Panzer Command: Kharkov Review
By Catherine Black |
When it comes to gigantic land battles, nothing even comes close to Operation Barbarossa, the codename for the German invasion of Russia during the Second World War. Having become master of Europe, Hitler launched a massive surprise attack on his former Soviet allies that, over the course of a couple of years, would spawn several of history's largest battles. The action around the Ukranian city of Kharkov, known for its tank factories, was particularly dramatic, with the city changing hands several times as it was captured and recaptured again and again.
That historic series of battles is recreated in Koios Works' latest wargame, Panzer Command: Kharkov. Built on the foundation of 2006's Panzer Command: Operation Wintersun, and borrowing heavily from battlefront.com's landmark Combat Mission series, Panzer Command: Kharkov presents a thoroughly detailed simulation of combat on the Eastern Front but is nevertheless marred by some frequent interface problems.
The game is played at the tactical level with the player leading platoons of infantry and individual vehicles and benefiting from off-map resources like artillery and air support. Unit experience and morale rankings along with full ballistics and armor penetration models make Kharkov much more detailed than your average World War II strategy game and, fortunately, everything is laid out in a ridiculously detailed but well organized PDF manual. The only downside here is that the tutorial is a read-along affair, so you'll constantly be alt-tabbing back and forth to figure out just what's going on.
Each battle takes place on a sizeable 3D battlefield and the player is free to adjust the camera to get as close to or as far from the action as they'd like. It can actually be quite fun to follow a specific unit around and check out the battle from their limited perspective. Selecting a unit calls up a variety of stats and status indicators at the bottom of the screen, so you'll always know just how your boys are doing. We definitely would have liked to see some tool tips here and there, though, because some of the icons aren't as intuitive as the designers might have hoped.
Kharkov plays out in a format that's commonly called WEGO. Basically, the game is paused every forty seconds while both sides issue orders to their troops. Then the game resumes and plays out the next forty seconds in real time with no way for the players to influence the action. Then it pauses again and players can adjust their strategies based on how things progressed. While it's an admittedly artificial system, it's a nice way to merge the cerebral nature of turn-based strategy with the pants-wetting intensity of real-time games. The only problem here is that Koios has added some limitations that emphasize how arbitrary this system really is. In the case of Kharkov, every second turn is designated a "reaction" phase during which your choice of orders is severely limited. i've tried to think of a reason why you might be limited in your commands during one turn and not in another but it still doesn't make sense to me.
There are four campaigns here (five if you count the boot camp series of training missions), each of which offers a look at one of the major phases of the War around Kharkov. Ranging from just a few missions to a lengthy eight-mission run, the campaigns give you a chance to get attached to your units as they follow you from one battle to the next. While the idea of unit persistence is nice enough by itself, the promotions and medals they earn for successful action and the bonuses those confer in battle are really what make the experience particularly sweet. Trying to get a unit's bonus working during a battle while also trying not to put it into too much danger is one of the great balancing acts required by the campaign.
If a full campaign is too much to handle, each of the missions (and a few more besides) are available individually as separate battles. Most of the battles reflect the nature of the war, which means that assaults are much more common than meeting engagements. Nevertheless, there's a nice range of objectives and maps here and the variety is sure to increase thanks to the inclusion of several editors and generators that ship with the game. Any of these individual battles are available in Play-By-EMail form as well.
But for all that, Kharkov definitely stumbles a bit along the way. And it's all the more perplexing because they fail to address some key needs of the genre. To begin with, the "engage" command is a wonderful one-size-fits-all type of order but when you want to get specific about how you want your units to navigate the battlefield, you're in serious trouble.