23 April 2014

PC Game Review: Unity of Command

Mastering the art of maneuver is the key to victory in this turn-based strategy on the Eastern Front, but does it wallow on defense or seize the initiative?

Published on 14 DEC 2011 10:50pm by Scott Parrino
  1. 2x2 Games
  2. Matrix Games
  3. world war ii, turn-based, strategic, eastern front

Developer: 2x2 Games
Publisher: Matrix Games


The Opening Shot

In every strategy game there is the ever-present importance of supply. Troops needs bullets to fight, bread to live and bodies (reinforcements) to survive and be victorious. Supplying your army with these three B's are as important in making sure you defeat your enemy on the field, failure to do so will almost certainly mean the end of your campaign.

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The challenge here is that while most strategy games do consider lines of supply in gameplay, most of it can be easily lost in menus; and some wargames do not present visually. Jumping into these wargames is part of the experience of the difficulty curve, or how long it will take players to grow accustomed and understand the basics. Generally the curves can be pretty high, limiting only some of the most dedicated and hardcore of players to tackle certain strategy games. For obvious reasons, most new-comers will typically avoid those titles or even the genre entirely. Luckily for the strategy game genre, there is a title that not only easily introduces players into strategy games, but provides a challenge for even the grayest of wargamers.

I'm talking about Unity of Command. Recently released by 2x2 Games and published by Matrix Games, Unity of Command is what I'd call a deceptively challenging and educational wargame. When I say educational, I don't mean in learning history (aside from some general World War II campaign information), but in terms of the strategy game genre. Unity of Command comes with a well-done manual in color PDF form, along with a helpful tutorial and an introductionary scenario that explains the game's mechanics and interface. The whole package of Unity of Command is a pleasure to experience, as you'll read on below.


To the Front, the Eastern Front that is!

Unity of Command is first off a turn-based strategy wargame that focuses on the Eastern Front in World War II during the years 1942-1943, with the Germany Army beginning their opening offensive against the Russian Army. Historically, the Germans made great advances from the summer of 1942 up to November of that year, in which the German 6th Army was encircled. Suffering defeats and retreating, it wasn't until March of 1943 that the Battle of Kharkov stabilized the situation for the German Army. This is time period and scope that players will face in Unity of Command, which offers up an interesting and exciting challenge. This scope covers both offensive and defensive maneuvers for both sides, allowing fans of either the Russian Army or German Army to experience the relative historical success of the time.

At the start of the game, players can either tackle the full campaign or try their hand at one of the 17 individual scenarios. Each of the scenarios have the player's side pre-chosen in AI games, with multiplayer and hotseat scenarios there is the typical one player is the attacker and the other is the defender. The individual scenarios offer a good amount of variety in terms of terrain, size, and difficulty. The full campaign for either the German or Russian Army is also well-done, with a giant map showing the player's progress through the campaign and possible outcomes (explained later on).

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Getting down to it, Unity of Command plays like any other turn-based strategy game. You have your armies, terrain hexes, odds of outcome, objectives, etc. The difference here is how Unity of Command takes into account how strong units are and their logistics. As I mentioned above, logistics are important, very important. The essence of Unity of Command is cutting off your enemy's supply lines while protecting yours and capturing your objectives on time. I mention time because you won't find yourself playing scenarios for long periods of time. This is due to the low amount of turns there generally are in some of the scenarios. Presented with how large some of the maps can be, some players will scratch their heads as to why they are given a limited amount of turns to capture their objectives. This becomes readily apparent when you play through Unity of Command, as you prioritize cutting off the enemy's supply lines and destroying isolated units and paving a way to your objectives.

Don't think that it is all going to be a cake walk just because I mentioned that Unity of Command as a title that easily introduces strategy games to new players. The AI in Unity of Command can be downright humbling if you do not pay attention. In fact I find it hard to believe that I find myself praising an AI for being brutal in its execution. If you leave a gap just big enough to be exploited into wrecking your offensive, the AI will take it. The AI realizes the key factor that separates it from you: it does not have a time table. The AI knows all it must do is hold you at bay for several turns to win, and it will do it in ways that will make you tear your hair out over your own carelessness. A perfect example of mine would be during a scenario to capture Belgorod; I foolishly believed a few infantry units would hold my supply lines as my soldiers pushed from Kharkov. I left a flank open, just enough for Russian units to sweep in and block my supplies, which by the time I rectified it, my tanks, which were at the gates of Belgorod, were unable to attack. This happened on the last turn possible, and all I could do was admit defeat. Overall though, I see the reason for such a strict amount of turns in some scenarios. With this limited time and the challenges set before you, you as a general must plan accordingly and not be concerned with just eliminating an army.

Of course all of this can be for naught if the interface and information display were substandard. Luckily, they are not. Each unit is not only labeled accordingly, but displayed properly as well, with a soldier's bust displaying infantry, a tank obviously showing an armored group, etc. The front line is displayed clearly, with the enemy occupying the red zone. This red zone is also what the enemy controls, as it will block the ever-important supply lines. Supply lines can be easily seen by pressing the "S" button, which shows where it originates from on the map (very important) to where to flows (important). Objectives are also clearly marked as bulls-eye markers, which is appropriate since you need to hit those marks at all costs to win.

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As for the units themselves, Unity of Command handles unit strength and combat readiness in a simple manner that is somewhat unique. Each unit has a series of dots known as "steps". These steps are either colored in or gray, which represent the part of the unit at combat readiness. Evidentally, not being in supply for a few turns will make that unit have all gray steps, which then you will have a serious problem. As the unit engages in combat, their steps will either become suppressed and/or lose steps entirely. These three factors are very easy to keep track of visually without the need to click through a series of menus or do any mental math to figure out. In addition to these steps, "specialist steps" can be added when applicable. These specialist steps are an interesting aspect that can assist in offensive or defensive action of a unit. Ranging from adding an AT step to the NKVD, each can offer a unique bonus. The NKVD specialist step for example prevents the unit from retreating from battle, albeit they'll end up taking losses, while an engineer specialist step negates any dug in bonus an enemy hosts. These specialist steps can be a deciding factor in any battle, so it is best to take note what you are up against.

There are also additional assets at the players disposal if they so wish to choose. These assets come at no cost (unlike some other actions, which use prestige, explained later) and can either be for your benefit or be trouble for the enemy. These assets range from partisans (add on to your controlled areas) to the typical air strike attack. The only one I found issue with was the bridge build/destroy asset. In most areas there isn't a need for a bridge, by the time it calls for one you've already either at the end of the scenario or your offensive. Blowing a bridge can be advantageous but is very seldom used.

As with most strategy games, performing some actions require prestige. Calling in additional reinforcements costs prestige, as does adding specialist steps and regular steps from reserve, so players must be mindful of when to reinforce their units. While in individual scenarios these are usually given at the start or through the capture of objectives, additional prestige is also gained from being efficient and fast. This is important in the campaign, as you are given a limited amount to work with through the campaign itself, which only more can be gained by completing your objectives by the last turn (although not as much) or "on time" (which garners a lot more prestige).

Overall, the meat and guts of Unity of Command are great. You wont find the AI doing things that you couldn't do, and genuinely presents itself as a challenge.


Additional Features

Unity of Command comes with an important tool that shouldn't be downplayed at all: the replay. After a battle you can view your scenario and view it step-by-step or have it play out in real time (not the time you took, but in measured time). This helpful function is great for those who want to see where they went wrong (or right) and study their mistakes for future use. Features such as these are one of the most helpful devices developers can put into their strategy games and I'm glad more are getting on board with this function.


Visibility, One Hundred Percent; Keep Your Ears Open

Graphically speaking, Unity of Command has commendable graphics. While the muted tones of color instill the feeling of the dreariness and coldness of the Eastern Front, the unit graphics are colorful and detailed. The colors work well together and important and critical graphics are bright and noticeable. Movement paths are a vibrant orange, and weather and terrain info are a bright white, which contrast easily against the map.

There are a few animations that help keep Unity of Command looking interesting. Tanks and heads of units move according to where they move, although unfortunately you never see any actual combat aside from explosions. I'm assuming a Monday Night Football approach of butting heads would be too comical, but overall the graphics serve their job well.

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For your ears you'll notice the typical sound cues for movement and attack. The sound is crisp and clear and does not give off a generic feeling. The music is one I admire in Unity of Command, as it isn't offensive and boisterous, neither campy nor boring. I would definitely say it is atmospheric and subdued to the point that you never hear its presence unless you concentrate and listen for it intently. I'm tempted to call it some sort of subliminal conditioning as I find myself spending more time playing Unity of Command than usual sometimes.


My Final Word

Overall I'd heavily recommend Unity of Command for all wargamers, both wet-behind-the-ears type and the grizzled grays. Unity of Command is easy to get into, yet one of those wargames that challenges you in a way to not make you walk away, but to make you sit up straight and huff some steam out of your nose and say, Alright, lets try that again! The AI in some of the harder scenarios can definitely put some of the more experienced wargamers through some heated moments, but not in a cheating fashion. With the added benefit of quick scenarios and a branching campaign, Unity of Command is definitely one to put on your radar.


Review written by: Scott Parrino, Editor in Chief