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The Flare Path: Firefights

Wargame & simulation blather

Firefight at its best: You've moved Squad 4's stretchable/rotatable destination bar to the house at the end of the road and now you're zoomed in, studying them intently as they advance towards their goal. Without prompting, your men shun the centre of the street, opting to hug walls and shelter in doorways as they move. When an undetected MG34 opens up, the only casualty is Sgt Pierce. Shot in the right foot he yells for a medic. Almost immediately a tiny khaki soldier sprite diverts, rushing to the wounded man's aid...

...The machine gun silenced by a friendly mortar that flings ricocheting shrapnel against nearby facades, the squad pushes on. Near their destination, incoming fire intensifies, and individually-monitored heart rates begin to gallop. Reluctant to cross the last intersection, it takes a dab of the 'MOVE IT!' button to persuade them to brave bullet-lashed cobbles. Once across, the building is cleared in textbook fashion, white surrender flags blooming like daisies as your men gun and grenade their way from room to room.

Firefight at its worst: You've halted your lead Sherman between two houses because you know, having played the scenario twice already, that there's a Tiger lurking round the next corner. As you bring up a Wolverine to flank the threat, there's a loud explosion. The idiot M4 has decided to ignore your explicit instructions and wander into the open! Exasperation morphs into something more mutinous when the Wolverine, seconds away from bushwhacking the Tiger, decides to fixate on a fleeing enemy tank crew instead. No, don't turn your turret that way, you clots! If you're not careful, you'll... Completely screw up the ambush, and sacrifice yourself while you're at it. Give me strength!

The original Firefight was one of PC wargaming's best kept secrets. A sleek yet plausible Close Combat alternative with simple random maps, elusive enemies, and an unusual approach to campaigning, it captured the feel of WW2 skirmishes every bit as successfully as its more famous peer. The confusingly titled sequel abandons computer-generated cartography and mortal player avatars (in Firefight 1, you were represented on every battlefield. When your sprite died, the campaign ended.) which is a little disappointing, but its scenario folder is fat (72), its nine handmade, zoomable maps are large and interesting, and - overlook a bit of vehicular indiscipline – the turnless battles still grip and please.

Tactical war fare really doesn't come any friendlier. It's possible to choose unit targets, but most of the time, you control the flow of an engagement solely through the blue, drag-and-drop destination bars. Make your way to this point, and face this way and spread out to this extent when you get there... one fluid mouse flourish and a squad or vehicle is on its way. Infantry can be trusted to exploit cover sensibly, scavenge ammo, and switch to AT weapons and grenades when the situation demands it. Close Combat's notorious 'crawl of death' is nowhere to be seen. Only the fidgety AFVs evoke the Atomic titles at their worst.

Randomly generated battlefields underwrote Firefight 1's long-term appeal. Removing this feature without offering players the opportunity to skirmish with random forces on hand-made maps seems rather short-sighted. Also somewhat baffling is the new Firefight's offensive obsession.

All of the single scenarios appear to cast us as attackers, and involve very little in the way of enemy movement. Advancing into terra incognita dotted with static, hand-placed foes, you're guaranteed challenge, but the odd 'meeting engagement' and defensive action would have provided a welcome change of pace.

Other areas ripe for improvement include post-battle debriefs (absurdly terse at the moment), vocal cues (the oft-repeated 'medic!' will drive you up the wall), Panzerfaust representation (they're extremely rare), and LoF assessment (occasionally units don't seem to realise there's a friendly AFV between themselves and their target).

The latest version of Firefight justifies its modest asking price (£6 until July 18. £7 thereafter) by serving up small, easy-to-manage scraps that, at times, feel just as real as the tussles served up by fancier, fussier, titles like Combat Mission and Graviteam Tactics. However, unless flaws and omissions are addressed, and - ideally - editors are provided, this very promising engine is destined to remain an outsider, a second or third choice for wargamers fascinated by small unit tactics and savage, close range tank duels.

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My copy of solitaire board game Smokejumpers gets fondled far more often than it gets played. Periodically I take it down from the shelf, prise open its dinky little tin, and, after a few minutes' perusal of the slim manual, remember how laborious/confusing its fire propagation mechanics are.

When it comes to modelling the spread of large multi-limbed forest fires across complicated hilly terrain, CPU involvement isn't just desirable, it's downright essential. Simulated blaze battles should be dominated by tactical conundrums not counter chores. Where should I cut my next firebreak? Should my mighty Martin JRM Mars dump its bellyful of brine here or there? If the wind shifts, will I have time to helivac my sooty smokejumpers off Lightning Ridge before it's too late? I want to focus on questions like these while the whirring box under my desk works out whether the flames leap the creek or are retarded by the retardant.

On paper, FireJumpers Inferno is the wildfire wargame I've been waiting for for more than twenty years. A Greenlit project from Redblox Games, a two-man Canadian outfit presently distracted by the development of FireJumpersPRO (a tactical training tool aimed at firefighting professionals), it promises to come with an impressive range of units including various types of water bombers, and enough sophistication to reflect the effects of slopes, humidity and tree type on fire spread and intensity.

Having dabbled with the demo of FireJumpersPRO, just about my only FJI concerns are aesthetic. Jason Thomas and Jan Richard seem rather attached to garish cartoon sprites and naked terrain grids. The wildfire wargame in my pipedreams is a much less stylised affair. With eerie lighting, skeletal tree sprites, and, here and there, fleeing fauna, it endeavours to capture the terrible beauty of forest fires as well as the tactical challenges.

Cover image for YouTube video

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Tim Stone