Review: Kharkov: Disaster on the Donets (PC)

Kharkov: Disaster on the Donets
Developer: Strategic Studies Group
Publisher: Matrix Games
Genre: Turn-Based Strategy
Release Date: 7/17/2008

World War II is, without a doubt, one of the most important conflicts in human history. Its many battles, its countless tragedies and its outcome have helped shape the world that we live in. It’s easy to understand why the study of this war has become an obsession for many people, and it’s even easier to see why the video game industry would turn it into its own little cash cow. There are so many heroes with their own story to be told and so many battles with their own very interesting setting that one could theoretically find an infinite number of premises to use as a basis for video games. This has been going on for a while, and the only problem in the foreseeable future is players becoming tired of continuously shooting at the same bad guys with the same weapons.

With Kharkov: Disaster on the Donets, Matrix Games and SSG show another side of World War II that has not yet been explored by first-person shooters and real-time strategy titles. This turn-based strategy game takes place entirely in the two weeks from May 12th to May 28th 1942 during the second Battle of Kharkov. It lets you rewrite history while you play as the Soviets or the Germans, attempting to emerge victorious by meeting various objectives. It is not necessary to completely annihilate your enemy here; the goal is simply to be the one with the most victory points after the end of the last turn. These points can be verified at any time during the game with a handy screen that shows the score up to that point. Of course, domination is still encouraged.

Another example would be the editor’s song, which sounds like what I think Billy Joel would compose if he ever had to make the soundtrack for the Normandy Landing scene of Saving Private Ryan. It’s full of piano and military drums, which is neither a good nor pleasant mix. All in all, it sure sounds like it’s out of place. The sound effects are more or less absent except for the generic explosion noises when you start a battle against your enemy.

When you do start playing the game, the first thing you will notice is the menu. If you are like me, you will start by clicking on the tutorial option, because the last thing you want to do with a turn-based strategy game this specific and precise is to jump right into battle without knowing what to do or how to do it. Imagine my surprise when I realized that unlike every other tutorial I have ever played, this one didn’t actually teach anything. Okay, this is not entirely true. The tutorials are in fact a play-by-play of the many options and possibilities this game offers, but it has to be used in conjunction with (once again) the manual. This is where you will find the step-by-step guide that will take you through the various trainings. This is wrong on a couple of levels:

– The 166 pages manual comes in a PDF format, which means that you can either alt-tab your way between the file and the game, which is unpractical, or print it, which is time and ink-consuming.
– I thought it was standard to expect the tutorial to walk me through the way the game is played by actually showing me how to play and where to click. Tooltips and on-screen advices would have been much more appreciated and less contrived. (See Supreme Ruler 2020, a game just as complicated if not more, but with an effective tutorial)
– I can only imagine that if I ever want to go back to this game in a couple of months, I’ll have to go through this unnatural system all over again because there is no way I will remember everything. The problem is that with a system like this one, this will probably look like more trouble than it’s worth.

As if that wasn’t enough, while trying to complete the tutorial, I’ve come across a repetitive, game-crashing bug that means I never could finish the first turn of the second tutorial. I had to move on to the next lesson while finishing this one with the manual only.

If we move on, the next logical step would be starting a proper game. The first noticeable thing is that there is only one scenario to be played. Yes, I know that the whole point of the game is to accurately reproduce a single battle that happened during World War II, and it wouldn’t really bother me if you only paid the game $20 or so. However, shopping on the Matrix Games website showed me that the game costs $49.99 as a digital download (or $59.99 if you want the physical box and everything else). Even if you do play the scenario as both the Germans and the Soviets, it means you must pay fifty dollars for two battles that are essentially the same. If you want more content for your dollars, you will have to rely on the Kharkov fans to provide custom scenarios they created using the in-game editor.

In the end, it feels like you are paying for the game engine, which just happens to include a demo scenario to show you how it works. Let’s hope for a lively community with this one, otherwise one could be stuck playing the same battle again and again, which I can’t imagine being much fun.

With this being said, you are probably thinking, “At least there is a robust editor provided here, so the replay value is technically endless!” That statement is a half-truth: there is indeed a very robust editor, but it is so complicated to use that by the time you figure it out, there is a good chance you will have lost any desire to create your own custom scenario. So yes, you are technically provided with infinite opportunities, but there is little to no incentive to go back to it as the creation process is a real pain. It’s like taking a pottery class, on the condition that you have your hands tied behind your back the whole time. It’s fun like that.

As for the gameplay itself, it has the look and feel of a board game. Some events necessitate a dice roll to unfold, the view of the battlefield is nothing but hexes over a map background, and the units are simple coloured squares with numbers indicating the various things to know about them. This is all fine and dandy as I guess that it will satisfy its target audience. However, even for WWII board games enthusiasts, I fail to see why they would shell out fifty bucks for a computerized version of something they could find in a specialized store for half the price. It doesn’t even have the advantage of simplicity, as in this case, you still need a big book explaining the rules as well as a quick reference sheet to try and make sense of everything on the fly.

The gameplay system itself works well enough for the kind of action it tries to portray, but it still has a couple of flaws.

My first gripe with it is that the menus are all very cluttered, meaning that you will lose quite a bit of time just trying to figure out where to find the exact icon that will allow you to execute the action you are aiming for. It makes a long game even longer, and it transforms the whole thing into an exercise in patience.

My second issue with the system is that according to the game, a single hex square is supposed to be about 4 kilometres long. This is fine in theory, but one thing I find odd is the fact that my units are nearly able to go from one end of the map to the other in a single turn, sometimes travelling over 40 kilometres at a time. What it means is that most of the plans you are trying to make can be nullified in a single turn, as the enemy has the ability to reposition himself in the blink of an eye. In brief, it strips a lot of strategy from a game that is supposed to thrive on it.

When looking at the whole picture, what I see in Kharkov: Disaster on the Donets is a game with a lot of heart, made by people who truly cared about their product. Unfortunately, it suffers from some serious flaws that make it look like a blast from the past, but not a very fun one.

The Scores
Story/Modes: Poor
Graphics: Dreadful
Sound: Dreadful
Control and Gameplay: Decent
Replayability: Mediocre
Balance: Mediocre
Originality: Poor
Addictiveness: Poor
Appeal Factor: Awful
Miscellaneous: Mediocre

FINAL SCORE: Poor

Short Attention Span Summary

There are better strategy games out there. There are better World War II games out there. But in the small chance where you are the kind of person who would enjoy playing a board game on your computer with the only technological advantage being that you can play the game by e-mail, then knock yourself out. You have found your perfect match. For everybody else, there’s a 95% chance that this will not be your idea of a good time.

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