It is 8:43AM and my attack has failed before it even has begun. It’s like something out of a war novel. Not a Tom Clancy technothriller, but one of those dark, brooding ones where everyone above the rank of sergeant is incompetent and the fighting is always futile. One after another, four out of the five KV heavy tanks that I’d pegged to suppress the German defences on the strongest position on the whole map had been immobilised. Stuck behind a hill, they could do nothing but spend the rest of the action stuck there uselessly. One crew bailed out – fifteen minutes later, they decided to get back in. The glories of modern war.
It is in those moments (of utter incompetence on the part of certain members of higher command) that Graviteam’s latest DLC offering Black Snow is at its strongest. The uncertainty of attempting to push a bunch of not terribly excited minions through a frozen hellhole that is crisscrossed in trenches, barbed wire, mines and (not least) 88s is a feeling rarely found in games that traditionally rush to the more marketable aspects of war.
In this vein, Graviteam continues their habit of finding the most unknown corners of the gargantuan conflict that is the Eastern Front. This particular push is so unknown that it does not even appear on the list of offensives that makes up the Russian archival website Pamyat Naroda (although that may well have something to do with the attack having been in real life an abysmal failure). It is commendable that between endless recreations of Kursk and Stalingrad (and, needless to say, Normandy), such a forgotten piece of the war is given the Graviteam treatment.
What a treatment it is too. One would be slightly concerned upon putting down one’s hard earned cash to find that Black Snow only includes two scenarios, one for either side, as compared to the more usual selection of four. The pain would be more acutely felt given the premium price (20 USD in Down Under) that one will be paying for this. Nonetheless the value is there. Black Snow is by far the longest and perhaps the largest of any of Graviteam’s offerings. Whilst other campaigns might have perhaps a company of infantry a side (with generous support to be sure), here, right from the beginning as the Soviets try to break through the heavily fortified front, it is entirely possible for more than a thousand soldiers to be drawn into the mess. And if you’re anything like me as a commander (utterly incompetent), then you’re going to need all the men you can get.
Black Snow is perhaps the most punishing of the campaigns available for Mius Front. Certainly, with every assault faltering in the face of terrain carpeted in mines (make sure to bring your map reading skills to this one – see above), trenches and barbed wire, the resulting chaos can become more than a little bit frustrating. Mius Front’s UI and learning curve, while improved from its predecessor Operation Star, remains about as transparent as charcoal. Thus, for a beginner and even a player such as myself who has at least the basic concepts down, Black Snow can rapidly turn into an exercise in frustration, with the tools that you need to break an attack or crack the enemy’s defence aggravatingly difficult. The nature of the terrain does it no favours either. Sightlines are blocked by apparently endless forest. The rolling steppe of Mius Front seems a world away.
The unit AI also runs into occasional problems when dealing with this brave new forest world. Extracting itself from barbed wire seems to be a particular issue, with half a platoon often stuck in a merry-go-round in and out of the entanglements with the rest of up ahead wondering why their comrades haven’t arrived. Armoured vehicles also seem to have issues with dealing with entrenched enemies – with endless machine gun fire apparently being of little interest to them as they occasionally fire a round and lackadaisically open up upon something they’ve spotted. With the expectation that these vehicles would be ideal for covering infantry going forward, they feel more like white elephants as their supporting infantry is mown down. This is a shame, especially when considering that when the unit AI actually gets into its groove, there is something so genuine about the way it lays smoke, keeps to the low ground and (hopefully) pushes forward.
It is in those moments that Black Snow really gets into its stride. When it does work, the results feel genuine. A lot of games claim to allow the player to write (or rewrite) history. This is ultimately a personal matter as to what does and does not feel more genuine, but Mius Front and Black Snow succeed for me as few other games do. It can be frustrating, particularly for a new player (I’d strongly recommend not learning the game with this DLC), but I cannot think of a depiction of the Eastern Front that is closer to what I read in the history than the miserable hulking meatgrinder that is Black Snow.
Reminder: This is a DLC, you will need to already own Graviteam Tactics: Mius Front to access the content of this release.