Genre: Tactical Combat Simulation
Publisher: Paradox / Battlefront.com
Release Date: July 27, 2007
If Combat Mission: Shock Force were a poker hand, I'd be about to give the game away. The grin on my face can't be mistaken for anything other than a winning hand. When independent developer Battlefront.com emerged in the late '90s and presented us with their flagship title, Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord, it literally added another dimension to 2D wargames. Its success spawned two additional titles using the CMx1 engine and countless user modifications, scenarios and maps, making it one of the most popular wargame series in recent times.
Battlefront.com has upped the ante once again with the first game to be driven by the new CMx2 engine, Combat Mission: Shock Force. It moves the timeframe beyond the popular, albeit heavily saturated, WWII era to the near future, where conventional warfare intersects with the asymmetric, making combat a more challenging and equally deadly affair.
CM:SF takes place against the backdrop of hypothetical terrorist attacks that leave many Western countries awash with toxic radiation. The Syrian government, well known for its sponsorship of terrorism, is linked to the attacks, thus establishing a casus belli for military intervention. Leading the invasion is American Task Force Thunder, a full Stryker Brigade Combat Team, backed up by a mixed battalion of armor, mechanized infantry and support assets. Their job is to slice through the center of Syria as quickly as possible.
The scenario presented the developers with a feasible solution to a design conundrum in that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have so consumed the U.S. military's capacity to wage war elsewhere that establishing a plausible situation for yet another conflict was barely viable. Battlefront even thought of creating a fictional state but ultimately settled on Syria as a setting for the actions of the Stryker Brigade Combat Team. Holding true to their hallmark of creating realistic simulations, they believed that choosing a real country with interests inimical to the West would make the game more believable and therefore compelling to play.
With the context established, the focus of the game was to see how the Stryker might perform in a conventional ground combat role. For those who are unfamiliar with the eight-wheeled vehicle that appears to have a fence wrapped around it, the Stryker combat vehicle family is the centerpiece of the ongoing Army Transformation, or modernization, program and is an evolution of the well-proven Light Armored Vehicle (LAV) III design, which can be found in a number of Western armies around the world. It can withstand small arms fire, and the "slat armor" skirt it wears around the vehicle can give some protection against RPGs. There are 10 specialized variants, of which seven are modeled in the game and include infantry carrier, reconnaissance, mobile gun system, command, fire support, engineer and anti-tank guided missile versions. It's an interesting choice of vehicle, as it's not without controversy. Designed with rapid global deployability in mind, the lightly armored and lightly armed vehicle reportedly suffers from poor off-road performance, is too heavy to be C-130 deployable and doesn't offer the same level of protection as its beefier M2 Bradley cousin.
Like its predecessors, CM:SF offers up a large variety of scenarios to test your command mettle. The game ships with approximately 20 pre-designed, standalone "battles" that can be played against the AI or another human opponent, as well as a lengthy single-player campaign, which is a pre-made series of interconnected battles that are adjusted to reflect the outcome of the previous battle. As is the norm with Combat Mission games, a Quick Battle option allows players to create a mission from scratch with just a few mouse clicks. There is also a very powerful scenario editor that will allow you to recreate just about any imaginable tactical combat situation, but more on this feature later.
One related area where CM:SF falls short is the absence of a tutorial or "Quick Start" section in the manual. For Combat Mission veterans, adapting to the new game will not take long, but for newcomers to the series, this oversight is likely to make the learning curve much steeper. To its credit, however, the team at Battlefront has put together a very thorough and lengthy (196 page) manual that covers each area of the game and also provides a very useful encyclopedia detailing tactics, vehicles, and weapons.
The battles cover a variety of combat situations and environments, from armored assaults across an open plain to house-to-house fighting in a city where the enemy may not always wear a uniform or carry an AK-47. To the developer's credit, unconventional warfare is simulated here, reflecting the complexities found in contemporary Middle Eastern conflicts. These forces are at times simulated as civilians in an abstract way by allowing them a degree of freedom in urban environments without being seen by the U.S. player. They can be armed with traditional modern weapons such as assault rifles and RPGs — even "Technicals," machine gun-armed pickup trucks, are present — or possess more nefarious means of attack, such as by suicide bomber or Improvised Explosive Device.
When a battle is selected from the main menu, preliminary mission information is displayed, including environmental details, battle type, and the option of playing as Blue (U.S.) or Red (Syrian). Players are then given the choice of how they want to play the game. This can include turn-based single play or against another player via LAN/Internet, hotseat (two players using the same computer) and e-mail. Breaking away from tradition by providing an alternative to the familiar "WeGo" style of play found in the CMx1 games, CM:SF also allows you to play the game in continuous, plausible, real time. When a battle is first entered, a mission briefing is displayed, covering parameters, available assets, expected resistance and any special orders, such as preventing damage to civilian infrastructure. A map showing the key terrain features and a plan of attack are also available to help prepare for the mission. The pre-mission information is succinct and helpful and well worth the minute or two it takes to read.
The key differences between the campaign and battles are that only the Blue (U.S.) side can be played in the campaign, and it has a greater degree of continuity. Not only do the missions follow on one from the other, but units may also carry over from mission to mission, requiring the player to make careful decisions about how he uses them.
The Quick Battle option gives players a large degree of flexibility in creating a scenario that can be played as either Blue or Red. When creating a Quick Battle, players can establish the scenario's environmental conditions; the region where it takes place; the battle type; the battle's size, ranging from tiny to large; and the strengths and types of units available to both sides.
Providing an even freer hand in scenario design is the game's editor, which is the same tool used by the developers to create stock battles and the campaign. It combines four editors in one: AI, map, mission, and unit. With these tools, you can create a map from scratch or edit an existing one, as well as define the scenario's basic parameters. It allows you to determine in minute detail where and when the battle takes place, factor in environmental conditions such as wind direction and strength, set ground conditions, civilian density, the direction the forces enter the map, the level of intelligence available, and more.
Mission briefings for both Blue and Red forces can be created to cover operational and tactical overviews. The unit editor gives you the necessary resources to create Order of Battles based on realistic Tables of Organization and Equipment (TO&E) and to determine unit experience, motivation, fitness, available equipment and even the condition of starting vehicles. Want to begin a mission with an immobilized M2 Bradley and its wounded veteran crew facing a wave of fanatical, but unfit and poorly led soldiers? The editor can handle that and more, including when and where reinforcements arrive and whether they arrive at the same time or scattered over specified intervals.
Even more impressive is the ability to define unit behavior by assigning specific orders which dictate how units react to Map Zones — areas "painted" on the map that can include setup areas and victory objectives — and by establishing plans, which act as "scripts" for the AI to follow. With all of these elements defined, a series of user-made battles can then be linked together into a campaign. This can entail a lot of work and is not for the faint-hearted, but it can provide hours of additional gameplay.
Having made or selected a pre-designed battle and determining whether to run the game in "WeGo" or real time, the mission begins paused, giving you the opportunity to reposition your forces within the setup zone and to give them their initial orders. Combat Mission veterans will immediately be struck with the new look of the game and the change in the user interface. The next-generation CMx2 engine has improved the graphics immeasurably with an unprecedented level of detail for the vehicles (inside and out) and soldiers.
Furthermore, a squad of soldiers is no long represented by three anatomically disproportionate figures. Each team member is now modeled individually and highly animated. Similarly, the vehicles have vastly improved animations with articulated tracks, realistic suspension and engine exhaust. There are some minor clipping issues, such as the edge of vehicles merging into each other, although these occurrences are rare and will no doubt be corrected with future updates. Gunfire and explosions are also greatly improved, and fire and smoke no longer have the appearance of 2D sprites floating skywards, but instead produce a far more realistic, volumetric effect. Tracers can be seen arcing across the landscape and ricocheting off impenetrable objects like armor and buildings, while artillery detonations produce clouds of smoke and debris actually deform the ground, rather than leaving behind a flat graphical representation of a shell crater. The landscape itself is vastly improved and includes thick grass, swaying trees and realistic lighting to help create an immersive environment.
While I'm on the subject of video options, I should point out that CM:SF can be resource-intensive. With the 3D models and texture quality set to their highest, anti-alias and multi-sampling enabled, and with multiple units and buildings on the screen at once, the game can slow significantly. Fortunately, the options menu allows for a good deal of customization, and video settings can be adjusted to help provide a smooth-running game. As a final word of caution, I'd recommend closely looking at the title's hardware requirements to make sure your machine can deliver good results.
The only other minor quibble I have with the graphics is the way vehicle damage is portrayed. This is not to say that vehicle damage is poorly modeled, which I know is extremely detailed, but rather that the visual damage could be improved. A destroyed vehicle is simply set on fire and doesn't show any specific damage. For many wargamers, this sort of eye candy means little, since a tank on fire is certainly sufficient to indicate that it's not doing well. Those of us who have played the game's World War II cousin, Theatre of War, have been spoiled by the way vehicle damage is graphically represented with shell holes, destroyed tracks and tank parts completely blown off. As I said, it's only a small quibble and doesn't detract significantly from the overall experience.
The user interface has also undergone a significant upgrade, both in function and appearance. In previous games, unit commands were made available by right-clicking on the map, whereas in CM:SF, they are visible on the Command Panel located at the bottom of the screen. While many of the commands would be familiar to owners of the previous games, there is a number of unique commands only found in CM:SF. These include Target Light for a reduced volume of fire on a target; Acquire, which allows infantry to pick up weapons and ammunition from certain friendly vehicles; and Administrative, which splits an infantry squad into two, or thematically into assault or anti-tank teams.
There are also some features not present in this title that were in the previous Combat Mission games. One of the most notable is the absence of being able to order armored units into a "hull-down" position, where the bulk of the vehicle is hidden from enemy view by a ridge, leaving only the turret visible. According to the team at Battlefront, allowing vehicles to go hull-down is a more complicated affair in this game than in the previous CMx1 titles, where hull-down was basically an on/off feature. In those iterations, a tank was either hull-down or it wasn't. In CM:SF, targeting is much more precise and based on the actual silhouette of a unit, and therefore a hull-down command that indicates the exact state was not considered to be absolutely necessary. This is not to say that hull-down positions aren't possible — they are — it's just that the posture isn't handled automatically by the game.
Finally, CM:SF provides a new method for delivering off-map fire support. This can include artillery as well as rotary and fixed-wing assets. After selecting a spotter and clicking on either the air or artillery icon, the Support Roster shows which assets are available. One of my favorite features is the ability to set a linear pattern for the incoming strike, which works great for those ridge lines or streets filled with enemy troops. By simply drawing a line across the target area, the shells or bombs land neatly across the ridge or street, rather than scattering over and around it.
Also new to CM:SF is the use of identification icons that float above both friendly and enemy units , which make identifying and selecting units very easy. First seen in Theatre of War, they are particularly useful to locate small squads that could otherwise be lost in the vast landscapes. For purists, however, the icons can easily be turned off, as can other identifiers used to mark objectives and landmarks on the map.
In addition to the graphics receiving a major upgrade with the new CMx2 engine, the sound effects have also been improved. Soldiers can be heard yelling commands relating to their situation such as, "Double-time!" when ordered to move quickly, or "Contact!" when the enemy has been spotted. Although I can't attest to the accuracy of Syrian commands, they do sound convincing and no doubt have a vocabulary similar to that of their U.S. adversaries. Rifle and gun fire also sounds impressive, and the repeating popping sound of automatic grenade launchers firing has got to be one of my favorites. Most impressive, however, is the way sound is modeled over distance. Close up, automatic weapons fire or an explosion booms instantaneously, but the further away you get from the action, the longer it takes for the sound to arrive (if it can travel that far at all). It really is impressive stuff.
Another unique feature of the new game engine is the use of "relative spotting," where the player can only see what the currently selected unit can see. Available when playing above the basic level, spotting is computed for each unit individually and includes factors such as line of sight, available optical equipment, what the two units are doing at the time, time of day, climate and skill level. To complicate things further, not all information is passed on to other units, thus making the "fog of war" even more of a challenge for commanders.
While spotting is more realistic than before, and advancing toward and engaging the enemy using the improved user interface is a straightforward affair, it's often the AI that can make or break a game. Although most of the AI's behavior is scripted by the scenario designer, this doesn't mean that it will always play out the same because the script allows for a level of variation. With the AI in CM:SF, the scenario designer doesn't give an exact spot or time for the computer-controlled unit to move, but defines certain parameters within which the tactical AI acts on its own choosing (and, to some extent, based on the situation). Scenario designers are able to script more than one plan per scenario — as many as eight or nine plans per side per scenario are possible with the game's editor. Chances are that if you play a battle a second time, a different plan will be executed, and the enemy units may not flank you as they did before, or won't flank you from the same side, or may even do something completely different.
This is good news for gamers fearful of scripted AIs, but what of the units under your control, how well do they perform? Friendly AI was a mixed bag. I was impressed by the way my infantry would make its way to the set waypoint in a formation appropriate to the situation. In some circumstances, my squads would advance in single file while other times, they would fan out. Yet on the other hand, I quickly became frustrated with vehicles' path-finding, particularly when it came to maneuvering around obstacles. The vehicles would spin around and crawl at a snail's pace until they got back on track. For Strykers, which have traded protection for speed and mobility, this can be a deadly problem.
I was also somewhat dismayed by the apparent recklessness of my troops who appeared to fight to the death rather than flee when the going got tough. Admittedly, this didn't happen all the time. Soldiers would panic, for example, if a nearby unit was destroyed or their squad quickly incurred a number of casualties after exiting a vehicle. When this happens, the unit can be less responsive or completely uncontrollable until they've recovered their composure. The developers assured me that the modern battlefield is so lethal that there is often little time to "break and make a run for it" if you run into difficulty.
Units have full morale modeling in effect, but a lot of what the troops will do depends on the actual situation. If you let a squad assault a machine gun position from a couple of hundred meters, the result will be a lot of dead soldiers, as they won't have much time to panic. The developers informed me that it's always a fragile balance, and the modeling consists of not just one "morale" value but of many independent factors, many of which are often tweaked one way or another from patch to patch. Consequently, we may see some adjustments to the AI over the coming months as they continue to improve the game.
Having covered the fundamentals, there remains one key question: How do you win? Unlike many other games, victory in CM:SF isn't just contingent on time (although that is a factor) or even how many objectives have been taken. Each battle can have a mix of different objectives that need to be fulfilled before victory is determined. These can include terrain-based, unit-based, or force-wide objectives, where points can be awarded for keeping casualties down (or up, for the enemy) or preventing a percentage of your troops from being wounded, incapacitated or routed while ensuring the enemy's casualties exceed a certain percentage. Victory points can also be awarded for careful ammunition management or forcing the enemy to expend a certain amount of ammo. When a battle is concluded, the results are presented in a table that highlights which objectives were achieved and where the victory points were awarded for both sides. After examining this, you can then review the map to see the carnage and where friendly and enemy troops remain.
Without a doubt, Combat Mission: Shock Force has a lot to offer. Although this is quite a lengthy review, I feel as though I've only scratched the surface. I've not talked about things like screen resolutions (they automatically adjust to your desktop resolution, by the way), how the camera keys can take some getting used to, let alone whether turn-based or real-time plays best. To be sure, CM:SF is a very detailed and deep title, but at the end of the day the best judge of how good it really is will ultimately be you, the player. If you care to take my word, I don't think I've enjoyed a wargame as much this one since I played the original Combat Mission game all those years ago. If you have an interest in simulating realistic modern warfare, and specifically seeing how the new Stryker concept would fare in battle, you can't go wrong with Combat Mission: Shock Force.
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