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Posted on Nov 11, 2006 in Electronic Games, Front Page Features

The Operational Art of War III – Game Review (PC)

By Zhiguan Liu

The most agonizing moment as a war gamer is the anticipation for the return of the king of operational war games, known as The Operational Art of War 3 (TOAW3). I wasn’t always a war gamer and not savoring the fun earlier still haunts me. Until now.

A classic war gaming masterpiece conceived by the legendary war game designer Norm Koger, TOAW3 is not only under a new publisher, Matrix Games, but has undergone a total revamp that is long overdue. Would this be a phoenix rising from ashes, or more like a parade of vintage World War II tanks in military re-enactment—all nostalgia but showing signs of senility against its more contemporary counterparts?

TOAW takes you anywhere. Army Group South defends Budapest in 1944… …to Desert Storm 1991.

Documentation

Given the scope of the game, the manual adequately explains many aspects of the gameplay, however in some cases the nuts and bolts are eschewed while others are omitted. For example, the ‘traffic control’ ability is unexplained, although the term is pretty self-explanatory. The ‘planned-combat’ and ’round’ systems are rather unique implementations and the manual leaves gamers clamoring for a more thorough explanation. In general, it is better to learn the game by actually playing.

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Sound

While TOAW3 inherits the soundtrack of its predecessor, Century of Warfare, new scores in the form of techno-like music have been added. While the addition doesn’t bring much high-end production, it does a good job of immersion. From the assaults, aerial and naval bombardments, artillery barrages, to the victory cries of capturing objectives and wails of retreats, anyone would be captivated by the atmosphere.

Here we see the 3D models. The Six Day War.

Graphics

Graphics certainly isn’t the forte of the war gaming genre, but compared to other war games the TOAW series has an edge in the amount of info disseminated at a glance. From the terrain to the military units, to their respectively attack and defense strength and movement points, it doesn’t take much to have a bird-eye’s view of a situation. Despite its rather dated graphics, there’s a certain beauty in its simplicity.

Gameplay

As the name implies, TOAW is a war game simulating the operational aspect of war. It puts the players as commanders in charge of a grand theatre of war, thus leaving the tactical nuts and bolts to virtual frontline commanders who sort out their battles through mathematical abstractions. Military units are represented using NATO military symbols or tin-soldier chess pieces, with size varying from platoons to army groups. Each unit has its own assigned weapon composition that defines its combat magnitude and compatibility. In addition, nuclear and chemical warfare, socio-political events, climates and terrains are also factored in, covering the intricacies of war as much as possible. The size of the default scenarios and the timelines they cover are impressive, from Napoleonic era to hypothetical and historical wars fought at the start of the 21st century.

The three military arms—Army, Navy and Air Force—are represented with varying degrees of success. Land units are the focus of the game, explaining the numerous types: staple frontline units like infantry, armor and artillery; engineer, logistics, recon and other support; even special forces like guerillas and paratroopers make an appearance. Their utilization is essential to securing objectives and along with it, victory.

Air units are also depicted realistically, albeit with great abstraction. Depending on the capabilities of the air units, they are able to perform interdiction, air superiority and combat support. Unfortunately, other than providing naval barrages, naval units seem to be ornamental—and homage to historical accuracy of the Battle-of-Order . Naval conflict is near non-existent, partly due to the limitations of the turn-based system. If the naval system had been better implemented, similar to that of air units, they could have turned out better.

Those that lament the lack of intrinsic factors, such as morale and experience being depicted in war games are in for a treat. The intangible elements—proficiency, readiness, supply and morale—form a great portion of a unit’s military strength. Proficiency represents the training and experience of a unit. Readiness is the wear and tear of equipment and fatigue of the soldier. Supplies represent the stockpiles meant for military usage such as ammo and fuel. And morale, the esprit de corps of the units, is determined by the unit’s proficiency, supply level, and readiness. Fortunately, there are health indicators at the side of unit icons to assist overwhelmed players to identify the average status of their forces.

Fighting in Italy using a user-modified counter graphic (square edges). The entire war in Europe.

Terrain and weather effects are also factored in, both of which could be considered part and parcel of war gaming calculations. Due to the sheer magnitude of the theaters being covered, impressive varieties of terrains are represented within the game. In all, one might well create a world atlas out of TOAW terrain editor, if time and effort permits. Simultaneously, weather and climate are crucial factors to be pondered in a player’s war effort. Not only do they determine the mobility of troops and effectiveness of aircraft, but also effect the waging of chemical and nuclear warfare.

At times players are given theater options to gain perks, sometimes with drawbacks such as victory point loss or reinforcement of enemy units. Otherwise, events can also be triggered by the seizure of objectives, probability, timing, percentage of units lost, or a combination of all these. The effects can be reinforcement, withdrawal, change of supply, or military escalation into nuclear or chemical warfare.

The AI of the programmed opponent, affectionately nicknamed Elmer isn’t a pushover, and many times forced this reviewer to plan my moves with precision in order to win. Mercifully, gamers can select the difficulty with which Elmer can fight. Moreover, players can select a handicap level that gives the human player what could be considered an unfair advantage. However, at times Elmer fumbles in some scenarios, not least due to flawed scripting that plagues other aspects of the gameplay. For example, in the ‘Singapore 42′ scenario a human player playing as Japan can snatch victory within one round by exploiting a design loophole, though an intuitive human player playing as the British could easily thwart the trick. Also, some scenarios are unplayable against Elmer it hasn’t been scripted for them. This leaves Elmer inept and unable to react accordingly.

The powerful scenario editor. Unit detail of an M1A2 tank.

Besides these flaws, the lack of a multiplayer TCP/IP function is a gross omission that may frustrate some players. The rationale that TOAW’s scenarios take hours to finish would be solved by a save option that allows players to save their sessions. As a consolation, gamers can battle on another via ‘Play By E-mail’ or a hot seat option.

Overall, despite its archaic graphics, the real fun is derived from masterminding brilliant military maneuvers to oust the opponent from the throne of victory. While moving military units by itself might not sound like much fun, those with a penchant for strategic planning will be in heaven. Tactical elements are well presented in the game like using infantry units to hold ground, armor to flank, engineers to repair infrastructure and artillery to bombard. TOAW caters to war gaming veterans and greenhorns alike, the latter of whom can tone down the complexity if it becomes too overwhelming. The release of TOAW3 is the return of past glories of war gaming, and shall remain popular and be played for years to come.

Armchair General Rating: 83%

56/60—Gameplay
14/20—Graphics
07/10—Sound
06/10—Documentation and Technical

3 Comments

  1. The AI is “Affectionately nicknamed Elmer”….. Tom Skeritt in Contact?

  2. hang on … there’s no “save” function?

  3. Yeah … TOAW III is primarily designed for ground campaigns. I would say that air force and naval units should be included to the extent how much they impact ground battles when building one’s own scenarios.

    I think the most fun part is its powerful scenario editor. Just about everything from maps to unit formations can be built, plus event editor to simulate special and random conditions. I think properly programming the AI is the toughest part, as trying to recreate a realistic military conflict is pretty complicated to start with.

    This should be a welcome addition to players who are used to traditional hex-grid wargames and would like to have a far more powerful computerized version.

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