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Friday, April 29, 2011

Review: TacOps 4; the most hardcore strategy game of all time? (PC Download)

We’ve reviewed a couple of very challenging and deep strategic experiences at Digitally Downloaded. From the board game style of Advanced Tactics: Gold, through to deep-but-attractive Darkest Hour: A Hears of Iron Game there are legions of lesser known titles out there that give people looking for a little more depth than what a Civilization or Total War game can.

None of these hold a candle to the strategic depth of TacOps 4, and with good reason. Unlike the other games, TacOps is first and foremost a military application that has been commercialised. The only other game we know that really compares to it is the classic, Harpoon, and like that game, TacOps 4 tries in every way possible to recreate the strategic conditions of a warzone, and playing this is almost more of a learning experience than piece of entertainment.

Might not look like much, but this game will get you thinking

So we’ll get that out of the way first: TacOps 4 is probably not for you. It’s a slow, laborious process to play the game’s scenarios, and if you go in expecting something simply ‘fun,’ you’re probably going to miss out on why this game is so rewarding.

The instruction manual is 242 pages. You’re probably going to want to read it, and if indeed you are going to buy this game, you should get the deluxe edition, which includes actual, unabridged US Military Documents. It’s fascinating stuff (right now I’m slogging through the 361 page document on the role of Infantry on the battle field) and provides insight to how this game works.

Booting up the game itself, you’ll find a wide range of scenarios to play, each with the common theme – as a training tool, TacOps was designed to help US, Canadian, German and Australian/New Zealand forces prepare for combat against ‘an enemy.’ In-game that enemy is called OPFOR (opposing forces), but it effectively simulates skirmishes against the Former Soviet Union, China, North Korea and the like.

The wealth of information available on every single unit type is amazing

At the start of each battle you’ll be presented with a top-down view of a map, and a huge number of tiny little icons representing your forces to position within a designated area of that map. There’s very little data on those icons themselves to help you gauge what that unit is capable of; you’ll need to right click on them to pull up a screen which then inundates you with data.

So for the first hour or so of a game, you’ll be right clicking like crazy and working out where to position your forces. It’s a glacially-slow start to a game, but immediately gets the strategic thoughts ticking.

And then the game kicks in in full. TacOps 4 is a turn-based game, with each ‘turn’ representing one minute on the battle field. At the start of each turn, you’ll need to give units orders. The game doesn’t really show you how far each unit can move, and what each unit’s effective range is by default, so you’ll need to do a lot more clicking and checking, and Fog of War is quite thick so, just like on a real battlefield, you’ll need to make effective use of recon and terrain to avoid getting slaughtered.

There's plenty of different terrain types on maps to deal with

This all might sound like an unfriendly set-up, but it’s really not. Units can be given waypoints, and will keep travelling through that path from turn to turn automatically. You can also cancel those way points to give the units new orders. Combat plays out automatically. The game does give you every bit of information you need to win battles and the variety in units, equipment and strategic options is staggering, and though it’s a slow process to get things done, there’s nothing in the game’s interface that will hold you back from your carefully thought-out plans.

The problem for the game for most will simply be that it’s just not very active. This is a thinking person’s game, and you’ll spend more time reading and researching (it helps to have the game manuals handy before sending unit A off to attack a position) than blowing stuff up.

There have been some concessions made to make the game more ‘gamey.’ In the real world, there are some technological advantages that some nations have over others. In TacOps4, those things are smoothed over to create a more even balance between the two sides.

The command options are versatile, deep, and will take a long time to master

Despite this, after playing a couple of scenarios of the game, I’d genuinely learned some tricks to military strategy. TacOps 4 is one of those games that is aimed at such a small niche that a review is almost pointless, but if you do enjoy strategic games, then I really recommend this. Beneath the facade is a game that is not just enjoyable – it’s genuinely rewarding, and even though it’s an old game now, it still hasn’t been bettered for what it does. 



Review: TacOps 4; the most hardcore strategy game of all time? (PC Download)
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