Theatre of War 2: Kursk 1943 – PC Game Preview
Preview of Theatre of War 2: Kursk 1943. PC Game. Publisher: Battlefront. Developer: 1C Company. $55.00. $45.00 preorder.
The first WWII sim I’ve played in a long time that is truly groundbreaking, exciting, challenging and intellectually stimulating.
Perhaps it is just me, but at times it seems that all PC strategy games focus on one conflict of human history—World War II—to the exclusion of all others. Usually this means that one game soon looks like another. First-person shooters attempt to recreate Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan; flying simulators put you once again over London in the fall of 1940; real-time “strategy” games result in the infamous "tank rush" that began with Age of Empires and others of that ilk, just placed in a Second World War environment. And anything with a tank in it means the vast expanses of the Eastern Front.
So it is rare when I can play a game and feel that the experience 1) replicates the problems of commanding troops on a chaotic battlefield, and 2) is different enough to truly stand out from the pack. Battlefront’s Theatre of War 2: Kursk 1943 (ToW2-K), is the first WWII sim I’ve played in a long time that is truly groundbreaking, exciting, challenging and intellectually stimulating.
For those of you familiar with the earlier Theatre of War (ToW1), the basics of the game are the same, with some substantial differences in overall play and subject matter. Instead of trying to cover all of WWII with a handful of scenarios, Battlefront has opted to cover in detail one major campaign with only two major combatants as choices—Germany or the USSR. In my opinion, this is a substantial improvement over ToW1—the ToW2-K scenarios are more detailed, challenging and historically focused than the relatively few campaign scenarios with ToW1. The result is a deeper game experience and sufficient scenarios to satisfy most players.
For the wargamers who have not played ToW1, the game play is what I like to call “real time-ish.” Players begin by selecting their side, then go directly to an Order of Battle screen that allows for customization of the player’s forces. This is one of the more enjoyable parts of ToW2-K; you can shape your task force based on your style of play. Often you will find that what you thought was the perfect battlegroup is short of artillery, infantry or armor for the mission and will result in a restart of the scenario. Gameplay itself is simple. The player selects the unit, then orders movement, assault and other options for play. I prefer pausing the game while plotting movement or supporting fire, then letting the game run; others might prefer the fast-paced fun of giving real-time orders. Unlike ToW1, ToW2-K allows you to speed up or slow down the clock, jumping you into battle faster or giving you time to react to changes without pausing the game.
The graphics in ToW2-K are a substantial improvement over the earlier version. Smoke, blast and other effects have been greatly improved. Infantry and mortars, for example, can lay smoke screens to great effect, giving a new layer of tactical complexity to the game, and soldiers will move and load guns as they fight. Sound effects are terrific, from distant rifle fire to voice commands from your troops. Having tested the game on Vista, I can honestly say it is one of the most stable ones I’ve played in a while and runs quite well.
The game AI, for both player and computer sides, is very well done. In fact, it is probably the game’s strongest feature. Player troops will use cover and concealment whenever possible. Unlike ToW1, the player can now enter buildings and use them as strongpoints. Battlefront has kept the ability of the player to capture and use enemy guns and tanks, with a new twist—now you can set your troops to automatically grab and use the best weapon available. In my testing, I noted how my Soviet riflemen would pick up an MG42 or MP40 from German bodies, and would pick up better Soviet weapons from their downed countrymen, all without me giving direct commands to them to do so. While I did not test the game’s multiplayer features, I am sure that playing against another human player, and taking his best weapons away from his troops, would be a blast.
These are just a few of the new features, graphics and gameplay added to the Theatre of War franchise with this newest edition. Hopefully, Battlefront will add new countries, vehicles and equipment that will expand this excellent new game. Luckily, ToW2K comes with a mission generator, allowing a player to set up any Eastern Front battle from 1943 to 1945, and gives some additional gameplay outside of the campaigns. Overall, I am looking forward to many hours of trying to beat the outstanding AI. Now, if I can just find those hidden anti-tank guns …
Dr. Robert Mackey, LTC, USA(Ret) is a member of the adjunct faculty of the United States Marine Corps Command and Staff College and a former assistant professor of history at the United States Military Academy. He is the author of The UnCivil War: Irregular Warfare in the Upper South, 1861-1865, is a regular contributor to Military History and World War II magazines and blogs on the Huffington Post.