PC Game Review: Command Ops: Highway to the Reich
John Thompson stops by to give the Wargamer a review of Command Ops: Highway to the Reich and educates us on the three T's. (Read more to find out!)
Travel, Time and Trickle-Down: Command Ops: Highway to the Reich revels in the three T’s
Panther Games has followed up its award-winning Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge with its first official expansion, Command Ops: Highway to the Reich (HTTR), which is also the spiritual successor to the company’s original Highway to the Reich, which was published in 2003.
Paris is free. The Allies have pushed east and now face the daunting challenge of smashing through the formidable Siegfried Line – called the Westwall by the Germans – a multilayered briar of tank traps, bunkers, tunnels, pillboxes, trenches, and supporting fields of fire miles deep and almost 400 miles long, running from the Netherlands to Switzerland.
Ideas were sought for ways around this conundrum; enter Bernard Montgomery, the hero of El Alamein and the most popular British general of the war. Since his victory over Rommel sent the Desert Fox scurrying west to his eventual demise in Africa, Montgomery had seen his star fade a bit; his inaction and poor judgment in Tunisia raised eyebrows, as did a similar case of non-action in Italy. But after being put in charge of all Allied ground forces in Overlord, he was relegated to the command of the 21st Army Group, made up almost entirely of British and Canadian forces.
Seeking for a way for his star to once again ascend, Monty devised an audacious plan to circumvent the northern edge of the Siegfried Line, penetrate the industrial heartland of Germany by crossing the Rhine, and bring about a swift end to the war: Operation Market Garden, a combined airborne and ground-force operation of unparalleled magnitude. Monty’s XXX Corps would be tasked with smashing its way north across the soft polder of the Netherlands – great for tulips, horrid for vehicles – linking up with bridges seized in Eindhoven, Nijmegen, and, last of all, Arnhem, by paratroopers.
In reality, his plan was decidedly un-Montylike – brash and poorly planned. Monty had always succeeded with simpler plans detailed to perfection, and this was the antithesis of that. And, in the end, Market Garden truly was one bridge too far.
Can you do better?
HttR is a lot of things, but perhaps a quick discussion about what it isn’t would be helpful. What it isn’t is a typical hex-based, turn-based wargame, and players need to grasp this concept from the very beginning to have success. Winning a Command Ops scenario takes levels of planning and an ability to see how your units and the enemy’s units will shift and flow across a map without a single hexdot in it. Old reasons for going to a location might not hold true anymore; new reasons will become apparent when watching the AI savage a flank that was thought to be secure. And finding chinks in the armor is what HttR’s AI does best; more on that later.
Instead, units in HttR flow across a terrain map devoid of hexes in (pausable) real-time, ebbing and flowing around hills, towns and valleys, making their way across the map as conditions and the enemy allow.
This is not your father’s Panzer Blitz.
THE THREE T’s: TRAVEL, TIME AND TRICKLE-DOWN
HttR asks gamers to do typical things common to wargames: find the enemy, kills as many of them as you can, and take the objectives laid forth in the scenario briefing. It is how these goals are accomplished – the Three T’s – that makes HttR different.
In traditional hex-based games, units are moved across a board hex by hex, spending points depending on terrain. In HttR, units follow paths across the map based on orders given to them, the terrain, the road types, and enemy opposition, as well as factors input at the time of their orders, such as safest path, quickest route, and whether the units should ambush or attack troops they observe.
This is especially important because no game has ever required more planning than the Command Ops games, and it’s impossible to plan too far ahead without realizing how units will coordinate when they depart from different parts of the map and where they will arrive and when.
Understanding how an elite paratroop regiment will march along a light road through woods to meet up with a detached assault-gun company for a probe on a village is part of that aforementioned planning process. The intricacies of travel along a non-hex-based map are but one of the T’s; the second being…
If a basic understanding of cartography, above, is crucial, so is the concept of units moving across the path the player has requested in real time. The units are not just simply plodding their way in a straight line from Point A to Point B (see above), but most importantly, they are working their way through their routes while other units around them are doing the same thing, making it more difficult to plan concurrent events.
Remember in the old days, when you’d just slam a bunch of units into a stack on your turn, control-click to select them all, and then hurl them at your enemy’s hex? Well, forget it. This is a new paradigm. Not only are all units moving about the board attempting to accomplish their tasks at the same time, but the realities of troop training and efficiency also take their toll in regards to the Second T. Another of the most important game concepts to understand when trying to negotiate the Second T is that of “Orders Delay.” Depending on a number of factors: training, efficiency, and the Orders Delay setting itself (anywhere from “none” to “painfully realistic”), there is a period of time between when orders are given and when the subordinates who have received the orders begin to implement them. The better the training and efficiency of a unit, the quicker it hops to; the reverse is also true.
Now, players begin to realize that not only do they have to get their units from Point A to Point B across a map for a coordinated attack; they also have to figure out at what speed those units will travel, and at what point in time the unit will begin to execute that travel order.
So in the example above, if the orders have been given at the same time, the elite paratroop unit will in all likelihood depart for its jumpoff location for the probe on the village before the assault-gun company does; knowing this, does the player take a shorter and potentially riskier route to the village to meet the paras? Planning, planning, planning. For the sake of argument, both groups have arrived at the village together. Time for the third T…
In HttR, while players certainly have the ability to micromanage their force, the game itself is designed to be run with the player issuing orders “two down,” or up to two levels down from the top, and then having these orders trickle down to the tip of the spear.
For example, in the screenshots below, the player is taking on the role of the leader of the 88th Corps, General Hans Reinhart. “Two down” for this corps commander, given the troops under him, will range greatly – but in the case of one of his most important subordinate units, the 107th Panzer Brigade, “two down” would be the brigade’s commander, Freiherr Von Maltzahn, as well as the individuals in charge of the unit’s two battalions and associated attached units such as the 107th’s Pioneer company. Two-down for the 107th would not include the individual units within the battalions. This is important because a real corps commander would not be positioning the individual companies within the battalion; Von Maltzahn or his subordinates would, except in extreme circumstances.
Trickle-down – or the concept of issuing orders to a certain level of then trusting that the player’s subordinates will see these orders through to the best of the their virtual abilities – is another of the cornerstones of HttR. Can a player pause the battle and position every unit? Yes. But the reality is that the virtual commanders on the Command Ops battlefields perceive more than the corps commander when it comes to the “small picture” of their immediate objective. Trusting in that relationship mirrors not only a tough task for a gamer but the real difficulties of a commander on the real battlefield. Watching this relationship bear fruit on the maps of HttR is a true joy; in the example being used above, Reinhart’s 7th FJ paras and an attached AG company have arrived outside the village, the infantry has formed into skirmish lines and with the armor behind them, probed the town together.
What would seem to be the most basic of operations in a traditional wargame becomes a symphony of coordination in HttR.
How is it possible to have gotten so deeply into a review without mentioning graphics, sound, and the like? The reason is that frankly, because, these are all secondary... but let’s get to that now.
The vector maps are adequate but remain virtually unchanged in style from earlier Panther Games releases, and an upgrade away from the jagged edges and blocky style of these maps would be welcomed, let alone an eventual transition to a 3D battlefield.
The effects used to show battle and engagements with the enemy – simple dashed lines and the like – are unimpressive. The sound effects are tinny and serve little purpose except as atmosphere. In the end, these quibbles mean very little.
The user interface, on the other hand, is top-notch. The amount of drill-down on the units is impressive, and finding most data once you have learned the system is quite easy.
This reviewer did experience many CTD episodes playing HttR; one came literally minutes in terms of game time from completing a scenario. Games of this type of quality shouldn’t have CTD issues; almost every other aspect of the game is so polished that it came a surprise the first time… and then with a grumble and a few epithets the time after that. This shouldn’t be happening, but it’s not a crusher. Autosave always gives a fallback but, again, it shouldn’t have to.
Players will need to have purchased HttR’s parent game, Battles from the Bulge, to play HttR. Included in this package is a complete editor, allowing those with the proclivity the ability to recreate virtually every battle of the war. It also has a set of tutorial videos which, while a bit too long, do lay out key game concepts clearly, though with little ability for interaction.
Last, a word about the AI. The AI in HttR is perhaps the best this reviewer has ever played against. It seems to have an uncanny ability to sniff out a crease in its enemy’s lines or know when to keep just that one more unit needed to deny a player an objective. It will keep probing until it finds a weak spot and then it will do everything it can to exploit it. Hex-based gamers would do well to understand Line of Sight and how this AI will use it; fast units will zip through valleys and wooded roads and end up in an unaware player’s supply depot before they know it, forcing line units at the front to grind to a halt for lack of guns and butter. This goes for the player’s units as well as the enemy’s; it is not one-sided. There’s a reason Panther Games was asked by the Australian military’s Defense Simulation Office to provide support for its defense simulation efforts.
Despite a too-long list of minor annoyances and failings, Command Ops: Highway to the Reich is simply one of the best operational level games this reviewer has ever played. It rates stunning successes in the areas most wargamers hold most dear: accuracy and fidelity. The real-time two-down orders system means even incredibly complex scenarios remain manageable, and the game’s AI is stunningly effective. In short, this game deserves to be on the hard drive of every computer wargamer.
It’s that good.
Review written by: John Thompson, Staff Writer