Summary: Companies like Battlefront and Matrix Games have been leading the revival of the wargame, and today Jakub reviews the sequel to the excellent Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord. Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin switches theaters to the eastern front, perfectly suited for the pitched tank and infantry battles that are Combat Mission's forte. But does that make a good game? Take a look.
Almost two ago I wrote an editorial on turn-based games. It detailed the rise and fall of turn-based games and how real-time games steadily evolved and supplanted their turn-based brethren. Almost the moment it was posted, people came out of the woodwork to chastise us for not having mentioned Combat Mission. Though we tried to do a review, prior commitments and a tight schedule prevented us from achieving the goal. Still, I kept the game in mind personally and planned to do a feature on it sooner or later.
Clearly, the timing has turned out to be ‘later’. Fortunately for everyone involved, it coincides with the release of the sequel, Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin. Whereas the original Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord took place on the western front, CMBB shifts focus to the East. The eastern front was the largest land front of any war in history, in terms of physical size, men involved, equipment involved and ultimately, casualties. More Russian soldiers died there than all the rest of the troops of both sides combined on all other fronts. Only China and perhaps Poland sustained greater civilian losses.
Launched on June 22, 1941, Operation Barbarossa was Nazi Germany’s surprise attack against a totally unprepared Soviet force. Stalin refused to believe Allied reports that Hitler was planning an attack and didn’t mobilize his forces (fearing that he might provoke that attack.) As with previous attacks on Poland, Norway, the Low Countries and France, the initial movements went very well – even better than expected. German panzer divisions broke through Russian lines, encircle Soviet armies, cut off supplies and then forced the surrender of the remaining pockets. The Soviet air force, the largest (if not most modern) at the start of the war was smashed in the first hours before it could even get off the ground. With these smashing early successes echoing the results of the previous year’s campaign against France, no one could predict that this would become the bloodiest conflict of the war. Eventually it turned out that Hitler bit off more than he could chew, but not before the two bloodiest battles of the war (Stalingrad and Leningrad) and the largest tank engagement in history (Kursk) were fought.
Tragedy makes for great history, good plays and as we shall see, excellent video games.
As grand in scope as the eastern front was, every skirmish, engagement and battle came down to squads of soldiers, platoons of tanks and an artillery spotter or two. CMBB brings things down to this tactical level. Individual squads and tanks may be commanded, though single soldiers within a squad may not.
Into this tactical scope comes every kind of unit from every side involved in the war. Nazi, Soviet, Finnish, Hungarian, Romanian, Italian and Polish (Soviet equipped) soldiers, tanks and guns make an appearance. They fight on the Finnish, northern, central and southern arenas, from Berlin to Moscow, Leningrad to Sebastopol and everything in between.
SIDEBAR: Athlon/Pentium 450Mhz
128MB of RAM
16MB DirectX 8 video card
1.5GB Hard drive space
512MB of RAM
GF3 or better
More than one game has been ruined by a bad interface. Some are so mangled, it feels as if the gameplay is to fault. Fortunately, most games don’t fall into this category. The reason we bring this up is because wargames are notorious for having horrible interfaces. Beer and pretzel games like Panzer General aside, most are known for being too convoluted for the average gamer to grasp. Part of the reason is unfamiliarity with military hierarchy. Someone playing the old Western Front game from SSI for the first time might wonder “is 100 tanks in an armored division a lot?” Or even “what are the differences between a Corps, a division, an SS division, an armored division, an infantry division?”
Fortunately, Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin doesn’t ask the player to worry about the strategic details. Divisions only make an appearance in the purchase phase to set the ratio of points one is allowed to spend on armor and infantry, and in determining the delay between calling in an artillery strike and actually receiving it.
CMBB comes with an excellent manual, a real treat. There are two hundred fifty thick, solid pages with a large and easy to read font. The manual is about 8x5 inches (23x13cm) and is easily the highest quality manual we’ve seen since Falcon 4.0. It explains all the abstract gameplay concepts that are liable to be completely alien to most Combat Mission newcomers. The scenario design deservedly receives a strong 25 page overview which should prepare anyone for the challenge of creating or recreating a battle.
The two tutorials included in the game are great at showing how to play with the game but they do take for granted that players just know certain things about the war. The game is clearly aimed at wargame buffs who would know that a PzKpfw VI Tiger tank is deadly at any range to most tanks, but as the range closes, its advantage significantly diminishes. The same hardcore wargamer would know that it’s suicide to lead an assault on a fortified town with the same Tiger, since enemy infantry will be able to conceal themselves in buildings and spring close assault ambushes on the helpless tank. Other ideas, like Soviet numerical superiority (at the cost of early war inexperience) are glossed over and not addressed directly. All these missed opportunities are a real shame, since CMBB is so accessible otherwise that the average gamer could pick it up.
A few other poor design choices creep up when we encounter the front-end and game control interface. Though ordering units around is very easy thanks to the plethora of commands available, including a handy “Line of Sight” utility, there is no way to customize the interface. Is the scroll speed tediously slow? Too bad, deal with it. Don’t like the default commands? Tell that to someone who cares. The front-end is begging for a back button. Once you are in a menu, you’re in there until you hit “OK”. There is no way to back out to the previous selection. That this basic feature, nay, necessity got overlooked is baffling.
SIDEBAR: Pentium 4 2GHz
Abit GF4 4200 OTES
Wow. It’s not often we’re impressed by sound effects in a wargame, particularly a turn-based title. Then again, part of the appeal of the sound is that the game isn’t actually completely turn-based. Since the combat occurs in 60 second realtime segments, the sound effects really have a chance to do their work for immersion. Hearing tanks fire up their engines, squeak and rumble their way across the steppe and move in behind a hill which is being bombarded by piercing artillery shells – this is not the standard wargame. The sounds are meticulous and different, varying per unit type. The wailing shriek of a Panther’s high-velocity 75/L70 gun is in stark contrast to the low boom of a Stug IIIF’s 75/L43.
The sound is complemented by speech in the authentic languages of all the participants. The repertoire is quite limited, but they’ll cry out when they notice tanks or infantry, or under heavy bombardment.
The ugly tree
Although it would be a stretch to say that CMBB fell from the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down, it would be fair to suggest that it got more than its fair share. Keeping in mind that ugly nowadays is far better than pretty was a scant 4 years ago. The sting is softened when we consider just how many models are in the game, done to scale and function rather flawlessly across so many different terrains. There are other mitigating circumstances, like the game having to run anywhere from ten to over a hundred units at a time. Fortunately for performance, all the movement, spotting, reaction and combat (including intricate physics) calculations are done beforehand.
While it won’t win any awards, the graphics engine does manage to impress at times. It is difficult to think of a specific effect, but there are moments where the game comes together and provides a very immersive experience. Though this has more to do with the gameplay, there’s a terrible concern that lets us forget the world outside as we watch a hidden anti-tank team await the approach of a lone oncoming KV-1 which could cut in behind the front line and devastate our forces from the rear. Will the squad be spotted? Will they successfully pull off the attack? Thwap! The Panzerschreck hits, the tank stops! No, it’s paused, reversing and rotating and it opened fire on your team. The team is pinned by the machinegun fire then panics after the inevitable high explosive round from the main gun. It’s almost painful to watch them crawl away in terror.
SIDEBAR: The German tank destroyers and assault guns are things of beauty, but why are they so expensive?! The whole purpose of a Stug was to have a cheaper tank than a Pz IV with the same firepower (though due to its turret-less design it was less effective.)
There’s no i in team
As the manual itself suggests, what separates the Combat Mission games more from every other tactical wargame is that it has adopted the “we go” system. Drawing back to their roots as tabletop entertainment, wargames have always had the “I go you go” system. One player would move his units, one at a time. If he had a key objective or target, he could attack it in sequence until it was destroyed, always expending the minimum amount of firepower. More importantly, it created the same problem as exists in chess – the advantage for the first player to move. Given equal armies and odds, the attacker always got the first shot in and would reduce his enemy’s firepower in the next turn, so the enemy could never inflict the same damage back.
Combat Mission solves this problem by using the “we go” philosophy. Both sides plan out their moves, the results of which are calculated by the computer then displayed in the minute long realtime phase. This means that players can’t stack their forces only as much as necessary, and are helpless before surprises. In a typical turn-based hex game if the player was moving several tanks in a side-by-side formation, but only one at a time and he encountered a minefield, then only the first tank would be affected and the rest (even though they were really all moving together) could stop and divert. In CMBB, if orders are given to an entire platoon of tanks to move up, they’ll do it together and run into the minefield. Little details like this matter significantly in the grand scheme of things.
The game is tremendously detailed. Covering arcs of fire can be set, so a unit will only attack if another unit comes into the arc. Some have even specific armor arcs, where they’ll only attack an armored target in that arc. Infantry can run, move, advance, assault, hide and sneak. It will occupy positions in buildings and seek shelter in craters and ruins. Tanks can move fast or at ‘hunt’ speed where they’re actively looking for targets, or they can “shoot and scoot” – move forward quickly, fire, then duck back under cover.
All the individual unit decisions after they receive their orders are decided by the TacAI. The TacAI figures out how long it would take a unit to get the order (if it is within sight of its HQ unit, not long. If it’s isolated, it will take considerable time), and how it will try to execute it. If the unit comes across something unexpected, like an enemy that ambushed it, the TacAI will also judge how the unit reacts. This is dependent on the threat posed by the enemy, the morale (green, regular, veteran, crack or elite) of the both units and even on the possibility of either of them being fanatics.
There is really nothing quite like designing a plan of battle, seeing it dissolve into garbage when the enemy makes an unexpected move or deployment, and then having to counter that. The level of forethought needed is considerable even against the computer.
SIDEBAR: I just finished reading “HMS Warspite”, a history of the most storied ships (particularly the last of the line) in the world. It’s a fascinating look at life onboard a ship as well as the things she accomplished. Why read the book? Well, the ship is the source of my handle – WarSpite =]
Units have a response time to commands, and artillery can take anywhere from seconds to minutes to bring to bear on a target. That same artillery can be wildly off the mark and hit your own units, if the spotting is done poorly. The game models seven optics systems, the ‘standard’ one available for Axis and Allied units alike, and six specific models available for German vehicles only. The effectiveness of the optics is even affected by the temperature! Combat results are decided by simulated physics, not dice rolls. Shells have trajectories; they streak across the map and hit armor at angles, which are factored into calculations. Armor may not be pierced, but it can “flake” so that the internal armor breaks off in chunks which fly around in a tank like ricocheting bullets.
The game offers sixty scenarios, some historical, some not. This is a considerable number and will offer a lot of play time, especially if the AI is allowed by the player to deploy its own forces (it often changes deployment strategies.) The AI is rather challenging, but unless luck is on its side, an experienced player will win most scenarios, often decisively. Multiplayer, especially the thought-provoking play-by-email option, is far more competitive. In addition to the scenarios, there are ten very long operations that span several missions each. These tend to be more difficult, but are no replacement for a campaign.
The feasibility and charm of a full campaign mode are best featured in Matrix Games’ free download of an updated version of Steel Panthers, Steel Panthers: World at War. It is much more pleasant to command your force, not just a force. When it is bought, designed, updated and experienced your leadership, the force you command becomes much more personal.
Some of those aspects make an appearance in the Quick Battle mode, which allows players to create a random map (often of very high quality) and purchase units to their tastes but within scenario limitations.
Those limitations are dependent on the front; so for example you won’t see Finnish units outside Finland, or Italian units up North. The time period is obviously a factor, but in more ways than one. Not only are units unavailable before their official introduction, they also tend to be rare and thus expensive if just introduced, or if they are old and being phased out.
The aforementioned limits also appear in the excellent scenario editor which comes with the game. If CMBB receives anywhere near as much community support as the original Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord did, and there’s no reason to think why it wouldn’t be more popular, then players can reasonably expect thousands of quality player-made scenarios to pop up.
SIDEBAR: You can install multiplayer spawns for the game like you could for WarCraft II and Diablo. Makes it easy to play with a friend and get him hooked!
Gameplay. The game is genre-defining. No other summary can give it justice.
Interface. It’s effective when it comes down to doing things, but it is missing some basic features like adjusting scroll speed and having a back button in menus. How could someone mit these?
SIDEBAR: Yoda_Blues deserves a cookie for bugging me about repeating my Behemoth Random Fact in 3 reviews in a row.
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