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The Flare Path: Always Bagrational

Simulation & wargame blather

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 list - Lend-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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Tim Stone