3×3

Want to turn a green lane into a brown lane, tow a Gulaschkanone across a snowy field, or roam the Western Desert trashing Axis airfields? Get a 4×4. Want quick introductions to games of interest to wargamers and simmers? Read a 3×3. Prior to penning one of these articles I’ll play three tempting titles for three hours each. While it would be cavalier to call the reports that result from such brief auditions ‘reviews’, it’s conceivable they might lead to more prolonged playtests, and prompt or prevent the odd purchase.

Maneuver Warfare

The title of this 3D-for-no-good-reason turnless wargame doubles as a succinct tutorial. Let your company-representing chits loiter while attacking or defending and there’s a good chance the loafers will, if spotted by the enemy, start sprouting nasty boils. The short-lived scarlet buboes represent detonating bombs and arty shells – explosions that play merry hell with morale and health bars. The CPU’s talent for bombardment combined with a scenario selection that usually casts the player as the attacker, ensure scraps in Maneuver Warfare are seldom strudel strolls.

At times Decisive Action Games’ £16 debut feels like a crude Command Ops 2 homage. It’s inferior to Panther’s efforts in almost every respect, but there’s sufficient challenge, novelty, and intimacy on offer to dispel defer disillusionment.

After doing its utmost to make a bad first impression with drab visuals and a UI as ergonomic as a rusty PIAT, MW partially makes amends with realism, generosity, and a likeable campaign system. The eight* accessible-from-the-word-go operations might be short (2-3 scraps each) and only playable from the German side, but all feature persistent, customisable core units, ample time limits, and momentum-preserving victory conditions (Ops grind on whether you win or lose. Failure means units are less likely to recover lost strength inter-mission). Opt to play a ‘grand campaign’ and you get to choose the ops that make up your combat marathon.

* More are available if you purchase this add-on

In addition to being a prolific author, MW’s dad, Maciej Jonasz, is a keen student of WW2 tactics and tech – that’s clear from the essentially plausible way his units interact. One of the ops I tried during my tasting session was the Fall Gelb one. It illustrated very clearly why French heavy tanks could, if they’d been employed more sagely, have slowed – perhaps even stopped – the Blitzkrieg in 1940. Without my Stukas and 105s I doubt I would have made it to ‘Phase Line Lynx’.*

* Objectives tend to be linear in MW.

Unfortunately, my experiences in Belgium, France, and elsewhere exposed a clutch of pretty significant engine, GUI, and AI flaws. Currently, all battlefields are billiard-table flat and, from a LoS perspective, harder to read than they should be due to the lack of a LoS tool. There are speed benefits to using road networks (Bogging doesn’t seem to be modelled) but without waypoints or a “use roads” movement modifier, taking advantage of tarmac is fiddlier than it should be.

On the offensive, the AI can feel unsubtle and unimaginative. I started one defensive scenario three times and my opponent always attacked along the same avenues and demonstrated the same reckless determination to reach its goal. In Airborne Assault: RDOA and its descendants, silicon adversaries are willing to abandon failing plans and try new approaches. In MW I’ve yet to see any signs of dynamic thinking.

And my, does the interface need work. To deploy a five-unit infantry battalion currently takes at least six mouse clicks, to give them a grouped movement command, at least eight. Maciej doesn’t appear to have got the “Double-click HQ to select all of its subordinates at the same time” memo that everyone else in the industry received circa 1995. Disappointingly, he also seems to have missed the “Clickable mini-maps and battle logs are a great idea” missive too.

Tempted by seldom-simmed Yugoslavian battles, I won’t be uninstalling Maneuver Warfare just yet. However, without decisive actions from Decisive Action there’s little chance of this contour-free curio returning to the Tally-Ho Corner HD after the inevitable happens.

* * *

Nebulous: Fleet Command

Sorry, Nebulous, your three hours of “Knock my socks off” time is up, and my knitted foot cosies are still firmly in place.

The 3×3 format doesn’t suit all games. After 180 minutes of this work-in-progress Homeworld-reminiscent RTT, I’m still very much in ‘intrigued but incompetent’ territory. If I’d managed to complete the six-mission tutorial sequence I naively assumed would unlock the campaign (I’ve just learnt the campaign has yet to be added!) perhaps things would have been different.

‘Advanced Missile Tactics’, the final lesson, has consumed far more of my playtest than it should have done. Try as I might I just can’t seem to master the art of waypointing Thunderhead missiles in such a way that they a) avoid the huge asteroids that are something of a Nebulous hallmark, and b) strike targets on their relatively vulnerable ‘top’ sides.

The game uses a 3D plotting system not dissimilar to Homeworld’s, but those colossal knobbly space rocks together with simulation-grade weapon, sensor, and damage modelling make for a much steeper learning curve. If I persevere I’m sure there will come a moment when everything clicks, but right now, slightly overwhelmed by keystroke options and regularly deceived by perspective and screen clutter, many of my missile waypoints seem to go astray.

As my frustration mounts so does my conviction that by the year FAR FUTURE cosmic commodores will have more intuitive command tools at their disposal than the ones Eridanus Industries provide. Don’t ask me what those tools will look like (At this point I’d choose simple but effective dual planar displays over the current facilities) but I’m convinced orchestrating aggro on a busy battlefield devoid of ‘up’ or ‘down’ doesn’t have to be this confusing.

Before I became mired the tutorials introduced an array of combat subtleties that suggest that skirmish and story mode scraps should be thought-provoking affairs. Electronic warfare, sensor management, signature control, target designation, battleshort modes… the serving USN officer behind the project has borrowed a raft of concepts from 21st Century warfare. Newcomers with DCS World or Command: Modern Operations experience will have a distinct advantage over those with none.

Ready to reluctantly abandon that last tutorial, I intend to spend my second three hours learning ‘on the job’. Hopefully, a spot of skirmishing – perhaps with vessels I’ve designed myself – will turn qualified admiration into genuine affection.

* * *

MX Bikes

For a while it looked like this screen was going to be my abiding memory of MX Bikes. On reflection, attempting to play this Early Access, demo-equipped motorcross recreation with my aged and somewhat crotchety gamepad was a bad idea. It was only when I switched to a joystick that I stopped doing this…

…on almost every corner and jump, and began enjoying PiBoSo’s phab physics.

While I don’t have sufficient real-life MX experience to say with authority that MX Bikes is the new genre yardstick, I’ve spent enough time perusing the official forum to realise that few real dirt bikers regret the £28 they’ve spent on it.

All the rider-related stuff that makes actual motocross riding so physical and tricky – the need to shift weight and adjust posture almost constantly – is beautifully captured in MX Bikes. Techniques that keep your speed up and your feet firmly planted on footpegs in the real-world work equally well in the sim.

As MXB’s dev has no plans to add bots, venerable rival MX Simulator still has a clear edge in at least one area. To bond with the new cock-of-the-walk you must be willing to compete against fellow humans, or be content to monkey about on your tod.

If you discount ghosts, the entirety of my test session was spent alone, and I never hankered for company. There’s a good selection of default bikes and tracks, but hungry for a little more space and freedom, I fairly quickly found myself browsing the crowded shelves at MXB Mods. Amongst two years’ worth of user craft and graft, I soon discovered exactly what I was after.

MX Bikes has a lot in common with Sail Simulator 5, a title I 3x3ed in February. It’s one of those authoritative yet relatively friendly sims where you can dab the desktop icon, confident you’ll have a smile on your face a minute or two later. You’ll need to put the hours in to git really gud, but when the pursuit of proficiency and the pursuit of pleasure are one and the same thing, who cares.

14 Comments

  1. Thanks Tim!

    I’ve had that Nebulous: Fleet Command on my wishlist, but if it’s too fiddly for you, I don’t see how I could ever hope to crack it with my Florida pool temperature IQ. Them dirtbikes look gnarly, though! Vrooooom.

    “You’ll need to put the hours in to git really gud, but when the pursuit of proficiency and the pursuit of pleasure are one and the same thing, who cares.” Can I steal this for my eventual Elden Ring Steam review that I’ll shout into the void?

    Have you revisited https://store.steampowered.com/app/1292020/Armoured_Commander_II/ anytime recently? The updates have been fantastic, and this has been my go-to wargame recently. I wish more people knew about this game!

    • Cheers for the heads up on this! Picked it up cheap with some left over Steam funds. Its proving to be a nice little distraction from Elden Ring and despite the graphics giving me dwarf fortress nightmareish flash backs, the game and controls are clear and intuitive and it’s been surprisingly simple to pick up and play (Nebulous Devs take note!) I have clearly barely scratched the surface but I already feel attached to my little tank crew and despite losing poor Hans my tank driver to a critical hit, the ‘bail out’process was tense and exciting and I love the level of detail with most of my remaining crew needing to go to field hospital and then rejoin the fight in a replacement tank. It feels a nice mix of war SIM, RPG and rougelike. Looking forward to playing some more.

      • I’m so happy you picked it up! The solo dev is really communicative in the discussions. The first one is a great little piece of software, too. Much different than the sequel and he’s since put it up on Steam for free.

  2. Talking about motorcycle sims, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time on Ride 4 lately. It looks and plays great, gives a really good feeling of speed and I also enjoy the brutal difficulty. While I play on realistic I haven’t tried manual leaning so far. Using a joystick is an interesting idea, I have to try it.

    Tim, have you though about setting up an official Discord server for your site? It would be cool to have a place to interact with the community, one better than the comment section.

  3. You have triggered me Tim writing about Nebulous: Fleet Command.

    A steam review described it as ‘The Expanse meets Homeworld’ which frankly sounded like the best thing since sliced bread. Other reviews mentioned the US Navy and other promising titbits. I couldn’t resist!

    I went in unfazed by a few warnings about the UI, but good god I was not prepared. Horrendous and clunky are not strong enough words as to how bad it is, and there was me thinking Graviteam Tactics was as bad as things could get. But I stuck at it, battling through the tutorial looking forward to some Homeworld style campaign. I also got stuck on the last tutorial mission, three attempts in a row running out of rockets and having to re-start the whole mission.

    Only to find there was no game once you had done tutorial! That’s it. Just some skirmish mode 3 v 3.

    I couldn’t even refund as I had wasted so much time on the last tutorial mission.

    There is a smidge of potential but something tells me I wont revist it

  4. I had hoped Nebulous:Fleet Command would be good, because the premise sounded so appealing.
    There are always two axes on which I place games I am interested in. One is what the developer is trying to do and the other is how well it is done. When the vision is grand I tend to be more lenient with the execution, but Tim´s (and AKACrimson´s) experience sound rather bleak. I hope you will find the time to have another look at Nebulous when it has seen a couple of updates.

  5. You were tripped up on the EXACTLY same problem I was: the missiles waypoint system/tutorial is cumbersome and unintuitive. I even had someone on the discord share their screen and demonstrate how they do it and while they succeeded in accomplishing the mission’s requirement it was still clunky to do.

    Luckily, from what I’ve seen, the non-missile-guiding gameplay is great.

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