Review: Tank Battle: North Africa12 Sep 2016 0
Review: Tank Battle: North Africa
Released 12 Jul 2016
A few months ago this site reviewed HexWar Games’ Tank Battle: 1944. Recently, the company released Tank Battle: North Africa (TB:NA) for Windows/PC, which, as one might surmise, takes the series’ venue to the North African desert, where the player can both control and face fictionalised elements of the Deutsches Afrika Korps. As far as I can tell – not having played 1944 or any of its Mac/iOS siblings – not a lot has changed other than the scenery and the virtual toys one gets to play with. Which is not a negative; what HexWar does it does well, ‘filling a niche’ as our previous review suggested, between the complexities of Matrix titles and certain others from the likes of Paradox Interactive and Creative Assembly.
Speaking of scenery, the game’s graphics are quite respectable: Hills and palm groves dot the desert, across which tanks leave temporary tread-marks; mud-brick buildings line rough roads; minefields, wire, and other fortifications menace suitably detailed unit models. A PzII looks quite different from a Tiger, both of which are easily distinguishable from a Crusader II or Sherman, for example. Along with the usual infantry and artillery pieces, halftracks, jeeps, and trucks also figure prominently.
Graphics settings only feature HD enabled/disabled as well as maximum 2560x1080, but there aren’t too many scenarios where the size of your screen will matter a great deal, as most battles play out on hex-grids as small as 9x10. Action can be zoomed – a feature 1944 lacked – which, despite the size of most scenarios, is good considering that AI-initiated combat doesn’t auto-centre, and nearly everything happens at once during the AI turn. Thus, a player is advised to zoom all the way out before ending one’s turn, as a lot might otherwise be missed.
THIS AIN’T ROCKET SCIENCE…
Tank Battle: North Africa offers six fictional campaigns of eight scenarios each, plus a Bonus. Although the player doesn’t have a core force to carry through, instead starting with a different unit mix each time, the ability to play the Axis (German) side as well as the Allies (U.S./U.K.) is featured, albeit not by choice. The game makes little effort to reflect historical continuity, much less ‘real’ battles, save for the occasional mention of places like Djebel Abiod, for example.
Even so, I found virtually all scenarios engaging enough and reasonably well-balanced on ‘Standard’ difficulty, albeit a few gave me a hard enough time I had to go ‘Casual’ in order to move things along. Higher difficulty, including ‘Hard’, seems to either favour the AI in battle and/or impose negative modifiers on the player. However, it’s hard (sorry!) to tell, because the ‘Combat Analysis’ – which pops up on targeting but can still be toggled on/off from the main screen – doesn’t change. Therefore, a given encounter can allow a unit the same number of ‘shots’, each with the same percentage chance to hit, in spite of the Difficulty setting. (Testing the same two units in the same scenario at all three Difficulties indicated such to me, at least.)
Other combat modifiers include the usual, i.e., armoured and soft targets, weapon type – machine gun, rifle, howitzer, etc. – and cover/entrenchment penalties ‘to hit’, plus range and terrain. In addition, Raw, Veteran, and Elite units get attack modifiers. All work together well, although AT guns occasionally seem a little too effective versus soft targets. Move/shoot order is very important in TB:NA, as taking advantage of a +2 Flanking bonus – to which all units are subject – is significant, especially because hard targets, at least, generally have weaker side and rear armour, something also factored into the combat equation. Thus, positioning a unit to shoot and, in effect, draw an enemy’s attention, can permit others to get a flank attack against its more vulnerable facing(s), in addition to a greater chance to hit.
Key alongside these tactics is the requirement to move/shoot with one unit before moving the next, as there are no turn ‘phases’ in TB:NA. Each unit can be moved in any order, but once it attacks, further movement with it is disallowed. Units are also subject to scoot ’n’ shoot penalties, something else to factor in as well as range (stationary attackers logically being more accurate). Complicating these considerations is the way many scenarios feature terrain bottlenecks, where units will be unable to pass one another easily, as well as the fact that, for most, moving too far – or at all, for some like SPAT guns – means a lost attack for the turn. Powerful airstrikes, another tactical consideration because they can be saved and accumulated, are available in some scenarios, and can make quite a difference when all at once surrounded by superior forces.
I CAN GET INTO THAT!
Before all that, however, the game is very easy to get into, with a tutorial campaign supplemented by brief ‘How to Play’ instructions accessed through the Help menu. Here, one can also learn the victory conditions: usually a higher score than your AI opponent (there is no hot-seat or multiplayer). One earns points through usual feats such as eliminating enemy units and taking objectives, modified by the Difficulty. High Score for each scenario is tracked, so players can try to outdo themselves; one to three medals are ‘awarded’ on top of each scenario’s title to indicate the level of victory, easily distinguishing which offer room for improvement. Instant defeat is possible, however, if one takes too long or incurs too many losses, or loses certain objectives. ‘Help’ also offers various Charts to assist in preventing this outcome, including aforementioned range modifiers for all featured weapons, as well as for terrain.
Other than the auto-centre issue mentioned above, I encountered few problems, all minor. First, although during the AI turn messages scroll in the upper left corner of the screen, and can now be clicked on to take one to the action, things happen so fast that they seldom seemed available long enough to take advantage; zoom out instead, as suggested above.
Though still relatively insignificant in such a short list of small annoyances, I found the Mounted/Dismounted icons most confounding; to me, they should indicate a unit’s current mode, not the one they’ll switch into once toggled. Likewise, on the button used to accomplish the switch, the truck and walking figure icons ought to be larger/smaller than one another, the larger ‘logically’ indicating a unit’s present mode.
While many players might more or less easily grow accustomed to such petty issues – not to mention that a unit’s stance in open terrain or hills is obvious – it’s not so simple to tell when they’re under cover such as trees, which can almost completely hide certain units from player view. Thus, it becomes a consideration, since switching modes takes a turn, during which a unit cannot move or attack. (I did find it a little odd that, although mounted infantry cannot enter pillboxes or buildings, they can board their transport while indoors; but I suppose this is an abstraction.)
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE BASS—ERRR… THE AI AND REPLAYABILITY…
As for the AI, it seems competent, the only anomaly I noticed being how it sometimes appeared to neglect to shoot at me; but I’m now certain this was because of the ‘move too far’ rule. Although I at first questioned why the AI would do this – render certain units vulnerable by moving them too fast – it didn’t seem to happen all that often, and after all, scouting is frequently advisable even for AI opponents (at least for those that don’t cheat!). Finally, although the first few scenarios seemed a little repetitive, just as I began to think so I suddenly had more variety, including escorting a ‘wounded’ unit; a meet in the middle slugfest; raiding supply dumps; a race to seize objective(s); as well as the usual attack/defend. While alternating reasonably well if played consecutively, one isn’t constrained to play in any order (if ‘Unlock All Scenarios’ is checked in the Settings menu). Furthermore, along with the chance to play different sides, the player is sometimes given the option in a particular scenario to conservatively defend or else go on the offensive. (Hmmm… What would Patton do…?) Plus, there are occasional ‘surprises’ along the way, so boredom should not be an issue.
In summary, though, I have to confess a little hesitation in recommending TB:NA unreservedly; for the very reason I admitted above, regarding my lack of experience with any other Tank Battle game, I would suspect some possible repetitiveness despite the ‘new’ setting et al., if one has played others. Still, I imagine trying any one of them would quickly give a player a good idea how the rest might work for them or not; ‘variety’ and ‘repetitiveness’ being subjective, after all.
On the other hand, if you’re a wargamer seeking a sprawling, operational WWII game, or one that rigourously models historicity and tactical realism, look elsewhere. If, on the other hand, you’re eager for a quick wargaming challenge where your tanks are engaged within a turn or two, and scenarios can generally be played inside an hour – albeit closing a game auto-saves it to Resume later – then Tank Battle: North Africa is probably for you. Especially if you enjoyed any of its kin, and considering its sub-$15 price tag.