Final Glimpse: Middle Eastern conflict + Combat Mission attention to detail = recipe for success?
The die-hard wargamer is a breed apart. Some time ago, being a wargamer meant studying thick rulebooks, moving cardboard chits across a hexed-out map, rolling lots of dice and comparing statistics. While those boardgames are still out there, lots of gamers have shifted to PC gaming, where the rules and stats and calculations can get a whole lot more complicated, but the player no longer has to track them. One of the most popular, most hard-core series to pick up the wargaming torch has been the Combat Mission family. With its first three installments, the franchise built a following of players that thrived on details like armor thickness and slope, ballistics, historical accuracy and the like. The upcoming addition to the catalog, Combat Mission: Shock Force, will maintain these fundamentals while changing some fundamental game elements in favor of increasing realism and excitement.
This update has been more than three years in the making, and some of the choices along the way may ruffle the feathers of long-time players of the series. First off, it drops the standard WWII setting in favor of an imagined near-future scenario that simulates a conflict between U.S. forces and Syria, after an imagined fundamentalist coup in that country. According to the game story, NATO and Middle Eastern forces invade Syria after several dirty bombs detonated in major cities around the globe are traced back to the new regime in Damascus. The first release will focus on U.S. units and scenarios, while three future expansions will likely add U.S. Marines, British and finally German forces. The WWII gamers won't be hung out to dry, though, since Battlefront promises a future WWII-themed release based on the same engine.
One change sure to cause some backlash is the addition of an RTS mode for Shock Force. The previous games were all turn-based?players gave orders to their units and then had to sit by for sixty seconds during an action phase, watching the effect of those orders. The new game doesn't completely drop the older ?WeGo? system, since it will allow the players the choice between it and RTS. One advantage to the turn-based system is that it offers more ways to play multiplayer. In addition to the usual RTS play over the Internet, turn-based games can be played by email and using a hotseat mode. This mode allows two people to play on one machine using one keyboard and mouse, simply swapping seats between turns.
Missions will come in several forms, including stand-alone battles, a ?quick battle? option, a fully-developed single-player campaign, and player-generated scenarios. The stand-alone battles will present various tactical problems and a mix of sizes and types of engagements that will allow players to choose either the U.S. or Syrian side. Some scenarios will allow for fantasy NATO v. NATO and Syria v. Syria play. Environments will be mixed, including everything from desert plains to wooded areas to mountainous regions and built-up urban environments. This and the quick battle option will both be available for single- or multi-player play. The quick battle mode will give players the chance to customize a battle without getting into the full-featured game editor that will ship with the game. All of the missions will allow for asymmetrical goals for the opposing teams, meaning that they won't be simply competing to capture the same flag. Players will have to work to achieve their own victory conditions while preventing their opponent from doing the same.
This will be the first game in the Combat Mission series to feature a fully-developed single-player, story-based campaign, and it looks like it will be a solid addition to the franchise. The campaign will trace the story of the whole course of the conflict, but will not dictate the outcome of the individual battles. Since the campaign missions draw from a limited force pool and will involve the same units in more than one battle, a loss in one fight will make subsequent ones tougher. Along the same lines, the game will track stats for each soldier, including morale, some sort of spotting and weapons skills, and equipment. Unlike earlier entries in the series which had abstract representations of units, Shock Force will model each soldier and vehicle individually and will allow players to give orders to individuals.
Players of classic tactical combat games like Close Combat will appreciate this kind of individual control, not to mention the fact that this game focuses on a small task force: basically infantry platoons and companies supported by small amounts of armor. It will have a variety of mission objectives ranging from patrolling dangerous urban areas, defending positions against enemy assaults, evacuating friendlies trapped in enemy-held terrain, and so on. The game puts a realistic and heavily-researched variety of equipment at the player's fingertips. On the U.S. side, the order of battle is centered on the Army's new Brigade Combat Team, featuring the Stryker armored combat vehicle. The BCT is a unified, deployable force that includes M1A1 tanks, mobile infantry, and supporting artillery in the form of howitzers and attached air support. The Syrian side will have both a conventional force made up of Russian-made tanks and APCs like the familiar T-72, BRDM and BMP, and an ?unconventional? force which will include civilian vehicles, civilian troops as spies, spotters and suicide bombers with equipment like IEDs and car bombs.
The developers have put a lot of thought into how to organize the supporting elements and unconventional assets in Shock Force. Even though the player won't control units above the company level, the game models communication networks throughout the brigade, and also models potential communication problems resulting from different companies being on different frequencies or the need for communication requests to go through different relays. If different commands can't communicate effectively, they can't coordinate their operations. Calls for artillery fire can be complicated and slowed down by this modeling of communications networks. On the Syrian side, the unconventional elements can be used for a variety of missions and will remain invisible to U.S. troops until they do something suspicious, like brandishing a weapon or moving too close to a U.S. installation. The idea is to simulate the freedom they would gain from a moving around in crowds and blending in with the local population, without the need to simulate all those people in-game.
Likewise, a lot of work has gone into improving the line of sight calculations in this update. In a lot of RTS games, sighting and awareness is done once for all the player's units, so that if one man on one side of the map spots a sniper, all friendly forces are immediately aware of the sniper. Here, spotting is relative to the individual and based on strict line of sight rules. It'll be possible to check line of sight for each individual unit and therefore know right away what that unit is aware of. In fact, the GUI will give plenty of info on each unit, down to morale stats, health, and all equipment and ammo carried.
It seems that one of the hallmarks of this game will be to give the player as much information and control as possible while keeping it manageable and maintaining a usable interface. Along these lines, the movement and waypoint system has gotten a major overhaul allowing players to give complex chains of orders to each unit. For instance, it will be possible to string together a series of commands like ?Move at speed to first waypoint,? then ?caution to next waypoint,? and finally ?move under cover to next waypoint.? Players will also be able to mix in fire commands and have a unit fire on a target to suppress before moving, or have the unit aim its weapon in a particular direction as it moves. There will be three different categories of orders: movement, combat, and admin/special. Less detail-oriented players shouldn't worry, though, since it won't be necessary to give all these orders to every unit on every move?the A.I. should be able to handle itself in most situations.
One of the most noticeable changes in this latest Combat Mission release is the improved graphics. Vehicles models will have some serious detail, including all sorts of animations right down to opening hatches, machinegun mounts and realistic suspension. In some cases, vehicles will have as many as 30 times the polygons of an equivalent in the earlier games. The game will also include a realistic damage modeling system for its vehicles, which, if recent Battlefront release Theatre of War is any indication, should be good. The game will include dozens of vehicle types, including the latest high-tech gadgets like the radio controlled Unmanned Aerial Vehicle U.S. forces currently use to spot bad guys in the field.
The environments will also get a boost in the form of destructible buildings, weather effects and dynamic shell craters. Buildings will be usable in Shock Force, and it seems like they will become translucent when your forces enter. They'll have realistic windows and doors and usable balconies and rooftops. The terrain will also get a facelift, with plenty of terrain types and a smooth blending feature that will eliminate harsh edges between types. If the landscape isn't as flashy as some recent high-profile games like Company of Heroes, that's less due to any problem with Shock Force graphics than it is the other games' tendency to pander to the general public's desire for ?wow factor? and engineer environments that look better than they represent any sort of reality. In response to this, devs at Battlefront are adding what they call ?flavor objects? to the game. It's basically litter that has no effect on gameplay, but will make the landscape more visually appealing.