The Korean War gets no respect. When was the last time you played a Korean War-themed game, let alone a good one? Or heard about the war on TV, or read a good book about it? Even the most famous TV show about the Korean War, MASH, was really about Vietnam.
This is too bad, really, as the Korean War straddled an important divide in military history. On the one hand, it was the last of the “modern” wars - in the mold of WW1 and WW2 – in that the armies formed up into lines, wore uniforms, and fought over territory. On the other hand it was the first of the “postmodern” wars, where overwhelming force and technological advantage were not the keys to victory. There is a lot to examine in this conflict.
Into this void steps “Theatre of War 3: Korea” (ToWK). Unfortunately, in this case stepping into a void means doing a faceplant. There is precious little to like in this game, and what there is is buried beneath bland graphics, bad interface design, slow speed, questionable game mechanics, and general bugginess.
The overall play of ToWK is divided into strategic and tactical modes. This is not a new idea, and is gaining popularity as a way to merge a turn-based strategic mode with a real-time tactical mode within the same game. When done well (rare) both modes enhance the other – strategic decisions impact tactical situations (e.g. by choosing favorable battlefields) and tactical outcomes shape what strategic decisions are available. “The King's Crusade” is a good example of a recent attempt at this game design.
The strategic map has limited options (place your units in this sector or that) and makes for a simple game: if you place your units where there are no enemy units, you automatically capture the sector. If there are enemy units there, prepare to enter the tactical map.
As in most of these hybrid TBS-RTS games, the tactical map is where most of the action happens. The basic gameplay on the tactical map will come as no surprise to anybody who has played an RTS before. ToWK has all the usual Korean-War-era suspects - infantry, tanks, and helicopters – along with the crowd-pleasing air strikes and mortar barrages. The modeling of these units is the highlight of the game. Units are modeled down to the individual soldier and stats are kept for such details as ammunition level, rate of fire, range, armor thickness and morale, among many others. Although it is hard to tell from looking, the entire setup gives the impression that combat and its surrounding factors have been realistically modeled.
The problem is not in the realism, however, but in the problems a player will have in actually playing the game, and the enjoyment derived therefrom. To start, the interface is complex. There are at least 13 different basic actions an individual infantryman can take, some of which have sub-actions. None of these actions are clearly presented in the interface, leaving the player to hunt around the screen like they lost their glasses until the whole mess can be memorized.
Once the individual controls are memorized, there are the problems with group control. The problem here is just the opposite – groups only get three formations: line, column and wedge. As a bonus, they fail to stay in their assigned formation as they travel across the map. This is only made worse by the almost complete lack of cover which makes leaving formation that much more hazardous.
ToWK has some serious pathing issues and the inability to keep in formation is just the tip of the iceberg. Tanks will delay crossing rivers on bridges, preferring to wander around a bit before remembering where to go. Without constant shepherding your men will wander aimlessly all over the map, way out there in the open, with signs on their back saying “Shoot me!”. Planning an intricate offensive is impossible when your units refuse to move correctly.
The problems start with the first tutorial. You are assigned the task of planting some anti-tank mines on a bridge. Problem is, there is no actual “Lay anti-tank mines” button anywhere. I could find a “Lay mines” button, so I tried that. It was not to be so easy, however, as I next had to cycle through all the members of the target platoon, looking for the ones that actually had the mines in their inventory. There was no way to, for example, order the whole platoon to lay mines and have the ones with mines lay them while the others stood guard. And then, after I had thought I had lain the mines, the tutorial times out and tells me I had failed to do so. No description of what I had done wrong, just a “You failed” message. Not only was the tutorial unhelpful, I think I may have been worse off than when I started. A game this complicated needs a good tutorial and voluminous in-game help, and ToWK has neither.
The graphical presentation is no help, either. The game is rather bland-looking, as if the developers thought “dull war, dull graphics”. That would not be so bad if the graphics were at least clear or informative. They are neither, really. Despite the continuous zoom feature there are really only two levels to play at: fully zoomed-out or zoomed way in. Zooming out is best for situational awareness but turns your guys into tiny pixels. Zooming in helps when working with individual soldiers and the fine details of small-unit combat but prevents the player from seeing the bigger picture. It leads to a schizophrenic experience as one zooms in and out repeatedly just to play the game.
This is not the only schizophrenic feature, either. It is unclear why the player can make decisions about strategic unit placements one minute and be worried about an individual tank's ammo supply the next. So many game elements seem designed to rip the player out of their suspension of disbelief that it would make this review too long to read.
In summary, “Theatre of War 3: Korea” is not a very good game. It has a decent, realistic tactical engine under the hood but bland graphics, an overly-complicated interface, bad pathfinding and unit formations, lousy tutorials and overall player support, and a too-high complexity to payoff ratio doom the game to not-very-goodness.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.
Dedication to an overlooked conflict cannot make up for being a bad game. Suitable only for those who have a deep interest in Korean War-era small squad combat. Anybody else should dig up an old copy of “Close Combat” or “Combat Mission” or “Firefight” or something.