We recently covered a classic in the strategy genre, SSI’s Panzer General, and lauded it for its remarkable tactical flexibility and open-ended campaign mode. We also seem to be on a bit of a World War II kick lately, so today, let’s take a look at another commander in the field, as Koei also released their own WWII turn-based strategy game in 1994, Operation Europe: Path to Victory 1939-45.
The first major difference you’ll notice between Operation Europe and Panzer General is that, while PG went to great lengths to allow you to play as the Germans without feeling like you were playing as the Nazis, Operation Europe has no such qualms AT ALL; you receive orders from Hitler, who speaks emphatically about the “thousand-year Reich”, the German Luftwaffe is indeed represented by Hermann Goering, and down the stretch, you may have to put troops under the command of historical…um…troublemakers Otto Skorzeny and Joachim Peiper, as well as officers with SS Death’s Head insignias on their hats. Yeeesh. I understand that it’s a sake-of-realism choice, and maybe Japanese cultural sensitivities about such things are a smidge different, but at the same time, when the game plugs in fictitious officers so “players who do not want to select an SS officer should select this person”, that’s…really not a good look.
I suppose this is ameliorated somewhat by the fact that you’re not locked into playing as the Germans this time; all six scenarios allow you to play as the Axis or the Allies, but alas, there’s no real campaign mode, the six scenarios all pretty much stand alone. Thankfully, all six missions represent major battles; the invasion of France, North Africa/El Alamein, the Battle of Kursk, the D-Day invasion, the Battle of the Bulge, and the Soviet push on Berlin. Before each mission, you’re asked to pick a side and which officers you want in charge of various posts. You’re also allowed to modify officers’ stats through an RPG-like randomization feature, so if you want to make sure say, a division that has a lot of artillery has a commander skilled in artillery, you can keep rolling the dice until you get one.
When you get down to the field of battle, you’ll find controlling your troops to be a bit different than what you may be used to. Y’see, you don’t actually actively control your troops; you issue them orders like Move or Occupy, and then they proceed on their own each turn until you change their orders or they arrive. Only one regiment can occupy a spot at a time, though, so you may experience some botching with the pathfinding AI, especially if you’re trying to put a specific regiment at the front of a bridgehead or you’re in a mission with long lines of minefields and your troops continue to blunder into mines without a second thought.
When it’s time to finally rumble with the enemy, you’re brought to an isometric close-up of the battlefield, where you can order units to attack, defend, follow friendlies, or pursue enemies, which, again, your troops will do until you tell them otherwise, and battles last a maximum of ten turns until a stalemate is declared and you return to the main map, so very rarely do battles get settled on the first encounter. If the defending side isn’t fully prepared for battle when it breaks out, they’re forced to stay stuck in place for a certain number of turns until they can respond and fight back, which also applies to adjacent units joining in the scrum, so if you can catch an enemy somewhat unawares, you can use that advantage to score some free licks on a defenseless adversary.
The big problem, though, is that no matter how well you surprise an enemy, of how many regiments you can bring to bear, it’s completely irrelevant unless you have tanks. Lots and lots of tanks, because tanks are the only thing in this entire game that have any kind of consistent power at all, and unlike the rather rock-paper-scissors dynamics of Panzer General where strong artillery or well-entrenched infantry could stand a fighting chance against armor, here, tanks can only lose to other tanks, artillery might scratch them, and infantry exists only to distract tanks from killing other tanks and doesn’t even do that job terribly well. In fact, infantry doesn’t even do that well at killing other infantry, so watching two regiments chock full of foot troops fight is like watching two armless people to shrug each other to death. I understand armor should be the strongest and toughest part of an army and all, but the degree to which armor is overpowered and everything else is impotent damn near renders the game broken at times, like the very first mission, for example, because Germany has lots of tanks and the French do not, so if you try to play through it as the French, half the game will be spent watching your soldiers get their heads bashed in and the other half will be spent begging your superiors for reinforcements they hardly, if ever, agree to send.
And speaking of begging, that is one thing you will be doing a lot of in this game, regardless of who you play as or what scenario you select. Much like PG or most Koei games in general, supplies are a major concern, but units cannot independently supply themselves, rather, they have to either leech goods from a friendly city or from supply units attached to each division. The problem is that even those have a finite store of materiel, and once that runs out, you’ll have to ask HQ to send more, which can be quite the frustrating experience. You also request reinforcements, either in battalion or complete regiment size this way, with those odds being even lower than your odds of getting supplies.
Indirect warfare, the air force and special operations, are also handled in this wait-and-hope manner. Aircraft can attack enemy units directly, although it takes massively large bombing runs to do much besides knock out maybe a handful of tanks and a smattering of other troops, as well as deploy paratroopers and drop supplies as friendly towns, although they don’t deliver as many goods as HQ drops, and as I stated before, infantry only seemingly exists to get killed, so paratroopers aren’t all that useful of an asset. Special Ops has a handful of abilities from recon to sabotaging supply dumps to assassinating enemy officers, but are very rarely successful, and mission attempts can take several turns to come up short anyway.
Visually, Operation Europe is pretty underwhelming, and not just in a form-follows-function sort of way, but more in a watching a dot matrix screen sort of way. Literally most of this game is comprised of watching tiny figurines move around on the strategic map, watching microscopic sprites move and appear to shoot laser beams on the battle map, or navigating a menu. There’s not even little pop-up of the actual units firing like in Panzer General or some other shortcut like that to keep you interested. Sound is similarly unspectacular, but I must say I enjoyed the different background music for each mission.
Altogether, Operation Europe isn’t terrible on its own, but there’s very little reason to choose it ahead of its competition. The interface is competent, but done better elsewhere, it doesn’t really make you feel like you’re in the field commanding the troops, and there’s a bit of detachment without an overarching campaign mode, not to mention that it doesn’t quite take the effort to scrub the Nazi-ness out of playing as the Axis. I’d recommend this one only if you’re a fiend for World War II games or turn-based strategy titles, but the average gamer could find something better.
Well-detailed, covers the major high points of the European theatre, inclusion of actual officers is a nice touch, allows for a good bit of tactical flexibility.
No campaign mode, really poor graphically, even by genre standards, it gets tiring to beg for supplies and troops.