FLASHPOINT CAMPAIGNS: RED STORM
Flash back to the ‘80s where the Third World War in Europe is in full swing. Will NATO be able to stem the Soviet tide or will the USSR fold, the way it happened in real life?
A DISTANT THUNDER
“Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm (FPC:RS) is a fast-paced and deadly game of modern grand tactical combat set in Central Germany in the 1980s during the height of the Cold War…”
…This sentence is the best opening any game can have. It is copied directly from the manual (but you can find it in a dozen of places) and it saved us from that dire consuetude sadly endemic in many features about WWIII: to open the piece with one of those “Red Storm Rising-Wannabe” tales of “real combat”.
“…The grey-before-the-dawn sky was already full of streaking aircraft: big civilian ones trying to get out of Dodge before the air war began. The sergeant glanced one last time at the picture of his wife and their fourteen sons. He opened the hatch of his M1A1 to take a final breath of fresh air. The first thing he noticed was a close-up of an AP shot fired from point-blank range by a Soviet T-80 twenty yards away. The world went black…”
FPC:RS is considered the “spiritual successor” of Flashpoint: Germany [FP:G], a tactical Cold War game published in 2005 by the same developer, On Target Simulations (then called Simulations Canada). One use the term “spiritual” because the developers themselves underline how, while the two games have some concepts and features in common, FPC:RS is so advanced that, if compared with the former iteration, it can be considered a whole new game. Most will agree with this assessment, even if a good knowledge of FP:G will help during the (gentle) FPC:RS learning curve.
The game portrays the Orders of Battle [OOBs] for the US Army, the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR), the Bundeswehr, and the Soviet Union from 1985 to 1989. To many, 1989 marks the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War proper. Many people forget how “The war that never was” ended with a bolt from the blue at its very height – not to mention how Gorbachev’s very reforms program could have back-fired and caused a coup (and possible war) from the “hardliners” of the Old Guard. Thanks to both the weapons deployed and the political instability in Eastern Europe, those years were the very pinnacle of potential high-tech conventional warfare. This “what if” is the heart of Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm.
FPC:RS can be bought from the Matrix Games web site both in digital-only and boxed edition (the latter includes the option to download a digital copy of the product, at once). As common with Matrix titles, the only form of copy protection is a Serial Number, sent via e-mail to the player as soon the transaction is complete.
The game supports both play vs. AI (as either NATO or SU) or Multi-Player. The latter includes hot-seat, traditional PBEM, and PBEM++ modes (the latter using Matrix’ dedicated servers). I personally bemoan the lack of a direct connection. FPC:RS employs a WeGo-turn system, which is perfectly designed for two players to simultaneously plan their moves and then watch what happens (usually “anything but…”) Hopefully, this direct connection feature will be implemented in a future patch.
“The Pied Piper”, the battle for the bridges on the Weser River outside Hamelin is one of the most tense and exciting Head-to-Head scenarios.
This review is based on version 2.02a of FPC:RS, but I was able to test the program since the release version, 2.00. It is among the most stable games published by Matrix in recent times. The developers quickly published two additional patches and a hotfix, containing both bug fixes and improvements. It is telling that, except for a line-of-sight problem quickly solved by the hotfix, I only became aware of the bugs by reading the patch notes! I didn’t experience a single crash during this review and, overall, FPC:RS is a polished joy to play. I suggest checking the patch notes that you can find in your game folder’s “readme.doc”, since some features were changed and improved from those described in the manual.
STORM IS JOINED
FPC:RS is about tactical-level combat in Central Germany at the very height of the Cold War. It comes with 20 scenarios, which cover a whole spectrum of situations, armies involved, sizes, and maps, plus two campaigns of five connected scenarios each. While scenarios specifically designed for Head-to-Head are explicitly marked, they can be played in solitaire. This way allows for balance against a less experienced opponent. The game can even run AI vs. AI, so that a viewer can study tactics. Campaigns are single-player only. FPC:RS thus presents a grand total of 30 scenarios out of the box, with battles of various complexity lasting 4 to 14 (in-game) hours.
Every unit can be portrayed, from a single squad to a whole battalion (the latter being much more common in Russian armies). The map (usually covering an area of about 20×15 km) is no longer divided into the grid of squares found in FP:G, but now shows the classic “staggered hex-grid” common to many wargames. Each hex measures 500 meters. A specific terrain type and elevation further distinguish each hex, with effects on movement, visibility, and combat results.
Graphics are stylized, but pleasant and remind me of “ye olde” tabletop wargames. The maps are based on real-terrain cartography and depict, between them, a vast area centered on West Germany and the infamous “Fulda Gap”. The vehicles and other units are portrayed either by silhouettes or NATO symbols depicted on “counters”. Again, the effect reminds one of a tabletop wargame (“stacking” included), but it is pleasant to the eye. The problem I found is that elevations are not immediately clear and I needed either to change my monitor’s contrast, or to turn on the elevations overlay. Other players report no problems with this, but I’m not color-blind or affected by other eye impairments, so your experience may vary. Anyway, on Matrix’ FPC:RS forum, you can already find sets of alternate graphics. The sounds are fun, with rumbles, trundles, “whoooooshes”, booooms!, “budda-budda-buddas” and other effects that make the modern battlefield such a vivid experience. You can turn them off if you want, but I like to play with the full blast.
The maps in Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm are built on real world satellite maps, as this comparison between “A Time to Dance” scenario map (left) and the same area as seen on Google Earth (right) shows.
Game features include:
- various levels of electronic warfare that affect your ability to send orders to your troops,
- variable visibility according to the time of day and meteorological conditions (which can change during the scenario),
- infrared and low-light sensors,
- improved defensive positions,
- battlefield engineering,
- on and off map artillery (with different kinds of fire missions and types of ammo),
- attack and reconnaissance helicopters,
- close air support,
- AAA units,
- ground and air radar,
- anti-radiation missiles (well…),
- precision-guided munitions,
- Nuclear-Biological-Chemical [NBC] warfare (a tactical nuclear bomb will not end a scenario, but “only” make more difficult to traverse the affected hexes… if you weren’t in one of them when it went off, of course),
- portable anti-tank weapons,
- rifles (we were forgetting about them!),
- and a host of other features.
The list of the weapons and other offensive/defensive equipment a unit can carry occupies half-a-dozen of pages in the manual. “If it was on the European battlefield in the ‘80s, it is in the game!” may sound like a lame ad, but it perfectly describes the number of things you will find in FPC:RS.
“Our agents in the West gave us excellent info on the Capitalist Pigs’ machines!”
Strangely enough, the use of hexes is one of the few improvements from FP:G which I didn’t like. To me, the former game never used “squares” in the classic wargame sense, but more of a map grid used by you (the commander) to visualize where things were happening (“Soviet tanks over-running square X,Y. Aaargh. Over.”) The alternative to hexes could have been a “point-to-point” movement system that games like TacOps 4 or Armored Task Force have employed since the late ‘90s-mid 2000s. This second choice would also have the merit of avoiding a “fixed dimension” for every hex, thus freeing modders from worrying about scale. FPC:RS has an open database (something very welcome by users) that can be modified to portray, amongst other things, WWII clashes. However, a 500m/hex scale is, by the developer’s own admission, too big. It will be interesting to see if the program evolves towards “The Operational Art of War III” approach, where these parameters can be manipulated by the scenario creator. Let’s not look too far forward in our evaluation: the scale used by FPC:RS is just fine for the kind of conflict the game portrays out of the box.
A last, but very important, feature is the “turn length”. FPC:RS uses a WeGo system, whereby both sides enter their orders while the clock is stopped. The turn is then resolved simultaneously. Notice that this is not the same as “input their orders at the same time”. The WeGo system is actually asymmetrical and a “decision cycle” length will vary according to a number of factors: troop quality; nationality; number of HQ and distance from the subordinates; electronic warfare (a killer, I assure you); and even the number of orders your subordinates have to “digest” in a turn.
In practical terms, this means that in FPC:RS a “decision cycle” can be as short as 10 minutes or as long as 40-50 minutes (our personal record is 12 minutes playing as the British). This means that one player might give orders once during a 50 minute cycle while his opponent issues orders four times in the same period. Remember, in this game you are the overall Commander and nothing else. A trained army will be able to execute your orders quickly and precisely. Whereas a green or overburdened one will see the enemy both act and react two, three, or maybe (in extreme cases) even four times before a new series of orders can be given. Micro-management can be lethal and, in one Multi-Player game I was able to drop the Russian decision cycle under the West German’s one! (I still lost that one.)
An additional headache for the commander comes from special units whose only purpose is to triangulate your HQs’ position. Issue too many orders while stationary and the Wrath of God (or at least of the enemy) will rain down your HQs – with the disruptive effects one can easily imagine.
“We are not afraid of the Russians, but we are afraid of their helicopters…” – anonymous Afghan resistance fighter sometime in the ‘80s
FIRING ON THE “MOVIE”
A battle plan (the overall operational strategy and the first set of orders) in FPC:RS can be compared to pre-production of a movie: the more work and foresight you put in it before a scenario begins, the easier becomes to modify things in real time. Otherwise, when everything is happening at once, even a small change of plans can lead to inauspicious delays. Every order must be transmitted down the chain-of-command, along with instructions for the subordinates about what to do and what they could expect to meet at a new battlefield position. These procedures inflict, at a minimum, a medium effect on the decision cycle. Major detrimental effects can result from radically changing your positions in a high electronic-warfare situation or, if your HQs are not in contact with each other. You can display the command range with a hotkey.
“Apone: Say again? All after incinerators?”
This is especially true for the Soviets. In my experience, the Russian player must, from the very beginning, have a plan drawn in “broad strokes”, stick with it as long as possible, and count on numeric superiority to overcome those situations where things will not go as expected.
Giving orders is easy and intuitive: you select one or more units and, with a right click, a menu of options appears. These include various types of movement (“hasty”, “deliberate”, or “assault”) and… that’s basically it. The units will then try to maneuver on the battlefield at the best of their capabilities and, through the AI, use their best judgment over targets and fire control. Special units, like artillery, helos, and support airplanes, of course, have a set of additional orders tied to their capabilities. Once learned, the aspirant Commander is ready to go. Giving orders to a whole company is less precise, but also less burdensome than telling each and every platoon what to do, and doesn’t delay as much the decision cycle. Still, there are times when over-stretched Western armies have no other solution. The whole process is fluid and intuitive. After a couple of games, the UI becomes second nature.
When ordering troops around, the player can select multiple waypoints and then micro-adjust them before the final order is given. This allows, for example, ordering a mechanized company to occupy a town by selecting a single hex inside it, and then move the final waypoint of the various platoons so that the whole town is covered. Waypoints can also be partially edited: each one gives to the Commander an approximate “time of arrival”, and the player can choose to delay it so as to better coordinate the action of multiple units. Just be warned: I used the word “approximate” because the number of dire things that can happen between “here and there” is not small. For example, stumbling into a minefield can ruin your next 30 minutes. For this reason, “coordinated movement” is best used in rear areas. Of course, if a storm of helos, a barrage of artillery, or both pay a visit, all bets are off.
Learning how to play FPC:RS is easy, almost too much so. During my review, I thought I had grasped the game and I was quite surprised when, reading the manual, I discovered that I had missed half of the features. The hard part is to learn how to play well. The modern battlefield is unforgiving: “you see it = you kill it” (if you have the right weapons) is a principle that the player must never forget. A successful offensive can be wiped out in the matter of minutes by a well-positioned, well-hidden single platoon. When this happens, depression ensues and, in turn, makes the Commander’s girlfriend unhappy. But, how does one play well?
“Don’t worry, comrade: it is only a recon plato…”
In my opinion, a wargame (either on the PC or on the kitchen table) must always be judged by two factors: how much fun it is to play and how realistically it portrays the topic it tackles. When the two things coincide, then you have an excellent game. I saw how FPC:RS succeeds in the first one: it is a very fun game to play. But does it realistically portray mechanized warfare in Central Europe during the mid-late ‘80s? In my opinion, the answer is tied to a second question: do real world doctrines, the ones used by the various armies at the time, work in FPC:RS?