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Posted on Jan 29, 2013 in Electronic Games

Unity of Command: Red Turn – PC Game Report

By Matt Richardson

Unity of Command: Red Turn. PC Game. Publisher: Slitherine/Matrix Games. Developer: 2×2 Games. $9.99 download.

Passed Inspection: Intuitive interface. Brilliant AI. Examines neglected portion of World War II. Expanded lineup of PvP scenarios. New units, combatants, and specialist steps. Rule tweaks improve the flow of the game. User-friendly scenario editor.

Failed Basic: No defensive scenarios, few Axis scenarios. Multiplayer scenarios lack undo function. No high resolution or widescreen support.

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Recently I had the pleasure of helping the small team at 2×2 Games beta test their eagerly anticipated Red Turn expansion for Unity of Command. The original Unity of Command is an elegant wargame focused on the 1942-43 Stalingrad/Caucasus campaign and the Soviet counterattack. It was widely praised for its intuitive interface, simple and transparent mechanics, and fiendish AI. The Red Turn DLC builds on this tradition, while greatly expanding the scope of the campaign and the replay value of the game.

Red Turn broadens the focus of the campaign from Army Group South’s battles of ’42/’43 to encompass the whole of the Eastern Front in the last two years of the war, from Kursk to the Brandenburg Gate. The campaign map has more than quadrupled, and there are many scenarios as expansive as the base game’s largest, including several new and well-balanced PvP scenarios. The DLC also includes five new combatants (Finland, Slovakia, Poland (under Soviet control), Bulgaria, and Yugoslav partisans), though most of them only appear in cameos or in the scenario editor—which leaves the door open for modders and future expansions to include more scenarios focused on these nations. The game’s unit selection has nearly doubled, mostly to include Allied units and the Wehrmacht’s late war roster of second-line units (Luftwaffe ground troops, security divisions, Volksgrenadier, etc.), though the Krauts also get fearsome SS Panzer divisions to give them more staying power against the revitalized Soviets. Finally, the DLC gives both sides new specialist steps to attach to their divisions, ranging from steel beasts (the IS-2, the Nashorn) to oddball units like the Hungarian Zrinyi II tank destroyer. These additions are welcome but don’t have a huge impact on gameplay, adding mostly character instead of depth.

Red Turn offers a scenario editor (also included in the 1.04 update of the base game), greatly increasing the game’s replay value. Community members are already hard at work creating overlooked or what-if scenarios. I’ve been tinkering with an Operation Winter Storm scenario and have found the editor to be easy to use and powerful. My only quibble so far is that the editor doesn’t provide a simple way to modify the weather for a scenario. Expect to see a well-stocked library of user-made scenarios and mods over the next few months.

Three things make the Unity of Command series one that demands the attention of wargamers and studios. First, the interface is attractive and uncluttered. Some hardcore grognards will be turned off by the use of soldier icons and deride them as cartoony. Inevitably, the first fan mods for the original game were to replace the “busts” with NATO icons (this has now been supplanted by an official NATO counters mod, available through Unityofcommand.net). Personally, I prefer the personality of 2×2′s artwork and find it easy to distinguish unit types at a glance. The game also makes use of clearly illustrated map overlays to show effects like weather, terrain, and the all-important supply lines. Merely holding down the “S” key shows a colorful, easily understood layout of rail lines, depots, and the range of your supply trucks. For anyone who has ever had to do back-of-the-envelope calculations of movement points to determine if a unit will remain in supply after a move, this system is a revelation.

Second, the AI is stellar. The developers focused on developing a defensive AI, trading off some single-player scenario variety in exchange for a diabolically clever defender. The highest compliment I can pay is that the computer feels like an inventive, meticulous, and savvy human opponent. Many times I’ve launched a bold attack, thinking my supply lines were secure, only to have the AI spot a weakness I overlooked in a different sector, then use a Panzergrenadier to cut off my spearhead. The AI gives the game great replay value—you aren’t allowed to be lazy, even in a scenario you’ve played before, because the computer can pounce on weakness and sabotage your victory. If you ever get tired of playing offense, you can play a human opponent over the Internet or in hotseat mode in a variety of well-balanced PvP scenarios.

Three, the simple rules and clear presentation give the game a low barrier to entry for players not steeped in the rules of the hobby. Rather than simulate every halftrack and tank in a division or bogging the player down in obscure rules, the game’s modeling of supply, weather, and attacks subjects you to the same pressures that constrained the historical commanders. The emphasis on supply lines in particular make blitzkrieg-style maneuver more important than brute force. These concepts are all presented clearly so that they’re fun and easy to grasp.

These three elements of gameplay and presentation combine to create something rare in wargaming – a low barrier of entry, suitable for newcomers to the genre, but backed by a depth that will keep veterans engaged. In some ways it’s more approachable than even the Panzer General / Panzer Corps series—there’s no need to memorize the difference between a PzIIIJ and a Pz38t. The difference between units can be instantly grasped and easily remembered. Unity of Command is a fine game to share with a friend or significant other who is curious about strategy games but scared off by NATO counters and thick rulebooks. Wargaming has become a very insular hobby obsessed with complexity and realism, so it’s refreshing to see a game that reaches out to newcomers, but retains the challenge and depth normally found in a game with a doorstopper manual.

Not everything is Edelweiss flowers and Red Stars, though; the DLC has some missed opportunities and there are some minor turnoffs to be found. The PvP mode lacks the “undo move” button so important for single-player games. The original game’s strength was found in bold, sweeping maneuvers; some scenarios in the latest version are more constrained, forcing the player to spend more time worrying about swapping unit positions and wrestling with the engine than planning larger maneuvers. Thankfully, these scenarios are in the minority. The AI also has a tendency to defend cities with elite SS Panzer divisions—which is frustratingly effective but ahistorical and can break up the flow of some scenarios while the player tries to flush Wiking out of the rubble. The developers are aware of the problem and are addressing it. During the beta test and after launch, 2×2 has been eager for player feedback and have been quick to address any problems raised.

Given the time period and the weakness of Axis counterattacks, the developer’s decision to focus entirely on the Soviets is understandable, but some will bemoan the lack of an Axis campaign and the mere handful of Axis scenarios. Fortunately for amateur Reichsmarschalls, the community is coming to the rescue with more Axis-focused scenarios, and the series’ cult success bodes well for future expansions focusing on different eras and theaters.

Red Turn is a strong addition to one of my favorite wargames, and if you haven’t checked out the original, you really should. I’ve had a chance to play the finished product of Red Turn as well as having been involved in the beta play, and it only reinforced my earlier opinion that this is a game I would rate very highly—well into the 90th percentile in Armchair General‘s rating system. Unity of Command is the ideal wargame to suggest to friends and family who are curious about the hobby, but it also offers plenty of depth and challenge for the veteran. This budget-priced DLC brings a lot to the base game and opens doors to what I hope will be a long and successful series of expansions.

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.

 

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