In my preview of the game (not a pre-requisite read but certainly a recommended one) I somewhat jokingly ended with the promise of a review “should I be able to tear myself away” from it. It was a somewhat flippant comment that has proven to be remarkably apt over this last week. I have previewed the game and interviewed the developers, I have been involved with the beta process and helped shape the final product. Yet here I am still struggling to tear myself away from the harsh, strategic realities of Stalingrad, and this is why…
Unity of Command’s focus on frontline strategy grants it a distinctive flavour amongst the grand strategy games that tend to dominate the genre. There is something remarkably refreshing about concentrating your efforts upon only a few areas, namely combat and manoeuvre, and realising that they can be almost as deep and equally as compelling as any macro-management scheme. The focus is widened slightly by ‘Theatre Assets’ and ‘Force Pool’ management (more on those later), but ultimately the game revolves around ensuring your frontline is supplied, maintained and advancing upon the key points.
Victory comes at the hands of capturing key objectives on the map, usually strategic locations such as bridges or railways, and prompt assaults are rewarded with prestige, a sort or hybrid ranking/currency system that allows you to ‘purchase’ reinforcements in future offensives. In the campaign mode this prestige system brings with it a real sense of continuity between the offensives, as a poor performance in one can leave you languishing in another, and adds a suitably stressful slant to man management. This feeling of an overarching narrative with consequence and chronology is compounded by the reload campaign feature, essentially the games retry option, that will allow you to fight any scenario again but at the cost of reverting your entire campaign progress back to before that battle. A feature that despite an embarrassingly clear warning managed to somehow elude me when I tried to gather prestige for the final Axis scenario, resulting in numerous ‘lost’ hours and an almost German predilection for war.
The combat itself is incredibly intuitive and surprisingly deep with factors such as experience, entrenchment and specialisation steps affecting the ‘base’ stats of each unit. Initially you will spend some time trying to get used to which units are your offensive juggernauts and which are only really useful as barricades or sacrificial lambs, but eventually you will be able to identify areas of weakness almost instantly and reinforce/exploit those areas depending upon whose frontline they fall upon. Tearing a hole through your enemies frontline and using mobile units, such as tanks, to penetrate deep into enemy territory is often the key to quick captures, and feels suitably risky due to the crucial, game defining supply mechanics.
Supply in this game is far more than a cursory consideration as out of supply units are far more vulnerable and, if left without supply for a couple of turns, become incapable of any offensive action. Unless all the objectives are about to fall over-extension of your frontline will prove deadly, due to the incredibly aggressive and cunning AI, and an assured victory can quickly crumble into annihilation. Maintenance of your supply lines itself is a multi-faceted affair that places vast importance upon strategically significant structures such as railways, which essentially extend the supply source (which usually has a limited range) for the entirety of their controlled length, and bridges, which are the only way to get supplies across rivers. Far more often than I would like to admit the enemy have managed to cripple my offense by capturing a supply source of mine, but thankfully my reciprocating attacks have also yielded equally devastating results.
Terrain and weather have more passive effects, with harsh conditions resulting in limited movement, but it is the inclusion of theatre assets and reinforcements that really broadens the scope of the gameplay and keeps mundanity at bay. I have already mentioned the prestige bought reinforcements but certain scenarios will give you a ‘Force Pool’, reinforcements that don’t cost any prestige, that you can use to tactically reinforce your assault and perhaps, if you are anything like me, manipulate your enemy into ‘breaking through’ your line only to trap them a few turns later. Similarly the theatre assets available in some scenarios provide you with an array of options, from tactical bombardments, supply drops and the ability to build/destroy bridges. What impressed me the most about this aspect of the game was how well balanced it is, as your enemy will almost certainly have their own assets to play with, and how the assets available to you reflect the army you are commanding. The inferior in number but superior in technology Axis forces usually have more bombardments per turn, whilst the Allies can use their home advantage to Partisan key areas and undermine your territorial control. Elements like this ensure that the two campaigns feel significantly different, something that is further bolstered by the historical accuracy of the game.
The product of diligent historical research Unity of Command represents the gold standard for any and all World War strategy games by having accurately depicted troops and offensives. Furthermore each scenario begins with a brief account of the importance of the battle before you, and the state of the campaign thus far. This factual narrative often reveals the historical tactics that were employed by the commanders whose shoes you have stepped into, and whilst the optimum strategy is often a deviation from this it is a welcomed look into Stalingrad strategy.
Aesthetically the game is sleek and simple enough to facilitate the functionality of the UI whilst having enough personality to distinguish itself from other games of this ilk. The almost cartoon aesthetic presents the battlefield to you in a less gritty, more dispassionate way that reaffirms that strategy is the overriding consideration and you, as a commander, will be treating your troops more like chess pieces than human beings.
In my preview I feigned concern that the game may not live up to my expectations, yet here it is surpassing them if anything. What 2×2 Games have created here is a truly compelling and addictive account of the events of Stalingrad, with hidden depth and nuance worthy of the highest praise. With two fairly lengthy campaigns, scenarios and a multiplayer game mode this is one of the most rewarding purchases strategy lovers, war fans or just gamers in general could make. There are some minor annoyances, such as the continued lack of an undo last action option, but I can’t recommend this game enough. Available from Matrix Games, GamersGate or directly from their website this is one war well worth waging.