Unity of Command: Black Turn – PC Game Review
Passed Inspection: Excellent interface and brilliant AI. Vast, epic scenarios. Greater variety of units and combatants.
Failed Basic: No defensive scenarios, few Soviet scenarios. Multiplayer scenarios few, but increasing.
The Unity of Command series has set a new high bar in wargaming for accessibility, interface design, artificial intelligence, and, most importantly, fun. 2×2 Games has succeeded at making division-level WWII combat, long the reserve of hefty manuals and dry number crunching, into a series of intuitive, exciting challenges that can be learned in a day and played over a lunch break. (Click here to read Armchair General’s review of Unity of Command.)
The base game, Unity of Command: Stalingrad Campaign covered the fight for Stalingrad and the Caucasus. The first DLC, Red Turn, took us from Kursk and the immediate aftermath of Stalingrad through Germany’s ultimate defeat in Berlin. Now, Black Turn brings us full circle—to the opening of the war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, from Operation Barbarossa up to the gates of Moscow—and the series has lost none of its challenge, fun, or excellent design in that long journey.
What makes the Unity of Command series exciting is its intuitive nature and excellent interface design. The game mechanics incorporate complex topics like supply lines and encirclements, but do so in a way that is transparent and easily grasped by even newcomers to the strategy genre. Supply lines are vividly highlighted by just holding down the ‘s’ key. The effects of being out of supply are dramatic and easily explained. Instead of NATO counters covered in obscure numbers, units are depicted by recognizable ‘busts’ and have only a handful of stats. Move radiuses and zones of control are defined in bright, clear colors. Yet these simple mechanics, combined with a devilishly good AI, yield an engaging and challenging game.
The AI deserves special mention in any Unity of Command game. As I covered in my interview with the lead AI developer, 2×2 has engineered a remarkably good opponent, capable of conducting vicious, “How did he do that?” counterattacks and constructing solid fallback positions. Their artificial intelligence is limited to defensive scenarios only (for now), but it provides the next best thing to a human opponent I’ve found in any game.
Like Red Turn before it, Black Turn differs most from the original Unity of Command in the size of its scenarios. For example, the three opening scenarios (Army Group North, Center, and South) each cover as much ground as two or three battles from the base game. Though Black Turn has almost no new German units, fans of obscure militaries will be happy to know that more Axis minor nations—including Finland and Slovakia—are now represented. The only new German unit is a new Panzer division to represent less well-equipped units. Though the new division is represented onscreen by a distinctive icon—a stylized Panzer 38(t)—it confusingly doesn’t have a separate designation when highlighted. This is a very minor quibble, but it seems like an odd choice in light of 2×2’s general excellence in interface design.
Some of Black Turn’s scenarios are intimidatingly large. When I loaded up Taifun, the massive battle for Moscow, it was the first time I boggled at a Unity of Command map, paralyzed with uncertainty of where to start or how I was supposed to get from here to there, even with the generous 18-turn scenario length and over 80 divisions at my command. In scenarios like Taifun, Black Turn brings with it a new sort of challenge to veteran Unity of Command players. If Stalingrad Campaign was about learning to protect overextended supply lines from an unprecedentedly vicious AI, and Red Turn was about making do with inferior Soviet units, then Black Turn teaches a very different lesson: the art of risk taking. German units so strongly overmatch the early war Soviets that the player has no difficulty defeating them; instead, the challenge comes in covering the massive maps by the very tight deadlines before them. In order to do this, the commander has to learn to set aside the instinct to completely protect every supply line and take risky lunges to encircle Soviet units and reach objectives, hoping that his spearheads won’t be cut off for too long.
A few minor problems persist from earlier versions of the game. Some scenarios feel a little too dependent on luck; air strikes in particular are flaky and sometimes fail to do any damage. This is a serious problem in scenarios were only a limited number of strikes are allotted for the entire scenario. Some players gripe that the scenarios are too heavily scripted and the game lacks replay value, i.e., once you know how to “solve” a scenario, there’s no need to play it again. I disagree. I think there’s a lot of replay value in retrying scenarios to get the best possible “brilliant” victory, but your mileage may vary. Though the game ships with only a few multiplayer scenarios, 2×2 has fostered a lively community of scenario designers and the game’s editor, included free with the 1.4 patch, is powerful and easy to use. I wish that the editor allowed users to change terrain and unit stats, but I suppose that gives us something to look forward to in the next version.
Black Turn is a solid expansion to one of my favorite wargame series, allowing amateur field marshals to play the entire Eastern Front from start to finish without squinting at obscure stats or thumbing through doorstopper manuals. Unity of Command is ideal for newcomers to the strategy genre, and its superb AI makes it probably the most engaging wargame out there for solo play. Black Turn expands the game to include a new phase of the war and new challenges. I look forward to the 2×2 team building on this trilogy’s solid foundations and bringing it to new theaters.
Armchair General Rating: 90%
(Update: Matt Richardson conducted a followup interview with Tomislav Uzelac of 2×2 games about the future of Unity of Command. Click the link to read it on his Ritalingamer.com website.—Editor)
About the Author
Matt Richardson is a freelance social media consultant and web traffic analyst in Charlotte, North Carolina. He has a degree in History from Davidson College, with a special interest in military history and the Civil War. He has rotted his mind with video games since childhood. You can follow Matt at @MT_Richardson and read his blog at Ritalingamer.com.