Article Type: Review
Article Date: October 31, 2001
Just When You Think You've Seen It AllDuring my time as a reviewer, I have had the honor of writing about two wargames I consider to be groundbreaking advances in the genre, The Operational Art of War and Combat Mission. Both products combined scope and accuracy with gameplay innovations that moved the hobby beyond its boardgame beginnings. Aging and jaded, I believed I would never experience another eye-opener. Jim Lunsford and HPS Simulations have ripped me from my complacency. Decisive Action elevates the topic of modern ground combat from a mere game to a serious simulation. Serious gamers looking past 1945 will see most of their dreams answered in a most professional manner.
Broad OutlookAlthough units can be as small as squads, Decisive Action requires the player to take on the responsibilities of a division or corps commander. This larger scope distinguishes Lunsford’s game from the other two fine modern wargames, TacOps and Brigade Combat Team. With a two-hour time scale and a one-kilometer per square scale for movement, this game obviously is not tactical but includes many elements rarely seen in operational games. This comprehensiveness is what could be expected of a commercial version of a U.S. Army Command and General Staff College training tool.
Had the game stopped with supplying the twenty-four unit types, it would have made its mark as a game. What these unit icons represent, however, changes the way gamers think about the relationship between icons and maps. Each icon has a “footprint”, representing the area the unit affects. The size of the “footprint” is dependent not only on force size, shrinking as casualties are taken, but also on which of the five postures a unit assumes. For instance, a unit performing security duty projects a line of three “footprints” while a unit going over to the offensive has a compact “footprint”. “Footprints” dictate actions. An enemy unit within a “footprint” causes combat and becoming tangent with another friendly unit’s “footprint” creates “friction”, slowing movement. With this one concept, Lunsford demolishes the old, zone-of-control and replaces it with a realistic, dynamic depiction of the frontage and depth of a military organization.
With this one concept ["footprints"], Lunsford demolishes the old, zone-of-control and replaces it with a realistic, dynamic depiction of the frontage and depth of a military organization.Each unit has factors for strength, morale, fatigue, suppression, command control and nuclear/biological/chemical preparedness status. Perhaps the most important factor is logistics. A line of communication must be traced back to a HQ and line-of-communication unit in order to be re-supplied, either automatically or manually by the handful of players who aren’t busy enough with regular work. The commander who ignores any of these details is the losing commander.
Assuming a posture automatically gives a set of orders. A unit on security will give ground much faster than one in a deliberate defensive position. Air units will have two priority types of targets. Artillery has three basic sets of orders. Engineering, electronic warfare and psychological warfare units have unique special abilities. All of these concepts must be managed for a well-planned attack and planning is the key to success in Decisive Action.
This crucial planning is added by another innovation, called “graphics”. By this we don’t mean neat little animations and big explosions but a module that allows the player to actually draw on the maps. Formation boundary lines and various phase lines can be drawn using a sixteen-color palette. Such lines are necessary to minimize the confusion of combat and to optimize the use of force. Named Areas of Interest (NAI) and Targeted Areas of Interest (TAI) are placed to enhance intelligence and support fire respectively. At the beginning of each game, fortifications, bridges and minefields can be placed using the graphics module.
|Initial boundary lines are in yellow and the first phase line is in green for the operation in California. NAIs and TAIs have already been places. Red diamonds represent enemy positions sighted early |
|The same area is shown using one of the overlays that highlight restrictive terrain. |
The maps on which these things are drawn are what will separate hardcore gamers from those addicted to eye candy. The maps are actual military topological maps complete with elevation lines and universal map symbols. Three different modes highlight restrictiveness of terrain. Maps with version 1.02 cover the National Training Center in Kansas, parts of California, Central Germany, Anzio, Iraq and Kuwait as well as Mindoro in the Philippines. Colors give the well-read player a feel for “being there” in an actual HQ. Those players used to being spoon-fed cute greens and neat little houses will be brought down to earthliterally. Scrolling around the map to the NATO-symboled units is done with the keyboard's arrows, clicking on a mini-map or using the “next/last” unit button of the toolbar. Meteorological information such as precipitation and wind speed direction is updated continuously on a bar above the map.
A Stopwatch and an Ordnance MapThe nine scenarios provided are all hypothetical ones between Red and Blue forces. The first step in play is to read the operation orders (Opord) that explain not only the objectives but also gives the time limit and broad enemy intent. Orders of battle for both sides can be printed.
With a rough idea of goals and available resources, the player performs the first of many reconnoiters. He studies the map closely to see which terrain can be used for maneuver and which will probable contain enemy positions. Using his initial impressions. He places his NAIs where he needs to know more and TAIs where high explosive probably needs to rearrange terrains. He then attaches artillery, engineering and air defense units to combat units to form either blocking, flanking or breeching formations.
Independent artillery units are positioned to soften things up for advance. Mech cav units are positioned forward to reconnoiter and screen while helicopters and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) receive plots via drag-and-clicks to check out the situation deep in enemy territory. HQs are positioned to keep up with lead elements, assuring satisfactory command control. Brigade boundaries are drawn to minimize friction and the first phase line is laid down just in front of the suspected enemy outposts. Here, formations will be reorganized and new orders issued, if necessary. A mistake made in the set-up phase can be hard to overcome so map study becomes extremely important.
|The route of an UAV recon is plotted with many waypoints. |
|The first move of a mech infantry movement is plotted. The black-hatched circle represents the unit’s footprint. |
Pressing the “Next Turn” button starts the simultaneous move (WEGO) system. The map comes alive with air units zipping across the landscape as ground units crawl toward phase lines. Combat reports flash across the screen stating combat results in percent losses and suppression levels. In contrast to the Spartan graphics, the sound effects in Decisive Action grab the ear with exciting roars, explosions and growls. Most importantly, enemy units appear as a result of the recon units.
Unfortunately, the small flaws in the game’s design also appear here. The enemy units are too small for easy viewing; a zoom-in level is needed. The turn messages follow each other at lightening speed, impossible to follow. Although each turn’s messages are archives, players get more than their fair share of the “friction” of war by trying to follow them. If an electronic warfare unit is available, enemy intercepts can be read in an archive. A third irritation becomes apparent when the graphic module, used to mark further phase lines, TAIs and NAIs, fails to show units. A good memory is needed.
The third turn will begin the real implementation of artillery. Clicking on an artillery unit will allow general orders to be given as to its three major roles: support, interdiction and suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD). These three choices reveal the threads of victory. Support allows ground troops to occupy the ground but interdiction starves the enemy of supplies and reinforcements before the coup de grâce. SEAD is vital not only in protecting precise air strikes on the frontline but also to protect the all-important blows against command centers.
The weave that holds these threads together is timing. SEAD missions must be timed to coincide with helicopter and fixed wing strikes. Interdiction must precede the grinding of ground attacks to minimize casualties. To facilitate this intricate coordination, targets can easily be targeted with cross-hairs from the tool bar. Each target can be hit with high explosive, mines (FASCAM), and gas. Multiple launch rocket system can blanket enemy rear areas. Combined with long range recon and air strikes, artillery determines the tempo of action.
|After the first move, more enemy units, including minefields, are revealed. The Blue units lagging behind do so because of “friction” with other units. The status of the selected unit is shown above the map. |
Of course, ground combat decides the outcome. Troops protected with air defense units slug it out with supply convoys streaming to the front. Tanks bash positions softened by artillery and air strikes, starved by interdiction and depressed by psychological warfare units. Engineers clear obstacles and minefields. Mech infantry hold against counterattacks while cav units sweep into the rears. These actions, exciting slashes at a reeling enemy, provides the player the reward for meticulous thought and planning. However, the AI is one of the strongest in computer games. Without planning, players’ rewards will be tastes of ashes.
|A field artillery unit prepares to reach out and touch somebody. The red circle represents the guns’ maximum and minimum range. The ammunition choices are shown. |
The excitement doesn’t end with the scenarios that come with the game. An extremely powerful editor allows modifying existing scenarios, including changing the order of battle and every other aspect of the game. Creativity is encouraged by a map import application. If a player can turn a map into a BMP file, he can fight on that area. The unit builder provides a solid array of US and foreign units. Fruits of this are already appearing at the HPS Simulations site. Even more skilled opponents can be engaged in hotseat mode or PBEM.
|Using the map editor, an Iraqi order of battle is created. You never know when an encore may be necessary. |
Worth the EffortDecisive Action comes with a hefty manual in PDF format and four Army manuals on the CD disc. While doing a fine job of explaining the interface, the manual is so detailed that it highlights the game’s complexity rather than making the learning curve easier. Fortunately, Vincent Taijeron has stepped up with a primer and a planning manual. Still, this game is not easy to learn.
Gamers have grown used to intuitive play. Immersion has become synonymous with “good game”. Serious gamers should be aware that a real simulation calls for mind-expanding thought and an objective stance. Planning and coordinating battle is not done first person on a foxhole. Decisive Action snaps us back to the fact that war requires calculation, patience and work. Colonel Lunsford has afforded us the opportunity to break out of video mindsets and return to what command is all about. Owning this game marks a player as a real student of military affairs and not just a silicon cowboy.