Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm reaches maturity


Perfect opportunity


The last update of Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm (FCRS) gives me a good excuse to reconnect with this unique game. FCRS was first released in October 2013, but its developers wanted to give a special thanks to the fans with a Player’s Edition (published at the end of 2014) that underlines their contribution. From a strict content point of view, the Player’s Edition is just an average update, but the intent behind the release makes sense.

There is some meat to sink your teeth into, with the more relevant parts being the better readability and color rendering of all maps, and more importantly the new "sudden death" setting that allows the player to continue a game beyond the normal ending threshold; this is triggered when any of the two opposing armies lose 70% of their initial strength. The update provides a new scenario (Eyes, Ears and Teeth) and a new campaign (Wolves) made of 10 scenarios playable from the NATO side*. Players will also notice well thought-out adjustments to the game engine and user interface, certainly enjoyable but not revolutionary. However, the essential thing is that Flashpoint Campaigns are alive and slowly but surely making their way toward maturity. This series is led by a small team that dedicates all their spare time to their baby, while maintaining a strong organic relationship with the gaming community.

*  The Player’s Edition includes three other new scenarios and one more campaign, designed by passionate fans, that were not in the initial game.


The Player’s Edition map of the "Thors Hammer" scenario (top)
is a lot more readable than the previous one (bottom).

More comfort, more efficiency


Even if the new FCRS maps are not perfect—the terrain elevation still lacks some visibility—they are fully functional and a lot more esthetically pleasing than the old ones. Anyway, in cases of doubt, the player can display the terrain levels (Ctrl-E).

As in the past, before going into a fight, it’s worth setting on the fog of war option and the limited staff rule, for more realism. The limited staff rule will lower the number of orders available each turn, depending on the organizational efficiency of each army. Once the battle has begun, you’ll quickly find your bearings. The first thing to do, at the very start of a game, is to switch some units to ensure that everyone will stay in range of its HQ. The player also has to give the right orders to support units, e.g. asking air defense units (AD) to watch the sky ("hold" order) and helicopters to stay away from lethal hazard ("screen" order).

The AI has been very strong since the very beginning, although there was still room for improvement. The AI can now handle the conduct of your artillery fire wisely without slipping up from time to time, like a M109 battery of mine that was peppering friendly troops with shells. So you can easily delegate all artillery missions to the Fire Support Coordination Center (FSCC), notably because it’s the only one that can fire on "empty" hexes that produce intense thermal signature (enemy tubes) or radio traffic (enemy HQ).

Within the field of aviation, helicopters have a better knowledge of attack-and-scout tactics. Some players have developed a specific doctrine of use: first destroy the enemy ADs, then make the helos follow a triangle path leading to their starting point, near their HQ, where they can replenish with fuel and ammunition.

The developers argue that the Player's Edition AI is best at scooting, managing standoff range and resupplying units. Players won’t see tanks avoiding contact with troop carriers anymore. We have all grounds for taking this claim at face value. Personally, after some solo games, I noticed only one minor clumsy move made by the AI: it tended to let my HQs hide in nearby woods or villages without trying to wipe them off the map.

Initial positions of the West-German army
in the "School Teacher" campaign’s first scenario.
Terrain elevation in wooded areas can easily be seen.


Main characteristics of the game


You can find on the web good reviews of the initial release of the game in late 2013. Here is a cheat sheet of the FCRS features:

  The Third World War has been raging since the beginning of the 1980s. NATO forces, led by the USA, Great Britain and West Germany, are fiercely defending their land and ideology against a massive attack from the Warsaw Pact forces, essentially Soviet troops. It's a modern war, with missile launchers being used everywhere.
  FCRS scenarios are on a "grand tactical" scale with 500 m hex length, 15 to 35 min turn length (about ten times less for the players), and mostly company units.
  The game is built on a simultaneous turn-based engine (WEGO) and the interface comprehensively explains to the players everything that is happening on the battlefield.
  You can modify the order of battle at will; curiously, however, without penalty (note that the upcoming enhanced engine will cure this deficiency).
  Your initiative (turn length) and command capabilities (number of orders available during the turn) vary depending on the preparation level of your army. Troops lose their cohesion as they lose their HQs, receive new recruits, or expend their forces in combat, among other factors.
  The AI can take over some tasks, like regularly moving your HQs to protect them from enemy artillery strikes. It can also detect the presence of hidden enemy HQs or air defense units.
  You no longer have to give orders to specifically direct your units because the game's AI is able to pick the intended targets on its own. However you can, if necessary, choose the target and ammunition type of your artillery.
  Weapons are highly diverse in the 1980s. Your units may use several types of weapons ranging from classic machine guns to nuclear or chemical warheads. Artillery units can launch chemical munitions and mines as well.
  The weather adds an additional element of challenge to battles. Without warning, a drizzle can shorten a unit’s LoS to 500 m, if not 300 m, while daylight variations may alter sensor efficiency


There's nothing better than making the AI work for you. These air defense 
Tunguskas found their target without any action from the player.

Sealing the victory


Reshaping victory conditions was the major change brought by the Player's Edition. FCRS usually ended a game whenever one of the two opponents had lost 70% of his strength. From there on, the computer started to record any victory points held by one or the other side around the different objectives.

To avoid this abrupt termination, players are now able to continue playing until the last turn allowed by the scenario. A great time to use the full turns allocation is after you have badly beaten up your opponent and just need to collect victory points hiding in a few towns behind the frontline. In multiplayer mode players can overcome the "sudden death" by choosing, from the onset, to continue the game until its nominal end.

Soviet deployment at the start of the "Eyes, Ears and Teeth" scenario.

Story telling


One of the FCRS's strongest points remains its easy-to-use order system (because it focuses on unit stance), combined with an instructive visual narrative during the player's turn, showing all significant tactical actions by the two sides. The game's complete and fast paced review of what's happening on the battlefield currently has no other equivalent. Each turn resolution literally shows, one at a time, each move, missile launch or artillery strike:

  In the Player’s Edition, each launch of anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM) is identified on the map, revealing the hot spots to the player. The ATGM, incidentally, is by far the most common ammunition of armored and mechanized units during the 1980s.
  Small labels highlight the new orders given to artillerymen. This is followed by shell rains on targeted hexes.
  Each loss, whether friendly or enemy, is identified on the map by an explosion icon with the type of the unit or vehicle that was blown up.

The detailed battle scene unfolding before the player’s eyes provides all the relevant information needed about the specific strengths and weaknesses of his battle plan. This immersive narration assists the player, including the more experienced among them, in interpreting the intricacies of modern equipment, based on obscure sensors and counter-measures.

This recon unit is well positioned to watch over the entire valley,
as evidenced by its field of view.

Night vision is much more limited, however.

Shoring up


There are still two or three things to be fixed. One is to deal with the relative stiffness of the order system that prevents the player from sequencing two different orders. The only setting that is actually allowed is to define the stance that a unit will adopt at the end of its movement (e.g. move quickly to that point then hold). Since the player can set up to three waypoints along the way, he would like to ask his men to advance more carefully on the riskiest part of the trip. And what about a lower stance than "screen", like "elude," to give a unit the ability to slow down the enemy without getting beat up.

Enhancements of these types will be coming soon with the new engine version (2.1), which is scheduled for the same 2015 release as the first FCRS expansion, called Southern Storm. That scenario pack will bring the battlefield to the southern half of West Germany, where Canadian, French, Czech and Eastern German troops will join the party. The developers are also evoking a "simple graphical planning overlay that will allow scenario designers and possibly players to nudge the AI in the desired direction." Whatever that means, I feel a happy time is in store!

Flashpoint Campaigns are without a doubt gently moving in the right direction. It instills hope of a future campaign taking place a bit before or after the Cold War's peak. Unfortunately, at the speed that On Target Simulations is running, WWII addicts will have to overuse their brakes before they see the FC engine power Panzers or Shermans. Be patient but don't lose hope!

This helicopter-borne assault has succeeded.
It would be great if that were to happen frequently…

Final score: 9/10


Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm will give all history buffs an accurate picture of what a Third World War could have been. They’ll see how battles must be conducted in order to capitalize on missile launchers, thermal sensors and other sophisticated modern technologies. The Player’s Edition includes few noteworthy improvements, but it at least achieves the optimum maturity of the game, which is real added value from a free update. This re-release of the game makes us want to spend even more time with this engaging simulation and continue to provide feedback to the game developers to further enhance the series.

The game came to an abrupt end because enemy global strength dropped to 30%.
Since my opponent still occupied the main objectives on the map, he would have
gained a tactical victory if I had been willing to lay down my guns. 
I decided to attempt an ultimate effort… in vain.


By Michel Ouimet

3 comments:

  1. Hey Michael. Great review of the FPRS Players Edition! Please don't neglect H2H (Human versus Human) play. The AI is aggressive and will work hard to overwhelm defenses with superior numbers. It will sometimes pull out surprising tactical moves. But, IMO this game really shines when you play against human opponents. Players have two H2H options; 1) PBEM++ (Server-based) and 2) Classic PBEM (Attach turns to emails).

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    Replies
    1. Hi Mike. Thanks for your comment.
      Not easy to find a human opponent to play fast with before the deadline! :-))
      But certainly it's worth it. I'm still impressed though how much good is the AI's quality of play.
      Have yourself ever published a game review somewhere?

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    2. Hi Michel. Yes. H2H play by it's very nature takes longer then AI battles... but I certainly agree it is worth it! No. I have never published a game review. I do participate in some online forums discussing FPCRS.

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