What's great about this "job" is that every so often you stumble across a game that is exactly what you have been looking for. "Achtung Panzer" is just such a game! Some ten years ago I became addicted to" Close Combat III, The Russian Front" and I have found "Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943" to be it's modern offspring. "Achtung Panzer" is still too new to spawn the incredible series of mods that turned CC into a cult series and still keeps people playing and talking about it even today. But "Achtung Panzer" has managed to successfully make the leap to 3D while CCIII was 2D, top down only. Many real time company level strategy games have tried to do this and all have been bedevilled by clunky, non-intuitive interfaces which made camera control a frustrating handicap to fighting your battles. "Achtung Panzer" is not perfect in this regard, the spinning of the map to show the direction a squad is facing when you click to select it for orders would often disorientate me when I wished to keep my "North up" point of view, but that is just a minor fly in the ointment in my humble opinion.
As the title implies, the game concerns itself with only one pivotal battle in the "Great Patriotic war" and four out of the six scenarios included in this "Press Pack" that I got to review are fought as the Russians. This is challenging even on "Normal" difficulty level as the German superiority in armour and half-tracks encourages you to use terrain, cover and lines of sight heavily in order to set up "armour traps" that enable you to use your meager allotment of anti-tank guns and T34's to maximum effect. What happens when German armour gets amongst your infantry and leg recon units only has to be experience once to convince you to shield your squishies.
The game begins on the strategic map of Kharkov and the surrounding area, very similar to the strategic maps of Close Combat IV and V if you are familiar with those games. Here you get to move reinforced platoon sized units of infantry, recon, armour and artillery around to give yourself a cohesive front line, provide mutual support and if possible take enemy or neutral squares. Squares give you victory points flags, but the objective is to hold Kharkov, and the VP's reflect that. After moving all your units.....and don't screw up 'cos you can't go back!... The PC resolves all movement and highlights meeting engagements or attacks. Select a conflict and the map changes to the scene of the conflict and all adjoining squares. This is where the battle becomes company level, if you have platoons in all the surrounding squares but one, the enemy square from which he is attacking, you could conceivably have 8 platoons to his one. So the positioning and mix of your troops becomes important. Due to the paucity of Russian armour platoons I tended to position them to support as many infantry units as possible thus getting as much bang for my buck out of my few armour platoons as I could. Careful though, fatigue and demoralization are factored into the game!
Now comes the interesting bit. The fight! But take your time positioning your squads. Cover and lines of sight (zoom to the unit concerned with the "Lock to unit" and "binocular" keys), supporting each other with arcs of fire and guarding VP flags all require thought and planning. Ambushes, a mobile reserve, possibly an armoured strike force, will all help offset the German's superior mobility and armour if you are playing as the Russians. Everything set? Then "Cry Havoc! And let loose the Dogs of War." The action unfolds. Enemy units appear as they enter sightlines of your units in ambush. Or as your squads, advancing to take VP's, come under fire. The screeching clang as armour piercing rounds hit your tanks sets your teeth on edge, mortar rounds crump, artillery fire roars in, small arms rattle and soldiers call out in Russian and German. Zoom in on critical points and units, marshal attacks and counter attacks, call in artillery or flares at night, and may the Gods be with you! After action comes the "Butcher's Bill" and you see which units will need to be reinforced next turn....And which are no longer playing in the snow with you. Then it is time to move on to the next conflict, or the next round of moves if all is quiet on the Western Front.
SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS are fairly modest for a new game and my middle-of-the-road GAMING RIG handled the program comfortably. Sounds are excellent, with the various small arms involved being distinguishable, the burrrrp of PPSH's mingling with the rattle of MG34's, the slower bark of Russian DP28 and Maxims. As I've mentioned, I love the sound of AP rounds hitting enemy armour, although it's not so thrilling when they hit my tanks! Before the nitrogenous substance hits the ventilation system you can hear enemy armour heading into your ambushes as the engines roar and the tracks rattle. Zoom in on your moving infantry and you hear the muttered grumbling that accompanies marching men of all stripes. Soundtrack is suitably martial, at times eerie, and the howling of wolves at night really put you off visiting the Russian steppes in winter. The graphics are not too challenging to your system, maps and overhead views for the most part, though for the boots-on-the-ground feel you can zoom down to see the battlefield from the eyes of individual soldiers, gun positions and vehicles. Great when it is an enemy tank getting hit by your heroic anti-tank team!
Conclusion: I liked it. The AI did a creditable job of giving me a good fight, even at "NORMAL" difficulty. It will be a while before I'll be able to crow that I could beat it at max difficulty settings from both sides, though I suspect the German armour and mobility advantage would be the first way I'll try. Admittedly the version I played was a "Press Copy" but the lack of multiplayer via internet is something I really hope to see corrected in the final version. Some of my best "Close Combat" games were played against other human players and although "Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943" will give hours of single player fun, it would really shine out in the multiplayer environment. There is a button on the main menu for "Add on Management Utility" which I hope will soon be graced with a multiplayer mode and all the fascinating mods that an active and imaginative modding community can engineer.