The fact that, outside of mods, Close Combat and Combat Mission never made it to the Pacific, has to rank as one of digital wargaming’s biggest disappointments. Anyone who argues that PTO warfare lacked tactical colour or wouldn’t have suited the engines, needs to spend time in the company of Heroes of the Pacific, one of Lock ‘n Load Tactical Digital’s £7 adjuncts. This week I’ve been satchel-charging bunkers, braving banzai charges, and punching perfectly round holes in beach-bound Buffalo courtesy of Early Access LnLTD, and it’s been a blast.
Like Wars Across the World, Lock ‘n Load Tactical Digital prides itself on its globetrotting versatility. Once you’ve imbibed the relatively friendly basics via the “core game” – a £4 package that offers four bijou scenarios, a clutch of short tutorial vids, and a consult-in-emergencies manual – you’re ready to start exploring a bevy of well-crafted, wallet-friendly add-ons that, even when recreating familiar episodes in military history like post D-Day Normandy, often manage to find fresh angles… novel sideshows
Although those basics were designed for the tabletop, I speak from experience when I say they are sufficiently sophisticated to bewitch a gamer accustomed to getting their turnbased mil-thrills through titles like Combat Mission and Squad Battles.
With hexagon centres fifty metres apart, and counters representing squads, half-squads, weapons teams, leaders and single vehicles, the influence of the venerable Advanced Squad Leader is plain to see. LnLTD asserts its individuality primarily through crisper rules, more influential heroes and leaders, and a less rigid approach to timekeeping.
Here, turns are sliced into IGOUGO “impulses” – sides taking it in turns to activate the occupants of a hex of their choice. Combined with initiative rolls and opportunity fire, the system does a great job of making the regular seem irregular.
There’s a very fine line between too much and too little randomness and lethality in wargame combat algorithms. I reckon LnLTD treads that line just about perfectly. Are tank gunners slightly too error prone? Perhaps, but as the vast majority of scenarios are infantry dominated and the trait is common to all gunners, unlikely misses seldom distract.
Given that tracked AFVs can button and unbutton, carry passengers, occupy hull-down positions, rubble light buildings, and pivot to present stronger front armour to potential threats, some may find simulatory shortcomings such as absent gun hits and immobilisations (only mines can detrack) disappointing.
Happily, the game’s cardboard origins have no discernible negative impact on the infantry dimension. During the past week my rifle, MG, and grenade toters have participated in numerous actions that would warrant passages in history books had they happened in real wars. Spontaneously generated heroes close-assaulting tanks… plucky squads clearing enemy foxholes then using scavenged LMGs to beat off counterattacks… inspirational leaders surviving multiple melees only to get sniped in the final turn of the engagement… LnLTD might be hexy, dice dependent, and number-strewn, but it can produce drama just as readily as 3D peers such as CM and Graviteam Tactics.
Designer Mark Walker has been developing his ruleset for nigh-on twenty years and the maturity shows in the plethora of special non-unit counters. I love that munitions can kindle fires and those fires can spread, driving infantry from certain hexes. I’m impressed vehicle wrecks have tactical significance, I can choose strafing lines for close-support aircraft, and opt to send my unit to either the upper or lower floor of a two-storey building. Star shells, smoke grenades, explorable tunnel networks, weapon jams, medics, thermal imaging systems… Mr Walker has fashioned rules for almost every eventuality without seriously compromising playability or pace – quite an achievement.
Given the size of the rulebook and the fact that every scenario is playable from two sides, the quietly competent AI comes as a pleasant surprise. Solid rather than imaginative, lively rather than cunning, silicon company commanders are, of course, more formidable defenders than attackers, but given half a chance will evict you from victory locations with dogged multi-pronged, artillery-supported offensives.
Having cursorily inspected the recently released scenario editor, I suspect some of their competence is the result of light-touch scripting – aggro artisans encouraging foes to route through particular hexes. As these hidden topographical cues don’t seem to lead to replayability-jeopardising dogmatism, I haven’t a problem with the approach.
One area of LnLTD where I would like to see change is GUI design. Aesthetically, the moveable, scaleable and toggleable info panels visible in some of my screenshots, do the game few favours. Not a fan of DIY interfaces, especially when they are as utilitarian-looking as this one, I’d prefer something tidier and better integrated. Rearranging screen furniture for an unobstructed view of the top-notch counter and map art isn’t something I enjoy.
A better LoS tool and an alternative mousewheel-utilising control scheme wouldn’t go amiss too. Right-clicking to select counter stacks is, to put it mildly, an unusual design choice. And don’t get me started about that lonely apostrophe in the title.
This time last week, the only scenario tweaking tools available to Lock ‘n Loaders were the ‘balance’ and ‘duration’ sliders on the briefing screen. Released on Wednesday, the £7 Battle Generator & Scenario Builder promises to turn modules – most of which contain 9-12 scenarios – into inexhaustible founts of fun by empowering scenario smiths, and providing a gizmo capable of autogenerating scenario sequences called ‘RPG campaigns’. Tell me this doesn’t sound incredibly tempting:
“Players can create up to 13-mission campaigns. They have the option of selecting a personal leader that can be named and starts with a random leadership, morale, and movement rating. A player’s leader can gain leadership experience and improve their morale. The ability to improve your ratings aka ‘rank up’ isn’t particularly easy. Players need to acquire enough points during the battle. The things that will get you points are actions such as rallying a squad, capturing a victory hex, activating an event, directing fire that eliminates an enemy squad… Likewise, it’s easy to lose points: lose the battle, fail to rally a squad, etc. A player’s core troops carry over from scenario to scenario…”
While I’ve seen enough of LnLTD to become attached to it, I’m not yet ready to provide comprehensive module purchasing advice. At the moment, of the half-dozen expansions I own, “Heroes of the Pacific” and “Heroes of the Falklands” are proving the most magnetic. How much of their allure is down to the quality of their scenarios and how much is down to the relatively obscure themes, I wouldn’t like to say.
With my first “RPG campaign” scheduled for the weekend, and modules like this one and this one in the pipeline, this definitely won’t be the last time you read about Lock ‘n Load Tactical Digital on Tally-Ho Corner. Tired of waiting for Second Front to arrive? Here’s the perfect distraction.