Friday, October 28, 2011

Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy

(image from Armchair General)

Years ago, I stumbled across a great computer game called Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord. Published by, it was not your typical wargame.Yeah, it was a complicated, impressively detailed, authentic representation of World War II combat, but it was all presented in beautiful graphics.

It was turn-based, but with a twist. You had all the time in the world to give your units orders, but when you ended the turn, the game would calculate the results and then show the next minute's action on-screen. For that minute, you could only watch the results, as your soldiers attempted to carry out their orders.

You could watch the video over and over again, from any angle, zoomed in or out, and even lock the view to a particular unit, if you wanted. Once you were satisfied that you'd learned all you needed to learn from it - and enjoyed the action fully - it was time to move on and give orders for the next minute.

Now I'm not much of a wargamer. When playing computer games, I generally prefer building to destroying. And I would neither know nor particularly care that World War II was modeled authentically in this game, from the uniforms right right down to the smallest weapons.

But as a strategy game, Combat Mission was great fun. Well, it's been a few years since then, and there have been several new Combat Mission games, but it's not until now that I picked up the latest game in the series, a game which goes right back to the setting of the original. It's called Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy.

Basically, it's the same World War II game I loved in the past, but even better. The graphics are much better, for one thing, and every man in your troop is modeled individually. And although you can now play in pausable real-time, if you wish, it still has the old turn-based gameplay that I love, too.

I said I wasn't a fan of wargames, and I'm not a fan of war, either. I admire bravery and I like strategy, but I know the difference between real war and a computer game. This is realistic, in the sense that weapons and even soldier behavior is modeled accurately, but no one actually bleeds, no one actually suffers. In that sense, it's no more real than chess.

And it's really a great strategy game. Note that it's not easy. It's very complicated, with a significant learning curve. Luckily, it also has an extensive tutorial. So far, that's all I've been doing. I just finished the last tutorial battle today, and I've owned the game nearly a month already.

It's not that I haven't been playing it, but each battle takes a very long time. Well, it takes me a long time. You can watch YouTube videos (like this excellent tutorial, for example) which will give you a good idea of the gameplay, but I'm a lot slower than that.

Still, there's no hurry, and I like to take my time. The result, so far, has been great. I've been playing the Americans (outside the tutorials, you can play either side, I believe), and when I make any mistake at all, the Germans take advantage of it. In fact, that's a good way to learn. In most games, the AI is terrible. Here, you can really learn from how the computer plays the game.

(image from Blue's News)

For the most part, the Americans are on the attack, with the Germans defending. But at one point in the tutorial, American glider troops are defending a town from the attacking German army. For me, it was another good lesson in tactics.

I set up all my troops as best I could, trying for overlapping fields of fire. But on the first turn, the Germans shot smoke at two locations near our town, right where the gentle breeze would blow smoke across my front line. Within a couple of minutes, my guys couldn't see anything in front of them. So much for fields of fire!

Luckily, before I lost visibility entirely, I ordered a mortar attack at two locations where I thought it most likely the Germans would gather for attack. Note that that's kind of different, too. Mortar fire isn't magic. For one thing, you need a forward observer as a spotter, and he has to be able to see where he's directing the fire.

And he has to be able to communicate to the mortar team. This is World War II, so radios aren't overly common. Unless both are in radio contact, the mortar team needs to be close enough to the spotter to hear or see his commands. And finally, it takes awhile - usually at least three minutes before you get anything at all. So you have to direct mortar fire to where the enemy will be, not to where they are.

This time, it worked out perfectly. But I really had to work for the win. In a strategy game, that's just perfect!

I had another fun incident in that battle, too. You've got to realize that behavior is modeled quite well in this game, and that includes how human beings vary. In general, troops behave as you expect, but some are exceptionally brave, or exceptionally foolhardy, or exceptionally timid. You just can't predict everything that will happen.

In this case, I had a bazooka team hiding behind a "bocage" (basically, a heavily-wooded fence row), when a German halftrack drove into range. So on the next turn, I gave them orders to stop hiding (so they'd start shooting). But instead of shooting the armored vehicle with their bazooka, these idiots fired off a few shots with their rifles, giving away their position. Next thing I knew, they were dead.

I rushed another anti-tank team forward, but meanwhile, the gunner on that halftrack was playing havoc with my other troops. The funny thing is that they'd driven right to the spot where I'd targeted my mortars, and there was shrapnel as well as bullets flying everywhere.

Ordinarily, that would have suppressed the halftrack gunner, at least somewhat. But this happened to be a particularly brave guy, and he stayed on the job, firing at one of my squads after another, while mortars rained down all around him.

When my second anti-tank team missed with their first shot (they hit the hedge which gave partial cover to the halftrack), I thought we were sunk. But just then, one of our mortar rounds landed right on top of the open halftrack, destroying it completely. Yes, sometimes your luck is good. (Sometimes, even my luck is good.)

From what I've seen of wargames, many of them model this kind of thing, if not down to the level of the individual soldier. But this is the only one I know where you can watch how your orders play out. You see your guys firing. You see them hugging the ground, pinned by cover fire. And you see them dying. (And yes, a wounded man can be patched up and kept from bleeding to death, assuming that his teammates have the time to act as medics, while they're not under direct fire.)

As far as I'm concerned, this kind of gameplay is the best of both worlds. I can take my time setting up my troops and giving orders, making sure everything is how I want it. But then I can see those orders play out in a realistic gameworld, with beautiful graphics and at any level of detail I want.

YouTube has several videos of Combat Mission gameplay, if you're curious. (Here's another, the first of three battles. But note that only the third is in turn-based mode.) There's also a very extensive demo available at You can play quite a long time, with most of the gameplay features enabled, just to see if you like it before you buy it.

Really, you can't ask for more than that. Now I know this game won't appeal to everyone, but if you like strategy games or you find World War II fascinating, give it a try.

(image from Blue's News)

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