by Peter D. Pawelek
Article Type: Review
Article Date: June 18, 2002
Product Name: Uncommon Valor: Campaign for the South Pacific
Category: Turn-based Strategy
Developer: Gary Grigsby, 2 By 3 Games
Publisher: Matrix Games
Release Date: Released
Min. Spec: Win95/98/ME/XP/2000, DirectX8, Pentium II 400 CPU, 800MB HD Space
Files & Links: Click Here
* * *
In The Beginning…In 1992, veteran game designer Gary Grigsby and SSI unleashed Pacific War which is still the most ambitious and richly detailed computer wargame ever attempted. Fitting on one floppy disk, Pacific War covered the entire conflict in the Pacific between 1941 and 1945, allowing the player to immerse himself in decisions made by high-level commanders like Nimitz, MacArthur and Yamamoto.
|The original Pacific War. |
Wargame reviewer M. Evan Brooks described Pacific War as: "Graphically acceptable, its strength lay in the sheer data and scope of the campaign. In all truth, I find it overwhelming, but I can recognize quality when I see it. Highly recommended for retirees—or for those whom the expression ‘Get a life’ means something."
Pacific War was indeed overwhelming. However, it gained a hardcore cult following of wargamers who picked over every nit in an effort to perfect the beast that Grigsby obligingly patched over something like twenty-two versions. Even after Grigsby stopped patching the game in order to pursue other projects, Matrix Games has continued to carry the torch and have been working with the Pacific War source code continually patching it and making it more Windows-friendly (it was originally a DOS release).
Pacific War ReduxMatrix Games’s motives in keeping interest in Pacific War alive were not entirely altruistic, as it turns out. For, as part of 2 By 3 Games, Grigsby has returned to re-interpret his Pacific War game in an even more grandiose vision. Uncommon Valor: Campaign for the South Pacific, the subject of this review, is the first part of that vision which covers the critical phase of the Pacific Conflict between 1942 and 1943 as Japan and the U.S. struggled over the Solomon Islands and New Guinea. It is a prelude to War in the Pacific, which will cover the entire Pacific War using a similar system to Uncommon Valor.
|Uncommon Valor Splash Screen |
In its own right, Uncommon Valor is massive and initially intimidating. It is an operational wargame that leans towards the strategic. Naval forces are present as individual ships, air forces as squadrons, and ground forces as anything from battalions up to divisions. It is a turn-based game with each turn lasting one day, but broken up into a 12-hour night phase and a 12-hour day phase. Historically, Japan used the cover of night to supply its forces (i.e., the infamous 'Tokyo Express') as well as to conduct many bombing offensives, and this is faithfully reproduced in the game. Eighteen scenarios are included with the game including a massive campaign covering the entire South Pacific conflict between 1942 and 1943.
The installation itself is a whopping 800MB, and you’ll need at least a 500MHZ processor to run it smoothly. Although the game is frightfully complex, there is no paper manual provided. That is not to say that the documentation isn’t adequate. Quite the contrary. The 130-page manual in PDF format is very well-written and detailed. However, it’s not easy to read off the screen and I’d recommend making the additional expense to get it printed out in order to study it thoroughly.
Graphics, Sound and InterfacesGiven its massive install size, however, I wouldn’t say that this game is bloated. 2 By 3 and Matrix have pulled out all the stops in making the game graphically appealing. Unlike the original Pacific War which had downright spartan graphics, Uncommon Valor has beautifully rendered maps and interface screens which take advantage of modern graphics systems with their high resolutions and color schemes. During tactical combat, planes and ships are graphically represented with highly detailed and authentic models.
|The main map interface. |
The music and sound effects are also very well done. During gameplay there is a music soundtrack playing in the background which is reminiscent of the music from Band of Brothers, but interspered with Japanese koto music to give a more ‘Pacific’ feel. It loops constantly, but for some reason I don’t turn it off since I find it relaxing and somewhat hypnotic.
The game interfaces are professionally done if not completely standard. You may have to adjust to clicking on very small text labels here and there instead of buttons, but you quickly get used to this style. Although I’m not old enough to need bifocals, I do find it preferable to play at 800x600 resolution instead of 1024x768 since a lot of the text is very small and hard to read.
Nevertheless, this is the first time that I’ve played a computer game from one of the small independent publishers in which I’ve been thoroughly impressed with every aspect of the graphics, sounds and interfaces.
GameplayGameplay is very similar to Grigsby’s Pacific War, and if you’re familiar with that system you’ll feel comfortable playing Uncommon Valor without even cracking the manual (although, believe me, you will still need to crack it!).
The map centers on the area around the Solomon islands bounded by Truk in the north and Espiritu Santo in the south, and it includes New Guinea and a portion of Australia. There is an underlying hexgrid which may or may not be displayed (I play with it off since it’s really not that necessary), and each hex spans 30 miles. Bases are scattered across the various islands and larger land masses on the map. Each base can contain ships, planes, and ground troops.
As Supreme Commander of the Japanese or Allied forces your role is keep the flow of supplies, men, planes and ships from your supply sources (Truk for Japan, Brisbane and Noumea for the Allies) towards the hotspots of the conflict, which in the early stages of the game center around Guadalcanal and Port Moresby.
|Air-to-surface combat. |
Although there is a massive array of stuff to move around the map this is not a game of micromanagement. For example, for naval combat your goal is to assemble Task Forces and send them out in search of the enemy. When they find the enemy the computer-controlled commanders of the ships in the Task Force will decide which targets to attack.
Ships in port cannot be directly controlled by the player. Instead, they have to be assembled into Task Forces which can be assigned a particular task. Combat-oriented ships like cruisers, destroyers and battleships can be assigned to surface combat or shore bombardment duties, for example. Alternatively, they can be grouped into air combat task forces to defend the fragile yet powerful aircraft carriers.
|Task force screen. |
This description of task forces and naval units just scratches the surface of the game. Just about every type of shipping present in the Pacific Conflict, from the exotic to the mundane, has been included in the game. Submarine warfare is fairly detailed, and subs can be used for laying mines and deliver supplies and troops as well as for sinking enemy ships. PT Boats, which are of low endurance and survivability, can be brought together like swarms of bees to harass enemy ships. You’ll also be deploying minelayers and minesweepers to alternately deny areas to enemy naval activity and clear sealanes for your own convoys.
As with naval forces, air units are covered in exquisite detail. Float planes can be given naval search and reconnaisance tasks in an effort to keep constant tabs on enemy positions. Bombers (level, dive, and torpedo) can be given airfields, ports, ground forces, or naval units as targets. Fighters can escort bombers, sweep for enemy fighters, or fly CAP over friendly bases and naval forces. The combination of air units and tasks that they can be assigned to is very complex and what I just mentioned only begins to do this system justice.
|Air Squadron information. |
In addition, individual pilot performance is modelled and running tabs of pilot kills and experience are tracked. As with ground units, air squadrons need to be properly supplied and supported with second-line troops, and you’ll have to use engineer forces to expand strategically located airfields in order to use them for larger bombing raids.
The Pacific Theatre was extremely difficult for ground forces. Jungle, disease, and high temperatures taxed infantry forces to their limits. This is modelled in the game as well, and you’ll find that although you’ll be using ground forces to physically occupy strategic locations, they’ll need to be constantly supplied in order to be effective.
|Ground forces screen. |
Also, ground units tend to stay in one place since movement from location to location across the map can be agonizingly slow and prone to force attrition in areas that don’t have roads or trails. The jungles will chew up your men almost as badly as the enemy.
If you think that combat is the core of Uncommon Valor, you’re wrong. Although the surface combat and air combat task forces are the ‘stars’ of this game they’re useless without their less glamorous supporting players: fuel tankers, supply transports and troop transports. This is a game of logistics where the winner is the one who, to quote Civil War general Nathan Bedford Forrest, "gits thar the fustest with the mostest".
You will be spending most of your time ensuring that your surface combat and air combat task forces are sufficiently fuelled, that your ground troops are sufficiently supplied and your air squadrons are sufficiently taken care of by support teams. Unlike most wargames, a combat unit isn’t just represented by the fighting forces but by its second-line forces as well. It’s very easy to plop a regiment onto Tulagi, for example, but it’ll whither into ineffectiveness unless its continually supplied and supported by convoys and transports. You’re then going to want to protect those transport convoys from enemy aerial and naval attack with your own aerial and naval forces, so logistics create an internal logic and dynamic which drives the composition and disposition of most of your combat forces. This is the sign of a superior wargame.
One of the strong points of Uncommon Valor is the feedback information that is given to the player. When playing with fog-of-war enabled (which is recommended), most of the time your forces will be employed into gathering an intelligence ‘snapshot’ of the enemy. As more and more becomes known about enemy positions and force compositions over a turn, your attacks will become more accurate and devastating. Each combat generates a detailed combat report which will contain information such as critical hit locations on ships, pilots and commanders which have been killed in combat, aerial maneuver used in a particular furball, and the like.
|After-action report. |
This combination of feeling around in the dark to build an intelligence picture followed by valuable information given in after-action reports makes for an incredibly immersive experience. As an added bonus, the game writes each after-action report to a text file in the save-game folder and you can save these files to build an automated history of each game played. If only more wargames would employ this fascinating feature!
MultiplayerIn addition to playing a very competent and challenging AI, you can play an opponent via email. The PBEM feature in Uncommon Valor is cumbersome, unfortunately. For one thing, the PBEM turnfiles are huge in comparison to most other wargames. For example, a typical PBEM turnfile for one of John Tiller’s Panzer Campaigns games may be around 10-20K in size. The turnfiles for Uncommon Valor, on the other hand, clock in at around 200K when compressed! Also, the Japanese player has to send two such files to the Allied player: a 200K turnfile, and a 200K turn replay file.
|Surface combat screen. |
For people with slow modems or bandwidth considerations, this can get pretty heavy. PBEM gameplay itself, however, is a lot of fun and nothing beats a real live human opponent. I do hope that Matrix and 2 By 3 will streamline the amount of information that has to be sent through PBEM files in future versions, however.
A Triumphant ReturnIn conclusion, fans of Gary Grigsby’s Pacific War will be overjoyed with Uncommon Valor, which improves on the former game in just about every way possible. Players who are newer to computer wargaming may find Uncommon Valor daunting, but the time spent studying the system in order to play it effectively will be rewarded many times over. This is a game of rich depth and subtlety, a true ‘instant classic’. For those of you who are looking for a quick-fix action-oriented title, keep moving. For the rest of us who have been searching for a worthy successor to the richly detailed wargaming classics of years gone by, Uncommon Valor opens up its arms and says ‘Welcome Home!’
Uncommon Valor: Campaign for the Pacific
Home of the VMF-124 Death's Head Squad