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issue 08/15/2000

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Novel:
vCity 1.0
by Dr. Adam L. Gruen

20 days in the life of a 21st century virtual city simulation.

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download the Combat Mission demo

Combat Mission
for Mac or Windows

- reviewed by David Brake

The steady advance of computing technology has not been all good news for gamers. Single creative individuals or small groups could produce the early computer games because the games had to be fairly small and you didn't need an army of artists and graphic designers to make them look good because with the limited screen resolutions available the look of a game was always secondary to its playability. Now the computer game industry has become a huge business but this has made it much harder for a designer with a good idea to compete now that budgets for games are in the millions.

Battlefront is a small, heroic group of independent developers behind a remarkably innovative game- Combat Mission - who are selling it exclusively over the Internet. Moreover, despite relatively tiny marketing resources (and just one programmer!) it appears to be a success, selling out almost as soon as it was released. Why? It is aimed precisely at a small but dedicated group of gamers who have been gradually marginalised by most of the computer game industry - the hardcore WWII combat simulation player.

Back in the 70's and early 80's there was a healthy sub culture of people (myself included) playing simulation games using dice, maps and counters - for a variety of reasons that market died. Greg Costikyan, who designed those games, has an interesting analysis of this. As computers arrived on the scene, these gamers hoped computers might be able to provide simulations far better than were possible on paper but with a few honourable exceptions, they were disappointed. Until now.

Combat Mission is as close as I could imagine to the perfect "serious" tactical-level WWII game. First and foremost, hard-core gamers demand as much realism as possible. Combat mission delivers. It has masses of detailed information about each of 126 vehicles and 50 field pieces taking part in battle on the Western front from the D-day landings to the end of the war. When you fire a shell at a tank, the designers promise that they take into account no fewer than thirteen factors including such esoterica as "shot-to-plate diameter ratio". Combat Mission keeps track of the ammunition available for every heavy weapon and has found a reasonable way to approximate infantry ammunition. The game also does a reasonably good job of keeping track of morale and of the "chain of command" on a battlefield. Thanks to some very clever artificial intelligence programming your units will not always do what you want them to - as their morale drops they may run away, refuse to follow orders which they believe to be suicidal, or fire at targets which present a greater threat to them than the ones you selected. If they are nervous recruits they may open fire when they see the enemy whether they are supposed to or not - potentially ruining an ambush.

Crucially, the designers have managed to integrate all of this impressive detail using a system that is easy to use, intuitive, and reasonably easy on the eye. All of your units are deployed on a 3D map and you can zoom in easily on any point or any unit to see things from their point of view and give them orders. You can draw a line between your units and your opponent's and see whether they would be capable of seeing or firing at one another. The computer will tell you as you do it but you can also see it yourself. The way the game works, you issue orders at your leisure which cover a minute of "game time", your opponent does the same thing, then the computer shows you both the results in a "movie" format. It allows you to replay the action for yourself from any angle to get a picture of what's going on. All of the tanks and other weapons are meticulously modelled to resemble the originals and while the game does not have the beautiful appearance of the latest 3D shoot-em-ups the battlefield is still impressive to look at.

While the game is a dream come true for its audience and while it has gone some way to reach out and be of potential interest to a broader gaming community there are some intrinsic problems which ensure it will be something of a minority interest. Realistic games like this one are harder to grasp and much harder to win than the more cartoonish real time strategy games. Combat Mission is much more time consuming as well. Each turn - a minute of game time - takes at least 5 minutes of planning to play and often much longer. That means a single fairly small battle can take several hours to play. If you are playing against a human opponent, a single game can take more than a month to play, as multi-player games are designed around emailing the game file back and forth each turn. A real-time version is promised later as a free upgrade, but it is not clear how useful it would be as you'd have to stay online for hours at a time to play.

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Nonetheless, if you are a real time strategy gamer who keen to play something a little more challenging, this game is well worth picking up, and if you are a WWII wargamer, this is as close as you're likely to come to perfection.

b i o :
David Brake in doing this review has given up trying to conceal his embarrassing grognard past.

   

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