Advanced Tactics Gold – PC Game Review
Advanced Tactics Gold. PC Game Review. Publisher: Slitherine/Matrix Games. Designer: VR Designs. $39.99 Digital Download $49.99 Boxed Copy.
Passed Inspection: Flexible gaming system with an extreme amount of longevity. Excellent random maps provide endless gameplay. Huge amount of units and possible strategies for victory.
Failed Basic: Lackluster AI that is incapable of using some unit types and strategies. High level of flexibility means a slightly higher learning curve that is hidden under a very beer-and-pretzels feel.
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Advanced Tactics Gold is an oddity. The second iteration of Matrix Games’ Advanced Tactics game, Advanced Tactics Gold (hereafter ATG) lies in a limbo zone between expansion and sequel. Released under the guise of a full-featured, and full-priced, sequel, the immediate question on the lips of most fans was "are the additions worth buying again?" The answer to that question is a "Yes," however a highly qualified one. For the most part, the additions included in ATG make it almost feel like a completely new, and better, game than its predecessor. Unfortunately, the parts ATG keeps the same as AT will likely be the parts that most fans feel are the weakest aspects of both games.
What makes ATG compelling is that you actually get almost the equivalent of four games and an extensive wargame construction kit in one purchase. I say four games because the game has pre-made scenarios (most of which are AI-ready), a robust random map generator which can be played against multiple AI players, both pre-made and random scenarios for multiplay against human opponents (including a PBEM option), and an included copy of Advanced Tactics "classic" for players who want to play the original. This is an extremely good value for the money, and for those that were interested in Advanced Tactics but managed to miss it, a purchase of ATG is almost a no-brainer. As mentioned above, ATG is almost more of a construction set, and it comes with scenario builder that is relatively easy to use, particularly for seasoned veterans of modding and map-creation. The extreme flexibility of ATG means that creating new OOBs or even completely new units and rulesets is more simple than in competing products and there is already a large list of fan-made scenarios that include everything from more WWII battles and WWI grand strategy campaigns to fights between orcs and elves and even a defense of England against H.G. Wells-style Martians. This sort of flexibility is a huge strength for ATG and promises an almost limitless number of playable scenarios that rivals The Operational Art of War III in scope.
The gameplay of ATG is in turns classically familiar in addition to being somewhat innovative. ATG borrows heavily from the old Empire style games of early PC wargaming and is reminiscent of such classics as Command HQ. Players are tasked with creating units from cities, which must split their production between research points, supplies for troops, or building new armies. Cities, like Empire, are the focal point of most of the action, and conquering them will be the crux of any battle (enemy cities also provide the victory points needed to win). While this may seem old hat to many, the innovative aspect of ATG, and where it diverges from Empire’s formula, is that units can be mixes of armor, air, artillery, infantry, etc. Rather than create static single "units," cities produce numbers of soldiers or vehicles – for example Berlin might create 44 riflemen and 2 light tanks – and then send them via a transport network to subordinate HQs across the map. In fact, the HQ and command aspect of ATG is one place where the game really stands out, as the player must designate and staff main HQ units to provide leadership to subordinate HQs, which are in charge of distinct divisions on the front. Creating a custom OOB is a real treat, particularly in a game so focused on a grand-strategy style of empire building. Doing so almost makes each battle feel like a construction set as well, with empty fronts becoming populated by player-created units that report to staffed HQs, all under a main HQ based in a population center.
Like AT, ATG has a wide variety of unit types and style, all of which can be upgraded or modified via a research tree. A player can focus purely on one type of unit, but to be truly successful combined arms (particularly the use of armor and artillery or air) will be necessary. Like the scenario creation utility, this makes the game extremely flexible. If one falls behind an opponent in the production of sea units, for example, then there are multiple ways to find a counter, such as paratroopers and transport planes, submarines, or tactical bombers. Pre-made scenarios will often present players with a pre-built force, but the random maps (which are a favorite of mine) mostly drop players in cold and allow them to pursue whatever strategy they choose. Of course, one of the prices of such a flexible system is a somewhat large learning curve – be prepared to start over several times before finding a balance of arms that perfectly complements a strategic goal.
Unfortunately, another price for ATG’s flexibility is a somewhat lackluster AI. While extremely aggressive and mostly competent on land, the AI is less competent in the sea and air and does not particularly use combined arms (the key to success) well. Worse, the AI seems to be less capable, if not completely incapable, of using certain types of units or strategies. For example, the AI rarely uses carrier units (and it is possible that it cannot) and struggles a bit with artillery. That isn’t to say that the AI does not provide a challenge, however, as it excels at quickly producing large numbers of powerful units and swarming up against the player. The best experience against the AI often consists of setting several AIs against a sole human and approaching the game as a "human player against the world"–style battle royale. In many ways then, playing against the AI is much more of a game of resource management than of cunning. This is the reason I actually see games against the AI as a different "game" than a multiplayer match against human players. Human players, in the game’s excellent PBEM system, will prove much more cunning opponents who will use tools of diplomacy to compliment the vast strategic possibilities provided by the large variety of tools of war at their disposal (and humans will doubtlessly use terrain effectively, employ sneaky tactics, and construct roads or fortresses that the AI seems to forego). If playing against a powerful and crafty AI is important, then Vic’s other game Decisive Campaigns: The Blitzkrieg from Warsaw to Paris may be the better choice.
For returning fans reading up to this point, their initial question of "So what did it add?" may seem to be unanswered, as the weakness of the AI, the flexibility of the game system, and the excellence of the random maps are all inherited from AT. ATG does providea rather substantial improvement to the original game in two main places – the graphics of the game and the inclusion of new resources in the form of raw materials and fuel. These may, at first glance, seem to be minor changes, but this would be a misunderstanding. The graphics are now far more palatable, units now reflect several main cultures (particularly Western, Asian, Middle-East, etc.), and the maps look gorgeous for this style of grand hex-based warfare. More importantly, the addition of raw materials and fuel completely revolutionize the game. No longer are players operating from an unlimited supply of production points. The most powerful units, such as armor, air, or ships, require raw materials to produce and fuel to operate. Both raw materials and fuel are in limited supply on the map and although small amounts can be generated by cities, resource production points (a new addition to the map) will become focal points of battles despite providing little in terms of victory points. These resources force players to plan ahead. Sure, a player can produce hundreds of tanks, but without the fuel to move them they will simply be expensive defensive turrets. Cutting off a supply of raw materials cuts off production capabilities for powerful forces. Thankfully, the additions of these two resources makes the largely resourced-based game against the AI much more interesting and provides an additional strategic consideration to offset some of the AI’s weakness. In matches against humans, resource shortage will cause wars, much like actual history.
There are several other minor changes made by ATG that will doubtlessly be appreciated by fans – additional units types, better unit graphics (although some may dislike the cartoony new look), new terrain type and graphics, better UI, an alliance creation dialog – but the major changes are doubtlessly the resources and the graphical overhaul. Strangely, VR Designs decided to make the random map generator less customizable, but this seems to be relatively minor and promotes more usable maps over strange ones that make a satisfying game more difficult.
In short, for major fans of Advanced Tactics, the new version provides more of the same in a better shell and with an additional layer of strategy coming from the new resources. Whether or not this is worth the price of admission is largely up to how much one enjoyed the first game and if one enjoys such a flexible game. For new fans of operational level games, particularly those that remember and love Empire, then Advanced Tactics Gold provides an excellent value and extreme longevity of play. Those expecting a revamped AI from AT will be sorely disappointed. But looking past the AI’s foibles, or focusing on using the PBEM system against crafty human opponents, will provide an excellent wargaming experience that feels both beer-and-pretzels causal and extremely strategic.
Armchair General Rating: 84%
About the Author
Christopher Beck is a PhD candidate in Medieval History, studying Mediterranean seafaring, trade, and civic governance. Beck is a long-time board and video gamer since the days the Atari was new and is an avid fan of role-playing, grand strategy, science fiction and most anything Lovecraft. His boardgame collection now takes up its own room, much to his wife’s chagrin. Favorite boardgame publishers include Fantasy Flight, Flying Frog Productions, and the now long-lost Avalon Hill. His current project is reading the Necronomicon in Latin.