In the distance the soft rhythmic thuds of artillery can be heard over the melodic song of morning birds in rural Korea. The thuds turn into whines and the whines into loud crumps as the rounds begin to drop erratically around the men dug in – rattling bones and shaking morale. You’re playing Theatre of War 3: Korea, a game so advanced in war simulation (according to the developer) that 1C Company went so far in it’s production that it implemented a model to produce realistic shrapnel clouds on the impact of shells. If the last sentence confuses you, then this game isn’t for you in the first place. If the last sentence peaked your interest due to the words ‘Korea’ and/or ‘realistic shrapnel clouds’ then you’re just the type of person 1C Company had in mind when making Korea.
This is a realistic, strategic, military simulation of the Korean War where the player takes control of either the North Korean or American military. The game consists of two dynamic campaigns that allow the player to move armies around a map of Korea and fight out the two major phases of the war, a powerful campaign and battle generator, and a multiplayer mode.
When starting a campaign you get the chance to move units, designate provinces that you want to attack and handle support roles like off-map artillery allocated to your units. After having made your preparations you end your turn and the computer tries to show you how much it hates you, depending on the difficulty setting. After a quick overview of the steps that have been taken you’re whisked away to the first battle of the day. Before each battle you can select the difficulty of the AI and then you add your own flavour to the battle by handpicking what units you want to be in your army for this battle and what units you want to have in reserve. The amount of units available to you seems a lot; but after a couple of runs it begins to feel stale, having to pick the same old, same old mortar team or howitzer combo. The game tries to give you room to mix and match, but you’re stuck with a certain number of units allowed from each category which doesn’t really allow for that much variation. After having picked your units it’s off to the front line!
When you step into the battle map you can see the graphical prowess of the game. The maps are lush with vegetation, villages picturesque and streams slowly carry off their water to places afar. And then something explodes because you have no idea where the enemy is coming from.
The game uses a fog-of-war system where units not directly in line of sight of another unit are invisible and units that make a lot of noise, like twelve guys blowing vuvuzela’s, are shown with a ‘they might be here’ kind of symbol. It’s hard to try and manoeuvre tanks and the like around, but when all hell breaks loose your vehicles luckily decide to fire and manoeuvre on their own accord. Although this is handy in a fight, this is horrible when trying to get your tanks to move to a specific area. Artillery is handy when fired in a straight line, and your mortar men start firing when the enemy is near – incidentally, this shows the shrapnel cloud dispersal system where mortars against enemy infantry are deadly and howitzer shells aren’t as effective due to their shallow level of impact.
During the fight you get points, which you spend on support options like off-map artillery or having planes with rockets swoop down to blow holes in the turf around enemy tanks. Tanks have a special impact system where individual components can be taken out and units have a moral system that can turn your bullet chewing combat engineer squad in panicking children after they receive enough abuse. Battles are atmospheric, fun and hectic.
Problems do arise at times. After valiantly defending a ridge against an almost biblical amount of invaders I was left with an empty map and still no victory. Cautiously I send out a scout to probe the countryside, only to discover a neat row of enemy vehicles all stacked against a cliff facing my general direction (see image below). The AI’s pathfinding issues sometimes make it impossible to have a proper game, especially when they are all heavy tanks and the only way to take them out is with your own tanks which you then have to try and send in one at a time to attack the enemy tanks (who then happily remain static, turn their turrets towards your unit in unison and proceed to rip holes the size of a melon in the side of your tank). This doesn’t only happen to enemy units, but also to your own units. Countless times I’ve had one of my trucks, tanks or other wheeled and/or threaded vehicles try to reach someplace, only to have the pathfinding lead it up against a steep hill while there is a path besides the hill. I have to say that this is the only real game-breaking mechanic I’ve come across so far, but it’s been a real game changer now and then in the campaign where I had to fight over a heavily contested, vital, province.
Another critical note is the handful of maps (not really a handful, make that about two handful’s) that the game picks from whenever you start a campaign battle, of which a couple just looks like a fractal terrain generator had a run of the place and loved to add steep hills everywhere. After having played the same map in four different provinces you get a bit tired and this, compared with the path finding issue, just sometimes makes this game a big bore.
This game is perfect for those who want to take their time and enjoy a realistic simulation of anything warfare. The game somehow reminds me of the old Close Combat series, featuring the sounds your unit’s weapons makes in the unit selection screen after you click on them. The graphics are amazing and the explosions works of art; but the AI is dread awful at times. If you’re a fan of the series or genre it’s a real keeper – that is if the path finding issue gets fixed or you learn to live with it. For everyone else I’d suggest to keep your money in your pocket and keep on walking.
Verdict – On Target