Saturday, May 3, 2014

Lock 'n Load: Heroes of Stalingrad

A confession: I bought this game when it was released, played the tutorials and the first scenario of the German campaign and decided I didn't like it. I haven't touched it since. I keep hearing good things about it, though. I also didn't want the money to go to waste. So last night I fired it up to give it another try.

Briefing for the second mission of the German campaign

I learned to play wargames on the old Avalon Hill classics like Tactics II and Squad Leader. I stopped playing board games twenty years ago because I could never find an opponent. The draw of LnL: Heroes of Stalingrad and Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear (aside from them both having gratuitous colons in their titles) is that both games are computer versions of excellent board game titles. While I've never played either as a board game I'm aware of the reputation. There are times that I want something other than the 3D fidelity of a sophisticated simulation and want the ease of play of a good board game.

The full map. I have approximately a reinforced company on the north bank of the river at Kalach. Except for the fluffy clouds, this view is very reminiscent of a great many evening and weekends I had in high school and college. No, I didn't get out much...
So, it was really bothering me that although I'd purchased both games I found in my initial attempts at both that I didn't really care for either of them. Both games have sat, unplayed on my hard drive for months now while I played something else.

I'm in a mood these days for smaller, platoon to company sized actions. Combat Mission, as good as it is, can take several hours to play even a small scenario. Maybe it's time to give LnL:HoS and CoH:AtB another try?

My infantry, led by the redoubtable Leutnant Wurtz advance into the southern edge of Kalach supported by armor.
At first the Lock 'n Load game system seemed overly fussy to me for a tactical game at this scale. After playing with it a bit though, the system of impulses within a turn is a nice alternative to plotting orders for all units and then mutual resolution in a WEGO system. I've stopped playing CM in WEGO because of the time it takes to plot orders for all of my units between turns and moved completely to real-time with pauses. I find I'm liking the back and forth of the LnL impulses system now.

Southern Kalach appears to be strongly held by the Soviets. Fortunately my squads have plenty of MG34s and an MG42 to lay down a base of fire while I maneuver the rest of my troops for close assaults.
The other thing I didn't care for at first were the preset zoom levels for the map. I couldn't seem to find a view the allowed me to see what I wanted to see. The UI is also large and covers a good portion of the screen. The game felt very claustrophobic. Recent patches have added some additional zoom levels and I've found out how to hide parts of the UI that I don't need. I still wish the game had continuous zoom rather than preset levels, but the interface no longer feels so much like it's in my way.

It probably wasn't a good plan for Lt. Smirnoff to try and cross the road in front of that Stug. My troops are pressing the Russians and rooting them out of the south end of the town.
Once you get used to the game system. combat flows very well. It really feels like a boardgame without all of the boring parts like stopping to look up rules and consult charts. Graphically the game really reminds me of ASL. If they ever released this on a tablet I'd buy it right away. Pushing counters around that way would really feel like the old days!

Halfway through the game and we've cleared the southern part of town. The route to the northern half is pretty open. A Soviet sniper opens up on Leutnant Wurtz and his men, causing casualties. Cpl. Eisenbach and his men cleared out some shaken Russians with an assault and a Soviet AT gun opened up on my Pz IV - which has to survive for me to win.
I think part of why I didn't care for the game at first was also because the tutorials and the first campaign mission are limited to help ease new players into the game. It made the game feel to me like it was limited, which isn't the case at all. There are a lot of weapons systems represented and those systems are nicely modelled. No, the game isn't tracking every bullet and shell the way a simulation would, but there's a definite difference between the capabilities of an MG34 and an MG42, for example.

Hopefully some artillery will take out that AT gun. If not, moving anywhere on the left side of the map will be impossible, for my armor at least.
Eventually I turned off the floaty clouds, and I wish I could turn off the comic book style animations. The clouds are a neat effect for a few minutes but eventually just become annoying, at least for me. They obscure the battlefield and the last thing this game needs is something else overlaying the map. I'm sure the animations are intended to create the apparently much sought after by grognards "immersion" but frankly the art isn't very good and the story isn't much of one. I hope future releases in the series (and I do hope there are more!) forego some of the cuteness. I'm probably not far from turning off the rally voices, too. I can only stand hearing "Take a sip of vodka!" so many times before I want to ram a pencil through my ear drums.

Time is short and the Russians have delayed our advance into the northern part of town for too long. On the left, Sgt. Baumen and his squad take out the sniper but the sergeant is wounded. Leutnant Wurtz leads a pair of fire teams in an assault on Lt. Yakov and a Soviet Rifle Squad that gains the Germans a foothold in the northern part of town.
Two game mechanics that are different and interesting are melee combat and heroes. In LnL: HoS squads suffering morale effects (shaken) are sitting ducks for close combat. This make fire and maneuver tactics essential as you seek to suppress the enemy with fire and then run him over with a close assault. It seems very different at first but works very well. Close assault (melee) without first suppressing the enemy can be very bloody and costly.

At various times during combat, either side may generate "heroes," individual soldiers with some special trait or ability that can make a significant difference in the effectiveness of your troops. I've heard complaints that heroes are generated too frequently in some scenarios, but as I was playing this particular mission neither side generated a single one. Overall, heroes are more or less like special ability cards in CoH or similar games.
The last turn and while I've cleared away all of the Soviet infantry that pesky AT gun is still there. During the previous turn I tried to overrun it with my Stug but the assault gun was destroyed by pointblank fire. Unfortunately I just don't have anyone else close enough to take out the gun.
Right now I'm playing on Introductory difficulty as I learn the game system. One of the effects of this is that the number of turns are increased for each scenario. The length of the scenarios feels comfortable now; I suspect shortening them as I play at Normal difficulty will put considerable pressure on me to play more aggressively and take more chances with my troops.
A Soviet Victory, at least according to the victory conditions...
By the end of the scenario I had cleared the entire town except for an AT gun that was shaken. I'd taken very light casualties. In a Combat Mission game, where morale effects impact an side's entire force, this would have been at least a Major Victory. From a military perspective, the town has been cleared. Unfortunately, Lock n' Load: Heroes of Stalingrad calculates victory in a very old school way, by strict victory conditions.

I probably shouldn't complain; in my younger days I was a master at understanding scenario victory conditions and employing tactics to exploit the letter of the rules regarding them. I won more than one game by using "gamey" tactics that wouldn't fly at all in the real world. In more recent years I've grown more used to and interested in games that reward tactically realistic play. I really can't praise LnL:HoS on the one hand for having a very definite board game feel and then complain when the game's victory condition mechanic is old school as well!

I've definitely changed my opinion about this game. Despite some niggles about a few things, I'm really finding playing it enjoyable. It's quick and fun with a definite Ost Front atmosphere. I'm looking forward to restarting my campaign at Normal difficulty and leading Leutnant Wurtz and his men to destiny at Stalingrad.

Tomorrow: Some Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear and a run through of Chris' new EFCO Platoons scenario for Command Ops.