To a self-proclaimed ‘veteran’ of the series (1300+ hours recorded by Steam. Witness.), it is evident from the off that U.S. Corps – the latest DLC for Slitherines’ Panzer Corps – Wehrmacht (PC) – will be different from the core game. Initial settings in regards to Difficulty and so on have not changed. However, while the core product and previous releases (other than Soviet Corps, the series’ last DLC) began with an initial starting ‘core’ force and a few open slots to personalise, in U.S. Corps the player is offered a choice of eight units from a pool of twelve. Upon making one’s selection the remainder disappear, and then the game is on. Almost.
Following a brief training scenario with one’s new recruits, the player carries on through another tutorial set at Achnacarry, Scotland, the historical site of US Army Ranger training during WWII. From there, action begins ‘for realz’, with a choice between the landings at Casablanca and Oran in Operation Torch.
The remainder of the entire U.S. Corps campaign covers the US Army’s varied efforts during WWII in Africa, then Southern and Western Europe – assuming one purchases all three separate DLCs: U.S.’42, U.S.’43, and U.S.’44-45. Commencing with a sequence of up to 16 scenarios in ’42 (the level of victory and subsequent choices can alter the pathway somewhat), the first will carry the player through the campaign for North Africa. It concludes with a choice to steal glory (or not) from Generals Montgomery or Patton by entering the Tunisian capital of Tunis instead of Bizerte, before either of the historical figures. The player’s core force can then be carried over to campaign ’43, which begins with the amphibious assault on Gela in Operation Husky. Through the final landings and then “Breakout” at Anzio, and including the nightmare at Monte Cassino, ’43 offers another 16 scenarios set in Sicily and Italy. The final U.S. DLC, ’44-45, consisting of 18 scenarios, imports the player’s core and delivers them to Omaha Beach in Normandy to participate in the D-Day landings. It closes with a couple of what-if scenarios, including the player’s option to ‘skirmish’ with the Soviets or attack them in earnest (an actual plan for which existed, code-named Operation Unthinkable).
How About That Gameplay?
If you are anything like me, in that you get stuck using favoured tactics for the ‘same’ game, then, also perhaps like me, you will experience difficulties relatively early on. Similar to Soviet Corps, the player is put on the defensive almost immediately; despite a somewhat easy time against the Vichy French at Oran or Casablanca, many landings are quickly counterattacked, and your green troops can quickly become hamburger against the experienced, superior armour of the Deutsch Afrika Korps and even veteran Italian units. Differences and difficulties compound as the player assaults firmly entrenched elite infantry and armour in the rough hills of Italy, driving virtually straight into the bocage of Normandy. Yet, there is no repose – a good thing, for a game! – as one crosses the Rhine and plunges on into the fortifications of Germany’s heartland around Erfurt, Leipzig, and Dresden in “Torgau”.
All this seems a world away – in more than one sense – from the relatively open spaces of Poland and the Eastern Front (the settings of the originals), where manoeuvrability and speed win out most of the time over caution and well-supported, coordinated attacks. But, of course, variety is a good thing, right?
What About Immersion, You Ask?
I don’t believe it’s too risky to declare that part of the reason we play certain games is how they invite the player to take on a role or a persona, especially an historical one, and try to exceed or reverse historical outcomes. Similarly, ‘rewards’ in a game should reflect effort and results.
While I’m not suggesting a game like U.S. Corps should try to be more like an RPG, still, immersion and fair rewards can be offered in different ways. For example, ‘casting’ the player in a certain role; dealing with him or her consistently from there on, including interactions with ‘off-stage’ NPCs; and offering some kind of logical progression in regards to promotions, new equipment or units, et al. (wargames’ version of ‘levelling’). I believe that the original PC and its major expansion, the Grand Campaign series, as well as Allied Corps and Afrika Korps, did a reasonable job of this; I felt like an actual commander with people above me to give orders, and people below me (in rank) to carry out mine. The ‘rewards’ felt earned, and didn’t leave me wondering, “How did I get that [particularly strong] unit when I barely won that battle?” I would also have expected some kind of consequences for opting to disregard orders in at least one scenario, not to mention unilaterally attacking the Soviets – and perhaps failing – even if it’s only, “You’ve been a naughty boy! Don’t do it again.”
In this respect, while purporting to cast the player as a contemporary and rival of General George S. Patton and Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery – as well as enemies of The Desert Fox Erwin Rommel et al. – U.S. Corps, in my opinion, does an average job of delivering on immersion, and its rewards are uneven.
The briefings offered at the beginning of each scenario – as well as post-battle debriefs and orders received on the battlefield – are inconsistent, and although they usually contain minimal information, rarely are the historical circumstances commented upon. I would like to have seen a little more about potential enemy composition; other pertinent or simply interesting information; a word of motivation beyond, “Good luck, Sir [sic]”.
Most egregiously, the ‘briefer’ vacillates from treating the player as a superior – addressed, usually, as “Sir” or “General” – to berating and summarily dismissing him. Although I have some military background (yet thankfully never came close to real war), I doubt such disrespect would be tolerated; a possible exception being the WWII Soviet system of political commissars. Even amongst peers, let alone an inferior-addressing-superior, disrespect and ‘attitude’ should quickly earn one a reprimand, if not clapped in the brig to await court-martial for insubordination.
Finally, unlike all other Panzer Corps DLCs (save the Grand Campaign), there is no voice-over of the briefings this time around.
Taken all together – and considering Soviet Corps’ own faults along similar lines – despite solid gameplay in the tradition of the series, I see the quality of the PC content deteriorating of late, which is disappointing.
Historicity, Replay-ability, and Rewards
On historicity: As a Canadian, I was somewhat chagrined to see the Monte Cassino scenario included (among others) without some reference to the Commonwealth forces that also fought there and, ultimately, achieved victory in Operation Diadem (a.k.a. the Fourth Battle of Monte Cassino, known here as the Battle of the Liri Valley). Of course, no disrespect is intended to the USA, much less the heroics of all participants. It’s simply that, when a game such as U.S. Corps veers from history, it would be nice to see the fact acknowledged somewhere, in part to preserve immersion but also to honour those who actually participated and triumphed – not to mention sacrificed all. (It’s like the film U571 all over again! -ED)
As for replay value, other than trying at harder Difficulty and/or going for higher levels of victory, or earning more Prestige, one can always go back and opt for the alternate scenario, when given a choice. Thus, I can see putting in hundreds more hours with PC/U.S. Corps.
I would like to conclude on a final point in regards to rewards: Other than the occasional bonus SE unit – which I seem to recall I received at least once without triumphing – and more Prestige, there seems little to differentiate between a Triumph and a mere Victory in this iteration. (‘Triumph’ has replaced Decisive Victory since Soviet Corps, while ‘Marginal’ has now been dropped from Marginal Victory; not sure I see the point, but…) The player can barely eke out a victory and yet collect what amounts to praise by getting an offer of a choice of deployment in the next scenario; it seems counter-intuitive to a rewards-only based system.
Despite my critiques, I would still recommend all three U.S. Corps DLC. Each has a different setting and ‘style’, requiring the player to un-learn some old habits (from the rest of the series), and try different approaches. Pro Tip: In U.S. ’42’s “Hills”, don’t try to attack across the entire front at once; cautiously go after objectives one at a time!
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