Lock n Load: Heroes of Stalingrad

By James Tanaleon 17 Feb 2014 0

The perennial enemies show their heads once more: on one side is the ?gentleman soldier? descended from proud Prussian might and steel: on the other is the coarse and populist iron of the Soviet infantrymen: hero of the proletariat. The ring of the sniper's bullet and the whir of the T-60 bring the familiar clamor of the Eastern Front during the Second World War to the ears of the PC gamer. This unique battle arena should not be alien to the various Lock ?n Load fans out there and this newest game in for the PC Mark H. Walker's Lock ?n Load:  Heroes of Stalingrad by Matrix Games brings any lover of the franchise back into the very thick of ground warfare during the deadliest conflict the world has ever seen. 

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For the uninitiated, the ?Lock 'n Load? series of board games invites veterans and newcomers alike of hex-based turn based war games into the maelstrom of the myriad conflicts in World War II. This latest adaptation takes the Eastern Front of this massive conflict and faithfully reproduces the thrill of the acclaimed board games to the PC. Upon entering the game, the player is given the choice between different scenarios and campaigns which range from playing different pitched battles to following the trials and missions of either the German or Soviet forces. 

The fidelity to the board game itself is almost immediately present when a scenario is loaded. Hexagonal zones sprinkle the map and the image quality crisply represents what would have been board pieces and chits. Various units are displayed and ?pop up? when selected as if a player were taking his fingers and sliding the unit stacks through his grip like poker chips. These quality of life additions signal to the player the developer's intentions: they are bringing the board game to the PC. 

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The kinetic movements of the interface resemble what a would-be commander would do if he was surveying the board game itself as well. Unit cards flip over to reveal vital information visually simulating turning over a card board piece; the units themselves slide seamlessly during the various turn phases; and modifiers to terrain and units respectively all resemble tokens one would place on the board to simulate damage, smoke, or other status effects. Even the map itself is depicted as sitting on a table with a visible border resembling the edge of a game board. The loyalty of the developer to the original gameboard experience almost borders on the obsessive, but it is the player familiar with the franchise who truly wins out in this meticulousness. 

That is not to say that the adaptation to the PC did not bring with it some quality of life additions that took advantage of the new medium. The biggest additions are the most obvious: sounds and added visual effects. While there is nothing to be ashamed of in the vivid imagination of the board gamer, PC gamers will enjoy the cacophony of gunfire, the tintinnabulation of long range artillery, and the metallic symphony of Panzers rolling through wheat fields. Gunshots move through the screen carrying their deadly shots of metal in hot lines of orange and red. Bombers deliver their payloads in miniature explosions blanketed by the serene flow of clouds wafting across the simulated battlefield. The music in the background is moody and almost subdued as if relying solely on the carnage of combat to provide the epic overtures. This game is not just a substitute for the tangible counterpart, but adds something unique to the experience. 

Another aspect to this new type of immersion is the addition of little plot points depicted as animated pictures similar to comic frames. These range from rallying exclamations to the heartfelt memory of a wife and family waiting at home. These add a personal and emotional element to the scenarios. While it's true that most players interested in war focus more on the tantalizing exploits of their armies, it is always good and positive to see developers attempting to add a human element into the games. It helps to draw the player more into the conflict and adds texture to the mayhem. Do?nt get me wrong, Heroes of Stalingrad is not exactly as emotionally stirring as the latest game from Square Enix or as shocking as something out of Assassi?ns Creed, but side quests and small tidbits of humanity help to add bite and spice to the usual ebb and flow of total war. The animation itself is not inspiring either, but, thankfully, it is not ?out of place.? Although the art for the pseudo ?cut scenes? may not be as inspiring as they should be, there is no doubt about the quality of the art during melee engagements. I was rather impressed that the developers decided to add grey-worn photogenic art pieces of close range combat into the melee operations. No longer is the outcome decided by a mere witnessing of a dice roll, but snippets of combat where machine guns blare add a much needed level of immersion into the game world. The epic stride forward of one's advancing infantry becomes a lot more than an abstract minigame against a random number generator, but a surge of excitement. Regardless, one knows that the player interested in this game was not exactly looking for melodrama, but for the clash of steel. 

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The gameplay itself I found confusing at first. Those not familiar with the way the board game works may find themselves slightly lost with the byzantine throughput of ?phases? within ?turns.? Unlike many other games which offer a simplistic overview where every unit is allowed a move or action before the ?end turn? button is pressed, Heroes of Stalingrad subdivides the whole turn into miniature operational phases. I personally found this to be the weakest part of the whole experience. While it may be true that fidelity to the mechanics of the board game is essential, I still find the mechanic a bit difficult to navigate and one is often stuck with the feeling that they might have missed a unit or order. It might be helpful to add another quality of life addition which is possible because of the PC by implementing a system similar to Pandora: First Contact where units which have not yet received orders are queued to be selected next if one presses the ?finished? or ?pass? button. It would be these kinds of additions that are available only in a PC setting that would help to make the game a better adaptation by making use of the benefits of this medium. Despite this weakness, it does?nt mean that gameplay is impossible to understand. After a while I had become quite used to the phase system. The tutorials do a decent job explaining how the gameflow works without being overbearing and long winded so I would encourage new players to check on the tutorials first. 

When I was?nt distracted by the phase system, I found myself rather charmed by the gameplay. The ?Lock ?n Load? franchise chooses to focus not on major engagements or gigantic battles, but intimate and close quarter combat occurring between small squads in a relatively localized area. Perhaps only a village or crossroad is laid out on the map as opposed to much larger and abstract forms of combat game. This intimate setting allows for more finesse in ordering units and squads around and better simulates what a middle-tier commanding officer might experience. In a genre where most gamers are given only the option of either overarching strategic game modes such as the Hearts of Iron franchise or solipsistic first person experiences like Call of Duty, it is refreshing to find a middle ground where a commander is charged with the fate of a smaller area of operation with only limited resources. I almost drew parallels between my experiences leading my squads and the nostalgic adventures of Fire Emblem or Ogre Battle

I do?nt mention these hero based games merely for their tactical resemblance either. Heroes of Stalingrad is true to its name as it has various hero units which greatly affect the flow and outcome of each scenario. Complete with these hero units, which are also often required to be alive for a scenario to be successful, combat experience may grant certain heroes abilities and bonuses that increase their usefulness. This organic approach to the gameplay helps to not only personalize each playthrough, but adds character and personality to each fighting unit. Certain groups specializing in different kinds of combat give the player a real sense of possession over his army. 

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The scenarios themselves range from the simple to the complex. I was quite pleased by the difficulty level that I found in each scenario. This is not your cakewalk against the AI. Each scenario takes real thought and deliberation before simply dashing all of one's units against an enemy line. In fact, I found that one of the most frustrating aspects of fighting the enemy revolved around being ?pinned down? by enemy fire. I would often have to lead small pockets of my men to ?draw? enemy opportunity fire while my other elements flanked. This level of tactical maneuvering is such a refreshing measure of challenge that truly separates the boys from the generals. Despite the challenge, I do?nt think that this means that new players should avoid this game. Not at all, in fact I find that the challenge helped me to become more and more involved in the game. New gamers will find that there is an almost addictive quality to the difficulty: efficiency and saving one's men becomes a game of its own. The player finds that eventually he begins to channel a little Sun Tzu: It's no longer about overcoming the enemy, but doing so as efficiently as possible with as little loss of life as possible. 

The scenarios themselves are?nt just chess-board like confrontations where battle lines are neatly demarcated, either. Scenarios can have sprawling zones where line of sight, isolated elements, and enemy pockets become real concerns. I have often seen that without proper heroes to back them up, some of my units can become isolated and perpetually out of morale which paralyzes an entire wing of my maneuverability; my mortar team can become utterly useless when they're stuck behind friendly buildings; or a single sniper can hold my advancing line at bay. The proper positioning of forces in defensive locations is key in stopping enemy advances while armour spearheads at the right locations could mean the difference between inglorious defeat or major victory. The terrain itself is gorgeously adorned with obstacles, buildings, and other modifiers which have direct bearing on the behaviour and survivability of one's forces and offers a would-be commander ample of variables to think about in planning his next move. 

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It is also easy to see the massive potential for hot seat multiplayer on this game. I can easily see how differences in tactical skill level can determine the rise and fall of many a general in multiplayer mode. The game offers a rather exciting venue for tactical dueling and would be one reason why replayability is possible despite the short amount of available campaign scenarios. This is certainly one big advantage in acquiring the ?Lock ?n Load? game for the PC, as it means that challengers from the around the world may become a norm. The turns are processed fast enough and the dice rolls quick enough that players can choose to either engage in long-distance chess type scenarios where they take an afternoon to contemplate moves, or simply blitzkrieg their way through conflicts on mere gut instinct. 

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There are some bugs which necessarily must be fixed (such as a rather annoying one I had to deal with concerning font sizes on certain Windows OS that made the menu impossible to access). Nonetheless, when Lock n Load: Heroes of Stalingrad receives the proper patches that it needs, it is sure to delight fans of the board game while also offering a middle of the road strategy game for any player who is looking for that up close and personal tactical touch. 

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