by Bane Williams
reviewed on PC
A Small Slice of History
Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 (hereafter referred to as APK) is a at once both a Turn-Based Strategy game and a Real-Time Tactical one. Anyone who has read my Settlers 7 preview knows that the distinction between Strategy and Tactics is something that many people don't get right. However, the guys over at the development studio Graviteam have done exactly that.
The game places you in the heart of the Third Battle of Kharkov, a German vs. Soviets battle that occurred shortly after the Germans were defeated at Stalingrad. While your military history doesn't need to be up to par to be able to enjoy the game, it certainly doesn't hurt. From the main menu you can choose to jump into any one of six campaigns (two of which are just you playing the Soviets in a battle, instead of the Germans).
The interface is fairly lackluster and incredibly complex, so almost immediately you will find yourself having to reference the manual or click on the incredibly slow moving tutorial to learn about what symbols correspond to what unit type, which button does what (though hovering does the trick most of the time) and so on.
A lot to Think About
Any one of the six scenarios has you taking command of your division in a top down turn-based style. Each turn lasts for about four hours, and you get to move all of your troops before the enemy moves his. At the end of any given turn, you then engage in any conflicts that you or your enemy might have sparked, which swiftly takes you from overseeing your armies, to overseeing your squads.
At this point, the game switches to a battlefield map, where you may place your squads wherever you wish. Cover, terrain, and even the time of day need to be accounted for in this mode of play, as doing so correctly may mean the difference between life and death. After you have moved your squads around as you wish, the game switches to a real-time 3D tactical simulation, and here is where the game really starts to shine.
I would be cheating the game if I didn't say right here that APK's tactical phases comprise of the most detailed and sophisticated tactical game elements that I've ever seen. Many units have independent abilities (Flares, for instance, which can illuminate areas you suspect enemies to be hiding in) as well as their own unique additions (Infantry can ride on tanks, for instance).
Small tactical choices can make the world of difference here. Flanking, routing, and even hit and run tactics can all have a great effect on your enemy. Suppressing fire actually suppresses your enemies, rather than the usual game mechanic of the enemies laughing in your face and showing you how real men fight.
One of the most memorable moments in the entire game was where in the dead of night I had almost taken a village, only to find that the retreating infantry had caught up to some reinforcements and had dropped into a trench, which – it being the dead of night – I couldn't see until I basically stumbled on top of it.
Action can be paused, or alternatively sped up to suit individual play styles. Since I am a very strategic player and tactics aren't my strong suit, I spent a lot of the game paused. This meant that on average any encounter took me around 2 hours to play. Those that are good at tactics and can micromanage on the fly should see an encounter over in as little as 40 minutes.
Impressively, any destroyed tanks or ruined buildings stay on the screen for later battles, even turns later. There was a nice time where I was travelling down the road only to see the burnt out hulk of one of my APC's that met a tragic fate along that path three turns prior. This sort of persistence in the game world is astounding, and extremely rewarding.
Outside of the campaign settings, one can enter quick play, to battle against a fairly well matched computer opponent. One can also edit the battlefield quickly and easily with these options, in order to face off against a situation of your choice. This is probably one of the easiest to use editors I've ever had the pleasure of trying.
Games like these often come with a whole host of things wrong with the path-finding, or unit movement in general, however here I felt that the whole thing was streamlined and performs incredibly well. There are some issues when units have to go through a dense tree-line, but I honestly never knew if that was because the tree-line was so thick, or an issue on the AI side of things.
As with every game, there are some issues. I've mentioned the horrible interface and excruciatingly slow-moving tutorial above, however for the extremely generous price point of 20USD those issues can be overlooked.
However, one thing I felt was really missing was multiplayer. Normally, I don't care if a game comes with a multiplayer aspect or not. But by the end of my time with the game, I was really craving a slice of multiplayer action to go with my single-player experience. At every step of the way the game simply plays like it was made to go online with and share a nice long piece of history with your friends who are also military nuts.
Between the lack of multiplayer, and the often horrible interface this is really only a game for the hardcore military simulations gamer. Of all of my experience with these sorts of games, however, APK stands out on its own for being the most inherently complex and statistically realistic I have ever played. As such, any sort of wargamer would find themselves at home with this game. I expect I'll be loading it up again, right... now in fact.
Detailed strategic and tactical level control
Poor interface, annoyingly slow tutorial