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Posted on Jun 14, 2009 in Electronic Games

Theatre of War 2: Africa 1943 – PC Game Review

By Larry Levandowski

Theatre of War 2
Battlefront.com / 1C Company. $45 (download & hardcopy).

Passed Inspection: Loving attention to detail. Living battle environments. Wargamers have been waiting for this.

Failed Basic: Replay value hurt by too few scenarios.

The true test of historical accuracy for any tactical game, is how well real-life tactics work on the game map. In terms of tactical fidelity, TOW2 gets an “A.”

In early 1943, the Germans were in a desperate struggle to stay in North Africa. Caught between Montgomery’s Eighth Army and the Anglo-US forces of Operation Torch, a fierce campaign raged for control of Tunisia. Rommel’s bold Valentine’s Day offensive, centering on Kasserine Pass, gave the Americans a bloody and embarrassing defeat. But the Allies recovered quickly and within months, the Germans had been pushed out of Africa forever.

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These final phases of the North African Campaign are the subject of Theatre of War 2. The game is published by Battlefront, and developed by 1C Company. In a nutshell, TOW2 is a tactical level war game that represents company task-force sized battles down to the individual vehicle, gun and soldier. The system plays real time, and uses some real-time strategy game conventions for camera movement and unit selection. But there should be no confusion, TOW2 is a highly detailed tactical war game, and is not an RTS.

TOW2 is based heavily on its predecessor, Theatre of War. But it’s clear that 1C has listened to the gaming audience and addressed many of the shortcomings of the older game. TOW2’s improvements include buildings that can be entered and fought over, better morale modeling, and a somewhat streamlined interface.

Like it’s predecessor, the detail in TOW2 is fantastic. A typical battle has five to ten vehicles, several guns and thirty or forty troops on each side. During the fight, each tank shot, bullet, grenade toss, and artillery shell has telling effect on the 3D map. Each soldier and vehicle is fully modeled for weapons, ammunition, and grenades they are carrying. Troops can even pick up better weapons from casualties on the field.

Graphically, the game is a real feast. The 3D maps are alive, and they look and feel like real places. Tanks are modeled down to the rivet. Soldiers, gun and tank crews all move like real people. When gun crews fire, the commander spots the target, the loader slams a shell into the breach, and the gunner cranks the barrel as he takes aim. When tank crews bail out, they open the hatches and jump out while black smoke billows from their dead vehicle. The attention to detail in TOW2 is wonderfully immersive and historically accurate.

The game offers a broad set of tanks, vehicles, and guns from the Tunisian campaign. The Germans have all of the varieties of Pzkw III and IVs, quad 20mm AA guns mounted on half-tracks, the dreaded 88s, and even the Tiger I. The Americans have an early Sherman, the Stuart, the Lee, and 105mm howitzers that can ruin a panzer’s day if it hits the right spot. The British have the Daimler armored car, the six-pounder AT gun, and only one tank, the under-gunned Valentine. There are easily another dozen armored vehicles, and the game is bursting at the seams with trucks, motorcycles, machine guns, aircraft and every type of infantry weapon.

The combat engine in TOW2 is deliciously ambitious, and for the most part succeeds. Every shot fired, from massive 105mm howitzer rounds, to .303 caliber rifle bullets are modeled for flight path, penetration and damage. Many weapon systems can also choose their type of round, like high explosive, armored piercing, or even smoke.

When tanks are hit, the game determines penetration based on shell type, armor at the location hit, and the angle of the strike. Damage varies realistically, from destroying the tank and wounding crew members to knocking out the main gun or immobilizing the tracks. As in real life, when the firing stops, an attacker finds he has just as many badly damaged tanks as he does dead ones.

TOW2 also models hits on soldiers as well as their vehicles. Air and artillery attacks are down-right scary when they are falling in the right place. Unless troops are entrenched, they don’t have a chance in the middle of an artillery barrage. Flying shrapnel and bullets easily wound limbs, and torsos, affecting the soldier’s ability to continue the fight. Troops also have morale and at some point when casualties are high, they break and run.

One of the very nice features is detailed crew management. Each soldier is rated for several abilities, including skill as a gunner, driver and leader. If your heavy hitting Pzkw IVf2 has a badly wounded driver, replace him with that healthy driver from the Pzkw IIIj that just bailed out. Want to make certain your M10 tank destroyer can hit with one shot? Look through your crews, find the best skilled gunner, and put him in the M10.

The ability to manage crews is often an important part of winning some scenarios. In the German Kasserine Pass scenario for example, the player can take Wehrmacht crews and infantry to man captured British anti-tank guns, and American 105mm howitzers. The guns, turned on their former owners, help stop a British counter-attack, and root out dug-in American gun emplacements.

The true test of historical accuracy for any tactical game, is how well real-life tactics work on the game map. In terms of tactical fidelity, TOW2 gets an “A.” Charge enemy trenches with infantry in the open, and you will be wiped out. Infantry advances must be covered with smoke and large-caliber suppressive fire. Tank advances work well by using hull-down firing positions, and bounding overwatch, i.e., one section covers the other while moving. Want to take out an enemy infantry team in a house? Don’t charge in with guns and grenades; take the house down with high explosive rounds from a tank.

While all of this detail and behind the scenes number crunching just tickles the fancy of every true grognard, not everything in combat works exactly as it should. Infantry are vulnerable to any type of fire, and the AI has too many eagle-eyed gunners who can pick off a lone infantryman popping his head over a sand dune at 500 meters. Unless the player is very careful with how he uses his infantry, 90% casualties are just another day at the office.

The game comes with three campaigns, British, German and American. Each campaign has a handful of linked scenarios where core troops from the previous battle are advanced to the next. Between battles, the player distributes experience points that increase the skills of those troops and crews who survived.

Just before entering battle, the player can also set up the units he will be attacking with. The player can use an optional organization screen to purchase additional units or trade for different types of equipment. Making good choices here often makes a big difference on the battlefield.

Each mission in a campaign easily takes one or two hours to play. Battles have nested objectives that are revealed as the player progresses through the scenario. In the German Kasserine scenario for example, the player starts off by attacking prepared US positions in the pass. But if the player chooses to outflank the American emplacements, the player is given another objective, and more tanks, to smash the American right flank. The maps are large, and objectives diverse enough that playing a battle two or three times does not become stale.

In fact, most players will have to play each battle a few times anyway. The campaign will not let you progress until you win. While the scenarios can be difficult, they are not impossible. Most players will have to restart each scenario a few times, but they will also enjoy the challenge.

Gamers who have been spoiled by the lavish number of fights in Battlefront’s classic Combat Mission series, will take issue with the sparse pickings in TOW2. The game comes with no stand-alone battles and only the 15 campaign missions. In many cases, a battle in the German campaign is just the other side of a battle in the American campaign, further diluting the diversity of the experience.

The game addresses this lack of diversity by offering a full-featured set of editors. But mission and map editors are not easy to find, and definitely not easy to use. Would-be scenario designers who are familiar with object-oriented programming, height-maps and scripting will find they have almost complete freedom with this powerful game engine. Unfortunately, most players will be intimidated by the editor’s steep learning curve.

For the rest of us, a special mission generator is a quick way to put together a battle without having to code scripts. The player selects a map, sets up the play area, chooses forces and then can save or play the battle. The mission generator is very efficient; it takes less than 15 minutes to build a medium-sized fight with a platoon of tanks and infantry on each side. Unfortunately, the mission generator does not have a load feature, so if the player wants to tweak his work, he has to go back and rebuild the battle from scratch.

Strangely, the game offers no random skirmish mode—strange, because the feature is there in a way. The player can start a multi-player game with only a computer opponent, basically a random skirmish. But don’t look for skirmish on the menu.

Overall, the interface works fairly well. Players familiar with RTS conventions will be right at home. The options are streamlined, and with just a few clicks the player can do a good job of managing his forces. Soldiers can either be moved individually or by squad. Tanks are moved and given targets with simple clicks. Complex tasks are also easy. With a few clicks, a player can order a half-track to hook up a field gun, and transport the crew.

The UI does have a few issues, like the fact that you have to set a squad’s formation each time you move it. The facing command does not always work. Also, the slopes on many hills can not be climbed by infantry. Too bad, because the Tunisian campaign was characterized by infantry hill fights. But in terms of game-play the issues are minor.

If you are one of those players who avoids real-time because twitch-and-click is not a life-style you choose, you will be pleasantly surprised by TOW2. Players can not only give orders while the game is paused, but there is also a half-speed button that does not make the player feel like he is living in slow motion.

The AI is certainly better than many games that have gone before, but it is not the best. Dumb AI tricks are generously mixed with some real faux intelligence. For example, tanks in towns often become confused, and drive around in reverse. Sometimes, troops storming an enemy position throw grenades, then run out on them as they explode.

Generally however, the AI provides a good sparing partner. On the defense, the enemy is usually thoughtfully deployed. In some scenarios, the attacking player is forced to fight hard for every sand dune, house and mountain pass. On the offense, the AI is somewhat suicidal and likes to run straight for the objective without regard to losses, but these scenarios are still fun.

One aspect of the AI is a good-news, bad-news story in that individual vehicles and other units act semi-independently. On the good side, the player can be fairly comfortable putting his attention on important parts of the battlefield. While he does, his units will fight pretty well on their own. This feature dramatically reduces the click-fest feel that many real-time games have.

The bad news about this semi-independence is that sometimes your tanks and men run off and die without your orders. In one game, this reviewer halted two Pzkw IIIs just outside of a small village held by American infantry. While the reviewer moved the camera around the map, looking for friendly infantry to assist in the assault, the panzers decided to go for Iron Crosses on their own. The tanks drove into the village, and were cut up nicely by American bazookas. Hardcore wargamers tend to be control nuts when it comes to managing their virtual troops; this aspect of TOW2 may drive them crazy.

For those tired of playing the AI, TOW2 offers a multiplayer mode. However, since this requires a real-time connection, players will have to find an opponent in a similar time zone.

TOW2 comes with a full manual that does a good job of explaining the interface, the game mechanics and the mission generator. The game editors are also fully documented in separate files. Overall, the game is pretty accessible, and learning to play should not be a problem for most players.

New players, or those coming from standard RTS games, will be able to quickly pick up the mechanics but may struggle with completing the scenarios. Battles can be brutal if the player does not use real-life tactics. Try to use what works with most click-fest RTS games and you will have a very hard time. The game manual offers some tactical tips, but new players may want to study up on WWII small-unit tactics before going too far with this game.

The review was finished using the 1.1.0 patch. Updating is highly recommended since the patched game was much more stable and ran more smoothly on the reviewer’s dual core, Vista 32 machine. Also, the patch implements a sophisticated action camera, that jumps to view critical events like the destruction of a friendly tank. This helps a great deal with situational awareness.

Overall, Theatre of War 2 is just the sort of game tread-heads have been waiting for. Historically accurate and lovingly detailed, the easy-to-use interface is great for intermediate and advanced wargamers. Newer players may be put off by the brutal combat environment, but they will be rewarded by sticking with it. While the limited number of scenarios is disappointing, future expansions will hopefully fill the gaps. So if the sound of tanks on the move warms your heart, sign up for Theatre of War 2. The panzers await your command.

ACG Score: 88%

ACG Intel

Theatre of War 2

Battlefront.com

1C Company

Larry Levandowski has been a wargamer for more than 30 years, and started computer gaming back in the days of the C-64. Until he recently discovered the virtues of DOS box, much of his computer game collection was unplayable. A former US Army officer, Larry has done his share of sitting in foxholes. Since leaving the Army, he has worked in the Information Technology field, as a programmer, project manager and lead bottle washer. He now spends his spare time playing boardgames, Napoleonic and WWII miniatures, as well as any PC game he can get his hands on.

10 Comments

  1. Where can i buy this in Australia, i’ve looked on the Battlefield website but i can see a release date for australia, nor can i find it on any other games site. Can you hepl me?

  2. Hi Jason, I believe you will have to buy direct from Battlefront. You may want to use the download option to get the game immediately. Also you can purchase both media and download. It looks like they ship to Australia.

    But if you are looking for a retail copy, I suggest you leave a message on the Battlefront TOW2 forums. Moon the admin is usually very good in answering questions quickly.

  3. You can buy it as a direct download from Battlefront from anywhere.

  4. Good review. Me as a player of many real-time and turn based realtime games I can say that 1C did really nice work. And I see big potencial of their game core-engine. What is absolutely perfect and you will never find it anywhere is the tank battles. Same in TOW 1 I think they are very realistic, very good engine physics, armour and shell calulations, manouverability of vehicles and many nice details. I may say this about all vehicles in game. Same I may say about AT guns. But the opposite feeling is about infantry. Still very bad control of infatry. No steep hills climbing. Some players mentioned kind of baby-siting, managing of infantry. For all that you can control infantry like a team but sometimes you need to control also individual soldiers(MG’s, snipers,bazookas). That’s too much for a player to control, lets say 50 soldiers individualy on battlefield. Also there is BIG absence of cover in nature. No bush hiding. No rocks, obstacles. That’s what infatry use and why they can survive on battlefield. 1C needs to do more in this related issues. Building hiding in TOW 2 is a good start though. Absence of strategic maps. Generating own campaings. And many many more improvements can be done. However TOW2 is good piece of deal.

  5. Is it illegal to mention ’88s’ without prefixing it with ‘dreaded’? :)

  6. Is Theatre of War 2 – Africa 1943 an expansion?

    Does it require a main game?

    Please, I need some advice ASAP!

  7. Hi Dry,

    TOW2 is not an expansion. It is a stand-alone game. You just need to purchase TOW2. TOW1 is not required.

    Larry

  8. Africa 1943 is the full name of Theatre of War 2 – I am assuming their theory was it makes it sound more impressive and indicates to the potential buyer that it will focus on Africa.

    However, there is an expansion coming soon titled Theatre of War 2: Kursk 1943
    Which will focus on the Battle of Kursk.
    This will be a stand alone expansion and therefore will not require the original game.

    There is also an add-on planned for ToW 2 which will be adding in an Italian campaign (and more units) and that will require the original game (ToW 2, not the original ToW).

  9. ToW 2 Africa looks excellent. Any one want too sell me there copy?

    60559-3354 IL

    Have a Great day.

    davevicks@yahoo.com

  10. Why do you say that for multiplayer it needs to be someone in the same timezone? When I was in California I played with my dad who was in Florida all the time.

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