Sunday, January 29, 2012

Battle Academy: Review

Version Reviewed: 1.7.0
What I like: Deep combat, extra objectives for skilled players, abundant content.
Not So Much: Many unit details and combat variables are hidden.
Other stuff you may like: Very moddable. Slitherine play by email system.
The Verdict: B+   (Very Good)

About my reviews

Official site: Battle Academy

After gorging myself on some lightweight strategy games during the Steam holiday sales (like Swords and Soldiers HD, Might and Magic: Clash of Heros, etc...), I've had a hankering for something more serious in the war genre. Battle Academy is a turn-based tactical WWII strategy game where you can command various infantry, tank, transports, etc across a tile based battlefield. For variety, the game has three campaigns covering North Africa, D-Day and the Ardennes. The following review is based on playing all of the Western Desert Campaign and part of the Battle For Normandy.

After not having too much experience with Matrix Games and Slitherine, my last two titles have come from their catalog.  It's just a coincidence - I'm not a shill - I promise!

Getting Started
The first campaign serves as a tutorial mission, walking you through the basics of the game. Pop up messages are used to direct your actions. The mechanics of the game are very simple; click your unit, click the target tile or enemy and, if necessary, click one of the valid commands that pops up. You can control-click to bring up a unit information window and hover over items to get more information. The manual does a pretty good job at introducing the main concepts of the game, but fails to explain many of the underlying mechanics that would be useful while playing. This wouldn't be a problem if the game's UI provided those details, but unfortunately it does not. This doesn't make Battle Academy unplayable by any means, but I prefer to understand how things work beforehand. There are helpful people on the forums to answer questions, but an informative UI would be much better.

Game Play
Each scenario starts with a brief comic-book style introduction, describing the scenario and what to expect. This is followed by a force selection screen which shows your allotted units and where extra units are usually available for purchase to customize the variety of troops you will command in this scenario. There isn't a core group of units to carry over from one scenario to the next. Although in one of the expansions, you can carry units through the campaign. This is neither here nor there though since we are playing the base game right now.

After your forces are selected, the game proceeds to the briefing map which displays an overhead view, accompanied by the objectives. This does add some flavor to the process as you can imagine standing around a table looking over the map with your commanding officers. Victory conditions involve capturing or holding victory locations. Additional achievements are given for tasks such as losing less then a certain number of units, killing at least 'x' enemy units, destroying all enemy units of a certain type, and/or keeping the enemy from advancing beyond a certain point. Some of these achievements have time constraints for added pressure. The optional achievements creates a pretty good system for making the scenarios beatable for less-skilled players, but more challenging for those up to the task. In other games, I'm not fond of having to replay scenarios many times to play the full game. I can choose to replay to get all the achievements (now or later), or I can move on.

I do think it would make more sense to have the force selection screen after seeing the objectives. If you are expecting to encounter a Tiger, you might want to bring extra big guns to take it out.

What are our objectives General?

I Said Jump Soldier!
Now we get to the meat and potatoes. As one would expect, each unit uses an appropriate movement rate and method (such as walking for infantry or tracked for tanks). The movement rate is determined by the amount of action points (AP) the unit has, and it's method determines the cost in AP to enter each type of terrain tile. While a wheeled unit is faster on open roads, it can't enter rough terrain. Before giving the move order you can review the AP cost. Overall the system works, giving each unit an appropriate feel. For additional control, units can be ordered to hunt, which costs more AP, but avoids the movement accuracy penalty applied to shooting and makes the unit harder to spot.

I Can See You, Can You See Me? 
Line of sight (LOS) is handled in a typical manner: each unit has a spotting range, and certain terrains, like forests or buildings, interrupt the LOS. Some terrain allows infantry to hide in an effort to ambush oncoming enemies. However, Battle Academy adds an interesting twist: only infantry can spot these units in hiding, and only when adjacent to that tile. This makes infantry very valuable because without their support, your high powered tanks will be reduced to rubble by satchel charge- carrying, bazooka-toting enemies. Specialized scout infantry are available in some scenarios, which have the ability to detect potential ambushes from two tiles away. Also, units on hills don't give away their location to those below until they fire, so take that high ground!

Be Afraid, Very Afraid.
It is hard for a wargame to be taken seriously if there isn't any representation of morale, and Battle Academy executes this well. In the game, as I expect in real life (I've never been a soldier), shooting at a unit decreases its morale - a lot if it actually kills a member of the squad. Even a shot at a tank that deflects off of the armor tests the courage of those inside. Once the morale of a unit drops below the 1st threshold, it is suppressed and loses its ability to initiate an attack. Dropping below the 2nd threshold causes the unit to surrender to any adjacent unit that attacks it. Once things really go to hell, the unit will just rout. Since there doesn’t seem to be a limit to the number of times a unit can retreat within a single turn, hunting the enemy down can feel like whack-a-mole (I thank Troy Goodfellow at Flash of Steel for that expression when he was describing Hegemony Philip of Macedon). The retreating never gets out of hand but is sometimes slightly annoying.

Learning From Your Experiences.
As units inflict casualties, their experience increases. Veteran units have increased morale, while Elite units further improve their moral and can obtain new skills - such as a sniper shot that automatically kills one member of an enemy squad. With increased morale, these experienced troops can better withstand the stresses of combat before succumbing to their fear. Experience would have a greater impact if units could be carried from scenario to scenario, but still has a noticeable effect in longer scenarios where there is more time to level up and additional enemies to attack.

Combat is the heart of any tactical wargame, and Slitherine's engine doesn't disappoint. The factors are logical and detailed. Units are rated for hard attack (vs armored units), soft attack (vs non-armored units), and armor (defense vs hard attacks). The hard attack is actually based on several factors: (1) minimum & maximum damage rolls (2) the accuracy at different distances (3) the ability to penetrate armor at different distances. Likewise, the soft attack is determined from factors 1 & 2. The armor is rated differently for the front, sides, and rear. Try to avoid the heavy armor in the front of some tanks by attacking from the sides or rear.

Before engaging the enemy, your unit must navigate close enough so they are within their weapon's range. They must survive possible attacks of opportunity by the enemy as they approach. If the target or their allies saved shots from the prior turn, your unit may be in for quite a surprise. All units get at least one attack of opportunity so there is never a free ride. Increase the odds of remaining undetected by approaching from the sides or rear.

The unit's attack may be effected by several other factors once an attack is initiated.
  1. The attacker's movement reduces accuracy, unless the unit was hunting. Some units are better on the move then others. 
  2. A unit at less then full strength doesn't have 100% of its firepower.
  3. A defender may receive some protection from the terrain they occupy, further reducing the damage taken. Each type of terrain is rated for the amount of cover provided, with a reduced amount if the occupying unit was on the move.
  4. Inflict extra damage if the target was suppressed.
  5. Attackers with grenades get an extra bonus.
  6. Some vulnerable units, like an unarmored truck take extra damage due to a soft defense penalty.
  7. Agile targets are harder to hit when they are on the move.
  8. Small targets are more difficult to hit.
All of the above factors (and probably more) are combined to produce an effective attack number. For unarmored targets, this is the chance the attack will kill one member of its squad. For each remaining squad member reduce the chance by 50% and check for a kill again, applying an additional 50% reduction for each man. An additional step is required for armored targets - check to see if the attack was powerful enough to penetrate the armor. If an attack hits a vehicle but can't penetrate the armor, the vehicle won't be destroyed but it will still rattle the crew inside. Sometimes lowering a powerful unit's morale enough to make a safe approach is worth the effort.

Normally, infantry attacks vs. armored units are ineffective, but some infantry units, such as engineers, carry satchel charges. If they can manage to get adjacent to an armored unit chances are pretty good that armor will no longer be a threat.

Transports can expedite infantry and equipment movement to the front (or back if scrambling to defend a victory location). Off-screen assets provide additional firepower via artillery strikes, bombing runs, etc... Unfortunately there isn't detailed in-game info describing their potential damage. Artillery shelling does cause a sense of dread as hell rains down from above. It is much better to give then receive for sure. I was waiting on the edge of my seat to see which of my units would survive.

Lack of Communication
Slitherine decided to limit the amount of data communicated in the user interface (UI), to create a  game more inviting to players new to the genre. This is a mistake in my opinion. I found the lack of information frustrating, decreasing my enjoyment of the game. As mentioned earlier, the forum was helpful in this regard but isn't a replacement for an informative UI (I was spoiled by Unity of Command). The motivated player can look at the scripts to determine exactly what is used by the combat engine (which I did), but it was some work. According to the forums, Slitherine is entertaining the option of adding more advanced information to the UI. This is needed to take the series to the next level.

The unit information card only displays single numbers for the attack and defense ratings. The detailed information described above is hidden. There is no way to see how much your attack is reduced as range increases, or how much armor is on the front of a tank. When issuing the attack command, a basic effective attack number is displayed, but there generally isn't any information describing why it is reduced from the unit's attack value. The cover rating displayed for terrain is an average for the minimum and maximum provided. There is no indication of the benefit of remaining stationary vs moving. Agile units may benefit from being on the move, but there isn't a way to tell. Would players appreciate this info (and more!) being easily available within the game? I think so.
The game displays limited unit data

AI & Difficulty
I never really thought, 'boy that was dumb' when the AI was taking its turn. I'm not sure how much of that is due to good scenario design and initial unit placement, or if the AI plays a good game. Getting a victory during the scenarios usually wasn't that difficult, but obtaining the extra achievements does provide enough challenge to make it interesting. I was worried after the first several scenarios that the game was going to be too easy, but that wasn't the case. Thumbs up for providing a decent AI which doesn't cheat or get bonuses. I always appreciate a game more when it can be challenging without cheating.

Update 1/29/2012: During the Battle For Normandy - Holding the Line, I observed my first AI blunder. On the last turn the Germans could have captured a victory location, stealing my victory. Even though the unit was adjacent to the victory location it remained stationary and conceeded the victory.

Update: 2/15/2012: There is an Easy Mode option on the Load Game screen. I missed it during my review. I originally stated that there were not any difficulty settings.

Graphics and Sound
While I never thought wow, the game is gorgeous, the graphics were pleasant to look at and easy to interpret. Units had enough detail to distinguish the different types, terrain was identifiable, etc. The look of the game never interfered with the gameplay. I'm not fond of the comic-book style for the cut scenes, but I do think it matched the overall style of the game. The usual accompaniment of music was present and perhaps a bit repetitive, but it never drove me crazy. Sound effects were pretty good and were used to give meaningful feedback (Hey there is yelling coming from the house when I shoot at it!).

Looks pretty good.

As you can see there are helpful icons to provide some contextual information. Notice the '?' above the tent? That is a reminder that enemy infantry may be there but undetected.

Et Cetera
Battle Academy offers multi-player via Slitherine's play by email servers. A player can either create a game for another player to accept, or join an open challenge. From what I have read it is a pretty good system, but I don't really play multi-player games much so I can't offer a first hand experience. It seems inviting enough that I may actually try it sometime.

Modding support is pretty extensive in Battle Academy. The game includes an editor, allowing the player to create scenarios and campaigns. It doesn't stop there as the unit data is stored in a text file for easy editing. An advanced modder can take it even one more step and alter the game's combat rules, add extra orders or even customize the game's tool tips (see Modding Battle Academy Tool Tips). Slitherine even provides some modding documentation online. User-created scenarios are actually available for download within the game. As I said, modding support is very extensive.

Slitherine continues to support Battle Academy and so far has three expansions. If you end up being a fan of the game you have more options to continue your experience. As I mentioned previously, at least the latest expansion adds new features, like keeping core units as you progress through the campaign.

Technical Performance
The game performed flawlessly without any crashes or hiccups. The AI turns don't take long to resolve, perhaps 30 to 45 seconds if there is combat. I have no complaints along the technical front. It isn't like the game is going to tax your graphics adapter.

My Specs: Windows 7 64-bit. Intel Core i7 860 @ 2.80 GHz. 8 Gig RAM. ATI Radeon HD 5850.

In The End...
Overall I'm having fun with Battle Academy. Movement, line of sight, and morale, along with detailed combat factors make for interesting battles. Unfortunately the UI shrouds many of the details even though the easy-to-mod data files and scripts offer up all of the juicy bits. This lack of information is the biggest drawback for me. The scenarios provide enough of a challenge for victory with the option to try for more difficult achievements, accommodating a variety of skill levels. Ambushes and bombardments keep the tension up as you fear for the virtual soldiers traversing the open ground. Expansions, user-created content, and multi-player options should extend the game's shelf life.

Score: B+ (Very Good)

About My Reviews

I try to choose games that I believe I will enjoy. This will probably lead to more positive reviews then negative ones. When possible I usually try a demo before I play the game in full. Don't worry though, I won't hesitate to mention the negatives about a game and if I don't like a game the score will reflect that.When I receive a review copy of a game, I will disclose that in my review. These games will receive the same honest review as the ones I purchase. It is possible I will write a review based on a game demo. In that case the review will clearly communicate that it is based on a demo both in the title and within the article.

Sometimes I will write the review before 'completing' the game or beating all of the scenarios. The review will clearly communicate how much of the game I played. The review may get updated if my impressions change after playing more. I will try to do this at the end of the review so it is clear where my original review ends and the update begins.

My review scores are on a 1-10 scale and no part of the scale is off limits. A 5 or 6 is an average game, not a poor one. Perhaps I wish I didn't spend money on it to play it if there are better games available, but I had some fun and it wasn't a loss. To avoid confusion here is a scale using several different terms:

10     A+      Best of the best
 9     A       Excellent
 8     B+      Very good
 7     B       Good
 6     C+      Better then average
 5     C       Average
 4     D+      Below average
 3     D       Poor
 2     F       Bad
 1     F       Horrible 

Hopefully I will give enough details within the review to give the reader enough information to decide whether they may like the game more or less then my score reflects. There are plenty of well rated games that I just didn't enjoy (I'm looking at you Torchlight).

I believe many reviews don't give enough details about the game play itself anymore, and I want my reviews to improve upon that. So my reviews may be a bit more 'fact-based' and contain less one-liners then some reviews. Feel free to comment if you believe I have taken it too far, or just to let me know if I struck the right balance. In the end I want my reviews to be useful to other players.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Battle Academy: Modding in some tooltips

I think my biggest complaint about Battle Academy is the lack of transparency reguarding how combat works. There are many aspects where the player gets an idea that they matter, but there is no feedback to let the user know how much (such as how distance from the target affects damage). Attack a soft target and the tool tip displays a number for the effective damage. Well , what does that number mean and how is it used? No idea, until some of the helpful forum members answered some questions and pointed me in the right direction of the scripts. I then discovered there are many factors that go into calculating the damage and I decided to add them into the tool tip that appears when initiating combat. This is what it looks like:

Much of the data used for the calculation comes from the Squads.xls or the Squads.csv file (not sure which is used). This is how the potential damage is calculated for this attack.
  1. Each unit has a range of damage that it can cause when attacking a soft target (see HE Damage Range).
  2. The distance is the number of tiles the attacker is from the target.
  3. The distance is used to get the accuracy of the attacker at that range. Each unit is rated for accuracy at 1 tile, 2 tiles, 3 to 4 tiles, 5 to 6 tiles, and 7+ tiles, along with their max range.
  4. If the attacker was moving (without using the hunt command) a penalty is applied to the accuracy. This movement penalty is also stored in the squads data file.
  5. The defender can reduce damage taken based on the terrain he is in. Each type of terrain is given a cover rating that specifies what percentage of the damage is taken. This is affected by whether the target unit was moving or stationary.
  6. Units can be given a penalty if they are the target of an HE attack. It looks like infantry does not get this penalty.
The damage % used after modifiers displays what percentage of the damage will be used for the final damage of the attack. In this case, if the unmodified damage was 60, the defender would only take 7% of that damage. That is a pretty big reduction, with an end result of 4. Now how is the 4 used? That is a good question and can also be found in the scripts. Basically it is the percent chance to kill the first man in the target unit. The second man gets half this chance and so on until each man in the target unit is checked. There are other factors I haven't covered, but that is the general gist of it.

I decided to add a tool tip for terrain cover too. Did you know that the terrain has different cover values for if the occupying unit is moving or not moving? The default tool tip shows an average of the two values. This example shows these values.

It is a shame that the designers crafted such an elaborate system and keep the players blind to its sophistication. Yes, Battle Academy tries to bring non-hardcore players into the fold, but I think the lack of information presented by the UI and documentation actually makes the game more confusing.

Edit: 1/31/2012----The modded files were added to the Matrix forums at: Tooltip mod files

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Battle Academy: Western Desert Campagin - Capture the Fort

Well, after trying the demo I took the plunge and purchased Battle Academy. I had my hesitations about the purchase because in my opinion too many of the mechanics and data are hidden from the user. Since I am learning the game it might help others learn the game too if I wrote up an AAR. A review will come later after I had the chance to spend a significant amount of time with the game. Since this is a pretty simple mission I'm sure nobody will need this AAR to help them achieve victory, but it may give you a taste for what the game entails.

A Brittish convoy is used to lure the Italian forces out of their fortress and into an ambush. We must ambush the Italian attack and then take control of the fortress. The three extra achievements are:
1) Don't lose any units.
2) Kill at least 10 enemy units.
3) Control all objectives within 12 turns.

Your mission, if you choose to accept it.

Initial Deployment

Turn 1
Units on the tops of hills aren't visible to units below until they give away their position by firing, so the Matilda tanks will wait to ambush the Italian forces. The Matildas were positioned to face the road coming from the fortress to the east and ordered to hold their fire. Now the tanks should surprise the Italians and attack them from close range. Note: The terrain isn't too varied in this mission, but different terrain can provide different amounts of cover. They can also cost a different amount of action points to move through depending on the unit type. You can see the cover value in the terrain tooltip and the action point cost when issuing the move command.
Tanks are in position
Turn 3
The Italians stumbled into the ambush and two of the three CV33s were destroyed. CV33s are very lightly armored tanks with fairly weak guns. The Matilda's penetrate their armor if they can hit them. The Matildas didn't have a great chance to hit the 3rd CV33 because there was a small target penelty and a target agility penelty. These two penelties are based on data for the target unit (CV33) and reduce the Matilda's effective armor piercing (AP) rating used to attack armored targets. This is an example of the lack of transparency into the rules of the game. These penelties are not explained anywhere in the documentation or the UI. These penelties are defined in the Squad.csv file for each unit and reduced the Matilda's first shot only have an 18% chance to hit. Luckily this improves by 10% for each attempted shot. All three tanks failed to take out the remaining CV33, but he turned tail and fled during his movement. One Matilda took this opportunity to destroy it from the rear.

After the ambush
Command informed me that two squads of infantry transported in Bren Carriers were coming to assist me in gaining control of the fort. They advanced closer to my current position.

Help from some infantry
Surprise (not so much)
The rough terrain flanking the path to the fort looked like the perfect place to hide some infantry for an ambush. The Bren Carriers were ordered up to the front to deplot the infantry. Infantry can spot units in adjacent tiles that are hidden, while tanks can not. Before the infantry  were deployed the Matildas fired on the potential ambush to possibly suppress the hidden infantry.

Sneaky Italians
Note: Before this I was informed that I had an available artillery strike, but I didn't use it because I wasn't aware I was going to get another after 4 turns. I saved it for the assault on the fort. On my second playthrough I used it here and it helped to get through this ambush more quickly to achieve the 12 turn achievement.

After some additional softening up from fire from my units, the infantry moved adjacent to the enemy positions and made an assault. The first one successed, but the second failed even though the chance of success was 93%! That's random numbers for you.

The Fort
I ordered the artillery strike on the fort and did visible damage. I also received a message about a retreating unit. I'm not sure how I was supposed to know he was retreating because I didn't even know he was there.

After this I forgot to take screen shots, so I will sum this up pretty quickly. Two more CV33s came out to attack and were disposed of quickly by the Matildas. One by opportunity fire and the other during my turn. I used the same technique of firing shots into the towers and tents to suppress potential enemies, then moved the infantry in to ambush the positions. They took them with ease and command was happy, ending the mission.

We didn't lose any units and killed 10, so we got the first two extra objectives. On my first play through I didn't complete the mission within 12 turns, mainly because I didn't use my artillery strike to soften up the ambush point and got a little bogged down. I played through again and was able to gain the last achievement.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Unity of Command: Review Part Two

Did you read part I?

In the future I think I will wait until I am ready to write a complete review, but that is too late for Unity of Command. It was my first review and I wanted to get something down. I do have some more thoughts about the game.

I wish moving the mouse to the edge of the map scrolled it. It is mildly annoying having to use the arrow keys to scroll the map when I have been conditioned in other games to move the mouse to the edge of the screen.

The variety of units seems a little small and there isn't much differentiation between them. For example, a Germain Mountaineer gets one extra movement over German Infantry. The movement bonus isn't only in mountainous or difficult terrain. Also, they don't get any type of attack or defensive bonus when fighting in the mountains. I do enjoy being able to attach specialists to units to customize their usage. Again, I wish there was a little more variety as it is an enjoyable part of the game.

I do like a challenge and each scenario has made me take my time and think about each and every move. This is good, but I’m not a big fan having to replay scenarios to unlock parts of the game because when I do win it feels a little cheap. It is like a do over and makes the game seem more puzzle-like.
Since I expect the end game to get really tough, I feel like I need to hoard my prestige until the end, and need to try and win without using it. Then and only then do I start to use the prestige. This feels like playing a game instead of pretending I am on an actual military campaign, and it takes something away from the experience. It isn’t the challenge or difficulty that turns me off, just how the difficulty is ‘enforced’. I have been pretty fortunate in that it has only taken 1-3 tries for the most part to get a decisive victory. I would be getting frustrated and bored if I had to replay a scenario 10 times so wasn’t locked out of the next one.

I think I would prefer an approach that allows the player to make his best attempt at a scenario, live with the results and move on without being locked out of parts of the game. Perhaps you are given a scenario score based on how fast you achieve the objectives and how many casualties you suffer. Maybe the prestige limit is more generous, but when you use prestige it lowers your score. That way you analyze the scenario and play like it is for real. Use what you think is necessary, not afraid to use any prestige, but only try and use what you need. It is also a built in difficulty setting. People who don’t do so well can use a lot of prestige to win the scenario, but get a poor score. Perhaps when you get to the end of the campaign, you get a war summary. If you used too much prestige and / or had too many casualties you are informed that you put too much strain on the war machine and while you won the battles, your personal successes caused your side to lose the war.

The tight time constraints put me on edge while playing and is really much of the basis for the difficulty of the game. It feels a little contrived. I appreciate the desire to create a challenging game, but I think there has to be a more enjoyable way then time constraints.

Update 1/28/2012
So far I'm finding the Soviet campaign a little bit easier, but still challenging. It could be that after playing so many scenarios I see things a little more clearly.
Overall this is an enjoyable game, providing a good challenge without being impossible. Brilliant victories are very hard to achieve, but decisive victories are within reason. With careful planning I have been able to get decisive or brilliant victories within 1-3 tries, with some scenarios needing a little more effort.  The UI is very good at making the necessary information available, but can be improved in a couple areas I mentioned above. Having different assets available in the scenarios provides a bit of variety. After taking some time to plan your initial strategy the turns play out fairly quickly. Unity of Command is a must buy if you enjoy a good turn-based strategy game.
A- (Excellent)

Monday, January 16, 2012

Unity of Command: Review Part One

Version Reviewed: 1.0.1
What I like: Fun and simple mechanics, great UI and documentation, challenging, protecting my supply line!
Other stuff you may like: Multiplayer
Not So Much: Getting locked out of scenarios
The Verdict: A-   (Excellent)
About my reviews

Official site: Unity of Command

Disclaimer: This review is based on the entire Axis campaign and most of the Soviet campaign. As I stated in my prior post, this review will be a work in progress because it will take a while to get through both campaigns. I do feel there is much I can say before I complete the game. My favorite genre has always been strategy games, including war games, but I wouldn't call myself  a 'wargamer'. I am also not a history or military buff, so this review is coming from just a regular strategy game fan.

Unity of Command is a turn-based operational level WW2 game, depicting some of the conflict between the Axis and Soviet forces. The first battle in the campaign takes place near Kharkov.

Getting Started
Unity of Command (UoC) is touted as a game which has easy to learn mechanics, but provides depth and challenge. From my experience so far I have to agree. Since I was pretty excited to get started I fired up the tutorial before reading the manual. The tutorial was a combination of static text boxes with the ability for the player to execute the instructions. 2x2 Games took the typical tutorial and added some nice features. Each text box allows the player to return to the previous step, along with resetting the current step to its original state. This allows the player to experiment without fear. The tutorial is pretty basic, but covers enough to get the player started. An introductory scenario is also provided to apply what you learned before tackling anything too difficult. Tool tips are available to explain the unit attributes and UI elements.

The manual is also well done. The information is concise, providing screen shots for illustration, and covers all the of mechanics. All combat factors are explained, along with a step by step example with how combat is resolved. Other companies should contact 2x2 for lessons on manual writing. Many other games cover the obvious without digging into the mechanics.

Game play
Since this is an operational level game, there isn't any economy, production, or research to manage. This is about using the available assets to meet the specified objectives. The scenarios start with all units already in their initial position. There are no deployment options here. Each side completes moving their units, attacking, and using special theater assets (such as air strikes) before the enemy issues any orders. Only one unit is allowed per hex, but they can move through friendly units so they don't get bottled up.

Each unit is rated for attack, defense, movement speed & type, armor value, and experience. Initially each unit may or may not be at full strength, and its attack and defense values for the unit are adjusted accordingly. I like the fact that attack and defense are separate values because it makes units more suitable for different roles. Tanks have a stronger attack than defense, which just feels right and makes them more fearful when on the prowl. Are there enough details in the system to satisfy the warmonger in you, or too many to make you want to run back to solitaire? Well, I'll fill you in on the main factors and let you decide.

terrain and weather: Affects unit & supply movement, and defensive bonuses. Rivers crossings slow movement unless a bridge is used. At least in some scenarios, bridges can be created, destroyed and repaired in predetermined locations.
experience: An advantage in experience gives attack and defensive bonuses, and can reduce losses.
zone of control: Each unit that isn't too weak exerts a zone of control to prevent enemy units from moving right past it.
suppression: Some of the unit steps (a portion of its manpower) are unavailable for combat due to casualties or lack of supply.
entrenchment: Units can dig in to get a defensive bonus until they either attack, move, or have their entrenchment broken by an enemy attack.
shock value of armor: The attacker gets a combat bonus if the attacker has an armor advantage over the defender, but only if combat conditions are right. Armor does not get any advantages when attacking across a river, or into cities, mountains, forests, or swamps. Green units suffer even more loses from armor do to their inexperience confronting these beasts.
supplies: Supplies are dispersed from supply sources and have a range. Movement is free over railroads, but terrain effects how far from the rail they can be dispersed. Units out of supply suffer penalties of increasing severity, eventually losing their ability to attack and to move to full capacity.
theater assets: Scenarios give each side a set of assets that can be used a certain number of times per turn. Use air strikes to soften up units before trying to break through the line or route an entrenched unit. Air strikes can turn a city to ruins, which provides a bigger defensive bonus to the defending unit. Improve the range of a supply source to support moving the line deeper into enemy territory. Create, repair and destroy bridges. Rally partisans to rise up against the enemy behind the lines to disrupt operations. Drop supplies via an airdrop so your breakthrough doesn't have to slow down. The first scenario only had air strikes and bridging, so at this point I have no experience with the others. Air strikes felt right. Sometimes they had no effect, but usually at least suppressed part of the unit and sometimes killing one of its steps.
dynamic front line: The front line changes with each attack or movement to depict changing conditions. This effects supplies, because supplies can't travel through enemy territory.

This list probably isn't intimidating to someone with war gaming experience, but may be for a player new to the genre. One of the strengths of UoC is its ability to present the information necessary to make decisions without clicking through various windows. A terrain overlay can be displayed via a hot key, holding it longer hides the units from view so you can get a clear look at the terrain. The same is true for the weather. Zones of control can be displayed on the map to make it clear when your units movement will be halted. The path supplies take from their source are made clear via the supply overlay, showing the effects terrain has on their movement. Unit icons show almost all necessary information (manpower and how much of the unit is suppressed, experience, attached specialists, whether the unit is entrenched, has movement points left, and can attack). Combat calculations are handled just as well. The predicted combat results can be viewed in the window before committing to an attack. This displays all of the factors involved, including terrain, experience etc.

A good game can be very hampered by a UI that makes you click through a dozen windows just to find the information you need. Gladly this is not the case here. There were a couple areas I thought could be improved. A selected friendly unit's movement range is displayed on the map, but the same can't be done for an enemy unit. You have the information to figure it out, but the simplicity of having it displayed on the map would be welcome. To view predicted combat results, your unit must be adjacent to the target. On one hand this makes sense because the combat calculations may need to know what hex you are attacking from, but sometimes you may only want to order a unit to move if you know the combat results would be favorable. This would be mitigated if there was an undo move feature, but there isn't.

In the campaign, if you impress high command you can earn prestige. This is based on how quickly you can take your objectives. This prestige can be used to buy reinforcements or attach specialists to units, providing benefits like armor or artillery.

There is multi player support, but I can't comment on this.

AI & Difficulty
This is hard to give a fair assessment at this point since I am only one scenario into the campaign. In my first attempt, I won a victory in my last turn, but it wasn't decisive or brilliant by any means. It probably should have been labeled stumbling or just barely. I knew I made some silly mistakes and could do better. Since the AI doesn't sit and wait for you to attack, there is some variety when replaying a scenario. If you take different actions it will play out differently. Usually I dislike replaying scenarios since you know how it is going to go, but I didn't mind (at least for the first one). When I played again and really thought about a plan to protect my supply and pulled back some of my troops (it was a hard choice to give up some ground) and tried to maximize my tank overruns to get multiple attacks from them I just squeaked out a brilliant victory. If this is the easiest scenario, then winning all nine in the first campaign will be a challenge.

Unfortunately there are no difficulty settings, so you either meet the challenge set by the developers or, well, you don't. This may be mitigated by the fact that there are three level of victory (standard, decisive, and brilliant) based on how quickly your objectives are met. If a player can make it to the final scenario in the campaign achieving nothing but standard victories then this isn't a big limiting factor. For the campaign, at this point I am under the assumption if you didn't achieve decisive and brilliant victories it would really hamper your ability to compete in later scenarios because you wouldn't have prestige to spend. Also, what about a player new to the genre? Are even standard victories achievable without replaying a scenario 50 times for a very green player? A lack of a changeable difficulty level isn't a deal-breaker by any means, but it may limit the number of players who can get the most out of the game. I'm pretty sure the game is moddable, so you could go and edit the scenario, but most users probably don't want to do this.

As far as I know the AI doesn't receive any bonuses and plays by the same rules. Fog of war was not added to the game because the developers didn't find a way to have the AI handle the uncertainty in a way acceptable to them. This is disappointing because I think fog of war would add a lot to the game, but the developers made the right choice and decided a competitive AI is more important. Hopefully they can get the AI to handle fog of war in the future.

This is all I have so far and will provide an update when I get more time with the game. So far I am enjoying it. Many people have asked on various forums how it compares to Panzer Command. While I enjoyed the stock campaign that came with Panzer Command, I have to say my initial impressions are that Unity of Command is better. The UoC system just feels more realistic to me (I have no military experience) and has more factors to consider. Even with the added complexity, UoC isn't significantly harder to learn due to the excellent UI. I feel Panzer Command's challenge came from having to overcome tough defenses placed by the scenario designers, instead of an AI that can adapt to your actions.

See Part II: Unity of Command Review: Part II

Sunday, January 15, 2012

What's next: Unity of Command Review

I just purchased Unity of Command and am pretty excited. Once I get a little deeper into the game I will write my impressions on it. I will probably do this piecemeal, updating my impressions as I go. Since I am not on a timetable, this may be a work in progress for a while. Stay tuned for more.

Review can be found at:!/2012/01/review-unity-of-command_16.html

Friday, January 13, 2012

What makes a good game review?

One of the types of articles I want to try and write is game reviews. I have read a lot of reviews over the years, from my first subscription to Computer Gaming World to the plethora of gaming sites that have popped up over the years. For me, the most common reason for reading reviews was to see if the game you have been anticipating for months (or years) has lived up to the hype. Lately that has changed for me. It is much for exciting to stumble upon a review for a game that I have never heard of, but after reading it I decide it is something I must get. As more and more indie titles pop up, this is becoming more prevalent. It is also fun to root for the small developer to have a blockbuster game because many of us are tired of ‘working for the man’ and would love to create something ourselves that others find enough value in to actually pay for. This can be creating your own game, writing a book, or crafting a block of wood into a piece of art. Anyways, I digress from my original topic. In conversation I tend to bounce a bit from one subject to another and I guess it is the same for me when I write…

What Makes a Good Review?

I needed a way to organize my thoughts about what makes a good game review. I figured if I wrote them in a place where there is a potential reader then I may take it more seriously. Feel free to add your thoughts about what makes a good game review.
What subject matter does it cover?
Sometimes a game can have good mechanics and production values and a player may still not enjoy it because they are not interested in the subject matter. A really good game can overcome that, but not always.
Explain what biases you may have that influence your opinion.
I have a tendency not to enjoy space games. They tend to use terms that don’t make sense to me, like Xenomicrobe production. In an ‘earth-based’ game like Civilization, perhaps this would just be a bonus to agriculture. Hey that means growing stuff!! That is why I am a huge Civilization fan, but didn’t really like Alpha Centauri. Alpha Centauri introduced many quality game play enhancement to the Civ franchise, but I just couldn’t get into it.
What are the main game play elements?
This one is a no-brainer. If the actions you take and the decisions you make do not sound interesting, chances are the game will not be fun.
 Does the UI provide enough information in an accessible manner to allow the player to make decisions?
A game may be based on quality mechanics, but if you have to click 5 times to drill down for necessary information the game becomes too much work. Paradox’s Victoria had this problem for me. I found I was having to dig into multiple places to figure out my next move that it just wasn’t worth it anymore.
 Does the AI provide an adequate challenge for different skill levels?
 I think most people are looking for a challenge when they play a game. There is a sense of satisfaction for solving a problem in a game and sticking it to the AI. What may be a challenge for me may be a cakewalk for another player.  A game has a much wider potential audience if it can challenge a range of skill levels.
How does the AI adapt to provide an increased challenge?
There are many ways a game can provide a challenge to different players:
-          Receives bonuses to attack, production, etc.
-          Sees beyond the fog of war.
-          Comes at the player with overwhelming numbers.
-          Uses more sophisticated algorithms to determine its actions.
It is hard to provide a challenging AI that doesn’t ‘cheat’ and some players get upset when the AI doesn’t play by the same rules as the player. If it is known to the reviews I think it is something worth mentioning.
Are the graphics and sound pleasing?
This is more important in some genres then others, but the game’s art can enhance the game experience.  It goes without saying that any game-related graphics should be clear and identifiable. Does the art direction draw you into the experience?
How is the technical performance?
High-quality graphics don’t mean a thing if a FPS plays like a slide show. Also, an epic strategy game can become an epic chore if you have to save every two minutes because of game crashes. It is also helpful for the review to include some basic specs of their hardware so others can understand the basis for the review’s comments on performance.
Was the review entertaining to read?
I list this last not because it isn’t important, but it is going to be a big weakness for me until I get more writing under my belt. There are many ways to entertain; humor (Out of Eight), offering insights into games beyond a mere review (Flash of Steel), etc. I hope to someday acquire these skills. Until then I hope there is somebody out there who will find something worth reading at One Guy, Too Many Games. It will be sad if I have to have my wife visit the blog just to see the page views increase because I am not tracking my own visits J.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Dysfunctional Gamer

Disclaimer: I am not a professional writer as soon will be evident.

My name is Rob C and I am a gameaholic. Well, it probably isn't that bad (is this denial?), but I definitely have some gaming issues. It is a two part problem. Steam and other online distributor holiday sales do crazy things to me -- Railworks Train Simulator on sale for $3, sign me up! I have never really expressed interest in trains; never had a train set, and never wanted to drive a train. Why did I just buy that? I have a fear that I may let a potentially good game slide buy that is a really good deal. I bought 15 games from Steam alone since Black Friday, not including any DLC. Never mind that if I didn't buy so many deals I may have the money to buy a game I really want, like Unity of Command.

The second part of the problem is that I feel I need to rush through these games to get to the next one. This is counter to my compulsion that I need to finish a game that I start. In the past it was very rare that I stopped playing a game before I finish its campaign. Now my problem is that I start too many games at once, and then lose my bearings by the time I go back to the game. If I thought it was a pretty good game, then I feel inclined to start over. This really hurts my quota for completing games. If it was so-so, it gets added to my 'May Play Again' category (I actually have a spreadsheet!). Bad games get dumped.

I think these problems are actually creating a third problem. I am having trouble finding a game I really enjoy. This just fuels the fire for trying more games and feeling more rushed. I am finding more and more games just bore me. I used to love the Heroes of Might and Magic series of games -- and got really excited when Heroes VI went on sale on Steam! I played through the tutorial campaign and the first mission of a 'real' campaign. I think I have had enough. It doesn't seem like a bad game. Why doesn't it scratch that itch like it did in the past?

Do you have any of these issues?