My original review is at Gamespot and was done of the 1.0 Version. I have not had a chance to reveiw the 1.01 patch which came out a day before I posted this review.
I took a while to get to like the original CM and actually deleted the first demo after a couple of days of frustration. I reinstalled after learning third hand of the research they had one on TO&E, got hooked, and joined the BFC family, going on to have scenarios published on the CM:BB and CM:AK special edition discs and later beta tested Airborne Assault, CM: C and CM:SF, for which I also designed a large number of release scenarios.
I left the community after seeing the CMX2 game engine go in a direction I disliked, but my heart remained there, hoping that CM would come back to the glory days.
There are many improvements over Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord, such as high-res, high-poly 3-D models (with moving parts) in a soft green and brown colour palette appropriate for the Norman summer, with weather effects and even moving water now, with soft shadows and a collection of "flavor objects" that draw the player in to an immersive on-screen environment.
The content is considerable, including a good list of pre-made scenarios offering a diversity of situations from both the Battle of Normandy (defined by U.S. Army historians as June 6, 1944 – July 24, 1944) and the Breakout (July 25 to the end of August) and 3 campaigns. On top of this is a mission/map builder and a revamped "Quick Battle" system, closer in concept to the original CM's QB system permitting 1 or 2 players to produce random match-ups.
The artillery system is much improved not only over CMX1 but even CM:SF, and the command-control system seems robust and flexible, modeling different types of command exertion, be it line-of-sight, voice communication, or radio link. Squads can break off small scout elements, a nice touch that was conspicuously missing from Shock Force.
The Battle for Normandy
For a game billing itself as Battle for Normandy, though, it quickly becomes noticeable how little of the Battle of Normandy you'll actually find included. Not a single element of the invasion is included in the game – no DD tanks, no Army Rangers, not a landing craft, not a beach obstacle, not a parachute or glider, not one of the custom German bunkers or fortifications (be it a lowly Tobruk or an H677). Granted, the landings were just a few hours of a 90-day campaign - 1% of the battle - but D-Day is emblematic of what anyone thinks of when you whisper "Normandy". The representation of D-Day in other tactical games has always historically been high.
Even putting that aside, other unique aspects of the Normandy campaign from the perspective of the U.S. Army's experience are missing. Captured French-tanks that opposed them on the Cotentin are missing, as are the German paratroop units that manned the line in places like Carentan. Stuff like Waffen SS units are being held back until we buy the add-on modules. The Tiger tank is included here, though these were rarely seen operating on the American front.
What was present on the American front, however, was bocage - hedgerows. And these have been portrayed in both tall and low form, a reasonable choice. Game publishers have struggled with the question of how to model this stuff for decades now. BFC has strangely decided that all those rules for Underbelly Hits and movement across hedges from the boardgames were so much hokum, and that 20 ton tanks, in their vision, would simply not be able to cross a two-foot hedge. Ever.
Nor would the Americans be able to use tactical methods that they did in life. So where in life, as historian Michael Doubler tells us, they employed devices like the Salad Fork (a double-prong attached to the front of a Sherman tank to excavate holes for explosive charges, or even used as a battering ram), the TankDozer, or even just the expedient of having troops ride on top of the tanks for instant support, none of that is possible in the game. The Culin hedgerow device is there, on a few select types, and on dates that don't necessarily mesh with their historical usage (the V1.01 patch does extend usage into August but they may still be appearing too early - General Bradley wanted them kept under wraps until COBRA started, for security reasons).
There was an opportunity here to capture the essence of Normandy's tactical situations in the hedges for once and for all - CM:BO had been replete with fuges. It's unfortunate the opportunity may have been missed. Those pathfinding issued from CM:SF's early builds appear to be back, as Shermans now turn their flanks to the enemy when they encounter those two-foot hedges, and go scrambling to find farmer's gates off the axis of advance.
The conclusion is that CM:BN isn't really a game about Normandy; it's just set there.
Modelling and gameplay
If the history isn't perfect, that doesn't invalidate it as a game. So how does it play? The V1.01 patch apparently addresses a lot of the concerns raised about infantry vulnerability though initial reports are still raising some questions. Infantry in cover seem very exposed. I've visited Normandy and noted the solid construction of vintage buildings. In the game they stiil don't seem to offer as much protection as one would expect. Machine guns, particularly those like the MG42 that were noted for killing power, seem under-powered.
The look of the game is a matter of individual taste; many have warmed to the 3-D animations and interface. Best bet is always to try the demo and see if it works for you. I've never thought the animations look anything but men plodding under water and the UI is still not as effective as the old at giving an overall view of the tactical situation, where in CMX1 one could turn on labels and targeting lines and unit bases and ramp up the unit scale and hide building walls and get a great overall view of the entire battlefield. There are simply fewer tools now to gain a picture of your command, particularly when the shooting is going on. But, some of those earlier tools are simply no longer feasible in the new design. The publishers seem unwilling to consider new ones, such as a minimap or scrollable unit listing.
There are other technical failings, such as the continued lack of support for TCP WEGO play, and of course email files are huge, requiring third party support from a peer-to-peer service, as there is nothing in game to assist.
Map-making is still a chore, and cut and paste features are still absent, with no random map maker, and roads are still the clunky "stepped" type. Scenario design is slightly less complicated than Operation Flashpoint, which as anyone who used their interface knows is not saying much. The largest drawback is that in solo play, the AI is completely scripted and reactions are based on the clock, not on the tactical situation. Scenario testing tools are also meagre; you can see enemy units in test mode, but not speed up the clock, or even pick specific AI plans to test.
But How Does It Play?
Overall, CM:BN is a strange mix of the abstract and hyper-realism. Scenarios are longer than in CM:BO, often twice as long, but on smaller maps and with fewer forces, and with a higher tail to tooth ratio thanks to inclusion of more HQ units due to the command/control routines. Then in contact, they get whittled down faster due to under-modelling of cover. Figuring out what is abstract and what is not takes time; there is very little documentation despite the fact the manual is hundreds of pages long - the "meat" of the game is "under the hood", and while the original engine had firepower ratings and cover ratings displayed to the player - you won't find any of that here.
I'm calling it 5 of 10 as it is basically a coin-toss. For looking at pretty explosions and not worrying about why you're getting results, it succeeds. The tanks are fun to watch. For those with fond memories of CMX1, not so much, and especially not for hardcore historians who want to recreate the nuances of the Normandy battlefield of 1944. May improve with more patches and additional units via the modules.