By Cosmo

     In every crowd there is always someone who is overlooked. Clint Eastwood had to leave Hollywood for the Italian plains to make his name known. Joe Montana didn’t get picked until the third round. In the recent cluster of tanksims, all the glory went to M1TP2, with some attention spilling over to Panzer Commander, and the Armored Fist series. During the same period, the now-defunct (as far as sims go) Interactive Magic released a trio of tanksims that fell way short of knocking the sim community on its ear: iM1A2 Abrams, iPanzer ’44, and Spearhead (which escaped the annoying "i" designation). The first two showed nothing special and ended up as also-rans. Spearhead was a different matter. Though it is humbled by narrow focus, Spearhead has good gameplay up to its elbows.

     Spearhead is a collaborative effort by Zombie VR, MAK Technologies (military contractor), and Interactive magic. In it, you command the M1A2, "the most lethal armored vehicle ever created" in a present day conflict in Tunisia, North Africa. The Libyan forces and rebel Tunisian units are seeking to overthrow the legitimate Tunisian government. The enemy uses Soviet hardware but the quality of equipment and training of the troops are superior to that the US forces faced in Iraq, so this isn’t going to be a cakewalk. From landing on the beaches to the final drive to expel the invaders, you will be in for the fight of your life.

spear15.jpg (67890 bytes)     And what a fight it is! You get to drive one M1A2 tank per mission—no skipping off to the next tank after you wreck yours. One mission, one tank. So you better play with serious intent if you want to survive and succeed. Upon starting a single mission, your crew calls out "ready" and your turbine whines to life with gusto. The sounds in Spearhead are unmatched by any other tanksim I’ve played (and he’s played a lot of them—ed.) Using a joystick, the turret whines as it slews and ratchets to a stop, the CITV servos whir, hydraulics churn, and the treads rumble, filling your playing experience with sound (other samples: artillery strike, co-ax machine gun). I am impressed with the level of audio detail. This is not a quiet tanksim.

     I found the most enjoyment playing as the tank commander, using the CITV. You can easily drive the tank and control the CITV with the joystick, laze the target and the gunner will spin the turret to your mark and fire off a shot. It’s not instantaneous but very rapid. The CITV in Spearhead is modeled as a full screen view with a wide FOV, rather than the smaller panel in M1 Tank Platoon 2, which adds greatly to the feeling that you are using and viewing the world around you through a high-tech periscope. The thermal imaging and night vision look quite authentic. Smoke and fire achieve a reasonable look and the burnt out tanks throw off popping fragments.

spear16.jpg (37454 bytes)     The vehicles exhibited in Spearhead look as 3D as you could want, not quite as good as M1TP2 but close, with no clipping or disappearing components. There was the occasional freeze but it was so infrequent I didn’t object. Since the battleground is the Tunisian desert, there isn’t much foliage, just a few scrub brushes here and yonder. The terrain varies from frying pan flat to hills and ridges, to outright mountains and valleys. Plenty of stuff to hide behind even without trees. Over thirty different objects appear in the world of Spearhead, including SU-25s, AH-64 Apaches, Stealth F-117 bombers, Mi-24 Hinds, A-10 Warthogs, Scud and patriot missile launchers, Bradleys, modified T-72s (no monkey machines here), school busses, semi trucks, civilians, friendly and enemy infantry, even passenger trucks.

     There are four levels of difficulty. The enemy AI varies from pretty quick and deadly to sitting and waiting to take your hit. In some missions the sands teem with tanks and BMPs, all looking to lock in on your squad and make you walk back to base. Crest a hill with enemy AFVs on the other side and you will note they slew their guns in your direction and open fire quickly. The greatest degree of difficulty lies in the numbers. Some missions are pretty tough because while you are taking out tank #1 and #2, a distant BMP is hurling rockets at you and a soaring SU-25 is raining cluster bombs down on you! You will need to develop a staccato rhythm of find/ID/laze/handoff to the gunner and repeat while maintain a geographical advantage if you want to stay alive.




sp_09.jpg (22556 bytes)     An example: Mission Steel Rain. You and two Bradleys must find two enemy arty placements and remove them. The mission starts with an SU-25 circling you from above, as an observer, to bring the rest of the force to your position. From 2 o’clock a Hind pops up over the ridge, announcing his presence with a whomp-whomp sound and cuts loose with an anti-tank missile. You weave and return fire, hopefully knocking him out. Within seconds a T-72 at 12 o’clock gets you in his sights, followed by a second tank at 9 o’clock. If you get both of these without sustaining major damage, you must immediately begin a high-speed evasion pattern, throwing up smoke all the time, because the SU-25 is now though playing the role of spotter and moves in to finish you off. I found it more manageable to use the .50 cal on him as he circled and bombed me. You will definitely get a target practice workout trying to lead him and shoot him down. And during all this, the enemy arty you are tasked to find and take out is blowing up big sections of the desert! Some missions are so tough you will be forced to replay the a dozen times.

sp_04.jpg (20810 bytes)     Spearhead touts a simplified version of the Inter Vehicular Information System (IVIS) to assist the player in identifying enemy and friendlies and plotting waypoints. As the manual describes, "The OVIS is still a closely guarded secret… but the IVIS featured in Spearhead is based nearly entirely on the IVIS used in the real M1A2, down to the number and placement of the buttons." In the most realistic mode of play, enemy vehicles will appear as ? until identified. You can direct scout vehicles such as the Bradley or Kiowas to scour the perimeter. The IVIS can also function as the interface to direct air support, flanking maneuvers, and artillery fire. Another screen, the Driver’s Integrated Display (DID) allows you to quickly access the engine, tank conditions, damage, fuel levels, ammo remaining, and other functions. A small tank icon keep you straight on your heading and turret direction, although it didn’t show the view direction from the CITV.

     There were some aspects in Spearhead that I questioned. The reloading time seemed to vary, with the loader crying out "Up!" after seven seconds on average, and as little as three. AI adrenaline? Your support vehicles aren’t very impressive—you will be the hit leader in every mission. The debriefing was too incomplete; you would not be told what killed you or how you died. There was little radio chatter and no in-game ammo count or damage reports from the crew. You knew you had something damaged when you realize it wasn’t working. Then there were other touches that just made Spearhead feel so "right": shells fired over long range actually arced to the target. Incoming anti-tank missiles had the signature "swimming" motion. There were desert thunderstorms with bracing rain and spectacular lightning displays.

wpe7.gif (60510 bytes)     As is common practice, the main two kinds of ammo are the Sabot and HEAT rounds and the Spearhead tank carries a realistic number of rounds, depending on the mission. In play, the enemy tanks usually need two sabots to destroy while lighter vehicles almost always go down with one HEAT. If you operate as the TC, your AI gunner will hit a high percentage of close range vehicles, with the accuracy tapering off as the range opens up. Armor is modeled with fair results. A frontal hit is less likely to disable the enemy tank, while a side or rear hit will most often knock it out with the turret flying. Your tank can be disabled with diverse results—once I had damage to the engine and was limited to 6 KPH—man, did that mission take a long time to complete! Another time my turret was damaged and its slew rate was greatly diminished and accompanied with a hell of a racket.

     The manual covers most of the basics, including keyboard commands, gameplay functions, and vehicle stats. There are some aspects of the game that are thinly covered in the manual, forcing you to guess and see during the game, but on the whole the manual is adequate. The designer notes affirm that Spearhead makes a concession to PC hardware reality by pulling in the clipping plane to sixteen hundred meter (about a mile) and boosting the enemy vehicles’ armor and weapons capabilities to ensure your missions in Spearhead are challenging, not just target practice. Spearhead was designed as a simulation and it is also intended to produce good gameplay, the designer notes stress. There is no sin in trying to balance sim realism and gameplay in our book as long as the result performs well. So while the full three-kilometer range of the M1A2 is not portrayed completely, since the enemy range is scaled back a proportional amount, the gameplay suffers not.

spear5.jpg (61258 bytes)     The Spearhead battles take place on seven large territorial maps, all created by satellite imagery of Tunisia. We suspect the design decision to limit the battle zone to the desert simplified the game production. Still, these playing fields are huge and will take a player 45 minutes to cross. The terrain varies from area to area in each map, with dunes, roads, railroad tracks, hills, beaches, and lakes present. Your tank will behave differently on each type of surface; "the physics model programmed into Spearhead takes into account the terrain type. The softer soils are at the lower elevations and will slow down all vehicles." Consequently, higher elevations have harder surfaces and there are three kinds of roads, all of which impact speed and fuel consumption accordingly. In addition, the program considers some mountain faces too steep to climb, something that would have been welcome in Armored Fist 3. The fidelity to traction and gravity modeling are admirable in Spearhead.

     There are three types of games to play—single game (ten plus seven tutorial), campaign, and multiplayer game (fourteen). A mission editor (with three tutorials) is included to script new missions and trade with other players when you exhaust the stock of included missions. Be prepared to exercise patience, the mission editor has a lot of rough edges and crashes frequently, as well as produces missions that cannot be played without a program error.  Sadly, no random battle generator is anywhere to be found. Multiplay is free on the Spearhead server with no difficulties encountered during the testing. You and your buddies can play as a cooperative team or head to head with a variety of support vehicles. The missions are scripted and even though the briefing warns you that the enemy forces will be in random locations, for the most part the mission plays out the same every time. When will these sim developers understand that a random battle generator is a must? Even so, with the custom mission editor and a few friends, you can create an assortment of missions and keep the action going.

     So, what's the verdict? Spearhead is well-made, detailed, and above all else--fun. It rumbles and roars with urgency and action. With the scripted missions and terrain limited to the desert, it doesn't have the assortment of battlefields of an Armored Fist 3 or M1TP2, but what it does offer, it makes the most of. I get the feeling that Spearhead was released with planned expansion packs to broaden the environments, but with the recent decline in the popularity of sims and the obvious lack of support by the general tanksim community, the dev team must have been compelled to move on. It's too bad, because Spearhead is certainly worth a look. 


Rating:  89


Realism Historical Accuracy Graphics Sound/
Game play Repeat Play Program stability Multi- play


8/10 10/10 17/20 7/10 14/15 4/5
BONUS:  +2: Good interface;  +3 Low current price=great value


System Requirements: Pentium 166 or greater, Win 95/98, 32MB RAM, 79 MB hard drive space, 4MB PCI graphics card, 4x CD-ROM,  DirectX compatible sound card

sp_01.jpg (42138 bytes)

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