REVIEW: Armored Brigade

Nov
16

REVIEW: Armored Brigade

A shining example of knowing your target audience, and not worrying much about what anyone else thinks

Released: Steam
Type: Single-player
Genre: Strategy, Simulation
Developer: Veitikka Studios
Publisher: Slitherine Ltd.
Release date: 15 Nov, 2018

It’s always refreshing to get a game that dares to commit to making something for a niche audience, and does not care what people outside of this niche audience thinks. Armored Brigade is one of those games, it does not seem to aim for any form of wide appeal, instead its developers set out to make a game that would really please a specific group.
Armored Brigade feels like what you would get when a small group of enthusiasts wanted to make a game that lands somewhere between Close Combat and Wargame: Airland Battle, but with a bit more realism thrown in food good measure.

In Armored Brigade you’ve got a typical cold war gone hot scenario. Some of the big powers on both sides (and Finland) that you would expect to fight over Europe are represented here. The US, UK, East Germany, West Germany, Poland and the USSR (and Finland). The game is not overly concerned with who shot first, the important part is that the sides are fighting now, and you’ll get to control the different factions as they try to kill each other.

East and West Germany duking it out

Graphics and Sound

One thing is for certain, Armored Brigade is not a graphically demanding game. I guess functional is the kind way you would describe these graphics. Most of the time you’ll stare at a zoomed out map that’s relatively simple-looking, and units are represented by simple icons with NATO symbols (or I guess in some cases, symbols inspired by NATO symbols). Zoom in and things won’t look much better, with those icons with NATO symbols being replaced by simple sprites. But in a way this somewhat dry graphical presentation actually fits the tone of the game. This is not a flashy arcadey tactics game, this is a “serious” wargame that takes its details very seriously, so a map that looks like a bit like it might be something you could see real generals plan their moves on (in a movie) does not look out of place.

But while the graphics might be simple-looking, the graphics designer did pay a surprising amount of attention to tiny details. For example, if you highlight a tank, you’ll see that despite the simple and flat looking sprite, there are quite a few moving parts on it. This was hardly a necessary thing to put in, they could simply have had the tanks be static images and that would have worked just fine, as you’ll usually be so zoomed out that you won’t see them anyway, but they still went the extra mile here and added these tiny little details.

While it’s just a tiny detail, notice how the tank, turret and machingunner are facing slightly different directions

The sound effects do fare a bit better. They sound authentic enough (although this is coming from someone who’s never been near an automatic weapon being fired). As the battle starts heating up, you start hearing the sounds of artillery fire hitting, the smattering or automatic rifles from infantry shooting at each other and the sound of vehicles making their way across the battlefield, and it all has a pretty good feel to it.

There’s a reason why music has not been mentioned thus far, and that’s because there’s hardly any. During gameplay all you get are sound effects. There’s some ambient sound as well, like wind blowing, but other than that, the game is mostly quiet.

A bombastic victory fanfare would have been nice right about now.

Gameplay

The simplest way to describe Armored Brigade would be to say that it’s a lower budget Close Combat, with the scale of the Wargame series, but that’s selling the game a bit short, because it does some interesting things that I can’t remember having seen in any other tactics game.

The brunt of the game takes place on a large tactical map, where you give orders to your soldiers, in a way not dissimilar to Close Combat. Select your troops, select where you want them to go, and then select how you want it to be done using a command menu. This part feels relatively intuitive, particularly for someone who has a bit of experience with the above mentioned Close Combat series, but there are some important differences. Unlike in CC, you don’t spend as much time micromanaging your troops, instead you’re expected to give broader commands, and then the troops handle the finer details themselves, like exactly what to shoot at or where to take cover. You can tell your soldiers to only engage certain kinds of targets at certain ranges, but you’re not telling them to target a specific enemy.

The biggest difference from other games, which really plays into this idea of playing a game on a larger scale, and only giving broader orders, is the command delay. When you’re giving an order to a unit, there’s a delay before it starts following it, and this delay varies depending on how far away the unit is from your HQs, your faction and also if you’re giving commands to single units, or to formations. This is something that discourages you to micromanage, but there’s of course always a time and a place for going in and handling the details yourself. Particularly with scouting units, I found that going in and doing a bit of micromanagement was worth it.

Combat in Armored Brigade can be fast and deadly. A good hit on a tank can knock it out instantly, and for more lightly armored vehicles, being shot at usually results in them getting killed before you can even notice that they’re in danger. Managing line of sight, and making sure that you see the enemy before they see you is really important, but also quite challenging, particularly when you’re on the attack. The defenders can dig in, and hide in forests and houses, while the attacker often needs to cross unsafe land. Armored vehicles also tend to be poor at spotting enemies, particularly infantry, so having infantry support your bigger vehicles is vital, but infantry on foot is slow, and potentially quite vulnerable when moving out in the open. And with the command delay, being sloppy and moving your units into danger can be costly, as it’s hard to save a unit when they won’t instantly respond to your orders.

Using the tool for showing Line of Sight (LoS) is quite important when planning your approach

Speaking of different types of vehicles, if you like details, this game has you covered. There are about 950 different units in the base game, and the game modes things like armour thickness and gun penetration and all that stuff. You’ll even know exactly how many grenades an infantry squad carries. But for people who don’t think taking a deep dive into all of these things is fun, you don’t have to sweat it. For most people, it will be enough to have a rough idea of how good something is. A main battle tank is still a main battle tank, and it’s going to function similarly no matter which side you’re playing, and as long as you’re bringing tanks from the same era to fight each other, the difference is not huge. (I’ll imagine that anyone who’s really interested in military hardware will disagree with me on this one, and will be able to point to a dozen reasons for why the Challenger is completely different to the Abrams, but for the average person, it’s enough to know that these are main battle tanks from the 80’s that fulfill pretty much the same role). The one area where it feels like looking into the details of seemingly similar units is the infantry, the different factions have infantry with surprisingly different anti-armor capabilities.

So I heard you liked detailed information about each piece of equipment?

The game does of course not just have tanks and infantry, there are a plethora of different units, from more stationary AA emplacements, to lighter vehicles with guided anti-tank missiles to helicopters and airplanes, and also off-map artillery, all with different capabilities. Some units are repeated between factions, and some are unique for specific ones. You’ll unsurprisingly find Soviet tanks in the East German army, for example. The weirdest faction has to be the Finns, who have equipment from both sides, plus some really outdated WW2-era equipment and a bunch of their own stuff.

The different factions also have slightly different playstyles, although as this is supposed to be representing real-world armies from the same time period, there are more similarities than differences between the factions. After all, a guy with a rifle is still a guy with a rifle, no matter where he’s from or where the rifle was made. But the US and UK armies for an example relies on highly trained troops and more advanced equipment, and as a result will end up fielding smaller forces, while the USSR will try to hit you like a sledgehammer, with a mass of cheaper troops, backed up by powerful armored vehicles. The Western forces also tends to have a lower command delay, which makes them a bit more nimble and capable of adapting on the fly, while the USSR will rely more on plans set in motion before the fighting starts. And the Finns, well, they’re just very determined to not give ground. They might not have the best training, or the best equipment, but you’re not going to break their morale anytime soon.

The factions are probably not perfectly balanced though. If you compare the USSR and the Polish forces, the USSR get a lot more toys to play with, and have better trained on top of that. The Polish do have the ability to field a lot of boots on the ground though, even if a fair amount of their equipment seems to be slightly outdated hand-me-downs from the Russians, so a Poland vs USSR fight would not result in an instant loss for the Polish forces, it would just be a bit more of an uphill struggle.

A swarm of Polish troops heading towards the British lines

At first glance, the game might seem to have surprisingly little content, apart from the vast number of units. There are only 17 standalone missions with pre-set armies, 3 campaigns and 4 maps. Each mission does not take very long to play, if you use the option to speed up the games speed (without it they’ll probably take in the ballpark of just over an hour each, with time dilation it’s realistic to complete a level in about 20min), and the campaigns are just a series of maps that act like a bit of a tug of war between you and your opponent (win one map and you’ll move closer to the enemy base, and be on the attack, lose and you’ll be pushed towards your side). But the main part of the game is the mission and campaign generators. The maps are huge, and you’ll get to pick a small part of them to fight on. And when generating your own missions, you’ll also get to design your own army, and chose which sides will be fighting each other, and also decide which year the fighting will take place in, which will change which units are available. With 7 different factions, and a huge array of units, there’s a lot of replay value to be found here. The maps also seem to be relatively accurate to their real-world locations that they’re supposed to represent, so the conditions you’ll be fighting in will be mostly realistic. And you can also alter the conditions of the battlefield itself, fighting at night during the winter is quite different to fighting in the middle of a hot summer day.
If there’s one thing that’s missing from this game, then that has to be multiplayer. A good tutorial might also have been nice, but the lack of multiplayer does seem to be a rather glaring flaw. This is the kind of game that would work great when playing against another human being, at least one who has the patience to play a game like this. While the AI seems solid for the most part, it’s still quite different to fight against another human being.

Recreating the famous battle between Britain and Finland, when they were fighting over German soil

Closing thoughts

Oh wow, this game sure is something, alright, and in a good way. Armored Brigade feels like a passion project, by a small team who are really interested in this time period, and the different armed forces that were relevant (if the manual is accurate, this game was made by 4 people). The fact that it is a smaller budget game, made by passionate fans is something that is noticeable. There are some rough edges, the game is not quite as intuitive as it could have been with a bigger budget and more people working on it, and the graphics are not on par with something like the recently released Close Combat: The Bloody First.

But this small team managed to make an incredibly deep game, that rewards careful planning overthinking on the fly. With an insane amount of details, solid support for mods, and more units than you’ll ever really need, I imagine that this is going to be one of those games that will end up with a small, but very hardcore, fanbase that will stick with it for years, if not decades. But you don’t have to be quite that hardcore to play and enjoy this game.

You can change just about anything, and even create your own units

Armored Brigade is not an entry-level game. Someone who has not played a lot of tactical games will likely be completely overwhelmed by all the things that are going on, and is likely to just get frustrated when they see their tanks get shot to pieces by unseen infantry hiding in the bushes. And the lack of a proper tutorial does not help matters. This game just gives you some small text boxes explaining the basics when you play it for the first time, but there’s no real guidance after that. A good tutorial, and more tooltips would go a long way to make the game more approachable, particularly for those who are not already very familiar with military equipment from the cold war era. I only know about most of these things because I’ve seen them in games before, and I would imagine that there’s quite a few people who are in a similar situation. The manual could also use some more detailed descriptions of things, but it does give you all the important information you need to play the game.

That said, for someone who’s already familiar with tactical games and who really enjoy them, and who has a rough understanding of what the different equipment is, Armored Brigade will likely be one of the best games they’ve played in a long time, despite a few rough edges, it’s just a shame that at the moment, there’s no way to play against another human being.

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