By Tim Stone on March 15th, 2012 at 1:00 pm.
Rocked by mortar blasts and raked by small-arms fire, the heavily-laden Bren Gun Carrier comes barrelling down the track towards us. Any second I’m expecting it to explode like a Roman candle, or lurch, mortally wounded, into a ditch, but somehow it keeps coming. A cheer goes up as it finally bounces into our shrapnel-strewn farmyard and the driver – a dusty sergeant major from the 9th Cameronians – clambers out. “I believe you gentlemen require 6pdr ammo and PIAT bombs. Private Stone?” When I step forward, the visitor tosses me a battered canvas bag. “What’s this, Sir?”. “It’s your old passion for Combat Mission, laddie. Don’t you recognise it?”
Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord was my Baldur’s Gate, my UFO: Enemy Unknown, my Deus Ex. I loved it for letting me lower the camera to the ground and share in the anguish of every mortared infantry squad and bushwhacked Sherman. I adored it because every sixty seconds men froze mid-stride, shells stopped mid-flight, and I switched from being a rapt observer to a chin-scratching, irrepressibly optimistic order issuer. I respected it because it encouraged the tactics and evoked the emotions I’d read about in haunting WW2 memoirs like Ken Tout’s Tank! and Stuart Hill’s By Tank Into Normandy.
The arrival of two sequels – Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin and Combat Mission: Afrika Korps - did nothing to cool my ardour. It was only when, in 2007, second-generation CM (CMx2) shuffled onto the scene with its contemporary setting and mish-mash of improvements and backwards steps, that I realised the passion had died. Since Shock Force I’ve been a curious tourist dropping-in now and again to trial changes and best Ba’athists. Even the release of Combat Mission: Battle For Normandy didn’t get me permanently back in the saddle.
If you see something of yourself in the above description, then you may, like me, find CMBN’s first module stirring some long-dormant feelings. This add-on might not introduce any profound mechanical changes, but the combined effect of a trove of skilfully wrought scenarios and the injection (at last!) of British, Canadian, and Polish manpower and materiel, has fanned a flame I suspected had flickered out long ago.
Though there’s still plenty of things I don’t like about CMx2 (things I’ll discuss later) the issues haven’t stopped me enjoying some terrific scraps over the last few days. Those period photos of Canadian troops advancing across Caen cornfields, of sunken-eyed Tommies huddling behind hedges, of 6pdr AT guns pointing predatorily down bucolic lanes… no game evokes and explains such scenes better than CMBN Commonwealth Forces.
Where in other less fastidious wargames, a new faction would just mean some slightly different tank stats and some unfamiliar helmets, in CMBN an added nationality really does encourage a whole new approach. The Brits, Canadians, and Poles are paupers when it comes to automatic weapons and capacious armoured troop taxis. What makes them fascinating to play are unfamiliar assets like section mortars, PIATs, and wonderfully mobile towed AT guns. Every clutch of Tommy riflemen has the ability to blind or harass targets with a handy 2-inch bomb lobber. Used intelligently in conjunction with scampering Bren gun teams, and the result is impressively agile suppression power.
Unlike the operators of bazookas and Panzerschrecks, the users of backblast-free PIATs don’t have to sit in soggy thickets or sun-baked slit trenches waiting for their prey. The exhausted Panzer commander scanning a hazy horizon for threats, must now bear in mind that buildings – sensibly strengthened for this outing – can now shelter dedicated tank-slayers. If that wasn’t worry enough, he also knows that the Brits with their low-profile Loyd Carriers have the ability to shuttle deadly little AT guns around the battlefield with startling speed. One minute a gate or hedge is unremarkable, the next a malevolent muzzle is poking through it.
And, of course, in this sector of the bulging bridgehead the fields and orchards are stalked by ferocious Fireflies, the skies by patient Typhoons. Even Tigers and their royal replacements live in fear of the cataclysmic kiss of a 17pdr APDS shell or RP-3 aerial rocket.
Exactly how much of the appeal of playing as the new Churchill-following, Lee-Enfield-clutching, tea-swilling newcomers is down to new tactical possibilities and constrictions, and how much is down to subconscious patriotism, is hard to say, but the arrival of the chaps in the brimmed helmets has certainly given CMBN some welcome colour and variety.
It’s harder to get excited about the German portion of the pack, mainly because so much of the SS and Luftwaffe Field Division equipment is familiar. Personally, I’d have traded new Axis AFVs like the Lynx, Wespe, Marder I and Tiger II for the most obvious absentee in British tank ranks – the fire-breathing Churchill Crocodile. This would have been the perfect moment to introduce a spot of napalm-spewing to CMBN, and no amount of ‘It’s a coding nightmare!’ special-pleading from Battlefront will change that.
This would have been a good moment to glider-in some stealthy interface and AI improvements too. One of my major remaining beefs with CMx2 is that its enticing real-time mode (you can also play in CMx1-style WEGO fashion) can be a right handful thanks to silly GUI deficiencies like unhelpful icons and a non-existent reporting system. In a game as elaborate and intense as CMBN the fact that I can’t glance at the battlefield and see which of my units are suppressed, depleted or out-of-command, is lunacy. Often the first you know of a newly spotted AT threat or an incoming mortar stonk is when you look round and realise a couple of tanks are burning merrily, or an entire infantry section is splashed all over a pasture.
Please, nobody tell me that having this sort of information at my fingertips would somehow compromise the game’s historical heft. CMBN is a game where, to have any hope of winning in many scenarios, the player must manually split squads, issue suppressive fire commands, oversee house-clearing, organise ammo resupply, and carefully monitor pathfinding choices. Most of these activities help make the game what it is – a staggeringly forensic depiction of WW2 warfare – but they also completely obliterate any notion of roleplaying. In a typical engagement you aren’t Major ‘Mad Bastard’ McBastard choreographing carnage from the passenger seat of a chauffeured Jeep, you are everybody in your company from corporal upwards. Bearing in mind the workload, BF really should have provided us with the kind of labour-saving devices routinely supplied by other devs.
My other major CMx2 gripe relates to AI. Reliant on pre-prepared scripts, much of the time artificial enemies turn in respectable and challenging performances. What they don’t do is react spontaneously or credibly to player manoeuvres. If, during an assault, you decide to, say, push hard on the left side, you won’t see a foe scrambling to reshape its defence in response. The rigidity is particularly obvious when you manage to sneak vehicles into an enemy rear. Often opposing forces seem rooted to the spot, preferring to cower and die rather than put something solid between themselves and the unexpected threat.
I dream of a day when CM’s impressive ballistic, spotting, and C2 realism is tethered to an AI as elastic and adaptive as the Command Ops one. I dream of a CM game in which Heer tank hunter teams actually hunt tanks, and I don’t find myself wondering mid-battle “What’s the scenario designer expecting me to do at this point?”
To be fair to the scenario designers, they really do seem to know how to get the most out of the engine. I’m about mid-way through both the 14-mission Scottish Corridor campaign and the 8 mission Kampfgruppe Engel one, and have witnessed some chillingly effective advances and fiendishly stubborn defences. Like the events it simulates, CMBNCF is a game in which sloppiness is frequently costly. Failed to scout that lane properly? Some Hitler Youth youth with an MG 42 and an unhealthy devotion to duty, will probably make you pay. Failed to space out your eager Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders? You’ll regret your laziness the second the 8cm HE hailstones start doing it for you. This is a title that rewards methodical wargamers most generously. Which isn’t to say slightly slapdash COs like myself can’t taste success and have a ball too.
Because the Allied campaign doesn’t start rewarding defeats with barred progress until mission 10 there’s plenty of time to learn from mistakes. Forces are carried over between chapters in the German campaign, which seems a nice touch until you realise you’re nervously quicksaving after every cleared copse and cottage.
However pear-shaped things are going, one of the joys of CMBNCF is that there’s always the promise that the next few minutes might see a turnaround. If I could just get a spotter into that church tower I’d been able to call a mortar barrage down on those blighters in the manor grounds… If I hook-up that 6pdr then whisk it down that side road, I might just be able to puncture that perishing Panther before he nails another one of my Churchills… As long as there’s a few minutes on the clock and a few PIAT rounds in the back of that speeding Bren Gun Carrier, there’s always hope.
While I won’t be dismantling my CMx1 shrine just yet (you should see the candlesticks shaped like miniature Bren gun tripods and the incense burner made from an old No.77 grenade) Commonwealth Forces has on several smoke-wreathed, tracer-stitched, corpse-strewn occasions this week felt like a worthy successor. Coming from a curmudgeonly CMx2 cynic like myself, that’s a pretty fulsome recommendation.