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  If you hear a rumor that long time wargame developer Battlefront is making a modern Combat Mission module about the place where you live, ...

Combat Mission: Black Sea Combat Mission: Black Sea

For your Wargamer, Toy soldier collector, MiniFig collector, military history nut. Reviews, interviews, Model Making, AARs and books!

combat mission

 



If you hear a rumor that long time wargame developer Battlefront is making a modern Combat Mission module about the place where you live, you might want to look into taking an extended vacation. I say that because both of their titles set in our time were developed based on smoldering conflicts that soon after turned into serious real life wars. First in Syria with Shock Force, and then in Ukraine with Black Sea. The key difference in each game of course being the intervention of conventional NATO forces, which in both cases was at least within the realm of possibility. If you wanted to see just what a NATO intervention in Ukraine might have looked like, then you are in luck, because Combat Mission: Black Sea is here to provide that experience.


Although originally released back in 2014, Black Sea is now joining Shock Force 2 on Steam and the Matrix Store, as Battlefront continues their venture with Slitherine of bringing the Combat Mission series to the largest games platform around. I wrote my take on Shock Force 2 and to some extent the Combat Mission (CM) series as a whole in an article a few months back. Today I'll try to focus on what sets Black Sea apart and why you might want to add it to your collection. 




As mentioned, Black Sea depicts the most modern conflict of any game in the Combat Mission series, a war in Ukraine involving a full on United States military intervention. That means peer-on-peer conflict with the best Russia has to offer, as well as scenarios involving the slightly less well equipped Ukrainian forces. This is a far cry from the mostly asymmetric scenarios in Shock Force, where the highly trained and well equipped US and NATO troops faced a challenge only because they were asked to accomplish difficult objectives while taking minimal casualties. The enemy forces in that game usually varied in quality from militia rabbles to poorly motivated regular Syrian army units. One can also make a comparison to the WW2 settings of the other CM games. There, the forces are evenly matched in terms of quality most of the time, as they are here. However, as deadly as a WW2 battlefield could be, infantry firefights mostly involved bolt action rifles slinging only a moderate amount of lead around, and tanks could often shrug off a hit or three. Not so in Black Sea. 


In Black Sea, everything on the battlefield is a glass cannon. Every unit is deadly when positioned correctly, and dead when not. Modern optics and thermal sites and other gizmos make any move in the open a potential death sentence. In this kind of highly lethal environment, information becomes king. If you can see the enemy first, you can eliminate him without risking your own units. Unmanned drones are present in many missions, providing you with intel about whatever part of the battlefield you task them to observe. If you can get eyes on, say, an enemy APC holding an intersection, you can then drop a burst of precision artillery rounds directly on it and open a gap in the opposing defense. The same can happen to your units just as easily.




In a way, playing a battle in Black Sea can feel like something of a game of chess. This isn't a WW2 situation where you hurl an entire infantry company or two into a slugfest over a village, then roll in some tanks to provide extra firepower, and maybe throw in an artillery strike over a general area. This is a game where you carefully position each asset you have to maximize its potential, and hope it isn't blown up in an instant by some unseen foe.


The assets you have in Black Sea include many of the same units we saw in Shock Force, but with new bells and whistles to reflect a conflict a decade further into the future. For the United States, we have Abrams tanks, Bradley's, and Stryker's of all models. The Russians have T-72's and T-90's and of course a smorgasbord of BMP's, BTR's, and so on. The differences between these vehicles in Black Sea vs Shock Force reflect the nitty gritty details that make Combat Mission games shine. Depending on the exact model in question, many of these vehicles have better optics than they had in Shock Force. Some also have Active Protection Systems which can destroy incoming anti-tank rockets, giving these vehicles a fighting chance on the modern battlefield. Being aware of whether your vehicles are equipped with one of these systems or not is essential to forming a successful plan. Another easily overlooked difference from Shock Force is how the playing field has been leveled during night combat. In Shock Force, the Western forces ruled the night with their night vision equipped vehicles and infantry. Now everybody has some kind of night vision capabilities, although quality still varies. 




For better and ill, Black Sea is also still a very similar game to Shock Force and the other CM titles. The interface is exactly the same, which may be frustrating for some, but cozy enough for those already acclimated to it. Quick Battles against the AI are even more underwhelming here than in the WW2 titles, as the generic moves the AI makes in this mode tend to get their units wiped out. Performance with the engine continues to be a mixed bag. While it remains impressive that Battlefront can model a 1:1 battlefield with such exacting detail and at a realistic scope, the engine is just barely up to the task. The framerate can wildly swing as you move the camera around in medium to large scenarios, no matter how powerful your PC might be. Continued updates to the engine have improved things over the years and also made the game look nicer, but at this point I think we would all love to see a jump to something completely new. Hopefully the partnership with Matrix and additional funds from Steam sales will get them there.


The base game comes with 21 stand alone scenarios as well as a campaign for each faction, plus a training campaign. This will keep you busy for a quite a while, as most scenarios are difficult regardless of which side you play, and the campaigns even more so as you must keep your units alive to fight in battle after battle. If you want even more Black Sea, there is also the Battle Pack which adds a new campaign for the Russians and US Forces, along with 6 more stand alone scenarios. For only $10 it's a good amount of content that will keep you busy for hours. There are also a couple dozen user made scenarios and at least one campaign available over at The Scenario Depot that you can freely download.




If you are already a huge fan of Combat Mission, then Black Sea is an easy recommendation. The shift to a very modern battlefield really does make the game feel fresh as you must adjust your tactics to the high-tech, high-lethality reality of a conventional war between two major powers. If you've been putting off the purchase because you didn't like Battlefront's DRM policies of the past and messing with manual patches, well, there's no excuse now. With the game now on Steam, you are only one click away from having the most up to date version of the game on any computer, any time you want it. If you are new to the series and unsure about which game to purchase, remember that Battlefront is great about providing demos for every game. The demo for Black Sea includes a training scenario and two full scenarios from the game, more than enough to see what you are getting into.


Combat Mission: Black Sea is available on Steam, the Matrix Store, and directly from Battlefront.


- Joe Beard



  Pigs flying, hell freezing over, Battlefront teaming up with Matrix Games to put Combat Mission on Steam. Which of these things were you l...

Combat Mission: Shock Force 2 Combat Mission: Shock Force 2

For your Wargamer, Toy soldier collector, MiniFig collector, military history nut. Reviews, interviews, Model Making, AARs and books!

combat mission

 


Pigs flying, hell freezing over, Battlefront teaming up with Matrix Games to put Combat Mission on Steam. Which of these things were you least expecting to see in 2020? 


After many years of being competitors, two of the pillars of PC wargaming have established what appears to be a direct business relationship. Shock Force 2 is now available for purchase from a variety of digital stores across the net, including Steam and directly from Matrix's website. Other Combat Mission titles will follow, according to the press release. In addition to being available in new places, you can now expect Combat Mission titles to go on sale on a more regular basis, in line with Matrix Games titles. Battlefront has long resisted this sort of thing, preferring to sell exclusively from their own website, with price discounts few and far between. Matrix made the switch to Steam style sales several years ago and the decision seems to have paid off, with the prolific publisher dropping new titles and DLC's one after another. One can only hope this decision will lead to new cash flows for Battlefront, and more Combat Mission down the road.




I'll get this out of the way first thing: Yes, if you already purchased Shock Force 2 from the Battlefront website, you will get a Steam key for free. Now, on to one of my favorite gaming moments of the year: Downloading a Combat Mission title directly from Steam, then clicking play and watching the game fire up. No tracking down serial keys, no license activations or limits, just click play and go. Marvelous!


Shock Force originally released way back in 2007. After the critical acclaim of the first generation of Combat Mission titles, I and many others eagerly awaited this jump both to a completely different setting, and a new engine. If you were around then, you probably know how things turned out. The game was a mess on release, bugs abounded and a lot of momentum for the series was seemingly lost. Fortunately for everyone involved, Battlefront got to work and eventually hammered the game into a much better state. The next game in the series, Battle for Normandy, released in far better shape and was followed by several other games and modules over the past decade. Controversially, the past decade also saw four "engine upgrades" which improved the engine and made fairly significant changes to the visuals, performance, and more, for a nominal fee. I won't dive into the debate over these updates, but only point out that none of the updates applied to Shock Force. Being the oldest game on the engine, it was left behind for many years. In 2018, Shock Force 2 catapulted the game to the newest version of the engine, it also included touched up and tweaked versions of all the original scenarios, to account for the multitude of balance and mechanical changes in the intervening decade.



Although we covered Shock Force 2 back when it originally came out, I think the arrival of Combat Mission on Steam, after so many years of people yammering and arguing about it on forums, is worthy of taking the Strykers out for another spin around the battlefield. 

Like every Combat Mission title released after it, Shock Force attempts to model tactical combat down to the level of individual soldiers. The game can be played in two modes, either real-time with pause, or WEGO turns where orders are given and then the action plays out for one minute before you can take control again. Although I prefer turn-based for the WW2 titles, in Shock Force I've always been a fan of real time with liberal pausing. Given the more lethal nature of modern combat, a single errant order can get an entire squad wiped out in less than a minute, and when playing as the NATO forces you must almost always been extremely cautious about taking casualties. Unlike the WW2 games, the fighting here is often very asymmetrical. The NATO factions have all the nice weapons, vehicles, and well trained troops, but they are usually outnumbered and forced to take difficult objectives. The Syrian and other opposition forces range widely from units that represent ragtag militias, on up to mediocre regular army forces and the occasional elite unit. Given the wide variety of "red" forces available, there is also a huge amount of user made content out there depicting interesting red vs red scenarios and campaigns where the forces are more balanced in ability.


The stock scenarios and campaigns contained within the game depict a fictional NATO intervention in Syria to contain a civil war. As we all know, the civil war part was sadly destined to become a reality several years after the original release of Shock Force. Scenarios based on real events in Iraq and Afghanistan are not part of the game, but can be easily modeled using the units available. There's plenty of user made content depicting such actions if you are interested. 


Now, all of that aside, how does the game actually play? For veterans of the series who might have skipped Shock Force, you mostly know what you are getting into, with the primary differences from WW2 being that anti-tank guns are replaced with ATGM's and infantry combat is far more lethal with automatic weapons and urban combat galore. For newbies, what you are getting is something I still haven't seen bested by any other game. A detailed simulation that allows you to command realistic forces into modern combat scenarios just like those that have played out a thousand times in the War on Terror. Although infantry are controlled as squads and fire teams, each individual reacts independently of the others, spotting and engaging enemies, reloading, taking cover, or breaking. Vehicles are all controlled individually, with each crewman inside modeled in similar detail. Vehicles can be damaged in a variety of ways, losing their weapons, equipment, and mobility, being knocked out or simply exploded. 



Understanding exactly what kind of firepower you have and what you are up against is key to victory. A decades old BMP-2 with a 30mm cannon can wreak havoc on an unwary US mechanized platoon rolling down a road, while a single US rifle squad packing a Javelin can take out that BMP-2 from across the map without breaking a sweat. It's all a matter of maneuvering and positioning your forces correctly. Group selecting your best forces and sending them straight at the objective will never work in this game. Scouting, careful advances, focusing of firepower, and the occasional lightning fast assault are what will carry the day. 


While there have been plenty of gradual upgrades to the engine over the years, making the graphics and shaders easier on the eyes, as well as improving the AI and mechanics, some of the perpetual issues of the series remain. Ordering around a large force around can be fussy, with every single unit needing it's own specific waypoints for all but the most general of movements. LOS can be finicky as well, with units occasionally unable to see something because they are an inch out of position. It must also be mentioned that although the engine runs the best it ever has, it still has issues maintaining a smooth experience on larger maps, no matter how beefy your gaming PC might be. That said, if you're a fan of the series and missed Shock Force the first time around, Shock Force 2 is well worth your money. If you have the original you can upgrade to the new version for a moderate fee. 



There are three add-on modules available for the game, US Marines, British Forces, and NATO Forces. All three are quality products that I have played through over the years. The different sorts of equipment each nation has can really mix up your tactics. From the extremely heavily armed Marines to the light but mobile Dutch forces, there is a lot of fun to be had between all of the additional campaigns and scenarios. The add-on's are pricey at $35 a pop, but if you get them in the big bundle you can get a pretty good discount. 


I'm excited to see this new era for Battlefront, and I hope that it works out for them so we can see more Combat Mission in the future. Hopefully at some point they will be able to move to a completely new engine that leaves behind the lingering issues of the current one. Combat Mission still offers an experience that is unique and well worth a look from any wargamer.

Shock Force 2 - Now available on Steam!


- Joe Beard




Combat Mission: Fortress Italy, from veteran developer Battlefront is one of the many titles in their long line of tactical combat game...

Combat Mission: Fortress Italy Combat Mission: Fortress Italy

For your Wargamer, Toy soldier collector, MiniFig collector, military history nut. Reviews, interviews, Model Making, AARs and books!

combat mission




Combat Mission: Fortress Italy, from veteran developer Battlefront is one of the many titles in their long line of tactical combat games, and though it has been out for some time now, it continues to receive the occasional patch and engine upgrade. I've been given the chance to review it, and will use this as an opportunity to give my take on Combat Mission as a whole, and of course the contents of this particular title.  I will touch on the base game, the Gustav Line expansion, and the Game Engine 4 upgrade. However, much of this review could apply to any of the modern Combat Mission games. 

First, I have to start off by saying that Combat Mission is probably the one series I've spent more combined hours playing than any other game or series out there. I started with Barbarossa to Berlin, somewhere around 15 years ago. I still remember strolling through a game store at the mall, back when they carried not just PC games, but niche titles like the boxed Special Edition version of CMBB. I pointed it out to my mom as something I had to have, then a couple of weeks later I unwrapped it on Christmas morning. To be completely honest, at the time I didn't really understand what the Eastern Front of WW2 was all about. I was confused as to why there were seemingly endless different nations to play as, but no Americans. That said, the game was just so much fun that I couldn't stop playing, despite having little knowledge of the context for the hundreds of scenarios and campaigns. I set out to learn more about these battles, and in so doing sparked an endless thirst for learning about history, not just war and battles, but also the politics and social changes that led to such massive conflicts. Needless to say Barbarossa to Berlin is in my top five games of all time. Slap a better camera system on it and a little higher resolution and I would probably buy it all over again.


Following the initial trio of Combat Mission games (Beyond Overlord and Afrika Korps being the other two), Battlefront developed an entirely new engine which added more detail to the simulation down to the level of each individual soldier, weapon, and bullet being modeled. The first game in that series, Shock Force, had an extremely bumpy start, but eventually shaped up to be another of my all time favorite games. Since then they have released several other games and modules focused on different sections of WW2, as well as the hypothetical Black Sea depicting a full scale Russia vs USA war in modern day Ukraine. Fortress Italy came out somewhere in the middle of that pack, but thanks to the game engine upgrades, it has more or less the same features as the newest titles.

So, for those unfamiliar with Combat Mission, what kind of game is it exactly? The series is a highly detailed tactical wargame, which strives to not just crunch the numbers, but to present the combat in a highly visual fashion. The original Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord was leaps and bounds ahead of other wargames of the time, using 3D graphics to bring the battles to life. No more hexes and 2D counters, we could now see the tracers, explosions, smoke, tanks rolling down city streets and infantry charging up hills, all at the same time. The CMx2 engine took all of this to an even greater level of detail, with every individual soldier modeled down to what he can see, how many rounds are in his magazine, and how scared he is. The scale is very realistic, with some maps spanning vast distances and a single large battle taking two or three hours to play out. There is simply a level of detail here which is so much more granular than any other other game I know of. As I'll discuss a bit later though, this level of detail is not without some drawbacks at times. Combat Mission drifts more towards simulation than game, and is best approached with that in mind. 

If you have never seen the game in action, I've included a gameplay video I recorded here. A picture is worth a thousand words, so a video must be worth a million right? (NOTE: This is a rather low resolution video due to some technical difficulties, the game is much sharper "in person" than it appears here).








The game can be played in two distinct ways, either real-time or WEGO. Real time is obvious enough, you hit go and things move. You give orders on the fly and try to pay attention to what is happening across the battlefield. It's possible to pause the game at any time, which is useful for coordinating more complex maneuvers, or dealing with a sudden crisis. WEGO, on the other hand, is a turn-based system. The player gives orders to all of his units, then hits go. The next minute of action is then calculated all at once and plays out like a little movie. You can rewind and watch it multiple times, so you won't miss a single thing. The kicker here is that you have no control at all during that minute. This creates some real tension, since you can't intervene to pull a unit out of an ambush or stop a tank right before it rolls into trouble. Playing in each of these modes really does change how you approach the game. I tend to use real time for smaller battles and WEGO for the monsters. Once a battle hits a certain size, there is just no way to see everything that is going on across different sections of the battlefield.

The orders you can give in Combat Mission are much more nuanced than what is usually seen in a strategy game, especially outside the wargaming space. Movement can be done at a variety of speeds including fast (sprint), quick (jog), normal (walking), and slow (crawling). Units can also "hunt", moving forward at a deliberate pace and stopping as soon as a threat appears. Infantry can be given an "assault" order which causes a single infantry squad to automatically break into sections, one leapfrogging the other.  Every movement speed has its place, which will take new players some time to figure out. Infantry will get tired rapidly when running or crawling. It's possible to bog down an attack by having your guys exhaust themselves by running too far, leaving them unable advance further until they recover.


One part of these games that takes some getting used to are the action spaces. The game world is broken up into hundreds of small squares of terrain. However, the space inside each square is not all treated the same. Where each individual soldier is positioned can make a world of difference. For example, in space along the edge of a shell crater, one soldier might crawl down into the hole, while the other is laying in the open. You can't directly control each individual's exact position, but you can give a facing order which will cause the soldiers to take cover against that direction as best as they can. This system can cause headaches at times though, such as when a heavy machine gun team places the MG in a useless spot with no line-of-sight to the enemy, while one of the crew members is a few feet to the right and has an excellent view.

Every unit will engage the enemy on its own (unless ordered otherwise) in a semi-intelligent manner using the "tactical AI" of the game, so you usually don't need to give specific targeting orders. That said, there are many nuanced options for that as well. You can simply mark a specific target, such as a unit, building, or piece of terrain, and your unit will hammer it, or you can give a "Target Light" order which will conserve explosive ammunition. Various targeting arcs can also be set, including an armor only arc so that your AT gun won't be distracted by some infantry in a field when they should be worried about that Panther lurking in the village. I generally don't give that many direct firing orders, since it can take away from the realism of the game. This is because every single unit independently "spots" the enemy, such that if two squads are sitting next to each other, one might spot some enemies in a building and start firing, while the other does not see them at all and so does nothing. It always feels like I'm gaming the system too much if I, as the invisible omnipotent force hovering over the battlefield, direct soldiers to fire at a building because I know something is there even if they don't. Fortunately, communication between units is also simulated, so two units within shouting distance of each other will gradually share spotting information, tipping each other off about various threats.

There are also other orders available depending on the type of unit selected. Infantry squads can be sub-divided several ways, such as splitting off a two man scouting team, at anti-tank team, or simply dividing up equally for more flexibility. Notably, the standard Italian riflemen can't be split up like this due their difference in doctrine, something you must work around when commanding them. Many crew served weapons, such as mortars and heavy machine guns, must be ordered to deploy before they can function. This is because deploying/packing these weapons takes a significant amount of time. It's also possible to abandon a weapon entirely if a position is about to be overrun. Units can be ordered to hide, throw smoke (if they have it), set up an ambush, pick up ammo, get into vehicles, and more. Tank commanders can be ordered to stick their head out of the hatch for better visibility, or button up when incoming fire is expected. Thanks the Game Engine 4 upgrade, tanks can also now be ordered to move "hull down" to a given point or target. This will cause the tank to seek out a nearby position from which they can see the target, but the target can only see a fraction of the tank. This is a great quality of life feature, since the player had to eyeball it before and hope for the best.


So, I've talked at length about the mechanics, what kind of forces do you get to command in Fortress Italy + Gustav Line, and what sort of battles will you be diving in to?

There are four distinct factions at play here. The Americans, the Germans, the Italians, and the Commonwealth. Within these, there are a multitude of historical formations available to play with, equipped with all the weapons they would have actually fielded, on paper anyway. It can be interesting just to poke around and see exactly how, for example, an American armored infantry battalion was set up and how that influenced their strategy. Controlling these various nationalities and formations in battle will force you to adopt very different strategies. The Germans generally have lots of machine guns mixed directly into rifle squads, while the Italians field large squads of simple riflemen, supported by separate crew served weapons. It would take far too long to list out all the different weapons, tanks, and other vehicles are included in the game, but just trust me when I say that if it was there in real life, it's almost certainly in the game.

When you go to play a scenario, there are a few different options available: campaigns, one-off battles, and quick battles. Each campaign offers a series of linked scenarios where you use one or more formations to fight through several battles. Depending on the campaign, you may be dealing with limited artillery ammunition spread across multiple missions, or a lack of any replacements for your losses. Other times you may have all the forces and firepower in the world, but find yourself up against some very tough nuts to crack.  Unfortunately, there are only three of these in the base game (plus two training campaigns), and four rather short campaigns in Gustav Line. On the plus side, they are very well done and will take you many hours to complete. 

Next, you can play a standalone scenario. There are many more of these available, plus a few more online if you go looking for user made scenarios.  These scenarios range in size from tiny single platoon shoot outs all the way up to battalion sized brawls. While there isn't all that much difference between these battles and the campaign scenarios, the fact that you don't have to worry about using those units again in a future battle means that your strategy could trend towards being overly reckless with the lives of your men. One way scenario designers can mitigate this is by making losses count towards the final scoring of a scenario. Take the objective but lose most of your force in the process, and you could still end up with a defeat. Most of the scenarios can be played from either side, which adds plenty of replayability. These can also be played online against another player, which I'll get to later.


Finally, we have the quick battles, one of my biggest letdowns with the modern Combat Mission games. In the original games like Barbarossa to Berlin, this was where I spent 90% of my time, but in the newer games I rarely bother. This is because of a combination of several things: the strategic AI, the lack of random map generation, and the inability of the AI to select units for itself. 

I'll explain the latter first. In the newer CM games, the forces are organized using a very rigid command structure, and this bleeds over into the counter-intuitive way you select units for a quick battle. Want a couple of platoons of riflemen to make up the core of your force? Sure, just select an entire infantry battalion, then pare it down by deselecting everything except the two platoons you wanted in the first place. Want a section of combat engineers to go with them? Sure, just select an entire battalion of combat engineers...and so on. In the older games, you simply picked what you wanted directly. This is annoying, but not that big of a deal for the human player. However, the AI is not very flexible in this system. It tends to pick large formations at random, with little regard for the terrain or expected mission objectives. It isn't uncommon to see the AI choose an entire company of anti-tank guns or heavy machine guns with no support. Why? Because the formations are organized how they would appear on paper, not how they actually deployed for battle, but the AI isn't programmed to handle this. If you let the AI choose the units for both sides, get ready for five Tiger tanks versus thirty scout cars, and other such nonsensical scenarios. In the older games, you could set the AI to pick a balanced mix of units for both sides, and almost always get a nice force made up of some infantry, a couple tanks, artillery, and various supporting units. It was great because you never knew what you and the enemy were going to get, but you knew it would be fun. It almost never works out like that in the newer games, including Fortress Italy.


The other problem is how the "strategic" AI works in the newer CM games. The map maker must draw up plans for the AI to follow, otherwise it won't act at all. For hand made scenarios, this tends to work out okay, since the designer knows exactly what forces are involved and how he wants the battle to play out. It can take a great deal of testing and balancing to get it just right, but the variables are more fixed so it's possible to make a convincing AI opponent. In quick battles, however, the plans are made but the designer has no way of knowing what units will be involved, or how the battle might flow. So what you get is the AI moving units blindly along paths with no regard for whether they are tanks or infantry or a mortar platoon. They also have no regard for the objectives of the battle. In some cases it's entirely possible to avoid an enemy force, let it stroll on by, then go capture the objectives it has passed. The AI will never turn around and come back, it will simply go to the end of its route and wait there patiently until the end of time. In the older games, not only could you have randomly generated maps, but the AI would come running if you took an objective behind their line. That system wasn't perfect, since it could be manipulated as well, but it still felt much more dynamic, as the AI at least responded to what was happening. 

Okay, I'll get down off my quick battle soap box now.


Finally the absolute best way to play Combat Mission: head to head against another player. There are a few ways to do this. You can play hotseat on one computer, if you are so inclined, or online in both RTS and turn-based modes. That said, my experience has been that most play online involves the old-school PBEM (play be email) method. You play a turn, then send the file to your opponent, then they send it back, etc. Playing this way lets you take your time with the really big battles, since your opponent doesn't have to sit around waiting for your move, and one battle can be played out over weeks. You can also easily have many games going at once. While this is perfectly functional, and really the best way to enjoy the game, it's also very dated in its execution. The game file must be manually sent to your opponent and moved to the proper folder before the game is fired up, there is no in-game functionality for this at all. Fortunately, a couple of third party programs can automate this for you, but you'll have to go hunting in the forums to figure it out for yourself, there isn't any official documentation supporting it. (Hint: Search for CM Helper). You'll also have to find opponents via online forums or groups, since there is no means to do so within the game.


Anyway, once you are playing multiplayer, it can really be one of the best experiences in wargaming. Gone are the various issues of the AI, to be replaced by a far more cunning and devious human opponent. This is where the game really gets a chance to shine, as both sides use smart tactics and careful maneuvers to feel each other out and strike with a coordinated effort. Quick battles suddenly become excellent again, as you won't know what your opponent is picking for his force, but you know it will be a potent combination and possibly difficult for your own choices to handle. Some friendly ground rules can be handy here, such as an agreement on the general allocation of points between infantry, tanks, artillery, and support. Regardless, you won't know exactly what you are facing until the shooting begins, which creates a good deal of tension. You can also play the various handmade scenarios against a human opponent. Many of these scenarios are already designed to be challenging against the AI, so having a real human opponent can make them doubly so.

The sound and graphics in Fortress Italy are quite good compared to the average wargame, but definitely showing age compared to 3D games in general. Improvements have been made, but the visuals are still roughly the same as found in Shock Force, which came out a decade ago. I don't really mind that myself, since what the game is portraying remains very impressive. Hundreds of individually modeled soldiers running around on a realistically scaled battlefield, that is a feat to begin with. My one gripe is that performance continues to be an issue. There is simply a cap to what the engine can do smoothly, regardless of your PC hardware. On the plus side, the vehicle models and textures continue to be outstanding, down to the last rivet. Fortress Italy features some interesting camouflage patterns for many of the  vehicles, which are historically accurate as far as I can tell, and add some nice flavor to things. Sound is an area where Fortress Italy, like the other games in the series, is rather bland. Luckily, there are more than a few mods that one can freely download to give the gunshots and explosions a lot more punch.

The game also includes a powerful scenario editor for those who wish to build their own maps and scenarios. Unfortunately, due to the extreme time commitment involved to make quality maps in the newer CM games, there are only a few users out there with the time and ambition to do so. Since Fortress Italy is not the most popular game in the series, it has seen relatively few new scenarios made this way. 


Okay, so this review has rambled along for long enough. What is the verdict? Fortress Italy is a strong entry in the Combat Mission series. It offers a highly detailed, down in the dirt depiction of one of the most important campaigns in WW2. The terrain you will fight for is difficult; where Normandy had its hedgerows, Italy has impossibly steep hills and ridge lines. The Italians bring a unique flavor to the mix, with their hodgepodge inventory of tanks and outdated infantry. The missions are well designed and challenging, though I wish there were more, since you can never get enough. If you like the base game, you will certainly want the Gustav Line expansion, which takes the fighting from Sicily to the Italian mainland. It adds a lot of content, including the ever popular Fallschirmjager units, and a campaign where you lead the Polish forces that faced them in and around Monte Cassino. Finally, Combat Mission games are greatly improved by having all of the Game Engine upgrades. While not entirely necessary, they add many of the wishlist features that players have been wanting for years. For me, the highlights for Upgrade 4 were the changes to infantry behavior. Your virtual grunts are now smart enough to peek around the corners of buildings, and now understand the importance of proper spacing when on the move. Previously, large groups of infantry on the move had a tendency to "spaghetti" when covering long distances. They would move more or less in several single file strands, which is a very bad idea when charging a potential machine gun nest. 

Overall, I give the game a big thumbs up for fans of the genre. It just does things that perhaps only one or two other series out there even approach doing. Fortress Italy, like the rest of the Combat Mission series, has a few rough edges and is showing some age, but it still has a lot of great, afternoon consuming experiences to share with players that take it on. I think at times the Combat Mission games are almost too detailed for their own good, creating little edge cases where the simulation breaks down and takes away from the fun. However, this may just be the price for doing things so well the rest of the time, and at such an ambitious level of detail. I feel like I could write an entire article on just that thought, but I will save it for another day.

Finally, you don't have to take my word for any of this. Battlefront is one of the few game developers out there who continue to believe in the power of a quality demo being able to sell their game. Their demo for Fortress Italy contains four scenarios, including one from Gustav Line. Try it out, and see for yourself whether the game is for you.


Official Site: www.battlefront.com

Fortress Italy Page: 

Demo: Link to Demo Page


- Joe Beard










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Combat Mission Road to Eindhoven Part 1 AAR by Ian Leslie  

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Part 2 of Road to Eindhoven Combat Mission AAR by Ian Leslie. Enjoy.  

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Allied AAR of Battlefronts superb Combat Mission Beyond Normandy game. AAR by Ian Leslie  

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Allied AAR of Battlefronts superb Combat Mission Beyond Normandy game. AAR by Ian Leslie




 

Combat Mission and me, a love story? What is Combat Mission ? A WEGO/Real-time tactical masterpiece. Combat Mission (in one ...

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Combat Mission and me, a love story?



What is Combat Mission ? A WEGO/Real-time tactical masterpiece.
Combat Mission (in one form or another) and I go back a long way,  back to when Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord was the new kid on the block. A time when us wargamers looked on in awe at this tactical masterpiece, a true game-changer had just announced itself, and we rejoiced. I remember like it was yesterday, picking up the box at Game in Liverpool...aaahh good times.

Then suddenly, (well it felt like a little time between CMBO and CMBB) Battlefront released a magnum opus. Combat Mission Barbarossa to Berlin or CMBB is it came to be known. No tactical wargame before or since has contained anywhere near the amount of content the new CM game had. The whole of the East Front from start to finish, including minor nations. Pure bliss. Plus, it kept all of the features that made CMBO  good like WEGO and Combat Mission's innovative new way of doing turns. Out went the old IGOUGO way of doing turns that had carried over from board wargames. Now, we still had turns that took one minute of game time, but your moves played out simultaneously with the enemy’s, as you had previously plotted your moves and then, when finished, you watched the action unfold. This also added loads of tension and excitement to the game. 




Additionally, being able to rewind the turn as often as you liked, meant you never missed any of the action. So CMBB gathered a huge following and multitudes of Mod support. Later, a game set in Africa\Italy was released. This would be the CMx1 swan song.  Battlefront had bigger more ambitious plans, esp. as technology had moved far along enough for their dreams to be realised (I still remember reading in the CMBB manual on how they'd love to have done visual 1v1 representation). So, what was it that Battlefront had planned for CMx2, what changes would we see, and how will it be received by the now dedicated and hardcore CMBB fans?
There was a before and an after Combat Mission Shock Force

Well, as well documented, things didn't turn out to well when Battlefront released Combat Mission Shock Force. A game set, at the time, in a fictional war-torn Syria (a rather sad prediction of future events). Finally, we had 1v1 soldier representation, but in an unforeseen move, they'd gone with a focus on real-time, relegating WEGO, which, for me, was a seriously wrong move. All interest in the game evaporated and those who enjoy real-time found the game had some serious issues. The outcry was loud and long-and Battlefront listened. WEGO came back gaining its rightful place as a major feature, bugs were hunted down, gameplay was improved, new features added and eventually three superb modules were released: Marines, British Forces, and finally NATO.


I watched a gameplay video that was made for a competition, liked what I saw, so I then bought CMSF several months after release, when WEGO was back and it was playing well. I also bought the Marines module, as that had just been released. However, it wasn't really until the British Forces module came out that I really fell for the game. For me, that module made CMSF and, from then on, I'd be buying as many CMx2 releases as I could afford and, like many others, started the long wait for the WW2 version to be released. One thing that really benefited the WW2 version was CMSF being released first, with all its teething troubles, so by the time the WW2 version was being developed, it had benefited greatly from all the work done during the course of CMSF and its modules. Even today there is a hardcore group that still haven't gotten over the move from CMx1 to CMx2.
Since the release of CMSF and its modules, we have had the CMx2 engine cover the Western front from the invasion of Normandy until Arnhem, two releases covering  Italy, an East Front release covering '44, another modern era game covering a fictional conflict in the Ukraine (what is it with Battlefront predicting conflicts?), and finally, a third party release covering the Russian conflict in Afghanistan.



Combat Mission Final Blitzkrieg has a multiplayer mode,  4 campaigns, plenty of scenarios and a skirmish mode.
The latest release is Combat Mission Final Blitzkrieg, carrying on from where Combat Mission Beyond Normandy and its Market Garden module finished off. CMFB takes us up to the end of what would be the German’s final large-scale attack in the West, which the Germans called Wacht am Rhein, which later became known as The Battle of the Bulge. It also includes scenarios set in the terrible meat grinder that was the Huertgen Forest, a battle that  wouldn't have looked out of place to a soldier from a generation before. There are also scenarios set during Operation Nordwind, a battle featuring the German 6th SS Mountain Division. Altogether, there are four campaigns which include one training campaign and 25 scenarios. There is also the Quick Battle feature, which I profess to never use, as I only play against the included AI (plus, the Quick Battles really aren't suited to this and are more for multiplayer use). The reason why quick battles aren't suited to single player is that the TAC AI is scripted, which means it doesn't really work that well in Quick Battles. This is one of the downsides of the engine, and a real bug bear for some. That's not to say the Tac AI is useless, when it comes to the scenarios and campaigns, those clever secanario designers end up weaving their magic ,with the result that many of my pixel truppen have come to a terrible demise and the AI march of victorious. I've never found this to be an issue, as there has always been more than enough content for me in the games without ever needing the Quick Battle feature.



The game, as mentioned previously,  is set in the Western Front and covers the border areas of France, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands. Each geographical area has its own specific terrain and building types, matching those you'd find in that particular part of the country. Also new to the West Front CMx2 games is snow, which obviously means many vehicles have  an application of whitewash camouflage, for when ground conditions dictate. CMFB consist of over 130 different vehicles, 24 heavy weapons, and 32 infantry weapons.  Forces consist of US Army, German Heer, Waffen SS, and the Luftwaffe (German Para units). Later modules will introduce the British and Canadians as well as take the game right up to the surrender of Germany in the West.
"You'll be punished, and punished quickly..."
As for gameplay, I'd really need another ten pages or so to really do justice to the game and cover as much as possible. I'd say the forums are the best place to go to get a good idea on how the CMx2 games play.  The game can be played both real-time and in WEGO mode. I’d suggest trying WEGO first whilst learning the system. Personally, I always play WEGO but others do prefer real time, but at least we have a choice. Command and Control are very important in a game with units having several ways of communicating with each other.  This then affects, at higher difficulty levels, what each  unit can spot. There is no borg spotting here. CMFB plays like all the other CMx2 engine games, so those who have played the previous ones and enjoyed them will have no regrets buying this. 
For those new to the game,  I suggest downloading the CMFB demo. This is a great way to find out if you like the game enough to then go on and purchase. I do suggest to those who are from a  Men at War or Company of Heroes background, please leave everything you learned playing those at the doorstep. CMx2 engine games are a big step up in realism, and if you play the same way you play those other two games. you'll be punished, and punished quickly. I have a few important tips that will help you keep your pixel rappen alive and that is not to rush, take your time moving your troops, split squads at the start, and don't be afraid to use recon by fire. I'd say go take a look at the excellent AAR's over at the forums that involve Bil Hardenberger. Bil also has a website full of tips on how to perfect your tactical know-how.  There are also some superb Let’s Play videos over at youtube.

Quality, quality, and quality…

As usual, the scenarios and campaigns are of an exceptional standard.  The research that the scenario designers have put in is faultless right across the board. The briefings for each scenario really set the tone and atmosphere of what's to come, as well as set the immediate backdrop to the battle. Try not to skim over them, they add so much to the immersion, as well as contain little snip bits of intel which could really help you over the course of the battle.  The maps are being praised by all who own the game, many saying they are the best yet, and that really is saying something, as there are lots of outstanding maps which you'll find in all games in the series. The game definitely succeeds in portraying the harsh winter conditions that swept across Northern Europe during this period. I also like the variety of scenario sizes and how well spread out they are. In a previous game, I found very few  tiny and small scenarios which I really missed as they can be great fun. CMFB doesn't have this problem, all sizes get a decent amount of scenarios.

I'm a CMx2 fan. CMFB hasn't disappointed me at all. I hear some are saying that progress isn't fast enough and improvements between the engines (now at version 3) aren't big enough. Personally, I'm happy with the progress. I'm not sure where these tactical games are that come close to what Battlefront is doing, let alone doing it better which would make CMx2 redundant. So, I'm very grateful we have Battlefront and CMx2, as, without them, my hobby would have a pretty big hole in it with nothing out there to fill it. I'm a tactical wargame scale nut and CMFB is another CMx2 game to have permanent residence on my hard drive. If you enjoyed the previous games, then this is a must buy as well.
Try it ! there is a demo !
Those who are wargamers, and prefer the tactical scale, again I heartily recommend CMFB and all the other games in the series. Wargamers where tactical scale isn't their preference, I still recommend but do suggest trying the demo.

Those who never got over the move from CMx1 to CMx2 aren't going to be swayed by CMFB. Maybe when Battlefront moves on to a new engine, you'll come back into the fold. Here is hoping.Those who have played the previous games and found they weren't for them, then again, CMFB isn't going to change your mind.
Those who haven't played a CMx2 game before, then I say go download the demo. Then you'll know if this series is for you or not. You never know, you could find that game you've been looking for all this time! Or, be turned into a whole new hobby, wargaming!

So, just like a good old love story, my relationship with Combat Mission has had its ups and downs, with even a split along the way. Yes, there are things I'd like to see improved, like soldier animations, for instance, and be able to set SOP's for units. If I had to really think about it, I'm sure I could list several other wants/improvements, but tell me, which game out there couldn't be improved? I have no doubt that different players would suggest different ways in how the game could be improved, yet the games taking pride of  place on my hard drive today are the CMx2 games. That's because they fill a need for tactical wargaming that no other games I've tried, and I've tried many, have managed to fill. Only one has come close, but CMx2 has those killer features for me, WEGO and replay value, which will always relegate other tactical wargames to second place or lower. The CM series is my first true love when it comes to tactical wargaming on the computer and it will take something very special indeed to knock it off my No.1 spot.


We love modders !
One last thing. I have to give a mention to the CMx2 modding scene, which is superb. So many talented players create some amazing mods, that not only transform the visual aspect of the game but also greatly improve the sound effects. The stock game already looks great, however, go download and install those amazing mods and it takes the game to another level altogether. Coupled with modded sound effects, immersion levels increase tenfold. Not only that, there is  a steady flow of user made scenarios and campaigns (many mini masterpieces) that will keep you playing for many years to come.







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