This and That

Some snaps taken during my first day with Tiny Combat Arena, an £11 Early Access Harrier sim with a fetching mid-90s aesthetic, impeccable framerates, an empty missions folder, and an unapologetic “Fun Before Fidelity” philosophy…

^ Here I am befriending an entertaining, mouse and gamepad-amenable flight model. Even in the game’s wind-free environments, tomfoolery like this requires a delicate touch.

^ I’d like to say that an encumbered AV-8B handles quite differently to an unencumbered one, but I can’t. A weighty, high drag loadout seems to make little difference to vertical take-offs and top speeds.

^ The cockpit is non-clickable and, with the exception of the vectoring nozzle angle indicator, essentially irrelevant. All the information you need to fly and fight effectively is furnished by the HUD and the view beyond.

^ How do I create steerpoints? Which radar mode should I use now? What steps do I need to take prior to launching a Maverick? Some of the questions you won’t find yourself asking in idiot-proof TCA. Besides the flight control surface, throttle, nozzle angle, flap, brake, and gear controls, the only keys and buttons that see use are half a dozen related to weapon selection and firing, target cycling, and countermeasures. There’s no manual or tutorials yet, and it really doesn’t matter.

^ Lightning-fast load times mean I can be airborne ten seconds after clicking the desktop icon. There are two ways to fly. Using the Quick Mission Builder you can swiftly create threat-free freeflight sessions, bespoke strike missions against defended ground targets, or dogfights involving up to 32 AI aircraft (Put ‘aces’ in enemy crates and fraught furballs are guaranteed).

^ Alternatively, the Arena Demo provides a playable glimpse of a promising dynamic conquest mode in which the player assists friendly ground forces as they attempt to gain control of a small web of capturable facilities.

^ Although in need of winged opposition, SAMs, a larger map, and difficulty customisation, Arena mode is already diverting. Buzzing busy smoke-pillared battlefields, pulverising enemy airfields and tank formations, nipping back to base to refuel and rearm… assuming footage of the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine hasn’t dulled your appetite for modern-era milsims, then Tiny Combat Arena should work its magic.

^ Sadly, developer Why485 has no plans to turn his nostalgic sim into a lo-fi DCS World or Strike Fighters 2. Anyone hoping for multiplayer, scripted missions, dynamic campaigns, vast maps and more flyables, obviously hasn’t perused this FAQ.

* * *

As the outnumbered and undersupplied Desert Fox failed to produce a miracle in the vicinity of El Alamein in July 1942, I’m not overly disappointed by my failure to produce one in similar circumstances in Feb 2022. Although I’ve yet to taste victory shepherding Axis forces in the single scenario Attack at Dawn: North Africa demo, my nine-hour losing streak hasn’t dampened my enthusiasm for Panzer Division’s imminent hybrid wargame.

The screenshots hereabouts mislead. Attack at Dawn isn’t another hunk of tired hexiana. While there have been WEGO hex wargames in the past, this is the first time* an operational specimen has let us dispense with turns entirely whenever the mood takes us. Dab Shift+P and the clock that previously stopped on the hour, every hour, for order issuing, starts doing what comes naturally to chronographs. In an instant warfare that was stately and polite becomes urgent and pell-mell. Until night falls, units bustle, tussle, retreat and rout without pausing for breath.

* Always a risky statement

Drunk on the novelty and fluidity, I shunned WEGO completely for my first ‘1st Alamein’ playthrough and suffered as a result. Enemy counter-thrusts and friendly reinforcements went unnoticed. Rationed artillery bombardments and air missions went unused. Confused and dispersed, my colour-coded divisions often failed to produce the goods – “the goods” being fleeing Desert Rats and KOed Crusaders.

Playthrough #2 was a tad more professional. By then I’d learned that periodic pauses and game speed adjustments were, if not vital, wise when playing turnlessly. Ths time the minefield-ringed Allied pocket at El Alamein eventually fell, but because, at the end of Day 6, a Union Jack still flew over El Hamman, a second VL on the eastern side of the map, I was handed a somewhat harsh ‘Defeat’ result at the close.

Still underaway, playthrough #3 commenced with a turnless advance, but is now proceeding in regimented WEGO fashion. I’m finding the hourly hiatuses give me the time and structure I need to ensure unit paths are carefully plotted, wavering units are withdrawn and (ideally) replaced in good time, and reinforcements aren’t forgotten. Judiciously employed, my 105s and Stukas are turning tides here and there. If When I achieve a breakthrough, perhaps I’ll switch to real-time again in order to savour the gallop to the border.

The more comfortable I get with the take-your-pick timekeeping, the pettier it seems to grumble about absent delegation options (handing over formations to the AI, and automating air and arty isn’t possible). Familiarity is doing nothing to mollify my information provision concerns, however.

Which of my two vanguard Panzer regiments is the most intact after that brush with those 25 pounders on Ruweisat Ridge? How many 88s in my coast-hugging flak regiment did that Hurribomber strike eliminate? Most other wargames display unit strengths front and centre. Here, bizarrely – unless I’ve missed something – while you can tell how dispirited a unit is, you can’t see how damaged it is.

Choose to display traditional counters (shown above) rather than 3D models (shown below) and another info issue quickly becomes apparent. Hex sharing – only possible when the two sharers are from the same formation – leads to situations where half a force can be invisible, hidden by the top chit in stacks. I’m all for uncluttered battlefields, but not when the tidiness means I have to manually examine stacks in search of, say, a missing armoured car unit.

I suspect it won’t be long before demo dabblers start calling for unit stances and different forms of movement too. Board game-like simplicity is one of the AaD’s strengths (Believable* unscripted AI and that WEGO/RTS choice are others) but hitting a “bypass opposition” movement modifier or a “retreat when morale drops to 50%” button now and again wouldn’t jeopardise this unduly. Scouting without scrapping… slowing the advance of a powerful enemy without sacrificing roadblocks in the process… presently activities like these require delicate micromanagement.

* Apart from the odd improbable rout route and offensively-minded arty battery

None of these complaints mean I’m regretting including Attack at Dawn: North Africa in my Tipped Ten. When a one-scenario fragment annexes evenings this efficiently, you have to wonder what the full Monty will be capable of.

10 Comments

  1. Much as I love the idea of Tiny Combat Arena it’s a real shame that the developer decided not to include VR support. Having tried various flight sims in VR I can’t see myself ever going back to a flat screen.

  2. TCA looks like a lot of fun. I’m just not sure for how long, but for the price I’m happy to enjoy it and more importantly, support the concept.

    Maybe Microprose can throw in some world-building via 80s era menu screens and a couple of midi tunes.

    • It resembles ‘A-10 Cuba!’ <- wouldn't've included the exclamation mark if I didn't check the Wikipedia entry.

      Lots of other games have had remastered editions released (Icewind Dale, System Shock); I wonder if Microprose could use the 3D engine to re-release Falcon 3.0?

      While we're on early 90s reminiscences, one of the warplane sims of the era promised that you could link computers with someone who had the helicopter sim and both fly over the same battlefield. That's what I _REALLY_ want: what the backs of the boxes were promising 30 years ago – low-poly multiplayer. (Having read the FAQ, clearly I'm not the only one).

      And bring back synthesized speech!

  3. Good news. Attack at Dawn’s developer, Tomislav Čipčić, is considering a change to how unit strength is displayed. He said this yesterday:

    “I was thinking of showing more detailed strength information, as having one rounded number maybe is not detailed enough. I have to leave the rounded number on the unit counter itself, but I could show a decimal strength number and the appropriate number of soldiers/tanks/guns in the detailed info panel. For instance – a unit with a strength of 1.53 would show as 2 (as we always round up) on the map, but would show 1.53 in the info panel. And the number of tanks and soldiers would be calculated from this decimal number and not the rounded one.”

    (https://steamcommunity.com/app/1383640/discussions/0/3187989920100274461/)

    Personally, I’d like to see (toggleable) strength bars on counters too.

  4. Tomislav, if you happen to read this, I reckon there’s an elegant/simple solution to the problem of the lower unit in counter stack being ‘invisible’.

    Currently the NATO symbol in the upper right corner of a counter is pretty superfluous. Perhaps it could show the type of the unit below instead? If the unit was alone in the hex, obviously no NATO symbol would be shown in this position.

    https://tallyhocorner.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/suggestion01a.jpg

    • I have. It’s got lovely graphics but it’s not a flight sim in the vein that THC covers.

      It’s an arcade shooter with a flight mechanic, using models based on real aircraft.

      • It’s pretty much in the same vein as Tiny Combat Arena. Only difference is realistic graphics versus retro graphics. The TCA developer has openly stated he’s dumbed down missile effectiveness and inflated cannon effectiveness to suit his gameplay ideals. Project Wingman was designed to be an approachable, fun, arcade experience, just as TCA was.

  5. Attack at Dawn is an absolute instant purchase based on the demo alone. What a wonderful, slick wargaming interface! I hope they’re successful and cover the Eastern Front at some point. The system looks like it would work well for the cut and thrust battles around Kharkov in early 43.

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