Wednesday 14 January 2015

(PC Games for Wargamers) Wargame: AirLand Battle

This can be picked up for $20 from your local store, although I prefer to get my stuff digitally thought Steam (and thus paid $7 on special).

Why WarGame: AirLand Battle?
It's very simple and quite pretty to look at, but high on simulation. It reminds me more of a wargame than a PC game.

Whats this game about?
Warsaw Pact vs NATO. 1985.  It's on! 
Command a regiment or brigade, with combined armour, infantry and artillery as well as fixed wing and rotary assets. You can move around individual squads, but you'll generally want to group them in platoon-sized groups - just like the real thing.

AA is essential to stop the flyboys messing with your tanks. That's gameplay footage, by the way - graphics are quite good.
How hard is it to learn?
Pretty much just drag and drop to move units. Just be being on this blog shows you have mastered enough keyboard and mouse controls to play.  To call in reinforcements, you click on icons on the top left of the screen.  You don't need to build bases, or research technology or anything zany.

However, it IS hard to learn, simply due to the plethora of units available, and their detailed stats and attributes. I'm talking 800+.  Having a working knowledge of NATO and Pact vehicles and units is a major help.   You need to employ a combined arms approach - and though the focus is ground assets, an integrated air defence is crucial (it is called AirLand battle for a reason).  You also need to resupply your units (running out of anti-tank munitions against a horde of T-54s = bad) and protect your command vehicles in order to hold reinforcement zones.

There is also a meta-game in that before a battle you can decide what units to access during the game. Do you go the T55/72 horde route or rarer but more powerful T80Us and T64s?  Do you want airborne infantry, or wheeled APCs?  Do you want mobile chinooks or cheaper trucks to resupply your troops? Making a good "deck" is fun in itself. 

It's slow paced and simple, but there's a lot you need to know, and a lot going on.  The online community is small but healthy, and they are very enthusiastic (read: they're super experienced and will smash you.)

What is the gameplay like? How do I do well?
 I find the gameplay simple, yet hectic.  Vehicles move comparitively slowly compared to the range of weapons (which are accurate).  But my favourite is that most of the game seems to be governed by the rules of balance and common sense, and your wargaming/historical knowledge is very 'transferrable.'

You gain "reinforcement points" by holding a reinforcement zone (parking a command vehicle in it).
However you WIN when your opponent LOSES a certain value of units.  This is a great way to decide a game.  A Soviet player can lose 20  20-point T34s (400) but still be beating a US player who loses only five 150-point M1 Abrams (650).  This allows very asymmetrical match-ups.   Carelessly handling super-units can be disastrous, whilst low-cost units are more expendable/forgiving (I find WARPACT easier to play.)  Whilst units are cheaper than others, units are not disposable as each loss inches you closer to defeat, and you have a finite supply of them.  However the primary thing you need is common sense. Ergo:

Recon, recon, recon.  You can't shoot what you can't see.  And you can only see units in view range of your units.  Hiding recon units around the map is vital if you want to stay on top of things.  You can never have to much recon.   Likewise, you can assume any unit of yours in the open is spotted. 

You do not spam a particular unit, as most units have a counter.  You want a balanced mix of infantry, armour and AA.  A lot of other games also have "counters" - i.e. swords beat spears, spears beat cavalry, cavalry beat swords. It's just that Wargame has a lot of types of units. Spamming 20 Abrams looks cool, but is suicidal. You might have only 4 Abrams, backed by 4 medium tanks, 4 APCs, 2 AA guns, 2 AA missile launchers, and some supply trucks, and a command jeep; with a few recon out in front.

You do not "bunch units up." You spread them out - in cover, and in depth - allowing them to have wider fire zones, and avoiding enemy airstrikes and barrages.  Try to avoid attacking enemies head on.  Heck, bypass them altogether if you can.  Use smoke to cover your advance when assaulting.  Hide your command vehicles.  Infantry in buildings are almost unkillable, but can be shocked by artillery (and napalm never goes out of style.)   Never send armour into or near a town. Etc etc. 

Basically, common sense.  Use real world logic. Not 'videogame' logic.

There is a later game called Red Dragon with naval combat.  This is a little shonky though, and it  lacks AirLand's dynamic campaign.
Will I get a lot of hours out of it, or will I only play it a few times?
I've played two iterations of it and put 50 hours into each.  Many PC players find it an acquired taste, as does not fit into the usual PC strategy genres.  Those who like it, tend to really like it, and it has an enthusiastic fanbase. However I think it will appeal to most wargamers due to its strong "sim" vibe.

How good are the sound/graphics? What system specs should I use?
The graphics are quite impressive, but you tend to spend your time so "zoomed out" it doesn't matter. It's fun to zoom in every now and then and enjoy the action though.  Again, while it might run on a laptop (dual core, 2 gig RAM, 516 video card) - I'd recommend a quadcore i5+, 4 gig, and a 1gig card.  Yes, the Mac peasants can play this too. 

+ Common sense and real world tactics rule
+ Recon, morale and logistics matter
+ Balanced way to win, using asymetrical forces
+ Units are not "disposable"
+ Impressive graphics (which you'll seldom see)
+ Simple controls
+ Interactive singleplayer campaign where you can choose where/when to attack
+ Cheap ($20 max)
+ Modern combat is a nice change

- Lots of units to learn
- Difficult to master
- You'll likely get murdered in online multiplayer
- Can get overwhelmingly hectic when the proverbial hits the fan (though there is the pause button in single player)
-  Uses 16 gig hard drive space

Recommended: Yes. Not only is it more "wargame" than videogame, it offers a unique style of gameplay.  It's also quite pretty for such a niche title.  It's simple to learn, but hard to master - but you'll die because you didn't recce an area, or because you tried to take on Leopard 2s in a running battle with your unstabilized T54s. 

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