Want to turn a green lane into a brown lane, tow a MoBAT across a snowy field, or roam the Western Desert trashing Axis airfields? Get a 4×4. Want quick introductions to low-profile PC games with military or transport themes? Read a 3×3. This new potentially recurring column is my attempt to reduce the number of interesting wargames and sims ignored by THC each month. Prior to penning a 3×3 I’ll play three under-exposed underdogs for three hours each. While it would be cavalier to call the reports that result from these brief auditions ‘reviews’, it’s conceivable they might lead to more prolonged playtests, and prompt or prevent the odd purchase. The first three titles on a mission to Timpress are all hex wargames.
Old friend of Tally-Ho Corner, Bernie Montgomery, would, I’m certain, wrinkle his conk at Carrier Battles 4: Guadalcanal. Cyril Jarnot’s Carrier Strike remake is a strong candidate for the title of ‘Most Pointless Use of a 3D Engine in a PC Wargame’. Perhaps if there was an option to switch chits for miniatures or if the automated engagements weren’t illustrated using screens like the one below, that third dimension would feel less like a fifth wheel.
You could argue that this £24 (£26 with the SeaPlanes add-on) WeGo offering would have been better off without turns and hexagons too. At times both feel like unnecessary nostalgia – nods to the past that do more to complicate and congest the action than lubricate it.
Which isn’t to say CB4G is intimidating or tedious. With the help of the two tutorial scenarios, the plentiful tooltips, and integrated crib sheets, I’d grasped the basics of moving taskforces, conducting searches, launching strikes, invading islands, and establishing seaplane bases, within an hour, despite the fact that some of these basics are a mite clumsy and idiosyncratic.*
* God knows why there’s no option to set aircraft search patterns while consulting the map, or route TF s using multiple waypoints.
By the end of hour two I was beginning to understand why the game’s small but enthusiastic fan-base is willing to overlook the GUI flaws, the lack of a campaign, and the engine’s periodic panting sessions (For no apparent reason, the framerate plummets during the surprisingly lengthy intervals when orders are being executed and the clock advanced). Able AI combined with a host of historical subtleties mean Jarnot’s creation sims the high-stakes blind man’s buff that was WW2 carrier operations in the Pacific rather well.
It doesn’t matter which of the eleven scenarios you plump for or which side you choose to play, tension is inevitable as your search planes quarter the South Seas in search of elusive enemy TFs. The news that a friendly flotilla is being shadowed by a Mavis or PBY is guaranteed to add a berm or two to your brow. When you do eventually locate prey then a multi-level intel system sophisticated enough to model the impact of weather on recon and acknowledge the role of coastwatchers, means you’re often not certain exactly what you’ve stumbled upon. Follow-up scouting stooges may be sage.
Deciding when to launch strikes and how they should be organised, is, of course, a major preoccupation. Get the timing wrong and aircraft lost to nocturnal landing errors or plunging HE can be the result. The hidden combat algorithms understand that darting destroyers are harder to hit than hulking CV s, flak’s job is to scare as well as scarify, and that simultaneous attacks by torpedo and dive bombers are particularly tricky to defend against.
Fire and flooding tip a pleasingly multi-faceted damage iceberg. Raids can also leave ships crippled, blind, defenceless, and short of embarked aircraft. It’s not difficult to translate the welter of text reports and counter embellishments generated by a successful attack into a vivid mental picture.
Carrier Battles 4: Guadalcanal isn’t as ergonomic, progressive, or as well optimised as I’d like it to be, but if you told me I couldn’t play anything else for the next week or two, I wouldn’t be distraught. The question of whether CB4G is a more tempting or realistic PTO pursuit than Killerfish’s latest effort I aim to answer by mid-April at the latest. War on the Sea’s review holiday has, I feel, now gone on long enough.
* * *
Early Access Shields of Loyalty (£14) makes a poor first impression. The yarn spun by the intro cinematic feels like a passage from The Lord of the Rings that’s been passed along a mile-long line of inebriated Chinese whisperers. Happily, things improve dramatically once you launch the campaign.
Developers Mosaic Mask Studio are clearly huge fans of Fantasy General.
Slitherine might own the FG name, but the soul of Panzer General’s begoblined offshoot seems to have ended up in the hands of a bunch of talented Hanoverians with a thing for dusty genres. Shunning the 3D path taken by Owned by Gravity, Mosaic Mask has chosen to resurrect FG with help from handsome animated sprites that still images struggle to do justice to.
I don’t think I’d realised just how important 2D art was to FG’s legibility and charm until I played my first few turns of SoL and the happy memories came flooding back.
Now I’ve three missions under my belt I’m more convinced than ever that the lads and lasses from Lower Saxony know what they are about. Although there’s no sign of the spellcasting that’s such an important part of SoL’s touchstone (hopefully the sorcery surfaces later in the campaign) and I haven’t discovered a combat results predictor yet, everything else is present and exceedingly correct.
Core units, unit purchasing, equipable artefacts, influential terrain, the clever duplex damage system, clear class roles, soupy Fog of War, the unspoken encouragement to use combined arms… it’s all here and, in combo with atmospheric audio and that perfect aesthetic, makes for an extremely agreeable hexperience. I’ll definitely be playing more Shields of Loyalty.
* * *
Whether my relationship with another appealing Panzer General descendent, Hex of Steel, burgeons or withers in the coming year may depend on developer Valentin Lievre’s patching programme.
Globe-girdling, quick-witted, and almost as persuasive a lobbyist for 2D hexiana graphics as SoL, Hex of Steel, the WW2 TBS previously known as Operation Citadel, has the potential to make a lot of Panzer Corps 2 deserters very happy.
The movement, attack, and recruit/repair/resupply mechanics will be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever played PG or any of its numerous sprogs. What sets HoS apart is the size of most of its scenarios, the diversity of its bundled theatres and units (North Africa, Western Front, Eastern Front, and Pacific), and the liveliness of its unscripted AI.
True, right now the aggressiveness and versatility of silicon adversaries sometimes undermines realism instead of enhancing it. In the first scenario I tried – Operation Compass – I was caught on the hop by ahistorical Italian belligerence. At one point the suspiciously feisty Graziani I was facing even launched a mini, glider-supported amphibious assault in an attempt to stall my advance! Such improvisations guarantee fun and challenge, but do so at the cost of plausibility.
If Valentin wishes to up-history HoS he needs to give scenario designers the ability to curb tendencies like these and influence the AI’s unit purchasing decisions. A Zone of Control system, tweaks to the way aircraft and subs operate would also help increase the game’s GAR (Grognard Approval Rating). To woo time-poor desktop generals like me, more small, evening-sized ops like the Saipan invasion scenario are needed.
The chances of the demo-equipped HoS gaining girth and gravitas in coming months seem high. Valentin is as industrious and open to suggestions as he is open-handed. Already an impressive piece of work and excellent value for money if you’re partial to outsized ops, Hex of Steel proves that commercial PG-likes don’t need to roast GPUs and worry wallets to win friends.