The Flare Path: Always Bagrational

By Tim Stone on February 7th, 2014 at 1:00 pm.

If you ever find yourself in Hell, do check out the Empirical War Museum. Their tank collection makes Bovington’s look paltry, their 1:1 scale ‘Little Pearl Harbour’ diorama will literally take your breath away, and their seemingly empty Landmine Gallery is pure genius. Last time I visited I bumped into a couple of Battlefront.com researchers outside the Hall of Flamethrowers. The pair claimed they weren’t there on business, but their camera bags, tape measures, and smouldering eyebrows told a different story.

Combat Mission, that titan of tactical wargaming, is on a train heading East. In just over a month’s time it will disembark at an unremarkable Belorussian railhead and plunge straight into a series of ferocious Operation Bagration battles. Panthers will growl, T-34s will burn, throaty ‘Oorah!’s will send shivers and sweat trickles down grimy PanzerGrenadier spines. Second-gen Combat Mission (‘CMx2′) has shifted Fronts several times over the last five years, but a couple of easy-to-overlook engine enhancements make this the most exciting relocation yet.

A feature tucked away in the Editor section of the Red Thunder overview page has got me most animated. To the outsider, the promise of “AI Triggers [that] allow AI forces to execute actions based on other units or interaction with Objectives” might not sound like a reason for hat hurling, but for anyone that misses the unscripted dynamism of the old CMx1 AI, the announcement is a massive morale booster.

Currently, AI plans don’t change to fit shifting battlefield realities. The timetables sketched out by scenario authors are followed to the letter/number whatever you decide to do with your own forces. Battle crafters are expected to second-guess players and unsurprisingly they regularly guess wrong.

In Red Thunder things will be different. Silicon COs will get a big helping hand in the form of invisible (to us) behaviour triggers. Now artificial adversaries won’t decide when to spring ambushes, or commence withdrawals or counter-attacks, simply by consulting wristwatches (though this is still an option). They’ll spring into action when a player blunders into a pre-daubed trigger area. A cunning scenario shaper can assign several triggers to a particular unit or bunch of units, though presently only one of these triggers can be active at a time. While explaining the new capability on the official forum, BFC’s Steve Grammont describes how it could be used to, say, create more plausible tank destroyer behaviour…

“The Human player moves his units cautiously along the road. Unknown to him he runs over the Trigger Objective and that springs the tank destroyers into action. They appear on top of a hill 800m off to the left, catching the player’s attacking tanks in the flank and (hopefully for the AI) knocking some out. After a couple of minutes of trading fire AI Group 3 executes another Order to move back behind the hill for cover and then relocate to a new spot to then be tied into a new Trigger Objective so as to repeat the same sort of thing but from a different location.”

In another nod to that section of the CM Old Guard still uncomfortable with aspects of CMx2′s Great Leap Forward, Red Thunder will also reintroduce online WeGo multiplayer. Since Shock Force, if you’ve wanted both sentient opposition and the splendid tension and space to think offered by CM’s optional WeGo mode (players plot moves TBS-style, then those moves are simultaneously executed during a nail-biting minute of non-intervention real-time action) your only option has been PBEM. Technological hurdles mean TCP/IP WeGoers won’t be able to rewind action phases the way they once could, but it’s still a significant advance.

Of course, when, earlier this week, I asked a Kampfgruppe of beta-testers and BFC insiders to share their most memorable RT combat experiences, it wasn’t AI triggers and MP modes that dominated the anecdotes.

Scenario maestro George McEwan’s first taste of the ‘new’ (not seen in CM since Afrika Korps) flame weapons had left an indelible mental mark. After hosing a Soviet trenchline with liquid fire and hearing a chilling chorus of unexpected screams (he’d assumed most of the enemy were already dead) he watched his grenadiers push on through positions scattered with corpses and smouldering terrain. “The overall effect was one of how nasty flamethrowers were/are as weapons. A very different experience from CMx1 where the target infantry either fled or just dropped dead in a very cartoon like way.”

Beta-tester Pnzrldr was similarly struck by the fearsome destructive power of the knapsack napalmists. He described “Working for hours against a merciless TAC AI to get my Pioniere Flammenwerfer close enough to see that little blue LOS line, hit that red button, and watch all that fiery petrol squirting straight down the trench”

Tank riders, another Red Thunder novelty, cropped up in quite a few battle tales. Bil Hardenberger talked of an occasion when his “Panther, covered by tank riders on its rear deck, was merrily advancing along a secure flank when suddenly, an enemy aircraft strafed the panzer knocking several infantrymen to the ground. The survivors hung on while the vehicle, now obscured by the dust kicked up by the aircraft’s rounds, moved on, oblivious to the damage being inflicted on its passengers.”

The introduction of impact graphics seems to have gone down rather well with the beta fraternity. According to tester Sergei “My favorite moment with the new decals was when I was inspecting battle damage on my IS-2. There seemed to be a deflection mark on the gun but I couldn’t see a “gun hit” report at any point. Finally, pausing at each hit, I saw that one shot bounced from the frontal armor, hitting the main gun! This is the kind of stuff that must have happened in the game previously but until now you couldn’t see them unfold, you’d just wonder why the tank gun was knocked out.”. And the tell-tale impact scars aren’t only produced by AP. Sergei again:
“A T-34/76′s canister shot against a German bunker is a fireworks display that everyone needs to see. The hundreds of balls are all tracked and leave individual holes in the bunker.”

The most obvious gaps in Red Thunder’s extensive unit listLend-Lease vehicles like the Sherman and M3 halftrack, and troop types like the SS and Luftwaffe – will be filled by future modules (The Finns, Hungarians, Romanians, Poles and Bulgarians may also find their way into the game in a similar manner). Happily, the default unit mix looks more than capable of delivering unusual/unfamiliar military match-ups. After his first taste of Soviet heavy tanks, studio artist MikeyD’s Tigerphobia is nowhere near as acute as it once was: “My side had IS-2 ‘early’ tanks. The AI had Tiger Is and Panthers rolling in my direction across an open map. At 1km they spotted each other. A Tiger I got off the first shot – it bounced off my IS-2′s bow. I can’t recall ever seeing an 88 round harmlessly ricocheting away while playing the Normandy game. The IS-2′s 122mm gun replied with a clean penetration straight though the center of the Tigers’ bow plate, leaving a hole big enough to put your fist through. Yikes! From a kilometer away! I’m DEFINITELY not on the Western Front anymore!”

Not that the Reds can expect to have things all their own way. The pic above was grabbed by Pnzrldr during an ambitious Ausf B hunt. “Turns out that no, even from directly behind, a 45mm pop gun will NOT penetrate a King Tiger. However, he did run away! My T-70 got off two shots, one upper hull hit, one lower. Instant Hero of the Soviet Union!”

Getting used to Ost Front AFV types promises to be a much more straightforward task than adjusting to the peculiarities of WW2 Soviet infantry. Approaches that worked well with Allied or Axis forces in past CMx2 titles, may – according to BFC’s characteristically well-informed Steve Grammont - prove impractical with Red Thunder’s Ivans. Due to their relative inexperience, poor training, and small, fragile, radio-deprived HQs, piecemeal infantry tactics aren’t recommended for the Red Army player.

Just about the only situation where Soviet infantry should shine is in close-range firefights. Liberal provision of PPS and PPSh-41 submachineguns will see to that. Tester Chris Nelson’s favourite Red Thunder moment thus far involved a spot of close-quarters SMG mayhem. After fording a river with a little help from the T-34s that had bused them into battle, most of his men made it into the contested wood-edge that was their goal. “In the claustrophobic vegetation, the lethal short-range firepower of the SMG squads soon became apparent as they quickly mopped-up the survivors of the German rearguard.”

Though I’m expecting to be amongst the mopped-up as often as the moppers, Red Thunder is a game I’m longing to lose myself in. Will those AI triggers prove as transformative as I hope? Will we be able to use those flamethrower teams without a Tiger-heavy heart?  Come mid-March we’ll find out.

 

The Flare Path Foxer

Last week’s uppermost upkeep expert was, by a narrow margin, flying officer Runty McTall. His word deductions earn him a Möhne Dam-shaped mashed potato mould plus a year’s supply of gravy granules. Dinner dambusting in the McTall household will never be the same again.

The company behind the Möhne mould also makes the Twiglet-based Bridge on the River Kwai construction set that is this week’s prize. Work out the theme of yonder collage before anyone else (previous themes have included Shakespeare, golf, Cluedo and Robin Hood) and a product Food Fun magazine described as “Marmighty!” and “staggeringly inappropriate” is yours.

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51 Comments »

  1. Matchstick says:

    Gun Bottom Centre is a C.O.P. Compact Off-Duty Police 4-shot Derringer style pistol (usually chambered for .357 magnum)

  2. MajorManiac says:

    I don’t know what it is but that silhouette looks awesome. Kinda reminds me of Starscream.

    And by jingo why don’t we have a realistic Transformers sim?

  3. WildebeestGames says:

    I believe the dapper looking gentleman is Eugene Gladstone O’Neill an American playwright.

    • Matchstick says:

      It’s definitely him but his Wikipedia article isn’t turning up a great deal to suggest a link.

      He loved his dog enough to write “The Last Will and Testament of An Extremely Distinguished Dog” (which clearly makes him a superior human being) and he was played in the film Reds by Jack Nicholson.

      • WildebeestGames says:

        I did wonder if it was anything to do with him being a Nobel Laureate of Literature.
        Looking through the plays that he wrote, the only one that I’d heard of (probably because I’d sniggered at the title) was “The Iceman Cometh” …..

  4. Matchstick says:

    The info top right looks to be listing the sensor equipment on a russian submarine possibly the Project 670M “Chajka” (aka Chalie II to NATO) Class

  5. Matchstick says:

    The image bottom right is the Berlin coat of arms

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coat_of_arms_of_Berlin

  6. Great Cthulhu says:

    The coat of arms is of Berlin. See wiki.

    Heh. Sniped by Matchstick. :-)

  7. Great Cthulhu says:

    The plant appears to be the common nettle. wiki.

    • Matchstick says:

      I thought it might be but you won that one :)

      According to wikipedia the picture being used looks to Urtica dioica from Thomé, Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz

      • Great Cthulhu says:

        Yeah, I noticed it’s the exact same image. Looks surprisingly modern if you cut away the yellowed paper background. At first I even thought it was a vector drawing. :-)

  8. Runty McTall says:

    Hurrah, I won a foxer – never thought that would happen, based on previous puzzles :)

    I also apparently started incredibly badly, too. No matter, the wife will be proud when I tell her*

    * I of course will not be telling her.

  9. Curry the Great says:

    Do these AI changes mean you can have a larger part of your own army controlled by the AI? What I really want in the CM games (as a more casual simmer) is to have like a tank or two to control and then just do my own thing in the battle. I really want a kind of dota-style of a big battle controlled by the AI where you drive your little Panther around.

  10. WildebeestGames says:

    The side on image middle right looks a lot like a New Haven Mack Rail Bus, also known as a ‘Galloping Goose’ which of course means the link is, err, umm. Hmmmph.

  11. Matchstick says:

    Any thoughts on the plane. I know I should be able to name it.

    • Great Cthulhu says:

      It looks like a diagram from the Observer’s Book of Aircraft. But I don’t have a clue as to what model aircraft it is.

  12. Shiloh says:

    I used to love Combat Mission. I spent months playing Barbarossa to Berlin.

    I should get back into it. Is the latest iteration as much fun as CM:BB was?

  13. Stugle says:

    The plane diagram is a Grumman F-9.

    • Matchstick says:

      GRRR I spotted out about half an hour ago but every reply I posted kept getting lost !! :)

    • Stugle says:

      Matchstick, I had the same problem. The plane’s nickname is the common English name for a Puma concolor, which I can’t seem to get past the spam filter.

      • Matchstick says:

        AHHH that’s what the problem is, the word C0UG4R

        Clearly in future we need the Foxer-meister to ensure his clues don’t trigger the RPS spam filter :)

        • Stugle says:

          Maybe it’s intentional? Upping the difficulty for the Foxer by having to correctly decipher the clues AND run the gauntlet of the spam filter? :)

        • Matchstick says:

          I think that leaves us with the Subway(?) Map, the airbase and confirmation of the submarine sensor data.

          Oh and the connection of course :)

          • GT5Canuck says:

            Already answered by skink74: Maverick Station of the MBTA…so another Top Gun reference.

  14. Matchstick says:

    I wonder where my usual nemesis FurryLippedSquid is today ? :)

  15. Matchstick says:

    Hmmm Goose and C0UG4R (aka the word that must not be mentioned) were both pilot call-signs in Top-Gun.

    Edit – As was Charlie

    No luck on any of the other clues though.

  16. Matchstick says:

    OH DEAR GOD THAT’S A DREADFUL LINK !

    (and I now have the song stuck in my head !)

    OOPS for some reason this didn’t appear as a reply to Great Cthulhu’s comment

  17. Stugle says:

    Further straining the link, one of the callsigns is ‘Heater’ – in old detective fiction, a gun would sometimes be referred to as a ‘heater’.

  18. Matchstick says:

    Looking at the call-signs list. I wonder if the subway/train station on the map is in Hollywood.

  19. SillyWizard says:

    Would Masters of the World: Geopolitical Simulator 3 be appropriate fodder for the Flare Path?

  20. Koozer says:

    “A T-34/76′s canister shot against a German bunker is a fireworks display that everyone needs to see. The hundreds of balls are all tracked and leave individual holes in the bunker.”

    This is the kind of sentence that makes me uncomfortable at the terrible things we casually carry out in World War II games.

    • CookPassBabtridge says:

      Good lord if that appalls you, don’t go and read the TESO review. They’re shooting kittens. In the face. With arrows.

  21. CookPassBabtridge says:

    At last! Its John Walker’s Jelly Gun! Firing PINEAPPLE CHUNK FLAVOUR ammunition!

  22. gi_ty says:

    I really like the way combat mission looks like it plays. I have been looking for something like this for a very long time, I cant believe I haven’t heard of it before. Would someone be so kind as to offer opinions on a good starting point for someone new to the game? I have went to Battlefronts website and it’s not very descriptive as to the functionality and breadth of the various bundles/titles. I certainly wouldn’t mind starting with the older games and preferably during WW2. Any advice is welcome.

    • BletchleyGeek says:

      You can try the demos – accessible from the Downloads menu in their site home page. They aren’t fully patched, but they should give you a good idea of what’s the deal.

  23. Ernesto says:

    Always a pleasure watching you guys solve a foxer :)

  24. corinoco says:

    Hang on, RPS uses a spam filter? Um, it doesn’t work you know.

    It filters out perfectly innocent words like ‘large cat’ or Grumman F9 (wasn’t that the Panther, not the c-word) but lets the stupid bogus link job scammers through every single time.

    How about filtering out “makes $nn an hour” and getting rid all the job spam that litters the comments like dog turds on a beach.

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