Fast tank attacks have been a real-time strategy convention since Red Alert, but tactics in historical tank battles are much more complex than the typical RTS slugfest. Simple details like weaker side and rear armor and a multitude of different models help give the tank battles in Desert Rats vs. Afrika Korps a historical feel without slowing the action down. In the midst of it all, the 3D combat looks great and features intricately modeled, smoothly animated tanks and destructible buildings. Unfortunately, when you factor in having to control a handful of different infantry types and various support vehicles--in addition to the tanks--the real fight can turn into overcoming bad pathfinding and unwieldy numbers of units in the guise of a generally unhelpful interface.
The fight over North Africa in 1942 is certainly the right setting for some compelling battles. The simple historical fact that the momentum flip-flopped between Axis and Allied forces sets up a campaign that walks you through key phases of that fight. The German campaign puts you in command of an Afrika Korps unit that's regrouping from temporary setbacks. It eventually leads you to a massive set battle over the heavily defended city of Tobruk. The subsequent Allied campaign then picks up the timeline and sees you taking the fight to the decisive German defeat at El Alamein. Rather than mixing with famous generals like Rommel and Montgomery, the game invents characters who very occasionally interact during in-engine cutscenes. However, mostly they make themselves heard in journal entries that precede the mission briefings and also play a part in the battles as hero units. At best, the journals humanize the conflict, while the hero units give some context to scripted in-mission events.
Desert Rats vs. Afrika Korps is a tactically focused game, so there's no resource-gathering or unit-building in the missions. After each of the mission briefings, which helpfully include summaries on the historical context and timeline of the North African theater (as well as specific mission objectives) a unit selection screen comes up that lets you buy or trade the units that you'll start the mission with. Each of the many unit types is given a point value to balance its worth, so late in the German campaign, you might choose to trade away support vehicles or infantry to get a couple of vastly superior Tiger tanks. However, they are very expensive. Since rarely do you get reinforcements once the scenarios start, choosing the right units is key, as is conserving and repairing them once the battles actually begin. The approach makes the battles tenser, but it can also lead to a lot of restarting or loading of saved games.
Each of the various units has its purpose, and many early scenarios seem designed to show you just how important the support units are for scouting, spotting for long-range strikes, removing mines, towing artillery, and so on. However, there are so many different types of infantry that it's nearly impossible to consistently use them to good effect. Snipers and flamethrowers are just as powerful as you'd expect, but such units take a lot of micromanagement and move much slower than the mechanized units you're also commanding in real time. Just making things worse is the unreliable unit pathfinding. Units--even infantry perilously stationed in front of tanks--aren't smart enough to get out of the way, so orders can go ignored until you manually open a path. The fact that the single-player missions can be paused at any time keeps things playable, and it provides the time necessary to employ tactics rather than just allowing you to band-select units for an attack en masse. There are enough secondary actions--such as having infantry go prone, digging tanks in defensively, or specifically targeting turrets or treads--that proper tactics give even a small fighting force the power to tear through overwhelming odds.
Desert Rats vs. Afrika Korps succeeds in making large battles look convincing. Tanks roll from the kick of main cannons firing, turrets smoothly turn to track targets, destroyed vehicles explode and leave charred hulks across the African sands, and buildings that hide infantry show progressive damage, since round after round collapses walls. Zooming the camera right up to units reveals quite a bit of detail, but the realistic visual style means it's hard to distinguish infantry types at normal zoom levels, so they often get jumbled together. The levels themselves don't often look like much more than various sandy locations that are stationed with defensive bunkers or are overlooking hills for artillery emplacements. However, each does provide distinct challenges, and the urban levels are suitably dense with buildings, where enemy grenadiers or flamethrowers can lie in ambush.
Since only a portion of the scenarios feature all-out combat, the multiplayer would seem like a good choice when you're looking for big battles. The game does include a few multiplayer options, including a straightforward deathmatch mode as well as one that challenges you to capture flags that are scattered around the map, while each side receives periodic reinforcements. However, the interface's weak points become readily apparent once you're trying to command individual foot soldiers, repair trucks, antitank guns, and tanks all at the same time. And the number of multiplayer maps--just three in configurations for the various modes--is insufficient. We also experienced significant lag playing on a local network.
Rough edges in other areas can occasionally detract from the game. While the sound effects for vehicles and explosions are generally spot-on and make the actual battles that much more intense, the voice acting for mission events is leaden, and the national accents are somewhat off. We also ran into a smattering of crashes and even had the keyboard shortcuts simply stop working on more than one occasion.
There's no reason why a WWII real-time strategy game that combines fast action, historical detail, and tactical mechanics can't be a resounding success. Desert Rats vs. Afrika Korps makes good use of the material and provides some thrills when battles play out explosively, but as good as the game looks, some flawed mechanics and a general lack of polish keep it from being as fun as it should be.