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The original Close Combat came out over 20 years ago, and was one of my very first introductions into the world of wargaming. Someone of...

Close Combat: The Bloody First Close Combat: The Bloody First

Close Combat: The Bloody First

Close Combat: The Bloody First

The original Close Combat came out over 20 years ago, and was one of my very first introductions into the world of wargaming. Someone of great gaming taste downloaded and installed the demos for the original games onto a PC in my junior high computer lab. I later stumbled across them, was enthralled with the depiction of realistic tactical combat, and here I am writing reviews for a wargaming website twenty years later. Needless to say, Close Combat as a series has a secure foothold in my mind. Since that time, the license shifted to Matrix Games, where a few additional iterations of the game have been made over the years, but only now has the series made the significant step into the world of three dimensional graphics. Does Close Combat: The Bloody First capture the spirit of the old while boldly striking into new territory? Well..sometimes. 

The Bloody First follows the story of the Big Red One, the 1st Infantry Division of the US Army as it fights its way through World War II. The game features three campaigns, and a total of 11 operations spanning North Africa, Sicily, and finally Normandy. You'll lead your company of riflemen across open deserts, rough hills, and bocage country. The scope of the game is impressive and flexible. You can hop into any single battle you want, or play an operation spanning a handful of connected skirmishes, or go for a full campaign encompassing several operations. Then, of course, there is the grand campaign linking it all together into one very long venture. Each way of playing will lead you to approach the game a bit differently. Your troops aren't just faceless rifle squads and machine gun crews, as every single man has his own name and stats. Surviving battles will lead each soldier to gain experience, awards, and become better fighters. While playing the grand campaign, you would most certainly develop a few favored squads of veterans, units that you can rely on, but also don't want to lose so far into the war. If simply playing a one-off battle, you might put winning the fight far above keeping any particular units out of extreme danger. 

Regardless of how you choose to play, as commander of a rifle company, you begin each battle by choosing which of you squads to field. Usually you will only put a couple of platoons into any one battle, alongside some support assets, like tanks and engineers, from other units. I really enjoyed this freedom, since it lets you shape your tactics before the battle even begins. Your missions include a variety of offensive and defensive scenarios, in which you will fight the Axis over control of various points around a map. Rarely will you come even close to routing the enemy from the map entirely, it's usually enough to simply break their morale and take a couple of additional locations. Depending on the operation and how things go, you might fight again on the same map, with different starting positions based on how the previous battle turned out. There are some touches here like destroyed tanks remaining on the map from one skirmish to the next. Between battles you will be given options like advancing rapidly, waiting to regroup, or conducting a daring night attack. This gives a bit of say over the overall strategic picture, in addition to the tactical fights themselves.

Now let's get to the meat of the game, the tactical battles. As mentioned before, The Bloody First takes the big step into 3-D graphics, which is a radical shift from the previous Close Combat games, where the player was looking straight down on a battlefield populated by sprites and 2-D terrain. In those older games, it was difficult to see the contours of the terrain and just how tall a hill or ridge was. Here the 3-D engine is used to great effect to create realistic looking terrain, with plenty of bumps and low-spots for infantry to maneuver through. However, many of the maps feel very small and restrained. Often, after you hit go, your forces will almost immediately be in contact with the enemy, and the fighting will not cease until the scenario ends. Now, I know the name of the game is Close Combat, but we are going to need just a little room to maneuver! Some of the maps are larger, but even so something about the scale of the game leads to them still feeling cramped most of the time. This is really a game about quick battles at the smaller scale of things, and that is okay, but just know that is what you are getting.

In terms of the core gameplay, infantry vs infantry combat, I think the game does things quite well. When ordering your men about, little silhouettes appear to show you exactly where they can or can't take cover, making it very easy to see their exact destination. Combat occurs at a very realistic feeling pace. Set up a couple squads of riflemen a hundred yards from each other in good cover, and they will pop away at one another to little effect. Maybe one guy will get hit every few minutes. Catch that enemy rifle team in the flank with a machine gun, and they will immediately start taking casualties and be forced to flee. At close range the fighting gets bloody, as the little digital soldiers will start hurling grenades back and forth. The game is at its best when the scenario is focused on the infantry combat. Add any vehicles to the fray and suddenly things feel a bit off kilter, especially in the early campaigns where there is almost no way for your infantry to harm even a lowly armored scout car.

For me, the weakest area of the game has to be any time armored vehicles take to the field. On some of the smaller maps, and especially given the open desert terrain of North Africa, a single tank can control the entire battlefield, destroying infantry at will. If both sides have armor, things aren't much better. The tank on tank combat feels very random, with two stationary tanks sometimes spending several minutes repeatedly shooting at and missing each other, even at very short range. In all of the scenarios I played, it simply never felt very satisfying. The AI for vehicles also seems weaker than that of the infantry. In one scenario I played, one enemy tank charged straight into my starting area immediately after the scenario started. Not a great move. Their other tank sat at the back of the battlefield, never moving an inch. Not a great tactic either. The game could definitely use some work in this area.

The other area of the game I must be critical of is some of the graphics and sound. Sound effects wise, the gunshots and explosions all sound pretty decent, making for a noisy and realistic battlefield. However, when there isn't any shooting going on, the game is completely silent. Some ambient background noises would go a long way here. Maybe the wind blowing, distant explosions, that sort of thing. Add to that the lack of animation for trees/bushes/grass swaying in the wind, and a washed out color palette, and you get a very static feeling battlefield outside of active combat. My final gripe here is the voice lines for units. There just aren't very many, and you'll often hear the same one played multiple times in a row. 

Graphically, the game is a mixed bag. The environments look gorgeous, with a very natural flow to the terrain. This is where the game benefits the most from the switch to 3-D. These look like very real places, created with a careful attention to detail. The maps are strewn with little flavorful bits like farm carts and hay bales that can be used as cover.  The infantry models, on the other hand, aren't so great. I understand this is not a game made with stunning graphics in mind, but the infantry here have almost no detail to them, and have muddy textures to boot. You won't be able to see exactly what the models look like though, since the camera is very restrictive and won't let you tilt down very far, or zoom in too close. The vehicles look alright, but aren't anything to gawk at, and besides, you can't zoom in very close to get a good look at them anyway. The effects like explosions, tracers, and smoke all work well enough to create a lively battlefield, but again are just okay. I harp on the graphics only because the game falls, to some extent, into that same trap that so many series fell into back in the early 2000's when they transitioned from tried and true 2-D graphics into first attempts at 3-D graphics. The 3-D allows for some cool new things, but it's hard to deny that the previous 2-D entries in the series (e.g. Panthers in the Fog, Gateway to Caen) were, arguably, more aesthetically pleasing. 

Also, despite the modest graphics, the game tends to stutter a bit here and there, like the engine is struggling to run smoothly for no apparent reason. I expect this can be patched out soon enough.

Now, I've dinged the game for quite a few things, but this comes more from a place of love than anything else. As a fan of the series, I wanted the game to be a bit better than it is. That said, it does a lot of things well, and some things better than its peers. The game is very accessible, with a UI that makes it easy to get the information that you need. Units have colored arcs showing you at a glance what direction they are facing and their current posture, and red arcs that pop up to let you know they are taking fire from a general direction. Important events pop up in a list you can click on to jump immediately to the action. Giving orders can be done in two different ways, so you can do whichever feels natural to you. A very handy LOS tool lets you move the mouse around and dynamically visualize what can be seen from any particular point. The aforementioned soldier silhouettes show you exactly where your men will go when you give them an order, and can be drug around to line up exactly how you desire. The game should be easy to learn for beginners, and like riding a bike again for series veterans. 

The combat offers some great moments, like when a squad of riflemen breaks under an enemy attack, but then Private Johnson suddenly goes into "heroic" mode and stands his ground, single-handedly fending off an enemy assault. Your overall strategy and tactics do have a real effect on the outcome, as a passive approach will usually get muddled results, while carefully maneuvering your squads while suppressing key enemy positions will yield a decisive victory. These moments are satisfying, and left me feeling like a good commander who made a difference. Despite all of those moments, the game simply lacks a certain spark. There is a core here that does something right, but the game overall needs a bit more polish to really shine. 

Close Combat: The Bloody First may be the necessary learning step for a classic 2-D series as it transitions into the world of 3-D. Hopefully the game can be improved somewhat through patches, and I really look forward to seeing how the next iteration of the series shapes up. There is a market out there for people who want some realistic tactical combat, but don't want to spend hours wrestling with learning something like a Combat Mission or Graviteam Tactics game. Close Combat could very easily be that series.

Close Combat: The Bloody First is available directly from Matrix Games, as well as on Steam and GoG.

- Joe Beard