T72: Balkans on Fire12 May 2005 0
The poor cousin to flight sims, tank sims rarely get the hype seen associated with their better-known brethren (who knows what might have been if the original defining program for IBM PC compatibility had been Microsoft Tank instead of Flight Simulator?). But fans of the genre know they’ve got a great gaming world to explore… if only more developers and publishers would help them. Well, Russian developers IDDK and Crazyhouse and U.S. publisher Battlefront aim to be one of the teams this year to help tank simers out a lot with the U.S. release of T72: Balkans on Fire (yes, T72, not T-72). Previously published in Russia, the game is getting tweaked for the U.S. market (players won’t be required to read Russian to play), but is being kept true to its original hard-core simulation roots.
Balkans of a different stripe
The subtitle for T72 is Balkans on Fire, and the setting is indeed inspired by the conflict in the Balkans from 1991 to 1995. In the game, the player acts as a Russian volunteer fighting for the Serbian National Forces. The campaign game includes 18 linked scenarios, each with increasing difficulty. Featured driveable armored vehicles took part in the war and are of the Russian/Soviet era: the T-72 of the game’s title as well as up-gunned versions of the older T-55 and WW II-era T-34. It might seem odd to tank simers used to the usual NATO/Warsaw Pact, Gulf War or hypothetical future conflict scenarios to be seeing such antiquated hardware in a game set in modern times, but that’s the benefit of looking outside the realms where U.S. tankers have usually fought. Third World tank forces often have older hardware — much modified — in their arsenals, and while the developers acknowledge in the draft manual that some of the platforms and systems portrayed in the game (like the SU100) were not used in the actual conflict, they could have been, and are representative of many Second and Third World arsenals.
In addition to the campaign there are single-player missions for both training and playing campaign missions from the Croat side. The menu in the preview version discusses player missions, but the editors to support this weren’t available yet. Multiplayer will consist of either cooperative or competitive play (use of a dedicated host server is recommended), and will vary in the number of players allowed depending on the scenario (and the number of tanks it contains). Right now multiplayer is LAN only, but Battlefront says they are looking at adding internet play. “It looks as if the effort to recode the multiplayer part might be too much to do before release,” says Battlefront’s Martin van Balkom. “If that turns out to be true, we're going to add multiplayer as a patch or add-on (in the latter case, the game will only cost $35 instead of full-price $45 of course).”
In all three tanks the player can jump into the driver’s seat, the gunner’s station, the commander’s station, or an AA gunner’s view. The actual stations aren’t modeled visually (unfortunately players can’t see the interior of the tank). Instead, they get an out-the-scope/viewfinder view, one that it similar on each of the tanks but modified to fit the appropriate systems of that tank (don’t expect even an improved T-34 to be as nearly as sophisticated as the T-72!). The manual acknowledges that the views and controls are simplified from the actual tanks, but players will still be doing a lot more in this game than they do in almost any other commercial tank sim. They can also play each position from external views (with or without some control panel information), or play internally but with a “view all” mode on—this is the only way to simulate viewing from an unbuttoned position (Battlefront says an actual out-the-hatch unbuttoned view is on the list, either for the final release or in a patch “for sure”). All the positions make extensive use of the keyboard to operate specific systems, and players can also use the mouse, particularly for any steering/aiming. Joystick support can be enabled from the configuration settings, but at this time Battlefront isn’t claiming full joystick support because they haven’t tested it with an extensive set of configurations.
T72: Balkans on Fire is perhaps the first tank sim that makes being in the driver’s position actually desirable. In this position the player doesn’t have nearly the view that the gunner or commander do—in many cases, the driver is literally down in the weeds as T72’s modeling of simple ground-level vegetation (weeds, grasses, etc.) is extensive. Because of this, steering one of these beasts is much less an exercise in driving across a slanted pool table and more a rolling, rocking ride across terrain that’s often hard to fully see. Driving’s also much more involved than gassing, breaking, and turning. The player must start the engine (make sure it’s not too cold), put the tank in gear, add fuel until it produces the right level of rpms, release the hill brake, maybe hit the horn to let nearby infantry know their shade is about to start moving, let up on the brake, and then steer using two steering pedals. Unless the player has got an automatic transmission setting turned on, he’ll be constantly needing to adjust the gear settings as he maneuvers across the terrain, all while dealing with hidden pitfalls, exhaust smoke from his own engine that clouds the view, or dirt that gets kicked up onto the vision block (the game includes a hydraulic-pneumatic system to blow/knock off dirt or moisture, but to the player must operate it himself).
The gunner position is going to be more familiar to tank simmers, although it might be more work for those used to all the automation of an M1-A2. In the T-72 the gunner has more systems to manipulate as he enters an engagement, but they?ll help during the actual fight, while in the T-55 and (especially) the T-34 the gunner has fewer buttons to push but will need more skill to hit his target. The gunner can select which ammo type he wants loaded (basically equivalents to the familiar sabot and HEAT rounds), then issue a load order, then he can set about determining range, aiming, and firing. The player may have a variety of systems to help you in these tasks, but he may not, even in the T-72 ? the game does an extensive job of modeling damage to internal systems based on the location of hits and the types of ammo fired at your tank.