Publisher: Matrix Games / Slitherine
Genre: Turn-Based Strategy
Reviewer: George Damidas
Overall: 8 = Excellent
Pentium 4, 1GB RAM (XP) or 2GB RAM (Vista/7), 64 MB video card, 500 MB free HD space
Last year’s Panzer Corps, a turn-based wargame from Lordz Game Studio styled after SSI’s Panzer General, ended up being one of my most-played games of the year. After several post-launch downloadable grand campaigns expanded the conflict to thoroughly explore the European theater, the dust has finally settled over Berlin, Stalingrad, and Warsaw. But there remain new lands to conquer—or hold onto for dear life—and those are where the Lordz have turned their attention in Panzer Corps‘ first standalone expansion, Afrika Korps. Following the exploits of Erwin Rommel’s famed expeditionary force, the DAK, players now embark on a new campaign against the Allied forces in the hot stands of Africa in the North African Campaign. With new scenarios, new units, and some of that what-if magic that make those elusive Decisive Victories so alluring, Afrika Korps is a solid follow-up to a beer-and-pretzel classic.
As I noted in my review for Panzer Corps, I enjoy the occasional excursion into the world of hexagons and modifiers, but I am far from a grognard. With that said, I did eke out a respectable career in Panzer Corps. My performance wouldn’t exactly instill fear in any of the day’s giants, but I held my own in some tough encounters, and I managed to surpass expectations on a number of occasions. I was knocked around a bit and left the war bloodied and bruised, but I was able to see it through to the end with my head held high and to the cheers of veteran soldiers satisfied at their hard-fought victory. Hurrahs all around. But with Afrika Korps? Maybe a few buckets of leftover confetti and a half-hearted thumbs-up.
While my combat record was commendable in the European theater, my reputation has been seriously tarnished during my time in North Africa. Undoubtedly some of that is my own fault—the RAF got the jump on me more than once—but yet there was something that seemed noticeably off about the combat predictors this time around. I don’t expect every encounter to go exactly the way the game predicts, indicated by two numbers, one for the attacker and the other for the defender, representing the likely outcome of a firefight after factoring in various stats and modifiers (e.g., unit type, effectiveness against soft and hard targets, positioning, etc.). However, I do expect them to hit around that range more often than not; otherwise, they would be little more than wild shots in the dark. But for the handful of head-scratchers I encountered in Panzer Corps, I was frequently left bewildered in Afrika Korps. Well-planned and timely executed snares that had weighed heavily on the side of heavy enemy losses would instead flip the other way, with outgunned and outflanked enemies doing heavy damage to my superior forces. This made the waves of untimely reinforcements doubly troublesome to deal with as my fastidiousness in launching the initial assault would come to little thanks to mirage odds, leaving my units underpowered and short of supplies. Given the system’s tendency to sway outcomes in the enemy’s favor—or at least do so too often—it was strange how the opposing units would still surrender whenever their situation would veer towards untenable. In some cases, they didn’t seem to realize just how resilient they actually were, giving up salvageable positions to flanking maneuvers that looked far more ominous than their stats would bear out. Then again, I witnessed a handful of my own units shamefully throwing in the towel after a brief exchange despite coming out on the top. The mysteries of combat.
Fortunately, Afrika Korps retains many of the elements that made Panzer Corps so addictive. There are the easy-to-access menus that present a wide array of stats clearly and concisely, extensive unit variety, including over 20 new additions for the expansion, intuitive visual aides to keep combat fast and undos minimal, and the what-if scenarios that reward patience and practice. As with its predecessor, scenario results are determined on a scale, with those who achieve the highest of highs able to veer off into unheard-of territory with veteran units, and low-ranking losers sulking back to their tents to be met with a harsh reprimand and swift kick out of the war. In some cases, you can bomb a scenario and still proceed, albeit more humbled and with less Prestige Points—the currency in which units, upgrade, and reinforcements are purchased—and weaker squads. Those commanders who score a string of Decisive Victories in Panzer Corps were treated to an invasion scenario that saw German forces landing on the shores of the United States, and those who perform with similar panache in Afrika Korps will find themselves similarly rewarded with an invasion of India.
Attaining those Decisive Victories won’t be easy, though, as there is now a greater tendency for objectives to be changed on the fly. The new orders aren’t always surprises, but they do keep things interesting. One map starts off with a mad dash to a safe zone as British forces close in, only to then be commanded to immediately counterattack after reinforcements arrive and their pursuit stalls, sending your forces from one corner of the map to another. A few of the objectives, including some of the optional sub-objectives, increase the tendency for maps to have an even greater puzzle element than before, which can be frustrating for those who find such designs confining—or who just aren’t fond of the incessant save-and-reload merry-go-round. The increased difficulty helped to mask some of the more frustrating moments, but there were a few moments when I just reloaded a save because I knew it wasn’t even worth trying to salvage a victory after a sudden push out of nowhere.
And as equally engaging as the dynamically branching campaign are the pocket-sized battles that spring up on each map. Each section, with captured towns supplying reinforcements and Prestige, mountain and river tiles modifying unit stats, and roads allowing for speedy travel and wilderness bogging down movement, has its own dramatic turnarounds and nail-biting finishes. It’s the game’s capacity to engage at such disparate levels that makes it so enjoyable, with large maneuvers breaking down to intimate encounters as individual soldiers being promoted, squads gain new perks from valorous service, and dug-in defenders overcome. Factor in everything else, whether that is the new heroes, the shifting objectives, or the dynamic campaign filled with a dozen scenarios playable separately, and you have a strong (and nicely priced) addition to the series.
Panzer Corps: Afrika Korps is a difficult game, even when the finicky combat predictors are in line with the actual outcome. Given the increased pressure that the Allies were able to bring to bear on the DAK, this isn’t unexpected. With the exotic locales, cheaper price point, and standalone status, newcomers might be thinking about skipping the original, but I would strongly warn against that. Not only is Panzer Corps a great introduction to the series’ mechanics, I found it to be the more enjoyable of the two. That is not to take away from Afrika Korps, though, as it is an engrossing—if at times bewildering—trip to an underutilized theater that’s packed with new units and scenarios. However, if you already have Panzer Corps and are itching to get back onto the field, Afrika Korps is a great addition.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)