The Flare Path: PIAT fails and PITA whales

Three of the first four Close Combat games are now back in legal circulation thanks to GOG.com and current licence holders, Slitherine. For years I’ve been telling myself that prolonged exposure to Combat Mission and Graviteam Tactics would make a long-term relationship with Atomic’s top-down tussle series – a series I loved dearly in the late Nineties – difficult today. I now realise I was wrong. Twenty years on Close Combats 2 (aka Close Combat: A Bridge Too Far) and 3 still entertain as consummately as any of the tactics titles that followed them.

The Market Garden and Eastern Front CCs offer pace, approachability and control elegance that none of their weightier 3D successors can rival. Preoccupied with LoS and morale, and happy to kill tanks with single shells, they are rich, turnless wargames designed to be played, not studied or respectfully admired from afar. Deeper realism and smarter CPU opponents are available elsewhere. Tighter, more exciting WW2 scraps are not.

Many of my mental CC2/3 snaps featured AI infantry slithering when they should have been sprinting – AFVs pirouetting when popping smoke or presenting frontal armour would have been much wiser. Tanks do dance from time to time and grunts do spend too much time on their stomachs, but I’d forgotten just how dangerous the games’ artificial opponents could be when roused.

In the above image the computer-controlled Soviets are in the process of punishing me for woeful scouting and unimaginative inter-mission unit requisitioning. That green goliath between the houses appeared unexpectedly on my right flank and proceeded to mortally puncture two Panzers and a StuG, while I, caught between a rock and hard place, could do little but cross my fingers and kick myself.

You do a lot of finger-crossing in a typical CC2/3 skirmish and the moments of helplessness are a major part of the appeal. Here’s a grab from my latest CC2 operation. Again wrong-footed by the purposeful way the AI has employed its armour, I’m praying a feint with a Stuart can distract an advancing Panther for long enough to allow a Churchill a precious first shot. In this instance the gamble paid off. I was rewarded by two of the most memorable sound effects in digital wargaming – a rumbling thunderflash-in-a-dustbin thunderclap closely followed by a heartening “Scratch one!”.

CC2’s narrow focus, early asymmetry (Allied forces are armourless at the start of most ops) and unique bridge-emphasising tug-of-war campaign structure, give it flavour that none of the subsequent releases could match. Intimate and infantry-dominated, its GOG form has a few regrettable rough edges but, at 6$, is incredibly easy to recommend.

Pinning an RPS rosette on the identically priced CC3 also seems like a very natural action. An Elefantine follow-up that enlarged maps and mellowed terrain colours, while introducing boons like adjustable unit rotation, it is unquestionably the prettier of the two, but arguably tries to do too much by covering the entire Eastern Front from 41 to 45.

CC4, the youngest of the rereleased trio? I remember CC’s Ardennes outing as much for its overcrowded maps and ill-judged AFV emphasis as its dramatic aircraft or move away from linear campaigning. If the bout of Bastogne battering I have planned for this weekend causes me to rethink this assessment, I’ll put the record straight next Friday.

*       *       *

Thar She Blows! Part III

Welcome back to Flare Path’s ongoing whale tale, a calamity-rich collaboration between Nantucket (plot and inspiration), myself (incidental detail and rash decisions), and a plucky band of Flare Path readers (brawn and bathos pathos). When we parted company last Friday, the Flora was about to set off on her most ambitious cetacean hunt yet. Desperate to get their hands on Kahekili’s Spear, a fabled relic last seen jutting from the side of a formidable Right Whale known as ‘O Inquieto Du’, Captain Stone and his crew (Shiloh, Stugle, Mr Gity, Rorschach, Arioch_RN, Faldrath, Velko, Burn3r, Canadave, and Rituro) are making for Tristan da Cunha, The Restless One’s LKA.

“Shiloh, once we’ve worked clear of the coast, shake out the top-gallants and steer a course for… ”

I consulted my pocket compass and scanned the horizon.

“…that cloud over there that looks like the Duke of Wellington riding a Galapagos tortoise”

My wise old boatswain nodded, but not for the first time I glimpsed doubt in his eyes. I’d noticed a subtle change in his manner towards me ever since the day he’d caught me copying choice nautical phrases from a battered copy of ‘Lieutenant Hornblower’. I sensed that he sensed that I wasn’t the seasoned whaleship captain I claimed to be and wondered if he sensed that I sensed that he sensed that I wasn’t the seasoned whaleship captain I claimed to be.

I was pondering that worrisome possibility when a flying fish struck me full in the face, snapping the stem of my favourite clay. At sea there are few more ominous omens. Nearby crewmen gasped and crossed themselves. I stomped off to my cabin, skewering the portentous piscine with an angry stab of my narwhal tusk peg-leg as I went.

For twenty-five days Flora cleaved and clambered, heeled and shook. For twenty-five days the ill luck presaged by the winged pipe breaker found small but ingenious ways to fray tempers and deepen gloom. A careless hatchet swing shortened Canadave’s thumb. A stable of Mr Gity’s most athletic weevils was crushed to death by a squall-shoved Bible. Arioch_RN’s insatiable orchid consumed Rorschach’s bawdy parrot. Burn3r dropped our best sextant over the rail. Shiloh and Stugle came to blows over a misspelt tattoo… Anything that could go wrong did go wrong on that accursed voyage. By the time we sighted Tristan, even I, a stone-cold sceptic, suspected we were on a devil’s errand.

On the morning of August 31st we woke to find that the volcano to the south had calved. Screened by scudding curtains of rain as thick as baleen, it was twenty minutes before telescope scrutiny revealed the infant mountain’s true identity.

“It’s Him alright. Take a look.”

“What a porcupine! I count eleven, no, twelve, harpoon stubs.”

“He’s on a converging tack. Perhaps he means to stove us.”

“Suits me” said Arioch_RN, grabbing a blubber javelin from the nearest gig.

But the Restless One had other plans. After ‘feeling’ Flora’s hull with a fusillade of clicks and pops, he veered off and began circling our craft the way a vulture circles an ailing camel. I ordered the boats launched, tumbling into the first, Quicksilver, alongside Faldrath and Rituro. Mr Gity, Shiloh, and Canadave manned broad-beamed Buttercup, Rorschach, Velko, and Stugle, the exceptionally stout Good Things Come To Those Who Wait.

Intimidating at deck height, O Inquieto Du was a coward maker without compare at sea level. As we closed on that breakwater of barnacled blubber, that embedded arsenal of ironmongery, those barn-door flukes, I envied my rowers their backwards gaze and thanked God I’d flushed my bilges out after breakfast.

“What do you think… 75 hitpoints?” whispered my awestruck boatswain.

“Nearer 85” I replied, gesturing towards the giant ’83’ stamped on the beast’s rain-lashed flank.

“No animal on Earth has larger testicles than a fully grown Right Whale bull” muttered Rituro thoughtfully.

“What about the madmen that hunt them in open boats armed only with spears and ropes?” I probably would have quipped if I’d been the quipping kind and hadn’t been rendered temporarily speechless by the sight of several tons of whale tail whipping in my direction.

Honours were shared fairly evenly in that opening exchange. My missile lodged and its line held. The injury the leviathan inflicted in return removed at a stroke over a third of my vitality.

There was nothing equitable about the round that followed. Somehow Mr Gity, Rorschach, and myself all failed to draw blood. Faldrath used the unplanned armistice to bandage his captain. The Restless One used it to knock Good Things Come To Those Who Wait into the middle of next week. While I was busy being bandaged by one of Flora’s medicos, our other healer was busy dying. Had the beast persisted, Rorschach and Stugle would almost certainly have suffered the same fate as Velko. Because it shifted its ire to Quicksilver, they were spared and it was Rituro who couched the next thunderbolt. Shiloh attempted to pull our cabin boy to safety but the poor lad was wrenched from his grip by an avalanche of grey flesh.

Two dead in as many minutes and O Inquieto Du barely scratched! I searched my skull for an inspirational phrase – something to quell the growing panic – and found only curses and blasphemies. For the remainder of the duel I ranted like a gin-soaked Tory yet used few words from Mr Johnson’s dictionary.

The air turned blue and the sea turned red. Gulls wheeled and keened. Men jabbed and fended using shattered oars if need be. In round four Faldrath’s luck barrel was up-ended by a single savage tail strike. Our surgeon died as he had lived, selflessly assisting his fellow man. It took three harpoon tips, well-aimed and hard-driven in round five, to turn the tide. The fountain that drenched our clothes and washed our wounds took on a crimson hue.

Once Mr Gity had opened a vein and fastened a second line, there was no way back for the Restless One. Rorschach finished him with a 15-point strike. All that witnessed that final pricking will never forget the extraordinary sound it elicited. As the monster expired it sang a note so pitiful and forlorn, the mobbing birds fell silent and none of us could dam our tears.

The text above is cut with bunkum. It took an hour of axe swinging to unsheath our prize and when the damned thing was finally free no-one played the warrior-king. There was no time for such tomfoolery and no appetite for it. We had blubber to boil and friends to commit to the deep.

*       *       *

 

This way to the foxer

 

24 Comments

  1. Frog says:

    Nice to see Close Combat out. I still get a kick out of playing Steel Panthers World at War, excellent time when I can get it to work without a couple of annoying quirks.

  2. celticdr says:

    Wow, you managed to defeat O Inquieto Du, I failed against him once and due to his powerful attacks and 83 HP I haven’t tried again since.

    RIP Velko, Rituro and Faldrath – the sea owns you three now.

    Have fond memories of CC3 having played a campaign as the Soviets from ’41 getting smashed by the Germans at first but just before Moscow was about to fall I had enough points to buy a KV-2… then the hunted became the hunter, or at least the hunter became the guy with the 152mm howitzer that sat at the back of the battlefield and rained HE on everything my snipers spotted, by Stalingrad I had more victory points than I could spend and frankly with a KV-2 and 5-6 sniper spotters I didn’t really need anything else.

    CC2 was great too, the asymmetry made it a bit of a death march as the allies, you could clearly see why operation Market Garden was doomed to failure given the strength of the German panzer divisions versus British and US paratroopers, that said it was interesting reliving the Battle of Arnhem and trying to win as the British… don’t remember if I ever won that one.

    Great games the Close Combat series, if any dev can ever bring that back the feeling of an RTS that wasn’t too fast paced or micro-managing I would definitely give it a go (and yes I’ve played Steel Division and that was too hectic and micro-managing for me).

    Well, I guess I’d better sober up now that Cap’n Stone will be needing a surgeon on his ship, it’s been a while, the old bone saw will need some time with a whetstone – do not fear it will be ready to sever limbs soon enough *doths hat*

  3. Stugle says:

    What the [earth-shattering profanity] was I doing in one of the boats?!? I signed up to stay nice and comfy on the ship, while everyone else goes out being heroic! I’m a coward already, I don’t need a big-balled bathyc behemoth to prove the point!

    Well, at least we made it. Most of us. Three dead; I hope having the spear will change our fortune for the better.

    And Shiloh: “Mume” is absolutely, definitely the correct spelling for the term of endearment for your mother. Like Captain Stone, I’ve read it in a book, so don’t you dare question my learning.

  4. Stugle says:

    Great news on the CC front! I bought Gateway to Caen last week (because it was on a steep discount), but I’m looking forward to adding 2 and 3 at a later time, once my funds have replenished. I have many fond memories of CC3 (realizing that I was SUPPOSED to lose the first few battles as the Russians was an eye-opener for younger me) and it sounds like 2 brings its own flavor (plus, it’ll be a chance to play in my ancestral backyard, having grown up 15 miles north of Arnhem and going to uni in Nijmegen).

    • Hartford688 says:

      Once you have CC3 again, maybe see if you can drive the fascists back even in the first battle – older you may be pleasantly surprised.

      For the Motherland!

  5. Rorschach617 says:

    Anachronism warning! Anachronism warning! :)

    Rorschach’s log:

    “Arrrr, t’is a sad sight for a whaler when he sends four of his bosom crewmates to the the arms of Poseidon…

    True, I said four crewmates. As much as I mourn Velko, Faldrath and Vituro, I wipe me tears and declare “Ware, AriochRN. Your verdant devil ate me beloved pet, “L’il Cap’n Stone”.”

    I had only just taught him to sing a song. It were one sung by little-known songstress Kathy Peary. Ne’er ag’in will he sit on my shoulder and belt out

    “I killed a whale, and I liked it!
    Gonna turn his blubber to lipstick!”

    I will have me vengeance! Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering vegetable! From Hell’s Heart, I stab at thee!”

    • Arioch_RN says:

      Audrey II has suggested that placing your ear ‘gainst her lower pitcher may allow you to hear the popinjay lyrics once more.

      I’d stay away from the bit that smacks its lips, though.

      • Rorschach617 says:

        :)

      • Rorschach617 says:

        Anioch_RN, you really should water ye’re plant more.

        It looks thirsty.

        It’s spitting feathers!

        B’dum tish!

  6. Gothnak says:

    I have all the original CC’s on my hard drive and love them all apart from the dodgy tank AI when they spin on the top and sometimes dodgy enemy AI when they don’t want to take locations (especially in the snowy maps i last played)

    However, i tried Combat Mission Barbarrossa and bounced straight off it, it was ugly, difficult to see what was going on and the camera was a mess. I also looked at Graviteam Tacics and that looked overly complicated, even just setting up where you want to play your troops.

    So, these days, what is the best modern CC-a-like?

  7. Faldrath says:

    Aw, I’m dead. Please send my dear old mother the two gold doubloons I had hidden in my sock… which is now… under the sea… nevermind.

    Captain Stone, I leave you my trusty old doctor leather bag. Take good care of it. Don’t ever open the brown bottle, though. Never ever.

    • Stugle says:

      [Wipes lips] What was that? Your medicinal alcohol tasted a little off, but it seems to be doing the job of making me forget the terrors…

      • Faldrath says:

        Those terrors that you’re forgetting are nothing compared to the terrors that are about to come :(

        • gi_ty says:

          Is tat teh mushroom flavored liquor? I know Faldrath auld’ve wanted me to ave it! Giv et ere and we’l celebrate takin that mean old bastard down wit em.

          Oye look theres teh mermaid Queen!

        • Stugle says:

          The stars! The stars are all wrong! R’lyeh calls me! *Endless silent screaming*

  8. Donisaurs says:

    Hey Tim, haven’t seen any information / WiT on Sudden Strike 4 on RPS. Steam tells me it might not even be bad: ‘mostly positive’. Wondered if it might’ve fallen between the cracks?

    • Tim Stone says:

      I watched it approach but decided to let it pass unFlare Pathed after reading about features like bubble LoS. It’s clearly no wargame, and seems to bring nothing new to the WW2 RTS genre either.

      That said, I’ll WIT it if there’s sufficient interest. Anyone else fancy a rather late Sudden Strike 4 review?

      • Chaz says:

        Well I just bought it in the Steam sale last night, so too late for me. I enjoyed the 1st 2 games and the reviews seem to suggest that 4 is back to more of the same after the blip that was 3, but with better graphics etc, so that was good enough for me to splash out on it. I haven’t tried it yet, but looking forward to giving it a go, especially if it’s managed to recapture the magic of the 1st 2 games.

  9. gi_ty says:

    Noooo not meh weevilles! It twas punushmenn fro teh almightee. He crush em wit his own book. I repent fo meh cheatin ways o’ why meh? *cries inconsolably during a thunderstorm on the deck*

    • Stugle says:

      Out of character, I have to admit that the way you put established rules of spelling on the rack and torture them until they’re reduced to gibbering wrecks is an awesome sight to behold. Even if I have to behold it through the tears streaming from my eyes. :)

      • gi_ty says:

        Ha ha thanks! I always enjoyed reading phonetic pronunciation of words in some of the books I have read. I do try to make it difficult to read just for the fun of hoping someone will come along to puzzle it out!

  10. Rituro says:

    I died as I lived: knowing far more about whale testicles than was truly necessary.

  11. Shiloh says:

    Well, that’s a turn up. I come back from a long weekend whaling in the Peak District (a minority sport, admittedly) and find I’ve survived an encounter in the harpoon boat with O Inquieto Du?

    Maybe I should buy a lottery ticket.

  12. celticdr says:

    It’s certainly a lottery beating the restless one, I say get that lotto ticket!

    … Meant as a reply to Shiloh, not sure what happened there.