There is only one name in the videogame industry for computerised war games: Battlefront.com. Developer and publisher of the acclaimed World War 2-based Combat Mission series, and the more recent Shock Force series, which debuted their new game engine and brought their unique game into the modern era. It was with a lot of interest, then, that we received their latest title, Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy. This game revisits the arena covered in their first release, Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord (2000), but it utilises their latest combat engine.
Let’s be clear about this: Combat Mission is a game without compromise. It is exquisitely detailed, historically accurate, and designed to fairly replicate what tactical unit combat was like in the fields and woods of the Normandy battlefield. If your type of strategy game is resource gathering and tank rush tactics, you'd better give this one a miss. Combat Mission is a game of military tactics and the art of command.
The scenarios are played out on very well rendered 3D environments. Woods, hedges, buildings, and rivers adorn the battlefield in the style of 1944. There are hay racks, carts, stone walls, and, as expected, the dreaded bocage (high earthen walls topped with hedges that enclose a field), all of which are designed to challenge your tactical skill. Throw in night and weather effects and you have a battlefield that is challenging and dynamic, and that will push your command skills to the limit.
Each battle can have you commanding infantry units, motorised infantry, and armoured vehicles. All of these are rendered in 3D and replicate the units as they were during the battle for Normandy. Each soldier on the field equals one man. They each have their own weapon, ammunition, morale, level of experience and fitness. Each weapon's rate of fire, accuracy, and penetration are all carefully calculated. This goes for the tanks as well, with armour values for each part of the vehicles being accurate – to the point of including any historical vulnerabilities.
You have the choice to play real time or via a system called Wego (you plan your moves, as does the opposition, then a minute’s worth of combat is played out). This planning phase is the heart of the game. Units can be directed to move through a series of waypoints, each with a combination of crawl, walk, assault, hunt, or fast move. Each has their pros and cons. The crawl approach will lessen the chance of discovery, and allows you to spot enemies easier; however your troops will understandably become fatigued quicker. At the other extreme, fast move allows you to cross open ground at a run, but lessens the chance to return fire and does not allow you to reload your weapon.
When planning your move phase you need to consider line of sight and spotting. Enemies can be found through sight and sound; however only when you are closer or your spotting unit has a man with binoculars, can you readily identify it. Depending on the difficulty setting you have selected, only the unit that spotted the enemy can target it, as well as indirect fire units that have verbal or radio contact with the unit.
Indirect fire is by way of mortars, artillery, naval gun fire, and air support. The former unit is on the field of play, while the others are off the table (in war game parlance), and directed by a forward observer unit. Like your tanks and infantry, these too have limited ammunition. Fire can, however, be directed in different patterns to accommodate the circumstances of the target (suppressing fire, a line barrage at an enemy trench, etc). As in the real world, these are not instant and you need to target where you think the enemy will be once the shells land. These units can fire a variety of ammunition, including smoke shells that can be used to screen movement of your troops over open ground.
The terrain has a big effect on the game, with hull-down, overwatch positions, and plunging fire all being factored into the combat. Take too many casualties or continuous suppressive fire, and your troops could panic or worse still - surrender. Covered approaches and entrenchments, hard and soft cover are all calculated to ensure the battle experience is accurate as possible.
Controlling your units is undertaken through a myriad of hot keys or a plain but very functional onscreen control panel. Once you have completed your move and target orders, you then commence the move and sit back to watch your master plan unfold. Soldiers dash to cover, tanks rumble down roads and the mortar rounds start to impact suspected enemy positions. Like all good plans, they never survive the first few minutes of combat, and it's not long before you have to re-jig your units and axis of attack as you discover more of the enemy dispositions. The game AI is very good and punishes you if you try to be the hero.
Battles can range from tiny maps with a few units, to huge battles containing whole companies and regiments. The units are faithfully reproduced on the battlefield - albeit in plain colours. However, like the original game, the mod community is encouraged, and it won't be long before camouflage colours for your favourite units become available in the style of your choosing. The game is designed to be customisable and comes with a map editor that not only allows you to build your own maps, but also put them together in an entire campaign of battles, with differing consequences for success and failure on the battlefield.
You can choose to play one of the packaged campaigns solo, or play a quick battle online. The quick battles allow you to preselect your units (with restrictions on historical accuracy and the rules of rarity), determine the time of day, and the type of terrain. Additionally, the play-by-e-mail function has been carried over from earlier games, where you can have multiple games taking place at once with players across the globe (this may seem archaic but this method suits the complexity of the game).
There is a lot going on in this game, with a fair share of grunt devoted to the combat accuracy and unit details. Consequently, although the graphics are good, they are not at the same level as you will see in popular 3D games today. Likewise, the sound is all about combat audio; don't expect a catchy music track.
The game has a very comprehensive manual (a whopping 300 pages) which includes a read through of the tutorial missions. These are a must, as this game is unashamedly complex and not designed for a casual gamer.
Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy is a game for history buffs and war game enthusiasts. If this is your bent, you will not find a more enthralling and historically accurate game. The game itself is only available direct from Battlefront.com, either as a download or by way of a physical disk sent to your location.