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Norm Koger's The Operational Art of War III PC Digital Download & CD-ROM

Published by Matrix Games
Developed by Norm Koger/Matrix Games/TOAD
Release Date: Out Now
Price: $39.99 £21.99 (Digital Download from Matrix Games)

Norm Koger's The Operational Art of War III, an introduction.

If you were to ask seasoned grognards to name their favourite PC wargame of all time it's a fair bet that most would include Norm Koger's The Operational Art of War series amongst their top titles.  The series allowed you to not only enjoy hours of fun gaming but also to construct any modern day battle (approx. 1939 onwards) with an amazing amount of accuracy. In short the series (which contained two volumes) was a true wargaming classic. Of course it's nigh on impossible to get the original game working these days (as it's around eight years old now) because it won't work on Windows XP and older versions of Windows struggle to work on modern PC specifications. Thankfully wargaming connoisseurs Matrix Games acquired the license to the series and in conjunction with Norm Koger and the original TOAD team have been updating and improving the series for a new release, the result of which is The Operational Art of War III.

What's the game about?

As you can probably work out from the title, The Operational Art of War III (we'll call it TOAW III from now on) is an operational level wargame. It's a hex-based, turn-based wargame that not only provides you with an excellent amount of scenarios to enjoy but also a superb editor that allows you to recreate any battle from the twentieth century with a high degree of accuracy.  The game not only supports single-player gaming but also hotseat and PBEM (play by e-mail) gaming. The amount of depth in the game is staggering and it's fair to say that hardly any wargames that have arrived since the original TOAW can claim to have been anywhere near as comprehensive. The game isn't simply a re-release though. Minor graphical updates have been made to the game. A wealth of user scenarios (over 100 of the best created for the original TOAW in fact)  have been added. Many additional editor options have been added which enables scenario creators far greater scope to recreate any modern day battle of their choosing.

What's good about the game?

Considering the original TOAW is now eight years old you would think it's safe to assume that several operational level wargames have been released since that have surpassed the game. Amazingly this hasn't really turned out to be the case and even today TOAW still stands as one of the best titles in the genre. In fact the only reason more wargamers aren't playing the original TOAW and its sequels is that the games won't work correctly under Windows XP. Matrix Games did every wargamer a huge favour then when they purchased the license for the series. In addition to over three dozen bug fixes and updates to the game (including an improved user interface and a smarter AI in the scenarios that are specifically designed for play against an AI opponent), TOAW III works flawlessly under both Windows XP and the latest Windows Vista Beta. This is all good news of course. Although the game isn't as modern looking as some strategy games out there it's still an excellent operational wargame that's as good as anything you can purchase.

The original TOAW came with some great scenarios but what gave the game its appeal was the editor that came with the game. This ensured that scenario creators could create additional battles (of some considerable complexity) and make them freely available for download. It's probably fair to say that most fans of TOAW have spent more time with user created scenarios than the ones that actually shipped with the game. For scenario creators TOAW III takes some beating. Maps can represent scales from 2.5km to 50km per location. Turns can range from six hours to one-week meaning that you can deal with the smaller scale battles just as effectively as the larger ones that play out over a much larger timescale. 999 events can now be defined within a scenario (twice the original limit).  Support has been added for scenario specific graphics and the game is now more 'mod-friendly' making it even more appealing to scenario creators.

What's not so good about the game?

TOAW was a plain looking PC game at the time of its original release and by the graphical standards of today TOAW III is about as graphically unwelcoming as can be. This won't be a problem for grognards though, because operational wargames are not known for their graphical excellence (in fact there are wargames that have been released in the last few years that don't look that much better). The learning curve for the game is rather steep, especially if you are new to games of this type. Those expecting interactive tutorials will be disappointed. There are tutorials but you'll need to print out Word documents (or Alt-Tab between Word and TOAW III) in order to follow what needs to be done. Given the work that's gone into the updated TOAW it's a shame an interactive tutorial hasn't been included with the game. The game has much more depth than most of the wargames we see nowadays and you really need a proper tutorial to shoehorn you gently into the tactical delights the game has to offer. In 2006 it all feels a little crude having to print off a tutorial and keep flicking your attention between a printed tutorial and the action on the screen. The game offers a Standard and Advanced Rules option. The Advanced Rules option is the full experience and is definitely the way to play the game. The Standard Rules option simplifies the whole process and takes every last shred of realism out of the game. For instance you'll find all of your units fully supplied at all times, the weather is always pleasant, there is no fog of war or bridge blowing or repairs that are unavailable amongst other things. I understand this option has been included to make things easier but in all honesty the game will be a waste of time and effort if you choose to play with the Standard Rules option.

How does it look?

As we mentioned above the game looks very basic by today's standards.  The game plays out in a window (that can be expanded to fill the screen) so you'll be able to play the game at any screen resolution you wish. The game does offer pseudo-3D units but in truth you'll be much better with the default 2D, top-down, view that uses the much more informative NATO icons. Of course the upside of the game having rather basic graphics is that it will run very happily on anything resembling a modern PC. Even most laptop PCs should have no problem in running the game.

How deaf gamer friendly is the game?

Deaf gamers won't have any problems with TOAW as all of the information is displayed either through the use of icons or text.  As we've already mentioned the tutorials are MS Word documents so you'll have no problem in playing them through. All of the various briefings (such as the Situation Briefing, Weather Briefing and Scenario Briefing) can all be recalled at any time from the View menu or by clicking the relevant button on the right-hand side of the screen. The game uses a wealth of icons to convey information such as weather and supply lines etc. The game allows you to display or disable all of these types of information so you can have as much or as little displayed at any one time.

Final thoughts.

The Operational Art of War was an incredible wargame at the time of its release back in 1998. The Operational Art of War III is a very good reworking of the game that every seasoned wargamer is going to want to get their hands on. Graphically the game is no great shakes and it's disappointing an interactive tutorial hasn't been included but these are the only niggles I have with the game. If you are prepared to get your head around the complexities of The Operational Art of War III you'll find a game that has few equals. Doubtless to say that grognards everywhere definitely won't need any convincing (and are probably playing the game as we are writing this review) but it's a game that any turn-based strategy fan would do well to invest in because of the sheer depth and long-term enjoyment (and we're talking years not months) that Norm Koger's The Operational Art of War III offers.

Overall Game Rating: 9.0/10

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Operational level wargames really don't come much better this. Norm Koger's The Operational Art of War may lack graphical finesse but it's certainly not found wanting in any other department. The game's quite simply a must for any wargamer.