The Close Combat series is one that I have had a very long relationship with. My first encounter was with the original Close Combat, back in the mid nineties, when it covered the early battles of the Normandy Campaign, and ended with my all time favorite release - Close Combat: The Russian Front (1998.)
Its blend of strategic planning and tactical combat, on maps built from the ordnance surveys of the day, added a lot of realism. The games were quite innovative for their time, with mechanics for things like morale, ammunition levels, and armour penetration values. For the strategy gamer, they were a lot of fun and were the first steps in the transition from tabletop and board games into the computer gaming world.
I was recently surprised to learn that the series had not ended there and that there has been a bunch of dedicated developers beavering away, churning out new releases and re-releases regularly - largely unnoticed by mainstream gamers.
When I was invited to have a go their latest release - Close Combat: Panthers in the Fog - it was like meeting up with a long lost friend. Sure, it was showing its age a bit (even with its new 32 bit graphics), but like most other strategy gamers I believe content and accuracy far outweigh glitzy graphics.
This latest release covers of one the pivotal battles of the Normandy campaign. After many weeks of the Allies being bogged down in bloody fighting through the hedgerows, at last and at much cost a breakthrough had finally been made across the bridge at Avranches, and Patton's Third Army could now break out into open country. Realising the danger, and hoping to close off the penetration, the Germans mounted counterattack after counterattack in the hopes of staving off the collapse of the Normandy front.
For those who are unfamiliar with the series, Close Combat is played as either quick battles, operations, or a grand campaign. The game is viewed top-down, and you can control each unit's movement and issue orders through a simple point and click interface. This simplicity belies the depth of the game's mechanics, however. Each unit is made up of named soldiers. They have their own abilities and, importantly, their own morale. Treat your units rashly and send them across open ground, and you are likely to have them routed at the slightest of casualties.
Play is undertaken in real time, however you can pause it at any given moment using the space bar. It's a brave man who can play without ever pausing the game; besides, there's a lot of fun in micro managing each of your units.
The game's AI is no easy-beat and the maps themselves can be quite challenging. Being as near as possible to historically accurate, there is no contrived balancing here. The terrain is what it is and you have to look to gain advantage wherever you can.
Good tactics are required - particularly in defense. Setting up ambushes on obvious routes of advance and ensuring that, when they are sprung, it is with combined arms - will ensure you get the best results. The trick is not to commit too early, but then not leave it too late, or risk having your line overrun in a rush.
To be successful in the campaign, you need to realise the troops carry over from battle to battle. Preserving and enhancing the experience of your veteran units is vital, while taking needless casualties will wear down their morale.
The 35 individual maps can be played as separate battles, but to really enjoy the Close Combat experience you have to play it at grand campaign level. It's like a complex chess game where you have to ponder where you position your troops at a strategic level and then fight them at a tactical level, knowing the outcome of the battle will impact your grand strategy.
The inclusion of weather effects, artillery, and aircraft interdiction are great features, while the comprehensive scenario editor will ensure fans of the series will once again take the game engine and build their own maps to re-fight battles and campaigns from other areas of the western front.
There are some limitations, though, in the game mechanics. You cannot speed the game up. Those wanting instant excitement rather than a slow buildup may find the pace too slow. The top-down view can make it difficult sometimes to work out the areas of dead ground - particularly in the fog - so it's important to carefully review each map prior to commencing the battle.
It has been a fantastic experience to re-appraise one of my all time favorite games and, despite the game looking a bit long in the tooth, it still has the wonderful level of depth and challenge as it did when I first played it way back when.
If you have any interest in strategy games based on WW2, then I urge you to get this game. I might add this has been a hard game to score, particularly when in reality this game does not break any new ground but rather adds gloss to what is already a successful series.
Casual gamers may rate it in the lower sixes however, if you are a mad keen WW2 strategy gamer, then you will understand the score I have given it. The game is available for purchase and download from Matrix Games