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Way, way, waaaaaay back in the ’80s, there was a tank-warfare game so detailed and realistic real-world Army sergeants and lieutenants would invade my barracks room to commandeer the IBM 386 it was installed on. Not just because it was fun, but because it was superior to the Army’s actual tank-simulator cabins of the time.  When not training on the real deal in the field, they honed their skills on my machine (and paid me to go somewhere else while they did).

That game was Microprose’s M1 Tank Platoon.

Serviceable yet stylish.

Serviceable yet stylish.

The graphics, as with most 3D-modeled games of the time, were more about functionality than anything else.  But where Tank Platoon delivered was in the sheer attention to that functionality.  Every control you’d find aboard an M1 tank of the time —and a few that weren’t, like the “turret heading indicator” there—was modeled and usable for exactly the purpose it served on real-world training missions and battlefields.  Any individual piece of equipment could be knocked out, and God help you if you hadn’t been practicing to use the backup systems.

Nor was the enemy AI built to simply zerg-rush.  Instead, it followed what the West understood of Soviet doctrine as closely as possible.  BMPs and BRDMs would find you, disgorge infantry, and keep you spotted for artillery to lay smoke or pound you.  Meanwhile, heavier forces moved up to fix, and then flank, your position.  The AI did all of this while observing the correct formations for use while moving, assaulting, or defending.

As for the campaign, it was straight out of the era’s military nightmare fuel: a single platoon of tanks, with support attached by higher-ups before each scenario, fending off whole companies or even battalions of the best the Russians could throw at you.  Each individual soldier had quality ratings that could be improved by medals and promotions, and each could be wounded or killed, replaced by green-butts from the rear echelons as the war rumbled onward.

Yet despite supposedly being a spiritual successor, M4 Tank Brigade achieves NONE OF THIS.

It really doesn't.

This does not bode well.

The developer, iEntertainment, has been around since the mid-’90s with only one major success to show for it—the classic online dogfighting game Warbirds, one of several early MMOs hosted by the old GEnie service.  Aside from rebooting it with a couple of spinoffs over the last several years, the company has produced little else.  So how does this outfit get bragging rights as illustrious as those related to M1 Tank Platoon?

Because it has Microprose’s original founder and CEO behind it, Lt. Col. John “Wild Bill” Stealey, USAF (Ret).  It was strictly because of his involvement that I plunked my money down instead of using the review codes provided to TechRaptor.  Now, you’d think that with this man at the helm iEntertainment should be capable of at least something on par with what was done back in 1989, but so far M4 Tank Brigade is a giant step in the opposite direction.  Even for an Early Access game.

M4 Tank Brigade promises to become the standard in World War II tank games with explosive gameplay, unparalleled realism, and beautifully rendered, historically accurate terrains …

… so says one of the early product pitches.  Four years later, it’s still exceptionally raw, loaded with placeholder … everything.   Graphics, music, sound effects, terrain, textures, you name it.  Even the tutorials come across as someone’s first-year programming project, with voice acting done on a headset mic and clip-art cartoons representing your drill instructor.  The complete lack of style, with attendant loss of immersion, is striking in all the wrong ways.

oh dear god

Really? …no, REALLY?!

And it only gets worse from there.

M4 Tank Brigade brings a full Campaign mode where players start in early WW II tanks and progress through the years of 1939 to 1945 getting better and more deadly tanks as the war goes on.

That would be really awesome, had such a concept survived to the current version:wb3_steam 2015-09-11 07-16-46-98Campaign Mode is just a selection of large arenas, each of which has to be unlocked by completing X number of missions in the preceding arena.  There’s no win/lose branching, none of what happens in a given mission affects the situation down the road, and every individual mission is randomly generated.  If the original campaign system for Tank Platoon could be compared to chess, Tank Brigade would be checkers.

Once into a Campaign mission, you’ll find the AI for both enemy and friendly units to be simplistic in the extreme.  Click and drag the white marker on the battle map, which represents a unit’s command vehicle, and the entire outfit will move in a perfectly straight line to the waypoint, shooting at any enemies they detect.  For supporting air and artillery, just right-click a spot on the battle map and select the attack (if available).

You have zero ability to customize anything.  You have no individual crew, only tanks, which even in single-player Campaign Mode have bot-sounding names like “big-t” and “iceman.”

wb3_steam 2015-09-11 07-50-06-64In fact, the only real resemblance to Tank Platoon‘s quality seems to be in Brigade‘s granular damage system.  Individual parts of your tank, as well as enemy tanks, can be knocked out—which you will be advised about in a brief text message with no sound, so if you’re not flicking your eyes towards the battle report scrolling past at breakneck speed, your only hint that the enemy’s tracks were blown off will be that he’s stopped moving.

Remember that highly-detailed gunner’s-station graphic from Tank Platoon way at the top of this article?  Yeah, there’s absolutely nothing like that here.  You shoot, you adjust your aim while the loader slams another round into the breech, and you shoot again.  Repeat until the enemy dies.

Not that this is any great problem, being as that the enemy is both dumb as the proverbial bag of hammers and about as skilled at gunnery as a myopic badger—no matter how often their rounds fall short, they just keep firing at the same spot without ever correcting to actually hit you.  It seems like they’re pre-set to hit only if within a certain range, at which point they don’t often miss.  Which, incidentally, goes for your own forces as well.

wb3_steam 2015-09-11 07-51-28-55

The enemy misses so often, it amounts to a defensive smokescreen.

Aside from using the map, you can also move your own tank (and thereby the entire platoon) by standard WSAD keys … er, except that “W” and “S” are throttle-locked, so you can find yourself accidentally backing up if you tapped once too many times trying to stop.  Wanna look around?  This is one function from the ’80s that’s entirely unwelcome: number-pad camera views with no apparent option for mouse-looking (that’s needed for the all-important tactical map interactions).

Is that supposed to be a hatch or a satellite dish?

If you blunder into an enemy killzone and your own tank gets blown up, you can shift to command of another vehicle in your (ugh)”brigade” (generally four platoons of six vehicles each, which is an oversized company or an undersized battalion depending on how you look at it).  This ability to swap vehicles is definitely a crossover from Tank Platoon, but it’s simply not much to speak of.  If you don’t blunder in, and use a modicum of the skills you learned in World of Tanks, you will be a god on the single-player battlefield.

This post-mission screencap says it all. I personally wiped out an entire company of Panzer IVs, which should have been relatively equal to my M4 Sherman.  Only one of my team scored their own kill, of a light vehicle.  On Veteran difficulty.

My virtual life is a lie, isn't it?

So why don’t I feel like I’ve actually accomplished anything?

Online multiplayer is more interesting—if barely.  Maybe I caught them during an exceptionally slow time, but only two battles available, with only one live player each?  Well, let’s try that Mega Tank Battle thingy then!

Boy, I’m sure glad I can fight for Gold Country and not, say, the United States…

At least here, there’s a lot more options for how and where you spawn into the fight.  But with only one other person in this match on the entire map—and that’s a really big map right there—most of my time was, again, spent fighting the rock-stupid AI while racking up even stupider levels of kill-counts.  I never bothered finding the other player before logging out.

Still, if you do decide to plunk down your money, you should know a couple of important things:

Firstly, do NOT Alt-Tab out of this game.  It’ll work, but the game does not thereafter recognize any attempt to re-enter the window, nor does it have the common courtesy to at least crash to desktop.  Even if you manually kill the operating window, it’ll continue to run in your Task Manager’s process list until you also kill it there.  Meaning that if you got the game via Steam, you can’t re-launch it until you’ve beaten the damn thing into submission.

Nor will M4 Tank Brigade allow the use of Steam’s F12 hook for screencaps.  All shots in this article were taken using FRAPS.

Perhaps the game will dramatically improve, and sooner rather than later, but given the giant gap between what was promised in 2011 and what’s on display right now, I cannot in good conscience recommend it to anyone.  Nonetheless, it’s available both via Steam Early Access and iEntertainment’s own dedicated website, which itself is something to behold.

As we used to say in the US Cavalry, when advising someone via radio to stand by for an indeterminate amount of time:

“Wait one, over.”

This game was purchased by the reviewer and reviewed on the PC platform using Windows 7.

Scott Malcomson

Staff Writer

Old enough to have watched the first moon landing live on TV, I've been gaming since the days of ApVenture and the Zork series. My last console was an Atari 2600, and my first PC was an Apple IIc (in glorious monochrome!). If you want to understand the kind of person I am, it might help a bit to play Ultima IV.