Old Gamers Never Die: ‘Armored Brigade’ PC Game Review

A “maximum zoom” screenshot of a Soviet main battle tank (MBT) after its destruction by a U.S. M1A1 Abrams somewhere in West Germany. (C) 2018 Veitikka Studios and Matrix Games. Photo Credit. Matrix Games

Armored Brigade

Developer: Veitikka Studios (Finland)

Publisher: Matrix Games (U.S.-Great Britain)

Released: November 15, 2018

Genre: Strategy/Real-Time Tactical

Setting: Modern Timeline (1965-1991)

No. of Players: 1 (Human vs. AI)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

On November 13, 2018, Matrix Games, a U.S.-U.K. publisher of computer games, released Armored Brigade, a real-time tactical war game which depicts land combat in a wide array of hypothetical Cold War-turned-hot scenarios across the historical timeline, from 1965 to 1991.

In the core (or original release) version of Armored Brigade, you are in command of a land combat unit, usually battalion strength but sometimes larger, from any of these major countries (known in Armored Brigade as factions):

  • Finland
  • Soviet Union
  • United States
  • United Kingdom
  • East Germany
  • West Germany
  • Poland

Later add-ons of download content (DLC) or DLC expansion packs added France, Belgium, Italy, Yugoslavia, the Netherlands (Holland), and Czechoslovakia. Even more recently, Matrix added a WWII pack called Armored Brigade: World War II, which was created by user “KarlTaco” and depicts land combat on the Eastern Front between the Wehrmacht of Nazi Germany and its Axis allies and the Soviet Red Army.

One of the few usable screenshots I grabbed from a session of Armored Brigade without uploading it to Steam first. This was taken in the Setup phase of a battle that involved a crossing of the Elbe River. Screenshot by the author.

From the Publisher’s Website

Take command of the deadliest mechanized formations available during an arc of time spanning from the Kennedy-Chrušcev confrontation to the final years and fight your opponents in large and detailed maps all across Europe.

Large maps, modelled upon real terrain make each battle a true test of wits. Weather and visibility all play a role and with several munition types, including air to air combat and artillery, no battle will be the same. Exciting and challenging tank warfare only adds to the level of realism. – Armored Brigade product page on the official Matrix Games website

For 46 years – 1945 to 1991 – Europe was divided into two armed camps as a result of the post-World War II rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. The two most powerful Allied victors of humanity’s largest and deadliest clash of arms had become superpowers, and due to the clash of ideologies between the Western democracies and the Communist colossus then led by Joseph Stalin, the “friends of convenience” that had defeated Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich now saw each other as potential enemies in a Third World War that no one on either side wanted but could break out at any moment.

This time around, I uploaded a screenshot from Armored Brigade to my Steam account. I was setting up Target Reference Points for my artillery support.

As anyone who lived through the Cold War can tell you, the dreaded World War III nearly broke out due to ill-advised moves by both East and West, most notably in October of 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and less well-known in 1983, when the Soviet leadership, already alarmed by then-President Reagan’s heated rhetoric (he once called the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire” and made an unfortunate joke about “we start the bombing In five minutes” while preparing to give a radio address, not realizing the microphone was already “live.”), convinced itself that a NATO exercise code-named Able Archer ’83 was really the prelude to a pre-emptive attack on the Rodina by the West.

Fortunately, cooler heads in Washington and Moscow prevailed, and the Cold War ended when the Soviet Union collapsed In 1991, a victim of its own failed policies and large expenditures in military spending.

Still, Cold War-turned-Hot scenarios were a “thing” back in the day, both in the halls of power of NATO and Warsaw Pact capitals, and in the popular culture beyond. Authors, such as Nevil Shute (On the Beach), Peter George (Red Alert, which was the basis of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove), and Gen. Sir John Hackett (The Third World War: August 1985) wrote various novels with World War III themes, usually involving either limited or total nuclear war between East and West.

(C) 2002 Berkeley Books

In the late stages of the Cold War, novels such as Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising and Harold Coyle’s Sword Point tended to depict U.S.-Soviet clashes in purely conventional terms, although nukes and their use hovered dangerously in the stories’ background.

Believe it or not, I spent many hours defending West Germany from a Warsaw Pact invasion after my Uncle Sixto gave me my first computer, an Apple IIe with color monitor, in 1987. Video credit: Highretrogamelord via YouTube.

Of course, computer and video games of the early 1980s and 1990s depicted various aspects of World War III. MicroProse’s M-1 Tank Platoon, F-19 Stealth Fighter and its upgrade F-117A Nighthawk: Stealth Fighter 2.0, Red Storm Rising, and some versions of F-15 Strike Eagle II delved into conventional warfare between NATO and the Warsaw Pact at the single ship/aircraft, and small unit levels. And before MicroProse released its World War II real-time-strategy (accelerated RTS, really) Crusade in Europe in 1986, it published NATO Commander, an accelerated RTS map-and-symbols game which simulated a Soviet-led invasion of West Germany at the operational level.

(C) 1984 Strategic Simulations Inc.

Other companies, such as Lucasfilm Games, Avalon Hill, and SSI Simulations released WWIII games, too. I spent many hours on my days off from college playing games such as Strike Fleet, Gulf Strike, and When Superpowers Collide: Baltic 1985 – Corridor to Berlin.

But I digress.

From the Publisher

Armored Brigade is a real-time tactical wargame, focusing on realism and playability. The game has drawn inspiration from classics such as Close Combat, Steel Panthers and Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm. In Armored Brigade the Cold War has turned hot, and Europe is once again torn apart by conflict. An “Iron Curtain” divides the Western Powers gathered together under the NATO banner from the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact Allies. – Armored Brigade product page on the official Matrix Games website

As I mentioned earlier, Armored Brigade simulates Cold War-era ground combat (with aircraft available for close air support [CAS] and off-the-map artillery for indirect fire, depending on the specific scenario) across the period’s timeline. Scenarios depict “alternate history” battles in several parts of Europe, mostly in Finland (Veitikka Studios is based there) and West Germany, although some scenarios are set in Yugoslavia and Northern Italy.

Per Matrix Games’ product page:

Seven factions: USA, Soviet Union, West Germany, East Germany, UK, Finland, Poland

947 ground units and 149 aircraft and more will be added

Realistic maps (The Fulda Gap, the North German Plain, FT. Irwin (NTC), South-East Finland, About 61×61 km each. About 15000 Square Kilometers in total. The battle location can be selected seamlessly)

Battle generator (A tool for generating scenarios very fast. The dynamic AI is competent to handle these scenarios and doesn’t require any scripting. Replayability is infinite

Features (per Matrix Games)

  • Real-time engine
  • Time period: 1965-1991
  • Factions: US, USSR, West and East Germany, UK, Finland and Poland
  • DLC factions: Italy, Yugoslavia, France, Belgium, Czechoslovakia and Netherlands
  • Campaign and battle generators for unlimited replayability
  • Lowest level unit is a single team/vehicle
  • Dynamic AI
  • Huge maps, based on real terrain. The maximum battle size is about 15×15 kilometers
  • Neutral units
  • Artillery with several munition types
  • Close air support, air defences. Air-to-air engagements are possible
  • Fortifications, obstacles and breaching
  • Dynamic time of day and variable visibility, wind and ground conditions
  • Night vision equipment, smoke generators, illumination flares
  • Unit morale, training level and fatigue, command delay
  • A database editor for the factions, units, weapons etc.
  • 3D sound engine
  • And much more….

My Take

This is The Historical Gamer’s (THG) first-look video at the latest DLC from Armored Brigade. It’s a long video, but worth the watch.

I am old enough to have lived through the 26-year timespan depicted in Armored Brigade, and even though my “latter half of the Cold War” generation came after the hysteria of the McCarthy era Red Scare and thus were spared “duck and cover” drills in elementary and secondary schools, I did sometimes worry about my hometown of Miami being nuked by the Soviets or a surprise attack, irrational as it might be, by Fidel Castro’s Cuba against Homestead Air Force Base (which closed after it was wrecked by Hurricane Andrew in August of 1992) or Miami International Airport.

And perhaps in a bid to deal with latent Cold War fears, I watched movies (Fail Safe, Dr. Strangelove, and The Day After), read Red Storm Rising, Team Yankee, and The Third World War: August 1985, and played countless hours of Battalion Commander, Strike Fleet, and NATO Commander.

Not only were such games cathartic in a way, but they also were intellectually challenging, interesting (especially if you, like me, were into militaria in any way), and (with the exception of Baltic 1985: Corridor to Berlin, a game I never got the hang of), fun to play.

Even in the third decade of 21st Century – a time in which Russia is led by a former KGB agent and seems to be more aggressive than it was 30 years ago, and the People’s Republic of China is increasingly more assertive in its foreign policy – I find Cold War-turned-hot scenarios fascinating, even though I only have four games in the genre – one of which, Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm, inspired elements of Armored Brigade.[1]

I held off on buying Armored Brigade for a while because, quite frankly, I have played one of the Close Combat games (Close Combat: The Longest Day) and found that its point-and-click mouse commands are difficult to master. Add to this the fact that I cut my wargaming teeth on keyboard-controlled games such as Crusade in Europe and NATO Commander, in which if you wanted a unit to move or attack, you would use the arrow keys to move your cursor on the unit symbol, hit M (for move) or A (for attack), then move the cursor to your chosen destination and type H (for here).

The mouse and the Graphic User Interface (GUI) in modern games, like all aspects of wargames (including sound and graphics) have evolved in the 34 years that I have gamed on personal computers. And while I have adapted along with the times, some games work better for me than others. Close Combat does not, and because I saw that Armored Brigade borrowed some that game’s conventions, I initially told myself, “I am not getting Armored Brigade.

I changed my mind after watching a “Let’s Play” video about Armored Brigade in The Historical Gamer’s YouTube channel. I viewed several of the playthroughs, and after watching how “THG” moved his units and noticing that Armored Brigade has a Pause option, I waited till Matrix Games lowered the price of its bundle (the core game and the first two DLC packs) to something I could afford to put on a credit card.

I have only owned and played Armored Brigade for less than 10 days, so obviously I have not (a) played every scenario (single battle or campaign) nor (b) played the game at a high level of difficulty. Armored Brigade is not the kind of game that you need to take college-level courses on Military Science, but it is challenging enough that the AI (no matter which faction it commands) will hand you your head if you play against it on an even footing.

Armored Brigade, among other features, allows you to adjust the training and morale levels of both sides (the one you command, and the AI’s). The higher the settings on either, the stronger the units are and the better they fight. The reverse is, of course, true; the lower the Training and Morale levels are, the worse the units will perform.

Since I’m new to the game, I have a tendency to set the difficulty levels so I don’t get easily beaten by the Ai; even at 50% Training and Morale, the computer player can inflict a lot of damage on my forces. One time, I lost one of the scenario’s Objectives locations because I didn’t send mechanized infantry to support a tank platoon, thus giving the AI an easy – if rather temporary – victory.

In another battle, I used my close air support (CAS) too early in the game despite a warning during the briefing that CAS aircraft were only available for a limited time (because other off-map units also needed air assets, I could only request two air strikes during the engagement). I wasted the air strikes on tactically insignificant targets, only to see two of my positions overrun by tanks and APCs that the CAS flights could have blown into the next war had  I not squandered the assets.

Choosing the scenario and the difficulty level setting.

Eventually I will ease into higher levels of difficulty. Right now, I am playing Armored Brigade at what I call So Easy a Child Could Play (enemy has low levels of training and morale, while my units have 100% in both categories). And still, the enemy still packs a wallop if I am not careful.

Armored Brigade is somewhat similar to NATO Commander in that it is, at Max Zoom Out, a map-and-NATO symbols game that is viewed strictly from above. Units are shown as icons on the map the further out you zoom, but the closer you zoom in, you’ll see accurate depictions (seen from above, of course) of specific individual tanks, armored personal carriers, scout vehicles, aircraft, and even infantry squads. 

Of course, since the game’s scenarios take place at different times in the Cold War timeline, the models and types of weapons and vehicles will vary. Battles that take place in the late 1960s and early 1970s will not feature U.S. tanks and APCs like the M-1 Abrams or M-2 Bradley or Soviet equivalents such as the T-72 or BMP-2. Rather, you’ll see M-60 Pattons and M-113s on the U.S. side, and T-55s, T-62s, and T-64 tanks on the Soviet tank categories, and various wheeled APCs along the lines of the BTR-series. Aircraft and helicopters, too, are limited to what each faction used in the period being depicted.

I use simplified alternate symbols for vehicles and ground units when I play Armored Combat, but eventually I will transition to NATO standard. So far, I only know NATO unit type symbols, but I don’t know the ones for vehicles, which are a subset of symbols used by NATO to distinguish main battle tanks (MBTs) from APCs. Again, once I feel confident about my skills as an armchair commander, I will switch from simplified symbols – which show simplified side views of tanks or APCs – to the real ones used to create graphics on after-action reports or place units on a commander’s situation report’s map.

This is a screenshot from Matrix Games’ Armored Brigade page. See those red and blue icons? Those are the real NATO symbols for vehicles and weapons teams. Some I know, but most I don’t. I use the simplified icons instead. (C) 2018 Veitikka Studios and Matrix Games. Photo Credit. Matrix Games

Armored Brigade is definitely a fun and challenging game, and it gives non-military people some insight into modern ground warfare in the latter half of the Cold War. I am still learning how to coordinate artillery with armored units and infantry, set up minefields, anti-tank obstacles and barbed wire along possible enemy approach lanes, and how to utilize terrain In both attack and defense. I’m also still figuring out how and when to use mortars and close air support.

The game also lets players set Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) and unit formations (such as Line, Vee, Wedge, Left Echelon, Right Echelon, and Column), as well as customized spacing between vehicles. SOPs basically give, say, a certain set of parameters (such as rate of fire, effective vs maximum range firing, hard target vs. soft target range preferences, use of cover while on the move, and so on) that determines how units will fight and behave in battle.

I love how Armored Brigade lets you see individual vehicles move and fire, especially in maximum zoom where you can tell if a tank is a T-34 (East Germany had those well into the 1970s!) or a Leopard I. It is not as cinematic a game as Eugen Games’ Wargame series, which Is more of a 3D game and not just top-view only simulation. However, it’s not just a map-and-symbols game like a lot of the strategy games I played back in the mid-Eighties and early Nineties.

Armored Brigade is available directly from the Matrix Games website, or through Steam and GOG.com.  It is detailed enough to give a player a taste of how a Third World War might have been fought back in the day, from the vantage point of various factions. On the flip side, you don’t need to attend the Virginia Military Institute, The Citadel, or West Point to play the game. Armored Brigade is not as complicated as Gary Grigsby’s War in the West World War II game, which delves into theater-level operational wargaming and involves a basic understanding of logistics as well as rudimentary tactical acumen. I will give Armored Brigade a rating of four stars out of five and an enthusiastic recommendation.

[1] The other three are F-117A Nighthawk Stealth Fighter 2.0, Command Modern Air and Naval Operations, and Cold Waters.

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

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