Heroes of Stalingrad – PC Game Review
Passed Inspection: Quick, yet challenging play, good graphics, and high re-play value
Failed Basic: Steep learning curve, sometimes clunky interface.
Mark H. Walker’s Lock N’ Load: Heroes of Stalingrad (henceforth Heroes) is a fun, quick-playing, yet challenging tactical level wargame. Also, Heroes is the best kind of throwback: a good, old-fashioned, beer and pretzels boardgame brought to “life” for the Personal Computer generation. The game is based on the Lock N’ Load boardgame system and features the same innovative rules set, which greatly enhances play, provides great replay value and requires smart tactical decision-making.
The Battle of Stalingrad, fought from August 23, 1942, to February 2, 1943, was one of the turning-point battles on the Eastern Front in World War Two. Nazi Germany and its allies fought the Soviet Union for control of the city Stalingrad for over five months, in a battle marked by bloody, close-quarters fighting in a ravaged urban landscape. Germans and Russians fought major battles for single buildings, and victory could mean gaining just a few square meters of ground. For example, a single apartment building that became known as “Pavlov’s House” was defended for nearly a month by a 25-man Soviet rifle platoon led by Junior Sgt. Yakov Pavlov against daily German combined arms assaults.
The Battle of Stalingrad was the bloodiest and most costly of the war for both sides. Germany and its allies suffered no less than 500,000 dead, wounded and captured (some estimates have that number at some 850,000 casualties). The Soviet Union lost about 750,000 men, but ultimately won the battle.
The maps are great looking and are utterly engaging. It looks like you and your opponent have laid it out on your dining room table ready to play the afternoon away. All the map features are nice and clear. There is no confusion when determining if your men are in a stone building, a wooden building or a pile of rubble. Smoke obscures things and hexes burn if the proper ordnance hits them. The hex numbers could stand to be a bit clearer, but that is a minor complaint. The unit counters are big and colorful; also, the numbers for firepower, weapons’ range, movement and morale are clearly readable.
Another engaging feature is the graphic novel–like cut scenes in which the game characters muse about seeing their families again, complain about always getting the dirty jobs, or let go with some dark humor. In one scene, a German tank commander declares he there to show “the Russians the error of their communistic ways,” presumably with his 75mm Kampfwagenkanon!
The sound design is equal to the graphic design. Leaders and heroes urge their units forward, shaken units refuse to go on (sometime telling officers to “Go fight them yourself!”). Weapon sounds are different and distinct, so the player can tell if his unit has been hit by a satchel charge or a Molotov cocktail.
The scale of the game is up-close and personal. Each hex represents a few square meters of terrain. Units are squads, half squads, single vehicles or individual weapons or single people (I don’t say men, because some of the Soviet units are women). In the larger scenarios the player will have a dozen or so units to worry about; in smaller ones the player will have about half that number. This is all to the good, since it allows most games to be played in 30 minutes to an hour. Also given the nature of the Battle of Stalingrad, this intimacy and immediacy gives the player some of the “look and feel” of the actual fighting.
The game interface is sometimes a bit on the clumsy side. For example, the player must select his unit or stack of units, then select the action to be performed from the action menu on the bottom of the screen. A right-click activation menu would have been much smoother. Also the three viewing levels of the map are not set properly. The tightest view is too close; requiring a lot of map scrolling to just move your pieces and fire at the enemy, yet the medium level is too far away. Allowing at least one more level of “zoom” between the closest view and the medium view would be very helpful.
Heroes comes with 15 stand-alone scenarios, 8 of which are solo play and 7 are designed for multi-player. It also has two campaigns: one with 18 battles played from the German point of view and another with 15 battles played from the Soviet point of view. The campaigns are story-driven and players will find themselves not just fighting to win the single battle but also trying to conserve their “core” forces for the next go-round.
Heroes does not have a simple I GO then YOU GO (IGOUGO) turn system, in which one player conducts all his actions, and then the other player conducts his. Instead, the system starts each turn with an initiative roll to determine which player goes first that turn. Then the turn is broken into impulses in which the players alternate actions, such as having one unit or stack of units move, spot, fire, and so on. The leader units are very important, since leaders may activate not only units they are stacked with but also units in the surrounding hexes. This means that, depending on location, a leader might manage to get a large number of units activated, versus just a few. All of these elements, including the dice rolls, have been translated from the boardgame system to the PC game (except the rolling dice don’t knock the game counters off the map).
I must admit I plunged right into playing a solo scenario, or rather I should say I TRIED to play a scenario. The whole turn/impulse/activation game-play had me more than a little confused, so after I bugged out and “embraced cowardice,” I read the game manual and played all 11 of the tutorial scenarios. Then, properly trained-up on how to play the game, I reengaged.
The “phased” approach to the game play drives the tactical decision-making that is the heart of the game play and requires a set of well-thought-out actions to win. The game mechanics provide for infinite replay value. I played the same scenario a dozen times and not once did it play-out even close to the same. The initiative rolls at the start of each turn and the randomness of dice-role results affect all actions in the game; even something a simple as laying smoke is subject to a die roll. All of this prevents any battle from playing out the same as any other battle.
Mark H. Walker’s Lock N’ Load: Heroes of Stalingrad is an involving, tactical-level wargame that is just plain good fun to play. It has high (nearly infinite) re-playability, is nice to look at and—once the player learns the rules—is a real challenge. By no means is the game perfect. The designers’ near-obsession with replicating the boardgame got a little out of hand (do we really need the dice rolls being shown with every action?), but for fans of the boardgame system that might not be a drawback. Also the $39.99 cost might seem a bit high, but the game provides for hours and hours of war-fighting good times.
Armchair General Score: 91%
About the Author
Patrick Baker is a former US Army Field Artillery officer, currently a Department of Defense employee. He has degrees in Education, History and Political Science. He cut his wargaming teeth on Squad Leader and Victory Games’ Fleet Series. He bought his first PC in 1990, a Wang PC-240, specifically to play SSI’s The Battles of Napoleon (much to the annoyance of his wife). He continues to use all his education to play more games and annoy his family.