PC Game Review: Achtung Panzer: Operation Star
Curtis Szmania draws the line in the snow on the Eastern Front in Matrix Game's release of this tactical tank combat/combined arms strategy game.
The fight between Germany and the Soviet Union is unquestionably one of the greatest struggles of all mankind. From blitzkrieg and encirclements, to harsh winters and retreat, the Eastern Front was full of victories and defeats for both sides. But this is what makes wargames about it so fascinating, because it was a fairly even fight. Most gamers prefer a battle that isn’t lopsided or predetermined; I think it’s that little armchair general in all of us. Just last month Matrix Games released Achtung Panzer: Operation Star, the sequel to Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943. Kharkov 1943 was a fantastic game, groundbreaking with its meshing of tactical battles within the larger strategic interface; but it was brought forth by Paradox Interactive. So now I’m curious on how Matrix’s release compares to it and what improvements have been added to this already interesting idea.
Achtung Panzer: Operation Star is a great concept. When you start up the game you’re greeted with authentic German and Soviet World War 2-era music and sound tracks. Oh, what an atmosphere! There are quite a few menu options to pick from: “Campaign”, “Quick Battle”, “Encyclopedia”, etc… There is no tutorial option, and nor is there a tutorial mission. The tutorial is actually by way of pop-up, which seems to be getting more and more popular. Pop-ups are great and all but they don’t always work the way you want them—Operation Star is no different. Unwanted information will come up from time to time, and you don’t always get to find out what you need to know when you want to.
So having said that, one can jump right into a “Quick Battle”, which would be the place I’d recommend one to get started. Here you can select what side (German or Soviet), what units you’d like to play with, the map, weather, and so many other options. The range of units available is very impressive. They include, but aren’t limited to: rifle battalions, artillery batteries, tank regiments, motor rifles battalions, assault gun battalions, and anti-tank battalions. These battalions, when in the tactical view, are split-up into platoons and batteries—the level of command. One can place these units on the strategy map, to fine tune a set-piece battle. The way in which one does this is a little unique and takes a bit of getting used to, but it does the job. But the amount of units you can place on the battlefield is limited—a bit discouraging. The strategy map is topographical and it also shows terrain features like roads, buildings, rivers, and forests. It’s also in “gridlike” form and each grid is a strongpoint that contains a flag which represents who controls it. One can attack from one grid to the next, and the surrounding grids of the grid that the battle is in can take part. That puts it at nine grids per battle!
One is then taken to the tactical view. The first time I launched the game the tactical view was a bit messed up, there was a graphic bug. Units were not showing on the map and it was all distorted. I run an AMD graphics card, but I narrowed down the problem and it was fixed when I checked the “Use application settings” box under Anti-Aliasing in the AMD VISION Engine Control Panel. My drivers were all updated too, so I hope there is a patch that is released that fixes this bug soon.
At first I was a bit overwhelmed by the meaning of the buttons on the HUD. Some of them make sense, but others do not. For example, a clock icon represents “Start quick battle”, but it also represents “Ceasefire”. What does a clock have to do with a ceasefire? But don’t rely on the pop-up text boxes to help you out either, some of them have incorrect grammar and are difficult to understand. Though, once you can find out the meaning of the symbols you’ll be good to go. Overall, the buttons are a bit clumsy and you don’t have a great amount of control over your units. You can send them to areas on the map, but it’s difficult to tell them to do specific things. Maybe I’m missing something here, perhaps the answers are not found on the interface but in hotkeys. Although, Combat Mission games seem to offer much more control over units.
The lack of control of what’s happening on the battlefield is compounded, because the AI appears to be brain dead at times. You give orders to withdraw from a position from which your being overwhelmed and some of your men will just walk back leisurely, as if their taking a stroll through the park—bullets flying all over the place. I think since the buttons for control are so vague, the responses one gets from their units will be just as mysterious. Both enemy and friendly units act in mysterious ways. Although, I have seen the enemy perform some complex tactical maneuvers at times. When they are assigned to attack one of my grids, they clump their tanks together and form a sort of armored juggernaut to pierce my defensive line.
After one enters the tactical phase they’ll be required to deploy their units on another “gridlike” plain, which is actually a grid within the larger grid boxes of the strategy map—a grid within a grid. You can move your units about, putting them under cover or even in defensive positions. This is ideal since it can work well with one’s strategy. After the player has them where he/she wants them they’ll be asked to give their initial orders for the opening of the battle, another great feature—though expected. Although the graphics interface is a bit foreign it does have many great features. There is a small overview topographical map in the upper left corner. This can be zoomed in and enlarged to full screen. One could control their units throughout the battle from that screen alone if they so wished. The HUD is also accompanied by a few buttons that show helpful statistics of the selected unit(s), in graph form: weapon penetration, armor, etc…. What a handy tool! It’s great to see strengths and weaknesses of units you’re commanding, while you’re commanding them. There was a bug in the HUD I noticed, and it had to do with artillery barrages. There is a timer which times when the next artillery barrage will occur, but this timer does not speed up when you speed the game clock up.
Graphics are quite impressive. Unit detail, from tanks to artillery, and even soldiers is outstanding. The terrain is even well-textured and creates a realistic atmosphere when battling it out on the frozen grasslands of the Ukraine. Explosions may need more work, but it still looks good when you see a T-34 go up in flames. The sounds in-game are a bit repetitive—especially explosions and gun shots. They also seem to be of a low bitrate (low quality). Achtung Panzer: Operation Star does not have multiplayer. Odd really, but not necessarily a drawback since it offers a lot of replay value for single players.
If one does not wish to play a “quick battle”, they can start a campaign. Operation Star offers two campaigns: “Operation Star” and “Kharkov Defense Operation”. The former has three scenarios and the latter has five, both Axis and Soviet. Each scenario represents a different unit the player is in control of. The whole campaign is basically focused on the Eastern Front during the first half of 1943. The best part about the campaign is that your casualties and victories get carried over to the next battle. Player’s are fighting for control of the hexes, on the larger strategy map. The more hexes you have the closer you are to victory, and each hex is represented by a flag—sort of “capture-the-flag”. The campaigns use three different strategy maps: Taranovka, Pavlovka, and Rakitnoe. The campaign is a great idea; in fact, it’s a fantastic blend of strategic and tactical warfare on the Eastern Front. Having both these avenues of approach make the campaign one of the most immersive and realistic approaches to the conflict offered on the PC. The game also offers an “Encyclopedia”, which is a database of information about the large arsenal offered in the game. It displays the statistics of the units in graph form and has a 3D object of the unit which can be inspected from all sides.
Achtung Panzer: Operation Star really is a gem, especially for the addicted wargamer. The concept of the game and its immersion is quite astounding. Although the game suffers from a few shortfalls, a few bugs here and there. But a few bugs are expected upon initial release, so I’m looking forward to the first patch release. Though, there are some problems that may require a little bit more than just a fix. These include a dumbfounded AI and a simplistic—kind of limited—HUD that could use a couple extra buttons and better text pop-up descriptions. Sounds were mediocre at times and didn’t have much variety to them, making the sound redundant. The game has a lot of potential, if these little issues were addressed. I do see a lot of attention being drawn not just from Matrix Games, but from the community—such as mods and GUI fixes. Other than that, Achtung Panzer: Operation Star can be addicting for any historical wargamer as long as they have a little patience.
The Good: Immersive strategic and tactical gameplay, a campaign that brings to the computer wargamer a realistic look at how commanders worked on the Eastern Front, detailed units, decent sized battlemaps, and unit statistics are shown during battles via the interface.
The So-So: The GUI is a bit rugged and the symbols used for buttons don’t always relate to their function, lack of control over specific unit activities.
The Bad: Sound could use some work as it’s very repetitive, AI needs a helping hand because units act in unrealistic manners much of the time, the GUI could use a remodel, and tutorial pop-ups could use some grammar modifications, lacks multiplayer capability.
Does the game have a permanent spot on Curtis’ hard drive? Of course! Operation Star is something every wargamer should have in their arsenal. It’s one of the few games that bring the tactical and strategic warfare of World War 2 to the PC. I really see a lot of potential from this game, especially from the modding community. This game looks very moddable, and most of the issues with it seem like easy adjustments. World War 2 games often get a lot of attention, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this game becomes a classic down the line. I do think this will get the attention of modders because it’s not a multiplayer game. Most modders usually prefer to play singleplayer as it’s a hassle to transfer modded game files to all participating players.
Review written by: Curtis Szmania, Staff Writer
- AMD Phenom II 955 BE Quad-Core Processor Overclocked @ 3.7Ghz
- 8GB of DDR3 RAM Overclocked @ 1666 MHz
- ATI HD 6850 1GB Overclocked @ 1030 MHz GPU and 1175 MHz Memory
- Windows 7 Ultimate x64