Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 – PC Game Review
Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943. RTS PC Game. Developed by Graviteam, Published by Paradox Interactive. $19.95
Passed Inspection: Excellent combat engine, graphics, sound, and 3D military encyclopedia
Failed Basic: Only 6 scenarios standard; game manual hard to read; very weak tutorial
Once a player has finished deploying his forces across the battle grid, the game turns into real-time mode
Kharkov has been the subject of more than a few computer war games. This time, however, Ukrainian-based game developer Graviteam has partnered with Paradox Interactive to make the most historically accurate and detailed war game based on the Kharkov region to date.
Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 only covers a short section of the entire Third Battle of Kharkov, March 2-8, 1943. The game has but six scenarios, a small number when compared to most other war games. Thankfully the game also ships with an editor for those do-it-yourself grognards. Just about everything else a wargamer may look for in a game is here, though, from very nicely done graphics to finely crafted ballistics and plenty of command-and-control options. The 3D encyclopedia is an extra-special addition and is a great help in understanding the capabilities of Soviet and German World War Two equipment.
AP:K plays much like the Total War series, in that it has both operational and tactical components, with the common deployment mode sandwiched in between. From the main selection screen, play starts when a player selects a scenario, launching the Operation Phase. This is where players see the entire region of game play and all the forces involved and begin to create a grand strategy for winning the fight. Not much time is spent in the Operation Phase, just long enough to bring opposing forces together for combat, which triggers the Deployment Phase.
The Deployment Phase displays the 3D battlefield with a grid overlay, color-coded to help players know where the best places are to set their troops and vehicles. Camera control is also a factor here, and the AP:K camera is well suited for giving players the best view of wherever they want to look. A directly overhead top-down view wasn’t this reviewer’s favorite. An isometric view, which is normal fare for other RTS games, worked much better.
Another handy item is being able to set different screen resolutions for the game Phases. Resolution 1280×1024 worked well for the Operation Phase, but I found the sub-standard graphics card I was using was much too sluggish during the Tactical Phase. Switching to 1024×768 in the Tactical Phase did the trick, and didn’t seem to hamper the game’s detail any. Gamers with older machines should take note.
Tactical Phase is where the majority of the wargaming takes place. Once a player has finished deploying his forces across the battle grid, the game turns into real-time mode. It’s then a matter of properly moving companies and platoons to capture enemy key points, and dealing with enemy contact along the way.
AP:K has a wide range of orders available, as expected in any company-level tactical simulation, and all may be quickly issued by clicking on interface buttons or via hotkeys. Attack, defense, and movement modes, assigning fire arcs and priority targets, ascertaining lines of sight and fire, and moving units quickly along roads or stealthily off-road are just a few of the orders available.
All important unit formations are also made ready through buttons and hotkeys. Everything from normal, column, echelon, and dispersed formations may be triggered on the fly. Players may even set the number of lines per formation-either one, two, or three, depending on the mission.
On-screen colors and shapes do a very good job at providing a wealth of information to the player. Combined with the standard NATO unit symbols, it was a bit like being back in an old line unit and drawing out the known battlefield on map overlays with dry erase markers. Circles surrounding a selected unit show spotting ranges, firing ranges, or a commander’s range of command. Using stop-light colors, the onscreen information panel lets players know a commander’s proficiency level and the status of a unit’s technical data, morale, experience, and physical condition.
AP:K also makes convenient use of diagrams, perhaps the most frequently used being the Armor Penetration Diagram, which helps a player to know what munitions are most effective against various armor thicknesses at a variety of ranges. Not only that, the diagram here also lets the player build the diagram for a specific part of a vehicle, like the turret or upper or lower hull. Even though the values given are only approximates, it still makes for a great reference to key in on when faced with an opposing armor unit.
Now for the things that didn’t operate so well.
First, AP:K really has no tutorial. What it calls a tutorial is just a series of slow-loading large tool tips, textually explaining what an interface button or symbol is. BORING. It takes a very long time for it to cycle through the whole process, if a player is able to stay awake for it. Three manuals come in .pdf form with the downloaded GamersGate version, yet they don’t do much better in explaining the game. The primary game manual was not translated to English well and is a pain to read at times. Beginner war gamers may not want to start their gaming efforts with AP:K, since these factors make for a rather bumpy learning curve.
Path-finding was also a pain at times, as units just didn’t seem to want to go exactly where they were instructed to go. Making use of the movement orders buttons is imperative, and worked much better than the easier method of clicking on the desired destination. It also seemed units didn’t automatically run for cover when taking fire; the player has to click on the "go on defensive" button. Taken together, these factors make for a much greater degree of micromanaging, not always a good thing-especially in an RTS game.
The official website touts the AI as "analyses tactical movements of player and chooses the best strategy based on opponents’ behaviour rather than follows scripts." However, there were a couple of combat actions where this reviewer would have to call that statement suspect. On one occasion, the enemy didn’t even attempt to flank approaching forces they could clearly see coming. Another time, the enemy was under heavy fire yet remained plain sight on an open field instead of retreating back a few meters into the woodline.
Yet, despite these nuisances, Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 is still a pleasing war game, especially for the $20 price tag. The attention to detail that went into the units and maps alone make it worthy, and the added combat ballistics and 3D action help push it up a few more notches. Wargamers desiring a fresh look into the Battle of Kharkov would do well to buy Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943.
Watch for an Armchair General interview with Graviteam about Operation Star, the next game in this series, coming later this week.
Armchair General Rating: 79%