Everyone thought it was over. The Soviets were talking German reunification. Their armies seemed to be withdrawing from the borders. Tensions relaxed. After decades under the threat of potential nuclear annihilation, everyone was taking a long breath of relief.
Everyone was wrong.
Pressured by internal disruptions throughout Russia and its Warsaw Pact allies, the Kremlin had decided on one grand gamble to keep the Soviet experiment alive. In the early hours of July 20, 1989, Red divisions lunged across the border into the Fulda Gap. Their goal? Nothing less than the complete subjugation of Western Europe.
On Target Simulations brings us Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm, and its companion campaign Germany Reforged. You get four campaigns with the full collection, the first being the American 2nd Armored Division’s defense east of Bremen, a crucial port on the Weser River with access to the North Sea. The second puts you in command of the Soviet 57th Guards Tank Regiment of the 8th Guards Army, mounting a surprise hammer-blow to break NATO lines and reach the Rhine River ferries. There’s also “School Teacher”, in which the 151st Panzer Battalion is tasked with a disconnected series of seven unique battles, and “Wolves”, about small forces trained to be overrun by the main Soviet armies and then resurface to fight in their rear areas. Additionally, there are dozens of “one-shot” scenarios to enjoy, covering a variety of environments and situations.
As with all old-school wargames of this sort, you’ll want to break out the manual sooner rather than later. Fortunately, it’s written to be accessible by even the neophyte wargamer. Flashpoint Campaigns’ polished presentation makes it much easier to figure out what’s going on, and video tutorials are also available online.
In return, you get an introduction to hardcore strategy and tactics, the sort that’s absent in most real-time strategy games. Scenarios, maps and opposing forces aren’t designed to be balanced or fair. Instead, they’re meant to be as true to the situation as possible. On Target Simulations clearly gets that this sort of asymmetrical challenge is what makes the wargaming genre uniquely satisfying.
GETTING YOUR MOVE ON
Play revolves around the classic combo of hexagon-based maps and unit chits. Each hex is 500 meters across, battlefields getting up to twenty kilometers long and fifteen wide. At this scale, the opposing sides can each field anything up to a reinforced brigade, breaking down to individual chits representing companies, platoons, artillery batteries and so on. Some elements may be “off-map”, but are still close enough to lend support on call.
You set waypoints to move your units from hex to hex, limited by how many can be in one hex at the same time and how quickly they can traverse different types of terrain. Traffic jams are possible, and they’re worse than you’d think, since this is the era of “one shot, one kill” technology. You don’t want large formations clumping up where they can be spotted. If that happens, your enemy will thank you profusely for the lovely bouquet of artillery and airstrike targets you’ve just handed them.
Trying to move everything at once will also greatly tax your command-and-control elements, which determine how many orders you can give to your units and how quickly. Radio nets can be crippled with electronic warfare, command vehicles can be destroyed, and in so doing, a clumsily-deployed force can be pinned by a smaller one. Conversely, a large force can seem truly unstoppable if it has the element of surprise on its side.
Once you’ve exhausted your order allowance, hitting “proceed” advances the game. All units, for both sides, will start moving and trying to execute their orders as best they can, shooting at each other as opportunity provides.
If you master them, these factors can introduce the feel of a sword duel to the flow of combat. Successful commanders will set traps, probe for weak spots, and commit to serious strikes only when there’s a real advantage to be had. Rookies will charge in with everything down the easiest paths, only to watch their units bumble about like one of those old vibrating football games.
One highly welcome element of Flashpoint Campaigns is that your unit AIs aren’t idiots who require micromanaging. They will take independent actions to stay alive, even ignoring your orders if it would be suicidal to follow them. For example, if you have a lone platoon of M60 Patton tanks being rushed by a company of T-72s, they might back away to avoid being flanked or overrun.
Victory in each scenario is point-based, valuing both strategic hexes and the destruction of enemy units. Varying shades of win, lose or draw depend on how big your share of the points is by a given scenario’s end.
THEY BROUGHT FRIENDS? SO DID WE!
Individual scenarios can be single-player, hot-seat (where you and another player trade off turns at the same computer), or play-by-email. You can also set the AI against itself to watch how it executes its own stratagems. Slitherine.com has a multiplayer lobby, but you’ll need to create an account for access.
On Target Simulations has included its game editors for maps, scenarios and campaigns, so expect to see a lot of community-created content (or provide your own, of course). Speaking of which, here’s where we run into my only serious concern about Flashpoint Campaigns: the campaigns.
FLASHPOINT AIN’T PANZER GENERAL (MORE’S THE PITY)
The engine is actually focused on scenarios, with campaigns simply being a series of scenarios pearl strung together. Your mission is to win each scenario, while trying to keep your “core units” intact throughout the campaign. This basic premise borrows a few pages from the classic Panzer General series, but that’s where the similarity stops. With a strictly historical focus over a much shorter period of in-game time, Flashpoint Campaigns doesn’t allow force customization, nor is there any ability to enhance or upgrade units between scenarios.
Instead, the game will automatically assess which units earned awards and citations, which were reactivated or replenished after the battle, and then continue onto the next scenario regardless of how well or poorly you did. While your performance from one to the next affects what you have available to fight with, the lack of branching alternate scenarios can cut into the replay value of campaigns.
Nonetheless, the scenarios themselves are excellently crafted, each presenting unique challenges to overcome. Nor has the developer seen fit to rest on these laurels, already having declared plans for more Flashpoint Campaigns with Southern Storm. Significant changes to the game engine, as well as content, have been promised. Given their performance to date, it’s reasonable to expect that On Target Simulations will deliver.
This game was reviewed using a review code provided by the publisher, and was played on a Windows 7 PC.
The superb adaptation of a genre classic from the end of the Cold War era. Relatively easy to approach, difficult to master.