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

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