Afghanistan '11 Preview - Nation Building the Hard Way

Published: March 9, 2017 11:00 AM /

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Close on the heels of their success with Vietnam '65, developers Every Single Soldier and Retro Epic are now close to releasing Afghanistan '11. As with Vietnam, the central objective in Afghanistan is to make sure the civilian populace - not to mention your own grunts - don't become part of the body count. You'll need to secure their villages against terrorist attacks and create local infrastructure in order to achieve victory through political stability.

In some ways, Afghanistan is a reskin of Vietnam, but this isn't really a bad thing. Viet Cong soldiers have been replaced with Militia, North Vietnamese Army units are now bands of Taliban insurgents, and NVA forward bases have transformed into Opium Fields - all operating in pretty much the same fashion. Well, except the Opium Fields don't have artillery set up to pound your approaching troops with, so that's a plus. You'd think that would at least make Afghanistan '11  a little easier to beat, but the truth is that the Taliban don't need that artillery at all. The terrain is their best weapon - villages are widely spread out, mountains take up huge chunks of the map, and the road network is often a strung-out mess.

To win, you have to boost your popularity with the locals, a factor tracked by the "Hearts & Minds" score. There are five ways you can do that: defeating Taliban units, clearing Improvised Explosive Devices, connecting roads to villages, delivering UN humanitarian aid, and building Water Works. That last one is the most valuable: when you live in a desert, having clean and plentiful water is kind of a big thing. All of this, naturally, falls under the heading of "easier said than done".

Taliban units, even when on foot, are highly mobile, able to assault a Forward Operating Base and then fade back into the countryside even before you have a chance to hit them with the Base's Mortars. By the time your Infantry get close enough to see them, they're launching an ambush. While Militia are relatively easy kills, Taliban regulars can take a hit and then retreat - usually in order to attack some other, more vulnerable, location.

This puts a much higher premium on reconnaissance than Vietnam '65 did. Drone coverage helps, but there's usually only one and it has a cooldown period. Because of this, drones are best used in emergencies when you just have to find out where the little buggers scampered off to and lay down an F-16 Airstrike on 'em.

Two companies of Special Forces, the highlighted one being in Observation Mode, near a US-friendly village with water and roads installed.

In fact, there's only one reliable recon unit in the entire game. Special Forces. Infantry only gets a visual range of one hex, but these guys get up to seven if you stick 'em on a mountain hex in Observation mode! These are also the only units which start with the Sniping and A-10 Airstrike perks, making them utterly invaluable for spotting, tracking and eliminating Taliban assets. In addition, they can also train up units of the Afghan National Army at one of your bases, to augment your efforts. Entire battles can, and will, turn on how well you employ them.

Underlying the combat system are the interlocking pressures created by Political Points. Or rather, how to properly obtain and use them. Political Points pay for everything you do in Afghanistan -  bringing in reinforcements, moving units, calling Airstrikes, building infrastructure, and so forth. How many Points you get each turn depends on how high the Hearts & Minds score is, and that depends on how well you protect and serve the local villages.

Yep, that missing portrait is a bug. More on those later...

All that work periodically culminates in the Afghan Presidential Election, for good or ill. Eventually, US forces will withdraw, and you'll hand control over to the Afghan National Army you've been building up over the course of each mission... er, you DID remember to train those units, right? It's no good to win the battle and then let it all collapse once you leave!

Afghanistan '11 rewards what the kids today are calling "emergent gameplay". You're given a mission, but it's entirely up to you how to accomplish it with the resources available. Only rarely is there one perfect way to get things done.

You might have to get a convoy down a highway to prevent a forward base from falling. Speed is paramount, but the Husquvarna ("Husky") minesweeper vehicle is pretty slow. Infantry can clear a fair radius several times every turn, but even with a Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicle (MRAP) picking them up and dropping them off, you're going far slower than your Supply Trucks are capable. Leapfrog with multiple MRAPs? How about using a Blackhawk's superior mobility to conduct sweeps even further along?

Naturally, all of those tactics are progressively riskier. Overflying or bumping into an unspotted Taliban unit will earn you an ambush, for example. Do you deploy an extra Special Forces unit or Drone to size up the area? Can you afford the Political cost of deploying and moving so many troops so quickly?

The true allure of a good wargame is that it's ultimately a puzzle - one with many possible solutions that all tie to the lives and well-being of everyone represented. The supreme example of the first part of that equation is chess, with so many possible ways to win or lose that it takes a true master to understand them all. It's games like Afghanistan '11 which bring the human element forward. These aren't just pawns on a board to be swapped for the greatest possible advantage. They represent much more than a set of simple electrons coursing through a printed circuit board.

To master modern warfare requires bearing in mind that every number has a human being somewhere behind it.

Afghanistan Red Stripe of Death

The only real problem affecting gameplay, at this point, is this - the Red Stripe of Death.

Some campaign battles - like Lashkar Gah, here - seem to generate a Stripe on every playthrough, while others seldom or never get hit with one. Launching an ambush on an already-visible Taliban unit seems to trigger it regularly. Oftentimes, you can clear it and continue the game as normal. Other times...

This Blackhawk is stuck, and the entire game is stuck with it. Sigh...

Well, other times the game locks up entirely, as with the chopper landing bug above. Since it wasn't even eating even a single gig of RAM at the time of this screenshot, this has to be a coding problem, and that doesn't bode well for a product this close to hitting the market.

It could be that this is a result of Every Single Soldier being rather more ambitious this time around. Vietnam '65 exclusively used randomly-generated maps, but Afghanistan '11 introduces a full historical Campaign of crafted scenarios. That's a major plus, especially since you can still fight Vietnam-style with Skirmish Mode. Nothing is lost here and a lot's been added, which is almost certainly why the Red Stripe pops up so frequently here. Too bad it's not the good kind.

Occasionally you'll also get very silly or frustrating results. Like when a Taliban unit bounces from one ambush to another, retreating every time without a hit and ending up clear across the map - on foot - only to end up beneath your damaged Chinook. Then executing an automated "ambush", destroying a very expensive aircraft and killing the wounded infantry unit aboard. Those guys should have been dead of exhaustion alone!

Bugs and rare bouts of weirdness aside, the game is structurally a major improvement over Vietnam '65. Though similar in layout and overall style of play, the numerous tweaks and extras provided by Every Single Soldier make this a must-buy for myself (and perhaps most wargaming aficionados)... once they hammer all the bugs out, that is.

Afghanistan '11 was previewed on PC via Steam with a code provided by the publisher. TechRaptor has no affiliation with Red Stripe Beer - it's just a joke, mon. Hooray beer!

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