Blast from the Past UFO: Enemy Unknown

In 1994 Microprose released UFO: Enemy unknown, the first installment in the X-com strategy series, is a game in which you lead an global defense organization to counter the alien organization; shoot down UFOs, kill the aliens and research new techs in order to destroy their lair on Mars and destroy them once and for all. UFO: Enemy unknown is a serious Blast from the Past.
Classic games from the 90's are seriously outdated graphic wise, but they made it up in gameplay and the so important replayability. UFO is a prime example of this and does something modern games fail to do; it keeps you glued to your seat for hours. Replayability to the max, they made up in gameplay what they lacked in graphics. UFO: Enemy unknown is awarded the title '#1 PC game of all time' by IGN three times in a row.
The X-com series games combine tense tactical squad-based combat with global strategy and base-management, a perfect mix. The turn-based combat is the best part of all though; your team will be flown in to eliminate the survivors of an ufo-crash or worse (better from the gamer's perspective), defend a city against an alien attack. In between your turns, as the aliens move, you hear them but don't see them, you can feel your heart beating because of the tension.
A scream, then some movement and a burst of shots......this game is just so unbelievably good.

After the success of UFO: Enemy Unknown Microprose released Terror from the Deep, the aliens did survival after all and now they where coming from the seabed where you would have to combat them. "Fantastic new graphics" the strategy-guide reads, well perhaps in 1996. However, this game was again as thrilling as UFO. If you haven't played them, check out both of them, they can be found for a few bucks on download-sites like Steam and Gamersgate.
For me UFO is more then just one of the best games ever made, it is the game which introduced me to 'Wargaming' and games in general. I occasionally fire it up and have as much fun I had fifteen years ago. Recently I found the special-edition on e-bay. UFO en TFTD with both strategy-guides. I had had it but lend it to a friend and never saw it returned. I have been searching for it for a long, long time but now, at last, I have found it and will never lend it again to anyone.


Best Wargame of Q1 2010

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.


Words of War

In this series of columns we will take a look at words associated with and originated in warfare. Many of these words have found their way into our everyday vocabulary with a different meaning or vice-versa. For the first episode we will look at the grim business of different methods of punishments.

A scene we can easily depict when reading the words is one not put into practice all that often: walking the plank. Pirates sometimes used this harsh punishment but more often marooned those they punished. The word marooning is derived from the term maroon, a word for a fugitive slave.The punishment was meted out by the fellow crew who set the their victim (or victims) on a deserted island, often no more than a sand bar at low tide. He would be usually given some food and water, and a loaded pistol so he could commit suicide if he desired. The outcome of marooning was usually fatal although not so in the case of Alexander Selkirk and famous pirate captain Edward England. In some cases, like that of Alexander Selkirk, who was worried about the unseaworthy condition of his ship, marooning was voluntary, and thus took place under somewhat more favorable circumstances. He later stood model for Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.

In its glory days the Dutch navy practiced a rather strange method of punishment. Keelhauling, literally meaning "to drag along the keel" was a form of corporal punishment not meant to kill the victim, although when not done right the sailor could drown as a result of being underwater for too long a time.
When a sailor was keelhauled, he would be stripped and tied so that he could not swim. Usually a weight was attached to his legs to pull him away from the ship. The offender was tied to a rope that looped beneath the vessel, thrown overboard on one side of the ship, and dragged under the ship's keel to the other side of the ship.
If the offender was pulled underneath the ship quickly he would suffer severe cuts, bruises and other injuries from the barnacles on the ship's hull. If pulled to slow he would not hit the hull but might drown.
Keelhauling first appeared in 1560, when a Dutch ordinance outlined the practice and the offenses for which it could be used legally permitting its use as a punishment. Other maritime powers including the Britain Royal navy adopted the practice as well. There are also many associations with pirate lore. The Dutch navy did not abolish its practice until 1853.

Today keelhauling is only performed metaphorically altough the term is still occasional used by watersport-enthusiasts. It refers to the spinnaker sheets (parts of the sail) getting stuck under the hull. The social networking site, Facebook, has an English (Pirate) translation that uses 'keelhaul' to mean 'remove' or 'cancel'.
After the Second World War, between August 14, 1946 and May 9, 1947 the allied armies in Northern Italy carried out Operation Keelhaul. The operation's intentions to repatriate Russian captives to the Soviet Union. The term has been later applied as well to other Allied acts of often forced repatriation of former residents of the USSR after the ending of the war. While the original naval-punishment was not intended to kill the offender many of the captives and refugees repatriated during Operation Keelhaul lost their lives through summary execution or during their times in the Siberian camps after returning to their country.

The Spanish horse was a cruel but not widespread torture device. I have seen one in the Netherlands but have also seen a picture of a similar device on a picture from the American Civil War.
Basically, the punished soldier stands over a pointed (but not sharp) beam on his toes. His groin area is exposed to the board and becomes uncomfortable as he shifts from getting tired. This causes his private parts to grate across the board. His hands will be tied to make sure he can't support himself. On occasion wheels were fitted underneath the Spanish horse and it was dragged through town. If that was not cruel enough additional weight could be tied to the offender's feet to make aggaivated his suffering and eventually cut him in two.The Spanish horse was not often used to execute offenders in this way however.
The name Spanish horse comes from the Eighty Years War period or Dutch war of independence. When a deserter was punished with this somewhat less painfully devices in the American Civil War he was said to be 'riding the horse'.

In case of a mutiny Roman generals punished the unit which had performed this unforgivable act by executing every tenth legionair. From the latin verb decimare, to kill every tenth men, our word to decimate was derived. Which in the nineteenth century aquired its more general meaning of 'to destroy a large number of the enemy'.

Sometimes we link a punishment to a certain period in history. The humiliation of tar and feathers is something we know from the American Wild West but in fact this punishment goes back far in history. During the third crusade, in 1189 King Richard the Lionhearted issued a decree in an attempt to twart the increasing large number of thefts taking place during the long journey to Jeruzalem. "Any robber traveling with Crusaders shall be shorn like a hired fighter, and boiling tar shall be poured over his head, and feathers from a pillow shall be shaken out over his head." After Richard I's decree this form of punishment became widespread although you of course wonder how they acquired the tar needed.
During the American Revolution it again became a widespread practice as Colonists used it against the Loyalists. These days we only use it in a figurative manner when we it is used to refer to a severe and disgracefully punishment.