Pike & Shot in 2014? Airborne Assault: Red Devils Over Arnhem in 2002? Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord in 2000? Sid Meier’s Gettysburg in 1997?… Give me a moment, cornerites. I’m trying to remember the last time a brush with a new wargame engine left me this excited.
I finally got my hands on Second Front code earlier this week. The ‘playtest’ build currently entertaining press and testers only includes five missions* but, gosh, is it mesmerising. The magnetism is remarkable when you consider that, mechanically and thematically, SF does little that hasn’t been done dozens of times before.
* Plus editors and a unit comparison mode
This is the latest in a very long line of Advanced Squad Leader-likes. You get hexed WW2 battlefields… squad, half-squad, and team-sized infantry units… single vehicles… rigidly structured IGOUGO turns leavened by opportunity fire phases. Scour the design for ingenious ‘New Wave’ takes on stuff like Fog of War, command simulation, morale, or campaigning, and you’ll find sweet Fanny Adams,
The most avant-garde aspect of the game is probably its aesthetic. I know some find the bold colours and simple models a bit Fisher-Price. To a fuddy-duddy like me who believes that 3D engines often contribute nothing of worth to board game-style TBSs, the graphical approach is borderline genius. Because developer Jo Bader doesn’t insist on showing every rivet head and rust streak, every quivering leaf and blackened brick, SF’s action is almost always admirably legible. Because he realises that sometimes even the most mathematical mayhem managers like to view their handiwork from a warrior’s perspective, and doesn’t impose needless camera limitations, 3D really earns its keep here.
Naturally, it takes more than bright colours and an unusually flexible sky-Leica, to produce feelings I haven’t felt in years. The fact that my first week with SF has brought back memories of early days with Combat Mission and Close Combat is largely down to all the pleasant surprises and novel experiences the game has generated.
Byproducts of an accomplished AI and the kind of details hex wargames often sacrifice on the altar of abstraction, these memorable moments are one of the reasons I wargame. When I realise that I’ve just lost a Panther to a Pak 40 that, a few turns ago, was crewed by Germans not Americans, my heart simultaneously sinks and soars. When I realise that a blaze started by my flamethrower team is spreading fast and will soon accomplish something I was struggling to achieve with bullets and HE alone, I find it impossible to suppress a grin.
A bazooka backblast eliminating a favourite sniper… a factory interior melee ending with all the participants dead or incapacitated… a spontaneously-generated ‘hero’ scavenging a dropped Panzerschreck then using it to deadly effect… house-clearers lobbing a demo-charge up a flight of stairs… SF drops jaws and fashions anecdotes without really trying – a very rare talent for a hex wargame.
The playtest build’s largest scenario is set in Aachen and suggests urban warfare is going to be one of SF’s most appealing activities. When I first saw the plethora of units and the huge battlefield – only a section of which is visible in the above screenshot – my initial thought was “God, this is going to be a grind.”. Three or four rapt hours later, all traces of cynicism had vanished.
Multi-storey buildings, the bête noire of wargame devs, are handled with panache by Bader. Explicit staircases and walls mean you can’t simply enter a building and clear it any way you choose, you must examine it and pick your routes carefully. It’s possible for a unit to be directly below or above an enemy and have no way to reach or engage them. Frequently you find yourself suppressing an occupied floor from across a street, while one of your units attempt to infiltrate the structure in question to deliver the coup de grâce. In one scene that has stayed with me, a gaggle of German defenders pushed upwards by Thompson bursts and grenade blasts, surrendered en masse in a spacious attic.
Another of the scenarios demonstrates pretty convincingly the AI’s ability to simultaneously attack and defend. In one portion of the battlefield, the CPU, without the benefit of scripts, propels GIs and Shermen towards a small player-held town, while in another it tries to prevent a Panzer-rich relief force from bolstering the town’s defences. When many AIs can’t unitask properly, watching one multitask competently is wonderful.
The first words scrawled under ‘AI’ in my play notes were ‘lively’ and ‘restless’. After a few hours of order-issuing I’d upgraded the assessment to ‘thoughtful’. ‘Dangerous’ with its emphatic red underscore came a day or two later and was a direct result of me watching with morbid fascination as computer-controlled Americans skilfully flanked a complicated urban position of mine using multiple clusters of infantry. I guess it’s possible I witnessed accidental rather than intentional guile, but I think not. The way the attackers pivoted and spread to envelop my position, all without the benefit of guiding VLs, strongly suggests top drawer behavioural algorithms at work.
SF’s morale mechanics probably inject as much unpredictability into scraps as the AI. While I’m not overly keen on the game’s use of the word ‘rout’, the way discombobulated infantry units auto-retreat, and remain ungovernable until rallied (an automatic process hastened by HQ proximity), feels pretty naturalistic, and lends pleasing dynamism to clashes. Keep asking your men to charge across bullet-lashed streets, and stand firm in the face of HE deluges, and even grizzled veterans will don red exclamation marks eventually.
Roman has just handed me a mug of tea with a Post-it note attached. On the note is written “Don’t forget to mention the Hetzer incident”. In the interests of transparency and completeness, I will now mention the Hetzer incident – just about the only thing I’ve seen on a SF battlefield this week that has caused me to frown.
Hopefully my brush with an improbably resilient (the Sherman in the pic above has a mere 3% penetration chance) German tank destroyer last night was the result of an easily-corrected variable typo, rather than an inevitable consequence of simplistic armour penetration shorthand.
Compared to the likes of Combat Mission and CC, SF offers a fairly lo-fi take on angry house aggro. AFVs can – depending on the type – pop smoke, fire smoke shells, carry passengers, train different weapons on different targets, become immobilised, and lose unbuttoned commanders to small arms fire. However, they don’t have explicit ammo counts, and, right now, as my Hetzer encounter illustrates, their historical strengths and weaknesses aren’t always perfectly captured.
(TO BE CONTINUED)