Wot I Think: Combat Mission: Commonwealth Forces

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.


  1. Dominic White says:

    Any thoughts on Wargame: European Escalation, Tim? Any chance of taking a proper look at it? It does for Combat Mission style real-world wargaming what Unity of Command does for operational-level number crunching. Makes it accessible, polished and fun.

    • Jim Rossignol says:

      Tim did that for PCG, I think. I’ve been playing Wargame though as I was a big fan of RUSE. Might have some thoughts on it soon.

    • Bobtree says:

      W:EE has quickly risen to the top of my “most interesting games I haven’t played yet” list, so I’d love to see some more RPS coverage of it too.

      • Grimley says:

        Personally I found W:EE a blast. Although, as the above article states, it’s a bummer when the AI doesn’t react in any way to what strategies you are attempting.
        I’m too great a coward to try multi-player against an unknown (and probably cheesy) human opponent in W:EE.

        • Dominic White says:

          Wargame is just about the only RTS I’ve played where I have a hope in hell online. A lot of players are really, REALLY dumb. Zerg-rush blobs of tanks or helicopters are still common, and both can be absolutely wrecked by just a couple of cheap units.

          It’s also not like you have a base to lose. If the enemy is throwing all their resources at somewhere you don’t have the firepower to defend, just retreat, leaving some infantry in the trees to act as a trap and call in some artillery when the slow-moving wall of steel comes to a halt.

  2. DogKiller says:

    A good write up. I will probably pick this up at some point. My biggest beef with CMBFN was the lack of scope in terms of forces. I’ve always been more of a moder-era wargamer, but in terms of gaming, it can be very brutal and very quick. Entire battalions of tanks chewed up in a matter of minutes. WW2 settings provide a bit more of a methodical and even match.

    I do remember finding some of the scenarios in CMSF and CMBFN to be quite brutal in difficulty if you’re not very careful, the NATO expansion pack especially. The loss of a single tank often seemed enough to completely ruin the campaign and battle both in terms of victory points and the loss of a vital asset. Realistic, though.

    I found the quick battles to be a bit more relaxing, but CMSFs random force selection was really daft. I’d pay good money if they retrofitted CMBFNs quick battle system into CMSF.

  3. Bhazor says:

    I can’t find it now but did Tim Stone write the PC Gamer review for the original Combat Mission? I remember that being one of my favourite glowing heart felt reviews and cursing that I didn’t have any internet connection at the time to buy the game.

  4. Zephro says:

    This sounds great but the same problem I have with all Wargames is the pricing. $30 seems steep for some scenarios and new forces. It’s not Matrix Games steep but still it puts me off.

    • Bonedwarf says:

      Likewise. I love war gaming. Hell I once paid $100 to Matrix for one, but sadly those days are long gone, and they’re taking the piss and clearly not learning the lessons that Steam and the like have shown with reduced prices. (IE massive spike in sales)

      I don’t buy it anymore that it’s a niche thing. I think it’s a greed thing.

  5. Geist says:

    Good. I’ll be getting this and CMBN, then. Any word on MP or if it works well?

  6. Dana says:

    Beyond Overlord was amazing. I still have a cd with hundreds of megs of graphical/sound mods and custom scenarios for it.

    New Combat Missions never really drawn me in. Dont know why, too much micromanagement perhaps.

  7. Mechanicus_ says:

    I am the gamer described in the first few paragraphs – I enjoyed the early CM games, but CMSF left me totally cold, in terms of gameplay, interface and setting.

    I tried the demo of CMBN after seeing Tim’s enthusiasm for the Commonwealth pack in the Flare Path. However, I really didn’t enjoy it any more than CMSF.

    For a start it pissed me off by having a “tutorial” mission which was nothing of the sort – just a standard mission as far as I could tell; am I missing something? I also couldn’t get over how bad the interface was, with simple tasks like moving the camera being awfully clunky.

    However, I did play it in real-time mode – how different does the game play in WEGO mode? The interface being clunky would be less painful if I wasn’t losing guys while I tried to use it.

    I used real-time mode just because it was the default, but this sounds like yet another case of a wargame/sim developer trying to make their game more accessible in a ham-fisted way and breaking it.

    • Lunsku says:

      Haven’t actually tried the demo, but in the full CMBN game the tutorials were meant to be played with the game manual, that has whole walkthrough for the tutorial missions. With that, they do good job of filling you with the basics.

      I’m not too excited about Commonwealth Forces to be honest, if it really has ended up with just content patch with no touching UI. CMBN is a good game, don’t get me wrong, but it has been fighting a losing war on my gaming schedule last year. Should probably get some PBEM game rolling.

      • Bonedwarf says:

        The whole “playing tutorials with the manual” thing needs to die now given the prevalence of digital. One thing having an actual tome, but having to flip back and forth between the game and a damn PDF is irritating, even if you’ve got the PDF open on another machine/screen.

  8. Pheasant Plucker says:

    While it’s nice that the CMx2 games are expanding, the fundamental problem that TIm’s mentioned that will keep me away (even though I was a massive CMx1 fan) is – the scripted AI.

    I could play CMx1 as a sandbox game, Set up some scenario, and play it my way, with an AI that would react – albeit clumsily, to what I was doing. Scripted AIs turn wargames into nothing but puzzles and kill replayability. Fine if you like puzzle solving, but I cannot stand being led around by the nose by an often poor scenario designer.

    Also I don;’t care for their ‘it’s too difficult’ smokescreen. Crocodiles were in CMx1, and my own favourite bit of kit – the backwards-firing Archer Tank Destroyer also made it despite the fact that it was like no other vehicle in the war. It’s not too difficult – it’s laziness.

    Good luck to them with CMx2, but I can’t see me going back any time soon.

  9. Horza says:

    Still waiting for Combat Mission Campaigns (that got cancelled in 2009 :( )

  10. wodin says:

    I love all the CM’s. I put off buying CMSF for awhile. However I went for it a couple of years ago and was impressed. When I bought the Brit module is when I realised what a great engine it is. The whole game changed.

  11. MajorManiac says:

    Major ‘Mad Bastard’ McBastard, ah yes. We see each other every Christmas.

  12. Michael Dorosh says:

    The Real and Simulated Wars blog had a good if brief entry on the development of the AI: link to kriegsimulation.blogspot.com and how the use of cover seems to have improved with the Commonwealth Forces release. As webmaster of canadiansoldiers.com since 1999 I’ve been a follower of this series, like many other fans, from the beginning. Detailed coverage of Canadian soldiers in the Second World War in a popular entertainment medium is a rare thing. What’s trickier is that the battles in Northwest Europe were generally not decided at the level CM:BO or CM:BN portray; historian Stephen Ashley Hart sagely talked about the strategy of “Colossal Cracks” (Montgomery’s own phrase) which referred to the use of aerial superiority, massed artillery, and firepower to blast through enemy positions and minimize friendly casualties. It was a war-winning strategy but did not provide as many dramatic man-for-man match-ups at the tactical level as an intrepid scenario designer might like. This has always been the challenge for games depicting British and Commonwealth troops, whose equipment is perceived as somehow “inferior” to that of the Germans. It doesn’t help that the battles that are most well-known to the general public – such as Dieppe or Arnhem – were disasters for the Allies.

    Good games can address some of this imbalance. I note that the Quick Battle option seems to have been much improved from its appearance in CM:SF; I tried one this week and played through to completion very satisfactorily. I still think there are a lot of rough edges in what the consumer is presented with in CM:BN – putting aside the game engine and AI itself, which has a lot of fans in its current form, the map editor has not seen any major work since the debut of CM:SF 5 years ago and is clunky to put it mildly (stepping stone roads, no cut and paste ability, etc., and for home-grown campaign builders, no ability to import end or save-game files, which would be a huge plus). There are a lot of directions they can build outwards with the engine – Combat Mission: Campaigns was mentioned in one of the comments here. That project is long dead. I was on the beta team, and you can read the whole story at Video Game Geek. The story does give, however, an idea of what kind of creativity is possible.

    Other good news is that the code is stable – no bugs that I can see, no crashes – the animations are fun to watch and the 3-D modelling is impeccable, even if the Canadians are saddled with one or two minor equipment types that they never actually used (for convenience’s sake, I take it they share truck and Loyd carrier models with the British – one hopes that a patch will add in their own Canadian Military Pattern truck and Windsor or T-16 pattern universal carriers later).

    Whatever one’s reaction to the game, I think – as Tim Stone apparently does – that there is a lot that can continue to be done with this game engine and indeed the game series itself. For now, there is enough to chew on, though modding, machinima and similar projects may take up as much time as actual battle.