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Graphics: The developers have made Kharkov as visually appealing as possible without placing any serious demands on a player’s video card; low system requirements make the game playable on almost any modern PC, but those with beefy rigs will appreciate the inclusion of widescreen monitor resolutions (up to 1900×1200), anisotropic filtering and antialiasing multipliers, and other high-end video options. The camera movement scheme makes it easy to see the entire battlefield from almost any perspective, and as you zoom in to objects on the map, shadows thrown by buildings and trees change correctly as you rotate the camera around them.
But there are a few minor snags. Objects sometimes appear to get blurry as you zoom in close to them, even with high video details enabled. Tire tracks left by vehicles only extend a short distance behind them and disappear as the vehicle moves instead of remaining on the map. The weather always seems to be perfect during battles; the occasional rainstorm or blizzard would’ve helped with the realism factor. If you zoom in close enough to infantry units, you’ll see the soldiers fall at exactly the same time and in the same direction when taking fire. And during the Set Battle tutorial, my ground troops walked straight through a wooden fence instead of climbing over it or advancing around it.
Interface: For the most part, the interface is efficiently and elegantly laid out. Everything you need to control the game is just where you’d expect it to be. The setup screen is stuffed with detailed unit information that experienced players will appreciate but newcomers can easily ignore. And on the main screen, a keyboard hotkey allows you to see all of the movement paths for your units as you plan your strategy, making it easy to avoid platoons getting tangled up with each other.
But the keyboard commands are buried in the manual; placing a list of them in the options menu would make them more easily accessible. There’s no way to display the current scenario’s objectives without returning to the briefing screen; adding an objectives hotkey would be a big help. The link to the Set Battle tutorial isn’t intuitively placed on the menu; the tutorial manual guides the player to it, but placing the two tutorials on the same submenu would make them easier to find. The window on the main menu that reports casualties and battle results displays the names of the units but not their army affiliations; a different color text font for each side would make it easier to sort out who’s doing what to whom.
Throughout most of Kharkov, pop-up tool tips are used very effectively as you hover the mouse over controls, but they’re curiously absent from the damage icons on the main screen, forcing you to look them up in the manual to see what they indicate. And more disappointingly, there are numerous typos in the mission briefings.
Gameplay: Patience is almost as important as tactics when playing Kharkov; gamers who crave instant gratification are going to be disappointed. At the beginning of battles involving large numbers of units on both sides, careful issuing of orders for all of your troops can take considerable time. The AI opponent usually is faster in the planning stage, but after each side’s moves are entered, simulating the results of those orders can take up to 40 seconds or more before the animation begins. This delay decreases as units are removed from battle, but a 50-turn engagement can still take an hour or more to complete. Even the final turn of a battle can take longer than it should; if your last remaining unit is destroyed in the Orders phase, you still have to wait for both phases of the turn to complete before the battle ends. There is no auto-resolve function, but the speed at which the animation plays can be doubled or tripled, which helps speed things along. Fortunately, the game allows you to save an ongoing battle at any point and pick it up later, and there is an autosave function, although there’s no visual indication displayed to inform you that an autosave has occurred.
Multiplayer: Kharkov’s multiplayer mode takes a form that might be foreign to most casual gamers: Play by Email. The two players agree on a scenario and which side they’ll play. Each player selects the appropriate battle and side, purchases their unit upgrades and completes their setup phase, then the players email each other’s setup files and save them to their hard drives. The game proceeds in this same fashion, with players exchanging configuration files and watching the animations for the results of their selections.
This is a slow and deliberate game mechanic that can turn to disaster if players aren’t careful about the procedures involved. The manual gives detailed, easy-to-follow instructions, but new players have to be prepared for mistakes that could derail the proceedings, so save early and save often. Sadly, Kharkov doesn’t feature a matchmaking service to help players find PBEM opponents, but a category on the game’s official message board lists players looking for gaming partners.
Sound FX: There’s no voice acting in Kharkov, save for the muffled radio chatter that can be heard during the animations. Other sound effects are sparse and lack variety, and are limited to machine-gun fire, tank engines, artillery explosions and the anguished shouts of wounded infantry. These are all important things to have in the game, but the continuous use of the same samples makes this category seem like an afterthought.
Music: Kharkov’s music score is limited to two dramatic but short orchestral snippets, both appearing as background to the menu screens. The composer did an excellent job with these cuts; a few others playing under the animation sequences would’ve been a welcome addition to the game.
Intelligence: There are times when the intelligence of the computer opponent seems to fall victim to the 10-sided die roll. During my play testing, enemy units retreated or were routed several times, even though their side had a devastating tactical advantage. Snipers would sometimes wander out from cover to attack, only to be cut down quickly by my infantry. And pathfinding problems would occasionally generate moments of mild comedy; it was amusing to watch two tanks trying to figure out how to get out of each other’s way. Also, in the Boot Camp tutorial, tanks would sometimes turn and fall off of the sides of bridges instead of traveling to the end before turning. But the AI is always a competent strategist, placing its units and issuing orders in a way that makes the missions continually challenging. Human commanders must always think several moves ahead for a reasonable shot at victory.
Difficulty: The tutorials on easy difficulty are mostly a breeze to finish, but once I got to the campaigns, the AI kicked my butt. It was only after several plays through the same scenario that I finally managed some success, and that’s as it should be. A real sense of accomplishment can be had for winning these battles, which test the abilities of wargamers of all skill levels.
Overall: If we had a category for intangibles, Kharkov would get an easy five stars. I’ve never played a game that offered such an impressive array of documentation and support to the gamer. But when you get down to actual gaming, Kharkov is much more cerebral than the average player is used to, and considerable patience is required to reap its benefits. The game boasts amazing replayability, including a full selection of modding features that are surprisingly easy to use, but it also has many little problems that need to be addressed before it can take its place in the pantheon of wargaming greatness.
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