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Posted on Sep 8, 2008 in Electronic Games, Front Page Features

Kharkov: Disaster on the Donets – PC Game Review

By Larry Levandowski

Gameplay moves quickly after the player becomes comfortable with the interface. The user interface is based on previous Decisive Battles games, but SSG has their own conventions. Players trying to grunt it out without playing the tutorials or reading the manual will be frustrated. Even veterans of SSG’s DB series will want to review the new features before trying to play the game.

After learning the interface, however, players will sense that the game has been built by a crew who really know what they are doing. The game sports some very powerful tools that allow players to concentrate on tactics and strategy rather than finding and moving pieces.

The most powerful interface tool is the combat advisor. A click of a button, and the player is shown what his maximum odds would be against any enemy position. If he clicks on one of those enemy units, the recommended attackers, and movement paths to achieve the odds are highlighted. For a player in a real hurry, the computer will even move all of his units into battle position with a quick press of a button.

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Likewise, with just a few button clicks an artillery advisor helps the player select attacking artillery units and their targets. A unit type locator allows players to quickly find specialist units. Need a sapper unit to break an enemy strong point? A few button clicks and the pick-and-shovel boys are on the move.

In Kharkov, gameplay is king and the AI is brutal. Even at lower difficulty levels, the German AI is very adept at making the Soviet human quickly go from the elation of breakthrough to utter dejection as the German counteroffensive rolls up the Soviet southern flank. Switching sides is no help. The AI Soviet player moves quickly and coldly takes out key German defensive positions with massive artillery and tank attacks. It will take many games before the player learns to stop the AI.

Overall, the game has some minor niggles, but only one is worth mentioning: in Kharkov, there is only one, 16-turn scenario. It may be that computer wargamers are just spoiled, but even previous releases in the DB series have contained up to four scenarios. Cost-conscious gamers may have issue with getting just one game. But for this reviewer, the issue is not value-for-money but quality vs. quantity. Kharkov is like fillet mignon—you pay more for less, but what a great steak!

Compared to other games in the DB series, Kharkov: Disaster on the Donets is a gigantic game. The battle is fluid, with the Soviets racing to win early, before the huge German counter-attack starts. Most players will find that 16 turns is really enough to keep them busy. It will easily take several evening sessions for most players to get through the game. Then they will want to play it again and again. Still, at some point, even grognards will be looking for something new. Since the game supports PBEM, many of these players will quickly gravitate to human-on-human play.

In theory, replay value is extended by the full set of editing tools that are available directly from the main menu. But if SSG’s previous game Battlefront is an example, the steep learning curve and no AI documentation will mean that in a year or so there will only be a handful of community-built scenarios.

In summary, just when grognards were starting to complain about the dumbing-down of the computer wargame, SSG has given them a beacon of hope. Kharkov: Disaster on the Donets is highly recommended grognard fare. Veteran boardgamers looking to cross over to computer wargames can’t go wrong with it either. The game is somewhat accessible for newer players but is best enjoyed by wallowing in its detail and depth. Kharkov is wargamers’ heaven. SSG has proven that experience counts when it comes to building a great game.

Armchair General Score: 88%

Larry Levandowski has been a wargamer for more than 30 years, and started computer gaming back in the days of the C-64. Until he recently discovered the virtues of DOS box, much of his computer game collection was unplayable. A former US Army officer, Larry has done his share of sitting in foxholes. Since leaving the Army, he has worked in the Information Technology field, as a programmer, project manager and lead bottle washer. He now spends his spare time playing boardgames, Napoleonic and WWII miniatures, as well as any PC game he can get his hands on.

2 Comments

  1. just a quick note; SSG have recently released AI editor documentation on their website, and the first user scenario for the Kharkov engine (including AI) has been posted on the Run5 Community forum.

  2. I’ve been a paper gamer for decades, and my few experiences with computer games have not been good. However, this review actually has me excited about trying this game.

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