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Game Review: ‘Highway to the Reich’

Jun. 21, 2012 - 01:14PM   |  
By Michael Peck   |   Comments
In "Command Ops: Highway to the Reich," a powerful artificial intelligence allows players to stay focused on the big picture rather than on individual units.
In "Command Ops: Highway to the Reich," a powerful artificial intelligence allows players to stay focused on the big picture rather than on individual units. (Matrix Games)
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When most people think of Pentagon simulations, they visualize something out of the movie “WarGames.” What I tell them is that if they want to see what a Pentagon sim looks like, they should grab a copy of the “Command Ops” series from Panther Games. Perhaps what I should be saying is that if the Pentagon were to do a constructive simulation right, it would look like “Command Ops.”

“Command Ops” is a series of World War II computer games designed by Dave O’Connor, a former Australian Army reserve officer. The latest installment is “Command Ops: Highway to the Reich,” which covers Operation Market Garden and the last stand of the British 1st Airborne at Arnhem. (You’ll need the basic “Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge” game to play the Market Garden expansion.) The “Command Ops” engine simulates corps-to-brigade-level battles at the company level.

The graphics feature the usual squares, with the usual X’s and ovals of NATO unit symbology, moving hither and yon over a chunk of 2-D terrain. Unlike many historical war games, the map is not divided into hexes or squares, which again adds to that command post exercise feel. There are bucketfuls of stats for every unit, including morale, cohesion, fatigue, training and aggressiveness, plus supply and equipment levels. There are even ratings for unit commanders.

“Command Ops” is a real-time engine that can be paused at any moment to allow players to make their moves. Debate over the realism of real-time versus turn-based games approaches the intensity of the PC vs. Mac wars, but “Command Ops” manages to capture the fluidity of the battlefield without turning the game into a contest of who has the quicker mouse finger.

In fact, the most striking aspect of “Command Ops” is how little the player has to do. Much of the game consists of clicking on a headquarters, issuing a general order such as probe, assault or defend, and then sitting back and letting your computer subordinates do the work. Players can adjust how their forces fight in astonishing detail, from what tactical formation they assume to emphasizing speed vs. cover during an approach march. Players even have the option to change artillery rates of fire and duration of bombardment. But all this is optional, and the game plays smoothly even if you don’t delve into every bullet and bean.

Indeed, the game’s command control rules (there are variable delays before units execute instructions) mean that once you issue orders, you are often better off just letting your plan unfold than bollixing things up by moving this company here and that platoon there. Players have a chance to experience how a division or brigade commander operates (or should operate): not like a micromanager, but rather like an orchestra conductor, setting the tune while each musician plays his individual part.

But this only — repeat, only — works because “Command Ops” has perhaps the best artificial intelligence (AI) of any historical simulation. Say you click a box around a German infantry battalion and order it to attack a dug-in British parachute company. In most games, the German battalion would usually pick some serpentine path to its target, and then the infantry would hang back and diddle while the mortar crews charged the enemy swinging their tubes like Viking berserkers. In a Pentagon simulation like JCATS (Joint Conflict and Tactical Simulation), human pucksters and lots of mouse clicks would be needed to get the battalion to move from point A to point B. In “Command Ops,” the German battalion picks a sensible route, the infantry moves to the front, and the mortars stay back and provide supporting fire — all without any human intervention other than the initial command. Because “Command Ops” units behave sensibly, players have the luxury to focus on a few key decisions, such as where to attack or defend and/or which fatigued or depleted formations need to be pulled out of the line.

A powerful AI also makes “Command Ops” surprisingly easy to learn and use. This is an asset at a time when the constructive training infrastructure is slimming down and instructors need simulations they can teach quickly. Even a battle command disaster like me could learn the basics in a few minutes.

“Command Ops” has been used by the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College as well as the Australian Department of Defence. But otherwise, Panther Games has not had much luck selling its product to the U.S. military. This is ironic. I suspect that if many U.S. officers had a choice between “Command Ops” or JCATS and OneSAF, they would pick “Command Ops.”

The comparison isn’t totally fair. “Command Ops” has the luxury of focusing on battlefield operations. Unlike JCATS and other military constructive sims, “Command Ops” doesn’t have to model civilian behavior, chemical weapons and all the big-picture environmental factors. Nor does it have to play nice with a menagerie of other defense simulations.

But what’s important here isn’t what “Command Ops” does as much as what it can do. The game proves that it is possible to have a constructive simulation that doesn’t saddle users with the strain of micromanagement, the burden of using pucksters or the frustration of watching their troops behave like lemmings on meth. “Command Ops” is a game that gamers and military professionals alike can appreciate.

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