A long time ago, MicroProse released M1 Tank Platoon. Then for a while nothing happened - until now. It seems as though this is the year of the tank sim, with iM1A2 Abrams, Armored Fist 2, and M1 Tank Platoon II all hitting store shelves within the past 12 months. Well, Interactive Magic is at it again with Spearhead, an Abrams sim codeveloped by Mak Technologies and Zombie.
Spearhead is a difficult bird to describe. The game offers a handful of features and elements that seem ideal for hard-core sim fans, but the mission designs and the general feel of gameplay seem more appropriate for an action game than a serious sim.
The game includes 20 stand-alone missions as well as a 23-mission campaign. The setting is Tunisia, where Libyan and renegade Tunisian forces have rolled over the countryside in a massive attack. Our friendly Libyan leader thinks that the Tunisian president plotted to assassinate him, hence the military action and the Tunisian plea for assistance from the United States. The goal, as you might guess, is to sweep all invading forces out of Tunisia.
Unlike M1 Tank Platoon II, Spearhead uses a linear campaign, so you must complete your mission goals to move on. Also unlike MicroProse's tank sim, the secondary results in one mission have no direct bearing on the next. In other words, so long as you accomplish your goals, it doesn't matter how many tanks and support vehicles you lose along the way - as long as you don't lose your own. In Spearhead, you can issue orders to other friendly forces, but you can't directly control them, so if your tank gets destroyed, the mission is over.
This wouldn't be so bad if only the interface for commanding other units was decent. Unfortunately, Spearhead's IVIS screen is an exercise in clutter and counterintuitive design. For starters, unit symbols on the overhead map often overlap at the default zoom level - which is the best one for spotting enemy forces and for plotting destinations for computer-controlled friendlies. With the symbols overlapped, it is nearly impossible to select the unit you want, let alone issue an order to it. And to zoom in or out you have to pull up a completely different set of interface buttons, which wastes precious seconds when a wave of T-72s is pouring over the next ridge. For some reason, the game does not include a keyboard shortcut for zooming in and out on the map screen. At the very least, I-Magic could have reduced the size of some of the buttons in order to fit more on the IVIS screen at a time (a la M1 Tank Platoon II's strategic map screen).
The IVIS also uses a somewhat odd selection system, whereby you must first select the order you want to issue, then select the unit to carry out that order, then select the destination/target where applicable. Why not just click on a unit to activate it, then pick the order and the destination/target? Finally, the IVIS only allows a limited number of orders to be given: Move To, Engage, Do As I Do (which doesn't strike me as a legitimate military directive, but perhaps I'm wrong), Weapons Tight/Free, and Orientation. There's also a recon button, but the manual says that this has no purpose (so why is it in the game?). Note that there is no waypoint system in Spearhead, which can make navigating a huge pain, especially on large maps.
Another problem: You cannot order your tank platoon into a formation of any kind. They must be ordered to move as individuals or else follow your lead via the Do As I Do command (though that seldom delivers the desired effect, as your vehicles often go rolling full-bore over the ridgeline you're using for a stealthy hull-down position). Then again, you don't always have a full platoon to command. Some of the missions have you driving solo, usually escorting IFVs to some nav point.
The mission design is pretty good throughout the game, except for one real stinker early on. In the second mission, you must defend a pair of Bradleys as they make a sweep of nav points - which are completely unknown to you. Instead of following a preset plan of some kind, you have to watch the Bradleys and turn when they turn, while scanning the horizon for those half-dozen or so T-72s waiting in ambush. This scenario struck more as a Wing Commander sortie than a sim mission. Also, this ill-fated mission has a huge bug: If you simply drive your tank a short distance south from your starting point (which is also where you must end the mission after a successful patrol), you'll accomplish the mission objective in about ten seconds.
By this point you're probably wondering if I liked anything about the game, right? Well I actually liked a lot about the game and think it could have been a truly great title, which may be why the bizarre flaws mentioned above angered me so much.
The graphics engine, while not quite up to M1 Tank Platoon II's standards, is quite good. All of the internal viewpoints use an "invisible HUD"-style interface, rather than the detailed interior shots you'll see in iM1A2 Abrams and M1 Tank Platoon II. This may not be realistic, but it certainly enhances visibility. Terrain is well rendered, and it's easy to identify the location and size of hills in the game's desert maps (an all-important aspect in any tank sim). The distance fogging in 3D-accelerated mode is among the best I've seen, as you can see enemy vehicles come slowly into view out of the distant haze - they don't just pop into view as if coming from behind a big gray curtain. All of the vehicles are well modeled and animated to move in realistic fashion. I especially like the way the turrets on computer-controlled tanks scan the landscape for threats. Some nice effects include dead and burning vehicles that cook off their ammo and missile shots that are often hard to identify as anything other than a small gray puff on the horizon - when you do realize what they are, it's often too late to do anything about them. The sound effects are also quite impressive and well worth mentioning.
The enemy AI seems quite good, even on the lower difficulty settings (which are only available for single missions - the campaign runs at a predetermined difficulty level). Enemy tank platoons often maneuver quickly to surround your forces, and there is almost always a distant BMP sniping your guys with rocket shots. Also, since you have to replay a mission if you lose, the game does a good job of randomizing enemy locations and attack postures to keep things interesting and challenging.
Spearhead also comes with an impressive mission editor, which allows you to craft some fairly intricate scenarios of your own. This utility allows you to place vehicles, buildings, and other items on any of the game maps and also lets you script unit behavior and adjust the randomization factor for each enemy (for replays, as mentioned above). My only complaint about the editor is that it crashed a few times.
The game's multiplayer options are pretty good and - as far as I could tell - relatively stable. Spearhead supports competitive and cooperative play for up to eight players over LAN and Internet links. Two players can go at it over modem links.
As I said, Spearhead is a tough bird to describe. I enjoyed playing it and got a kick out of the crafty AI and the fairly fast-moving action of the missions. Unfortunately the cumbersome IVIS, the lack of waypoints and formations, and the rest of the game's baffling oversights make this a second-tier product at best. If I-Magic can correct some of these elements with a patch, you may want to keep your eyes on this one. Otherwise, M1 Tank Platoon II (version 1.2, of course) is the way to go for a great modern tank sim.