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.
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.
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