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PC-Games & Simulations: War over Vietnam
By Tom Cooper
Aug 10, 2004, 05:53

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Bringing the reality of a war to everybody's PC-monitor is by no means easy even for most professional and best PC-gamer programmers. In the case of "War over Vietnam" (WOW), this was done in actually a very good manner, even if the game suffers from some problems.






I'm no great reviwer or user of PC games or simulations: I have only a hand-picked choice, a mere handfull, of these in total, and in the few cases I tend to use more often - such like Harpoon Classic '97, and Steel Panthers SPMBT and WW2(v6) for example - the word is actually about tactical or strategic simulations I found suitable for a sole purpose of helping me study specific conflicts and better understand them. Over the time I tried out several other games/simulations as well, including USN Fighters, Jane's IAF and Fleet Command, Silent Hunter etc, so I learned that some games are more realistic and the others not. In general, I'd say that every one of them has its own positive and negative sides, with one of the most negative in my experiences being the complexity of the man-machine interface. With other word: in some of the games I used to play it took me several months to learn the whole switchology and to play the game in the first place.

Namely, I do not have as much time to play as some of the "fanatics" who require a game to have a 100% realistic interface, with all the complex "switchology", who create virtual "squadrons" and play for hours a day online. The reason I use these games is completely different. So, for me the game or simulation is that better the easier it is to learn to play.

WOW is definitely the game I learned to play exceptionally fast: after only two attempts I succeeded in playing the "tutorial" scenario to the best possible success, annihilliating both of my ground targets without suffering any losses, but downing 10 MiGs in exchange. Even playing all the "complex" scenarios proved to be sufficiently easy for me to attempt the 10 May 1972 USAF strike soon enough. It was here that I encountered first significant problems, which - in my opinion - would be easy to correct and make this game even more realistic.

First of all, let me say that the scenarios you can find in WOW are tremendously detailed. It is obvious that an immense deal of in-depth research was invested into this game, and from my standpoint I can only say that they are historically precise to the last dot and comma. For this reason alone this game is a must for every serious student of the air war over Vietnam: this game is going to help everybody understand the thinking, organization and planning of USAF, USN, and USMC operations during this war - and this from 1965 until 1972. I am also looking for realistic orders of battle, and dislike very strongly any kind of "what if" or "could have beens": it matters a lot to me if some air force was flying a specific type of aircraft at specific period of time and if the game/simulation is correctly showing this. I think that this is immensely important then much of wild guessing, misreporting and outright science fiction one can read about different wars or aircraft in internet and press media today is based on rubbish presented in PC- and video games. The whole fame around the Su-27, for example, is based on few stunts from different airshows and the fact that in several video games the plane is practically "invincible" - regardless the opponents. Furthermore, I also strongly dislike games where I can fire AGM-65s from F-14s, battle Tu-22M-3s in 1973, or launch R-27ERs from a longer range than AIM-54s. In this aspect the WOW beats all the other simulations I played so far because you'll not get anything else but what was at disposal of USAF, USN, USMC, and the North Vietnamese at the time of this war.

Now, bear in mind that WOW is a "mission-focused" strategy simulation, not intended to model more than a single mission's time period. This is usually between two and four hours. After that it's "game over", and there is - like there is none in real life - no "second chance". The player was either successful or not. Given the historical reality of the scenarios supplied with the CD, this was an unavoidable decision of WOW's creators.

Down to the tactics, however, the game has several important problem zones. The first is that of the flight structure: essentially, in WOW your aircraft operate in flights, from one up to six aircraft (the greatest formation I encountered so far). The problem is that you can't part your formations: what you once have in a flight is your flight and that's it. I found this quite estranging, thinking that already Harpoon 97 (and its earlier versions) had such a feature. For example, in a specific scenario I've had a flight of six F-105F "Wild Weasels" and was driving these into Hanoi downtown area: my preferrence would be to part the flight into several sections and "box" enemy SAM-sites by simultaneous multi-prong attacks - preferably flown also at different altitudes. In WOW it is impossible to do this, and that is pitty, then the Wild Weasels - and not only them - were using such tactics.

The other problem are flight levels: you either have "low" or "high" as a choice. Nothing else. Again, for an avid Harpoon 97 player like me, this was quite surprising, then it is clearly insufficient. Even with the US predilection of flying "high" in Vietnam, the narratives from US pilots who fought there still make clear difference between "very low", "low", "medium level" and "high", and I think the realism of WOW suffers considerably because it is impossible to fly at so differing altitudes. Namely, this has an impact in several arenas, especially when you battle SAMs. The SA-2s as supplied to North Vietnam until 1972, for example, could not target anything flying bellow 500m. If you try to sneak upon some SA-2 site flying at "low" level in WOW, however, the only effect this is going to have on the enemy SAMs is to decrease their range by 50%. Thus, flying "low" is not really having any kind of a serious impact on enemy ability to fire at you in WOW - and you'll certainly suffer losses, then SA-2s in WOW are very lethal. I hope this important issue will soon be dealt with and the problem solved: WOW - or any related game with scenarios and orbats of such precision - has to have the ability to fly aircraft at more different flight levels and this must have also an impact on precision of enemy missiles - not only on airborne radars and AAM-ranges! The producers of the game work currently on correcting this problem, intending to increase the vertical dimension for dive-bombing attacks, SAM-breaks, and descending air combats.

Talking about missile lethality....There are several problem zones with this issue as well. First of all the AAMs are true "killers" in the original version of WOW: don't worry if you detect some MiGs approaching upon your planes, then you can - contrary to US pilots in SEA - be 100% sure to shot them down with just a volley or two of Sparrows. Only very seldom is it going to happen that your Phantoms or Thunderchiefs might encounter their opponents in dogfight. Sadly, as we know, this is not exactly how the air-to-air battles of this war were fought in fact. Furthermore, in several cases missile ranges and lethality were wrong, and - when played in "fog of war" mode - it's still too easy to detect and identify enemy planes. According to the producers of WOW, however, these issues were already tackled with and soon enough there should be upgrades that will correct all these problems.

In my opinion, the AAA is also too lethal: to have all four of your A-1s chopped out of the skies as soon as they enter the area of an AAA-site at low level is, after all, slightly too much. "Sandy" missions flown by USAF A-1 pilots during this war were very dangerous, and I do not want to downplay anything, but in this simulation the AAA is just too lethal.

An USAF strike package underway over NW Vietnam to attack the Paul Doumer Bridge, near Hanoi - on 11 August 1967: the formation is heading north before turning towards SE to penetrate Hanoi defences along the legendary "Thud Ridge"....


Of other aspects, the "SEAD-game" in WOW - played in almost every scenario depicting battles after 1967 - is going to considerably increase the breath rate; just don't forget to time and again check the movement of your other formations, otherwise you could end with your strike package entering an area that was still not sufficiently "suppressed"! Jammers also work well, and are excellently involved: whenever they function you will find green boxes inside the SAM-range that show you the areas along which your fighters can move at decreased risk. Take care, however, to place your jammers timely into proper position, preferrably outside the range of enemy SAMs - and protected from MiGs, of course.

Also, contrary to many other simulations of this type, WOW takes into consideration training levels of the crews. You'll seldom get an "A-level" crew in any USAF formations, just for example, because it is meanwhile well-known that these were not really well-prepared for what was expecting them in Vietnam. In fact, quite a few admit today they were poorly trained and completely unprepared.

...and a USN formation from USS Constellation approaching their targets in the Haiphong area on 10 May 1972, supported by E-2Bs and EKA-3Bs. Note how the BARCAP and MIGCAP Phantoms are carefully remaining outside the range of SA-2s, while jamming from USN planes is already showing its effects in the form of green "windows" inside the zones defended by SAMs. Users of Harpoon will find the WOW interface as easy to recognize and use. Especially positive was automation of specific processes in issuing orders.


Facit: All in all, WOW is a very good simulation: easy to play and extremely realistic in regards of orders of battle and challenging mission scenarios, but with several severely restricting problems regarding the software. Some critics say there are better ones, but I am sure that the WOW-team is going to improve their game to a level where they might become utterly realistic.

Playing WOW will help you understand what were both - the US and the North Vietnamese side - doing during the Vietnam War, how, and why. The game is simple to play, which increases its educational value immensely, then the player can concentrate on what is actually important: the mixture of equipment, trained personnel and tactics. The realism of the last three factors, however, can be considerably improved.

Users of WOW should therefore hope that the HPS Simulations team is going to find the strenght and time to develop the basic game-play even further, and not fell asleep like this happened to Harpoon-developers. I, for example, am very much looking forward not only for improvements of the WOW, but corresponding simulations of some other air wars I'd like to "play", then my dream is not only to fight the "Battle of el-Mansourah", but also to simulate the Iranian 120 F-4s strike on Baghdad, flown on 25 September 1980, when the Iraqis scrambled 30 MiG-21s and MiG-23s in response, forcing Iranians to react with four F-14s in order to box their Phantoms out....!




Special thanks to Gary "Mo" Morgan - a man with years of service-experience with the USAF, and responsible for developing orders of battle, as well as scenarios - for supplying a review sample.





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