Not Napoleon Total War, not Rise of Prussia or Battlefield: Bad Company 2 but the unexpected new game Achtung Panzer is what was for me the best new Computer-Wargame of the first quarter of 2010.
The other games mentioned and those not mentioned are most certainly impressive games, both Napoleon and Bad Company having impressive graphics and a lot of immersion, Rise of Prussia meticulously detailed and very well researched, but none of them comes close to Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 (AP).
AP is a game we have been waiting for quite some time, a game which fills a gap and does so in a splendid way. AP is a very serious realistic 3D-wargame. For those who wanted more after playing games like combat-command there was nothing, Graviteam, developers of Achtung Panzer threw in 3D graphics and set the game during the German Kharkov offensive. Very well researched, countless period military records and maps as well as surveys have been used to recreate the Kharkov area in which your company size command will fight. The Soviet force is composed mainly of infantry backed up by a few platoons of T-34s while the full might of the 6th Panzer Division is brought to bear against them. Playing as the Germans you have panzers, APC-mounted infantry and mechanized artillery (Marders and Stugs) at your disposal.
Graviteam (also developer of training complexes for the Ukrainian army) claims the use of a completely destructible environment, although this sounds somewhat more impressive then it really is. Houses, fences and trees will show damaged and destruction and best of all burned out vehicles will stay on the field of battle during the subsequent missions but don't expect bricks, concrete and dirt flying all across the screen. Houses and trees will not catch fire either although this is something Graviteam will implement in AP's sequel or add-on Operation Star which we will be able to play later this year.
The learning curve for AP is rather steep but quickly you know how to manage your troops and all that's left to learn, which takes a lot of time and practice, is which strategy to use in an infinite number of tactical situations. During your first few playthroughs you are not really aided by an intuitive interface and the lack of a proper tutorial is annoying as well. There is, however, a good concise Quick-Start-Guide which allows you to get into the action rather quick. Don't expect anything from the manual though, as you won't find answers to your questions there.
Achtung Panzer makes use of two different views, the Operational view which takes place on WWII-period maps, you move your forces across them to engage the enemy. Everything you need to know about your platoons can be found here as well: Current strength and whereabouts as well as the options to repair reinforce and refit. The same menu also give you access to the losses incurred and the damage done by your units and, this is very cool, the medals earned during operations.
As your and the AI's units are pushed across the map, almost like playing chess, battles occur where the two clash. Sometimes there are just two units involved but if you play it right you outnumber the enemy. If not you might just have to run and safe your force to fight another day. When you outnumber the enemy 4 to 1 however, you should still be careful lest the enemies sell their skins dearly and your victory turns into a Phyrric victory.
Engagements are played in 3D battle-mode one at the time. Starting out by deploying your forces as you see fit: in positions from which to strike quickly or perhaps dug-in around an objective for defense. You have a birds-eye view of the detailed and accurate 3D landscape. Snowy fields, forests and villages.
Because of the snow everything is white and gloomy, even when the sun breaks through and the sky clears. In which case you better watch the skies.
When distant artillery and the occasional barking dog is all you hear apart from the squeaking of the vehicles' tracks, the crack of an anti-tank rifle can make your heart skip a beat. The message "Enemy contact" flashes and the upbeat music hightens the tension and immersion even more; the battle is on.
The vehicles and units in AP are well detailed, including the unit's markings on tank or halftrack; shovels and rifles can be seen stacked away in the halftracks and spare bits of track on the tanks and Stugs. Considering realism the spare parts actually serve a purpose, if immobilized your crew will jump out of their vehicles (if not in the enemies field of fire) and repair the damage done. If they don't manage to do so during the fight a vehicle is not written off completely as your mecanics might be able to repair the damage in the few hours between battles, of course you might have to be without this particular unit for the next clash with the enemy.
Battles are completely different every time and the silence can be transferred in a hellish inferno in second, incoming artillery (and kathuska strikes), rumbling panzers, molotov-cocktail throwing infantry, rattling machine-guns, it is all there. One wrong descision can have fatal consequences for you entire force while setting up in just the right position can assure a costly defeat for the enemy without any loss. This game is for the hardcore and the exact oposite to any arcade-like game.
The AI is not exactly perfect but a lot better then can be expected from such a small team, it is even better if you compare it with games like the Total War series. The AI's decisions on operational and tactical levels is different, but mostly logical although sometimes unexpected this makes for a good re-playability. Even though I would really like to see Kharkov 1943's sequel; Operation Star (tigers!) and the subsequent game set in the summer (and green terrain). There will be much, much more to come and Graviteams engine will turn out classic, although niche, wargames for years. Or so I hope.
Even though there are some problems which need attention in Achtung Panzer: yes, the interface could be user friendly, the AI can use some attention and we could use a bit more spectacular graphics such as fire and smoke (will be in Operation Star) this game deserves our complete attention. Because of its refreshing and realistic gameplay as well as immersion beyond anything encountered so far I would like to name Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 the best wargame of the first quarter of 1943.