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Posted on Jan 13, 2009 in Electronic Games

War Over the Mideast – PC Game Review

By Larry Levandowski

Armchair General MagazineModern Air Power: War Over the Mideast. John Tiller / HPS Simulations. PC game. $49.95

Passed Inspection: Fun, edge-of-the-seat operational air combat.

Failed Inspection: Weak campaign features. Minor interface issues.

With War Over the Mideast, John Tiller and HPS give wargamers a detailed, yet playable game of modern air combat.

In the years after the creation of the modern state of Israel, the Cold War sometimes turned very hot in the skies over the Middle East. In 1967 and 1973, the air conflicts were classic battles of quantity vs. quality. The Arab nations of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, were well equipped with vast multitudes of B-grade Soviet planes and air defenses. Israel was outnumbered and alone but had the advantages of superior training and Western equipment. Not since World War II had the world seen such massive air engagements as those fought above the Sinai and Golan.

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John Tiller and HPS take us onto this incendiary stage in Modern Air Power: War Over the Mideast. The second game in the Modern Air Power series, WOM covers much more history than its predecessor War Over Vietnam. The scenarios span more than 50 years starting with the 1956 Suez Crisis and finishing with the 2007 Israeli strike on a suspected nuclear site in Syria. The territory covered is also much larger, with maps that stretch from Syria and Western Iraq to Tunisia and Sicily.

Game play in War Over the Mideast is real-time. Scenarios typically last from one to five hours, and most can be played in one sitting. Units representing flights of up to four aircraft are depicted as icons that move across the map. Giving orders to your virtual pilots is done with a couple of clicks, and the player has a full menu of options to define complex paths and target strikes.

Each flight is assigned a mission type and given a matching default load-out by the scenario designer; thus, an F-4 flight loaded with air-to-air missiles is ready to clear the skies of enemy aircraft and is given an air-superiority mission. Another flight of A-4s with Shrike anti-radiation missiles is ready to take on enemy surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites and is given a suppression of enemy air-defense mission (SEAD). The game allows you to change the mission of flights during the game but not the load-out, so the player quickly learns to appreciate multirole workhorses like the F-4 Phantom, a great plane that can drop bombs on an enemy tank column, then stick around in an air-superiority role to keep enemy aircraft away from the next bombing wave. Israeli pilots didn’t nickname it kumass—the hammer—for nothing.

In the game, giving orders to air-superiority flights is pretty easy. The player scrambles aircraft by setting a path for their patrol area., Each flight can be given an auto-intercept and auto-fire order so they will automatically engage when enemy aircraft are close, or the player can direct the flights to their targets and give the order to fire missiles himself.

While controlling your fighters is easy, keeping the sky full of combat-ready air-superiority flights is not. The player must quickly scramble new flights to replace those returning to base for rearming and refueling. The most frantic fights occur during the ’73 Yom Kippur War. Typically Israel defends with a handful of highly trained units against waves of Arab fighters and strike aircraft. Sometimes opposing forces are uncomfortably close to each other, and units can go from runway to dogfight within minutes.

Air-to-air combat in WOM is not tactical. Once missiles have been fired or aircraft are within gun range, there is little for the player to do. As in real life, better equipment and training are likely to win the day. The player only knows what happened when the butcher’s bill flashes on top of the screen, showing downed enemy and friendly aircraft.

However, the player is not completely helpless in combat. Because WOM has a realistic model for air-to-air and surface-to-air weaponry, the player can often affect the outcome of air combat by his actions just prior to a fight. Missiles are modeled for tracking type like heat-seeking and semi-active or active radar. They also have tracking and aspect angles to determine when they can be used against a target, so telling your flight to turn toward an enemy who is loaded with heat-seekers is one way to keep your enemy from shooting those missiles up your hot tail-exhaust. Or, if an enemy SAM is fired at you from long range, dropping to low altitude, hitting afterburners and flying away might just bring your pilots home.

While air-to-air combat is exciting, the real meat of the game is in planning and executing air strikes. Many scenarios like the 1982 Israeli strike on Saddam’s nuclear facility near Baghdad have preplanned attack routes. The player can assign aircraft to these with just a click, or he can define the flight-path himself. The game interface is easy to learn, so setting up complex missions is a snap.

In WOM, there is more to a bombing run than just picking a target. Flight paths not only define what to attack and how to get there but also what altitude and speed to fly. This is important, because flying high and slow uses less fuel but is easier for enemy radar to spot. A good attack route will keep your bombers flying at cruise speed and altitude while out of enemy radar range but flying low and fast once in the danger zone. Flying close to ground still has to be done with care; low planes passing over enemy units are certain to be peppered with antiaircraft fire. Finally, close to the target, your flight may have to do a pop-up if the bombs they carry can’t be dropped from low altitude. Despite the complex orders, the interface in WOM makes all of this easy to do.

While the interface is easy to use, setting up successful air strikes is where players earn their virtual pay. The gamer quickly learns that successful bomb runs have to be well planned and coordinated. In WOM, as in real life, air strikes are a team event, with a different role for each participating flight.

The player can coordinate the arrival of these different elements of the air strike with a time-on-target order. If enemy SAMs are expected, the strike planes should be preceded by SEAD flights. These specialized Wild Weasels take out anti-air sites and their presence often keeps enemy SAMs from even turning their radar on. If the enemy has plenty of interceptors in the air, the bombers will need an escort of air-superiority aircraft. For long missions, air-to-air tankers need to be on stand-by to top off thirsty strike aircraft; flying low and fast uses a tremendous amount of fuel. Finally, the player must select strike aircraft with the right type of bombs for the mission: penetrating bombs for hard targets, area weapons for spread-out soft targets etc.

Along with bomb types, War Over the Mideast models quite a bit of technical detail. Even veteran gamers will need to crack open the manuals in order to enjoy the game. At first, the amount of information can seem a little daunting. The game comes with over 100 pages of documentation, and true to John Tiller’s spartan approach, there is no fluff. Gamers not familiar with modern air combat acronyms and concepts will be most challenged, but all of the information needed to play the game is in the manuals.

Even though there is a great deal of information packed into WOM, the learning curve is not as steep as you might expect. A 25-page Getting Started manual and tutorial mission do a great job in teaching the most important game concepts. One area where the manuals are weak however, is describing what the player can do with all of the editors available.

The graphics and sound keep John Tiller’s minimalist reputation intact. Graphics are professional and functional and aircraft profile pictures seem to have accurate color schemes, but the map, layout and icons are all old-school 2D. Sounds add to the game experience somewhat but are hardly impressive. There is also a constant background of military air-traffic chatter, but the loop can be a little repetitive. Overall, by today’s standards the game is a few steps back in the look and feel department.

However, the game is not wanting in scope. As in all John Tiller games, the player is spoiled by the number of scenarios available. The 30 scenarios start in 1956 with Canberras, and Corsairs and stretch to the current day with F-15s and F-16s. The game’s database holds hundreds of aircraft and weapon systems; WOM‘s scenarios showcase this vast arsenal, as well as the staggering changes that technology has brought to air combat. Early jets like the British Vampire are quaint dinosaurs when compared to a Mirage III, not to mention an Su-27 or MiG 29.

The scenarios also feature different game-play styles, and there is something for everyone. On one hand, there are scenarios that require deliberate planning and execution. A good example is Operation Musketeer, the 1956 French and British attack on strategic sites around Cairo. In this game, Egyptian resistance is minor; the scenario is mostly about finding targets, then building multi-aircraft strike packages to take them out. Other scenarios, like the 1973 Sinai scenario, are more edge-of-the-seat. This scenario has hundreds of planes in the air as both sides try to attack each other’s ground forces. Both players must simultaneously manage the defense and offense. In these scenarios, planning quickly breaks down as a massive brawl develops. In some battles there are easily 20 to 30 flights in the air at once and judicious use of the pause key will keep turn-based wargamers sane.

A fun optional rule has the player working to rescue downed pilots. In most scenarios, forward air bases usually have helicopter units that can go after those pilots who managed to land without their planes. Rescue missions are a mini-game by themselves since the player often has to penetrate enemy territory with slow-flying helicopters to get their men back. In large scenarios, with a hundred aircraft in the air, rescue missions are more of a distraction, and thankfully can be turned off.

While there is a great deal of variety, scenarios are basically set-piece affairs, and the player cannot change starting positions or load-outs. However, the ATO (air tasking order) editor provides a shell program to start scenarios that allows the player to make load-out changes as well as link several iterations of the same scenario together to form a campaign of sorts. This weak campaign feature just does not seem to be enough; WOM would be so much better with a strong campaign game. The ATO editor is really easy to use for changing load-outs, but linking scenarios did not always work on the review machine. Strangely, the role of ATO is not immediately apparent in the main manual. Players who normally ignore any start-up icon with the label editor might miss this tool.

Speaking of editors, WOM comes with a full compliment of game editors for those armchair pilots who like to roll their own battles. Almost everything except the map can be changed, so scenario designers will find plenty to do.

War Over the Mideast is a fun game to play, but it does have some problems. Despite being the second game in the series, there are a baker’s dozen of nit-picky interface issues. Taken as a whole, these keep WOM from moving from the Good to the Great category. Some examples:

The game sports a new and an old interface. In the new interface, there is no Save Game feature. In order to save the game, the player must switch to the old interface—easy to do once you know the trick but irritating if you don’t. Another irritant is that some targets disappear from the map when the spotting aircraft moves away. This may be a semi-realistic game feature, but it causes some awkward game play when the player wants to set up a strike to a vanished target he had just seen a few seconds ago. Certainly such issues will be worked out in patches, since HPS has an excellent reputation for follow-on support, but until patch day arrives, the player has to take those high-G turns and just suck it up.

With War Over the Mideast, John Tiller and HPS give wargamers a detailed, yet playable game of modern air combat. The high-octane subject matter, large number of scenarios, and full suite of editors promises to make this a game we will be playing for years. While it plays real-time, the game is not for twitch jockeys, or those who demand 3D graphics with their MiGs. Also, those players who don’t like to read manuals should probably not attempt this title, either. But for wargamers who wake up and smell jet fuel in the air, War Over the Mideast should not be missed. Check your maps, arm up the switches and dial in the mils—today’s target is no milk run.

Armchair General Score: 80%

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ACG Intel

Modern Air Power: War Over the Mideast

HPS Simulations

John Tiller Games

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 U.S. 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.

4 Comments

  1. Great review, Larry! I’m the series designer for Modern Air Power and did all the scenarios, database, and orders of battle for WOM.

    I think you covered everything very well. One suggestion or clarification is how to save games from the new (easy to use) interface: simply click the Load button, which will bring up a game save prompt. This isn’t very intuitive and isn’t explained very well in the manual; we’re in the process of adding a Save button near the Load button so players will easily see what they need to do in order to save a game.

    Appreciate the indepth coverage and thoughtful analysis of the game!

  2. Currently playing the game. The Manuals refer to the old interface which is actually quite disappointing. And no mention about the linked missions using the AT editor. Hope the documentation improves soon.

  3. Dear Mo Morgan,

    How does this game compare to “Point of Attack 2″from HPS Simultations?

    Is the interface quit the same, or improved. I also play “Conquest of the Aegean” from Panter Games, and i must say that the look and feel of that game is very nice. Anti aliased look, good use of directx functionality, which results in smooth and fast user interaction with the game, also the interface is intuitive.

    Love these games. Keep it up!

  4. I forgot, in the past i played F-22 Total Air War from DID, especially the AWACS missions. I presume WOM is much more advanced, but reading trough this review i recognise some similarities. How does it compare TAW?

    Thanks,
    Marc

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