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Posted on Jun 21, 2006 in Electronic Games, Front Page Features

Airborne Assault: Conquest of the Aegean – Game Review (PC)

By Robert Mackey

I’ve always found the operations of in the Mediterranean in 1940 to be fascinating. The Western Desert Force driving the Italians out of Cyrenacia, their halting by Churchill to send troops to Greece, the subsequent debacle, and the ensuing bloody fighting in Crete. Consequently, I jumped at the chance to try my hand at re-fighting the battles of 1940-41, and was not disappointed in the results. Well, maybe I was disappointed in my mediocre generalship, but not in the outstanding Conquest of the Aegean (COTA) by Matrix and Panther Games. Matrix has continued their tradition of releasing well-researched, playable, and challenging wargames, and Panther has produced a winning follow-up to their Airborne Assault: Highway to the Reich.

Gameplay

For those unfamiliar with the series, COTA is a ‘real-time’ operational-level simulation, where commanders control section/platoon, company, battalion, regimental, and divisional size units. The game closely resembles the types of simulations used by professional militaries worldwide—where units are constantly moving, have delays in responding to orders, and where the basics of warfighting (logistics, morale, experience, and equipment) play a huge role in determining success.

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My initial defense of Maleme Airfield, at the highest zoom-in level. In this case, my New Zealanders (in green) are supported by two ‘garrison’ British AA sections, and a handful of Matilda tanks of the 7th Division. The interface makes it easy to call up basic information; the listing on the left is of the current status of objective locations and victory points for each. The overall view of the Maleme defense scenario, at maximum zoom out. The large number of units can be deceptive, as the Germans will hit at several locations to seize objectives, cutting off the Allied forces from their supply and command. Note the wide variety of units, from Greek infantry battalions to British artillery batteries, to New Zealand infantry platoons.

I found the game to be easy to pick up. A tutorial is located on the disk, with a walkthrough of the basic mechanics of the game. This greatly assisted in getting into things quickly, and the controls soon became intuitive. Units are moved simply by clicking on them, then selecting the ‘Move’ command (marked by a simple up arrow in the sidebar), and then clicking on the location desired. Players can further designate whether the unit should move as fast as possible, ignoring enemy units or hostile fire, or whether they should move carefully, using available cover and concealment to stay hidden from enemy view. This gives a distinct tactical feel into what would normally be an operational-level, divisional commander view, and I found it refreshing that a designer would include such detail into movement.

Supply plays a huge role, as do supply units (headquarters, etc.). Without supply, units soon run out of ammunition, begin to tire, and will eventually collapse. A delightful (well, not for me) discovery was the ability of enemy units with ranged weapons to suppress or prevent re-supply. I found that the AI would place long-range units (such as the German’s famous dual-purpose 88mm anti-aircraft gun) in positions where they could interdict supply—the reports of my supply trucks being shot up were most unpleasant.

Units are highly detailed, but the interface does a fine job of reducing the information to an acceptable level. Tabs allow the player to quickly click between unit details and other information. Unit ammunition or numbers (i.e., 3300 .303 round available in a Machine Gun Company, or 3 Matilda tanks) in the Tabs allow a player to keep track of supply, while another Tab gives an overall view of the unit’s morale, suppression, cohesion, and other factors determining its fighting ability. This attention to historical detail gives the game a distinct depth and flavor which immerses a player in the battles.

A close in zoom of one British unit. In this picture, a platoon of Detachment B, 7th Squadron, Royal Tank Regiment is taking part in the defense of Maleme Airfield. The unit detail is impressive-the 3 Matilda II’s are tracked by ammunition amounts (both in 2 pdr AP and .303 machine gun), current fuel level and general supply. This level of detail to basic combat necessities gives CoA a depth of realism lacking from many games. The Kiwis Strike! Three companies of New Zealand infantry attempt to attack a German parachute company. The NZ artillery fired automatically in support, with a small ‘telephone’ symbol representing the ‘on-call’ fire support. The AI in CoA is a great assistant to play, taking actions that are logical and sound, allowing the player to focus on general objectives.

I was initially leery of a ‘real-time’ operational wargame. For me, real-time is fine for Blitzkrieg or other games of that ilk—fast, fun, but not too serious. Operational games, in contrast, should reward thinking over ‘twitching,’ something I firmly believed should come from turn-based hex-filled games. COTA did much to change my mind. I watched as my units found the best route to travel to the battle, automatically called for supporting artillery fire, or refused to listen to my enlightened generalship when they moved to better defensive positions or fell back to avoid destruction. The AI in COTA is both an opponent (when playing against the computer) and your divisional staff—it ensures that the commander’s general guidance is obeyed, but allows for the tactical commander to use his best judgment for his unit’s success.

The 31 scenarios were fun and exciting. The ones involving delaying the German offensive in Greece were, quite simply, a blast to play. Constantly delaying the enemy while trying to keep your units alive, causing casualties when you can, blowing bridges, ambushing supply columns or catching their tanks with enfilade anti-tank fire was definitely a challenge to play and highly addictive. The pausable real-time mechanics added to the addictive qualities of the game—I found it nearly impossible to stop in the middle of a scenario. The scenarios themselves varied from small tactical fights with a handful of units, to massive, multiple division operations, such as the defense of Malame Airfield and the final stand of the Commonwealth forces on Crete. The fictional (but planned) assault on Malta is included in the package too, allowing for a player to see if the German airborne could have pulled off one last, great strategic success.

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