Flush with the success of the defeat of the Germans and Italians in North Africa, it was time for the allies to open a new front in the battle against Nazi Germany. Urged on by Churchill, the plan was to go for the soft underbelly of Europe. A combined thrust across Sicily, and up through mainland Italy.
Sometimes referred as the forgotten front, the Italian campaign was a hard slog over terrain that favoured the defender in every way. Why should you care? A large amount of Kiwi blood was spilt in this campaign, and in our minds it deserves as much recognition as the Normandy and Russian fronts.
When we heard that Battlefront.com were going to feature this campaign as the corner stone of the launch of their new Combat Mission game engine, we just had to get hold of it. For those unfamiliar with the series, Combat Mission is a tactical war game that emphasises historical accuracy above flashy graphics.
The game itself can be played real-time (with the ability to pause the action), or by the much preferred WEGO. This is where you plan your moves, and the opposition does likewise. The game then plays through a minute of combat, based on your decisions. So don't expect fast-paced action; this is a game that rewards good tactical planning and patience. Because of its design, the game also lends itself well to play by e-mail; a persistent feature in the series.
Each of your soldiers has a name, each has its own level of ability and, importantly, each has their own morale. Run your combat team across open ground in the face of enemy fire, and you can expect them to go to ground as they take casualties. Take too many and they will cease to function, maybe even turning to run. The idea of individual abilities means that, realistically, everyone is not a crack shot. Watch as your carefully planned ambush is laid bare as your anti-tank round flies way above the passing tank.
The terrain and units are modelled in 3D. This latest release has seen a vast improvement in the graphics, with a lot more shading and detail. As you plan your moves you will zoom right down into the action to gauge the line of sight of your units. Folds in the ground and low lying areas are routes of attack or areas to defend. The key for the developers in designing this game is to recreate as accurately as possible what it is like to command a battle.
With Fortress Italy, they have introduced the American Rangers, Italian Forces, and the Hermann Goering German units. We freely admit that there is the glaring omission of the English troops who also fought to gain control of Sicily, however this is more than made up with the opportunity to fight as the Italians.
History buffs will know that at this stage of the war, Italy was still allied with Germans. The Americans were invading their homeland and they are not about to give it up easily. The Italians bring with them some interesting armoured units, including the French R35 tank (outdated at the beginning of the war but still a nightmare for infantry to tackle.)
The game features three campaigns based on each of the nationalities and the usual quick battle generators that has been a key feature of previous titles in the series. There are also a host of tweaks in the new game engine: not just in the graphics, but also subtle changes to the control interface, as well as additional movement and combat options. What we also like is how the new engine will allow future games to be backward-compatible with upgrade packs promised for games developed under the new engine.
As previously stated, this is not for gamers looking for a quick thrill. This is people who would be just as happy pushing carefully painted lead soldiers on a felt-covered table top and armed with dice and tape measure. It is a game that is both complex and hard to learn. To master it, you must also be a master of tactics. We found the key was to thoroughly investigate the terrain before a game not just to determine where you will attack or defend but also to view it from your opposition's point of view to determine what tactics they may adopt.
Graphically, the game is good. Don't expect a graphics from a top rated shooter, but they are detailed and work well in the context of the game. The animation looks like it has been approved from previous games, with the infantry especially looking less like extras in a Joe 90 episode [Google it – Ed.] The combat sounds are also well done, with what seems like a good level of authenticity.
It's not all spit and polish, however. The interface still feels like it needs work. Some of the tabs and buttons are quite small and not intuitively laid out. Certainly it is functional, but its layout causes quite a steep learning curve for beginners. This was particularly evident when selecting units for quick battles. It assumes that you know units by name; we felt it would have been good to see a graphic of each unit within the selection screen.
We were also disappointed by the amount of available units. We hope that in further expansions we will see more of the allies who fought in the campaign (Greeks, Japanese, Americans, etc.) We want to make a special plea to see some of the Kiwi units in the game [The 28th Maori battalion would be just awesome – Ed.]
This game is the product of a small development company and relies on online distribution to get its games into the market (don't expect to see it on retail shelves any time soon). We reckon they deserve a lot of kudos for sticking to a formula of historical accuracy and solid tactical simulations. They fill a unique niche in the gaming market, and they lead the genre. If you are an aspiring armchair general then we highly recommend this game.
If you're keen to jump in, you can grab a copy from battlefront.com.