Favoring turned based tactical wargaming, Frank has recently worked as a scenario designer and playtester for HPS Squad Battles: The Korean War and Pacific War. Currently, he is the de facto junta of Task Force Echo-Four when he is not subjected to attack by the chemical weapons manufactured in his daughters' dirty diapers.
Frank is currently playing: All Squad Battles games, The War of 1812, Campaign 1776 and Tac Ops.