PC Game Review: Advanced Tactics: Gold
Join Chef Chris "Steelgrave" Mohon as he peeks into the kitchen to see what Matrix Games has cooked up with their latest serving, Advanced Tactics: Gold.
So, what’s for dinner?
Two things that make me happy are wargames and food. Yeah, I’m kind of a foodie, a guy who is not afraid to experiment in the kitchen, and I’m definitely a wargamer of many years. In the food camp, you can find goodness from different extremes, be it an exotic meal from Chef Gordon Ramsey's kitchen or something down home and yummy from Rachael Ray. And so it is with wargames, where occasionally we are offered a rich, delicious gourmet meal that is good but leaves us unsatisfied; or maybe a plate which is cold, undercooked and unpalatable; or worse the occasional MRE from your granddaddy’s’ war; but every now and then we come to the table to find a serving of classic, filling, gaming goodness awaiting us, complete with sweet tea. That last description fits Advanced Tactics: Gold; a fun, solid, playable and immersive game that is far deeper than it appears at first glance, a game that won’t leave you hungry an hour later.
Advanced Tactics: Gold (ATG) is a rich stew of ingredients. It is complex without being overwhelming; not an introductory game by any means, yet it has a comfortable, familiar feel to anyone who has played a wargame before. There is nothing ground-breaking about ATG, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Certain elements remind me of Empires of Steel, only in a deeper and more stylish manner, with perhaps a dash of Civ for flavor and even a hint of classic Avalon Hill board games, a touch of Blitzkrieg here and there. The game is grognard-worthy, yet without requiring weeks of your life to learn…although your might find that your evenings slip away once you start playing it. I’m speaking from experience, once I fired up ATG, I had a difficult time stepping away from the dinner table in order to write this review.
Mmm, something smells wonderful!
The game plays out on a colorful and functional map, with terrain types easily distinguishable from one another, as are the units themselves. Right clicking on the map will bring up details on the terrain, a nice feature. The map utilizes a standard hexagon system, and while the maps and unit icons are readable and informative, neither falls into the category of eye candy. This is not a game in which you are going to get lost in the artwork detail, but neither are you going to have to squint to distinguish unit types or geography. One of the nice touches is that the unit icons change to reflect equipment builds, so if you create a basic infantry division, then transfer enough trucks, the icon changes to a truck to reflect this. The same thing happens if you ship out SMG’s, ATG’s, tanks or other hardware. This is not only useful, but it ups the flavor of ATG at the same time.
On the map, there are basic resources you need to acquire in order to fuel your war machine and captured cities provide victory points, supply and a manufacturing base for your armies. Remember, an army marches on its stomach! Your resources will go towards creating, supplying and moving your military as well as investing in technology in order to build shiny new toys. This is not a city-building game. You are not going to be weighing the benefits of creating the Pyramids vs. building an armored division. You’ve got to feed your troops, watch your flanks, and order enough bullets; this is where a poor game interface can hinder a player. Happily, after playing the tutorial, I spent almost no time fumbling around the map searching for hidden keys and buttons or cycling through endless menus. Kudos to the designers for creating such a clean and functional interface to use.
ATG comes with a tasty variety of units, with ground troops dominating your dinner menu. You can craft your army from the ground up, peppering your divisions with a mixture of rifle units, SMG, heavy MG’s, bazooka’s, engineers, Rangers, scouts, or even staff weenies to polish your general’s stars. Different classes of tanks provide for your offense, with armored cars, artillery, mortars, halftracks, locomotives, warplanes and horses being part of the recipe if you so chose. Engineers can improve resources, build railroads, create fortifications and blow up bridges; enemy incursions may be foiled as they run into your hidden anti-tank and infantry guns. To add to the mix, each type of unit can be improved upon by spending points on research, giving you even more options and decisions to make, to the point that you will not be able to upgrade every unit in the course of a game. But be careful! Tanks, trucks and halftracks consume precious fuel, and raw materials are required to build virtually everything but infantry. In my first game, I watched a promising offense grind to a halt when my oil fields were overrun and my shiny tanks sputtered to an ignoble end before the enemy lines. Superior numbers can often falter against a smaller but better balanced mix of opposing units, as each class has its role to play on the battlefield. It pays to decide on your battle plan and build accordingly, as combined operations are more often rewarded with victory as resources are limited and fought over.
But is it done yet?
The best of meals can be spoiled by bugs, but I’m glad to report that ATG seems to be a solid platform, no doubt in part because they are building on top of prior successes. This is a welcome change in an era when too many games are released prior to completion in order to meet a financial deadline. Thankfully that is not the case here as the game is playable “out of the box”.
Fresh from the success of their popular Advanced Tactics: WWII, ATG is more than a simple upgrade. ATG gives the player powerful scenario creation tools and an easy-to-use random scenario generator, where you can choose the size of your battlefield, number of opponents (up to 13: real people, AI, or mixed), and the skill level of each AI opponent. This allows for a huge replayability factor, and coupled with the ability to tweak virtually every aspect of the game; no two games will play the same. There are also a number of pre-made scenarios available, and the game is designed to be mod friendly as well, so you won’t find yourself fighting over the same battlefields repeatedly.
The AI is challenging and you will find that the enemy will attempt to flank you, cut your supply lines and send fast units into your territory in order to seize resources. You can set the AI at more difficult levels in order to increase the challenge, which I heartedly recommend for all but beginning players. However, where the game really shines is multiplayer, as no AI can quite hand you your head as efficiently as other players. There is an active and vibrant community of players online and a game or two has been known to break out among the Wargamer.com community as well.
Speaking of opponents, rather than give us the standard Allied and Axis combatants, there are “Peoples”, reflecting cultures rather than nations, a nice touch. These include Anglo-Saxons, Germans, Japanese, Chinese, Russians, French, and Arabic cultures, with each having a unique ability or build of some sort. So you might be The Empire, an Anglo-Saxon culture, mixing it up against the Sun Empire, the People’s Republic, and maybe the Middle Kingdom. It’s gravy, but still an enjoyable change of pace and a nice feature.
Waiter, is that a fly in my soup?
I found the AI to have occasional lapses at the basic setting, being fairly aggressive, good at scouting and making reasonable attacks but unable to land a knockout blow. The AI would often attack piecemeal along a wide front, threatening my flanks but being easily repulsed from major objectives. At this level, the AI never did anything stupid but never did anything brilliant either. Ramping up the AI settings upward made for much more challenging gameplay and once you have a good feel for the basic game, you will probably want to max the AI out consistently.
My initial reaction towards the graphics was one of disappointment, however, when playing the game I came to appreciate how functional they were, especially zoomed in, and the more I played the game, the more they grew on me. The same cannot be said of the sound. I’ve come to believe that somewhere, there is a warehouse of generic war game sounds and music, likely found on the 7th level of Heck (since mediocrity does not rise to Hells’ standards). I don’t buy a wargame expecting to hear the theme music from “Patton” but at least I can flip a switch and turn the sound off, rather than be annoyed.
My, but that’s a tasty burger!
When I go into a restaurant, I look at the menu, but often end up ordering a favorite tried and true item. But hey, there is a reason why they call it comfort food, because a chicken fried steak with cream gravy over mashed potatoes is a win. There is such a thing as comfort gaming too, and if you’re a wargamer, then you can appreciate the kind of solid gaming experience to be found with Advanced Tactics: Gold. It’s not filet mignon, but it is a game that exceeds its potential and keeps its promises; a game that will repay your investment of time and money with hours of gaming goodness. Sometimes you just can’t beat the classics! ATG comes to you highly recommended by your gaming maitre’d. As they say in the restaurant business, enjoy!
Review written by: Chris "Steelgrave" Mohon, Staff Writer