PC Combat Mission Shock Force

Scott Tortorice

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The original Combat Mission was an instant legend in the wargaming community. Combining innovative 3-D graphics with a hardcore combat engine that made grognards squeal with glee, the game quickly found a home in the hearts of all wargamers. Its initial success would ultimately spawn two sequels, CM: Barbarossa to Berlin (coving the ever-popular Ostfront) and CM: Afrika Korps (the North African and Italian campaigns), both of which are still eagerly played. So when Battlefront announced a new CM series commencing with CM: Shock Force, some wargamers promptly entered a state of ecstasy in anticipation of another classic. Now that the game is here, a question begs an answer: did Battlefront capture wargame lightning in a bottle for a fourth time?

Please note: The following review pertains strictly to Combat Mission: Shock Force (CMSF) version 1.4.

The biggest change incorporated into CMSF is a different venue. Abandoning the much-loved battlefields of World War II, CMSF explores the contemporaneous battlefields of the Middle East. ‘Why?’ you might be tempted to ask. Well, as explained in the game’s manual, the developers wanted to explore the potentialities of the U.S. Army’s new Stryker Brigade Combat Team and the only way to do that was to pit it against a modern force. After much rumination, the devs felt that the only nation that could offer a suitable foe would be Syria. Um…okay. At the time of the initial announcement I was skeptical about Syria being the theater of war for CMSF. I mean, I enjoy modern combat as a topic for wargaming…but Syria?!? I was doubtful and after playing CMSF, I stand my by initial reaction. Syria just does not present a riveting scenario for the game. The enemy units do provide an interesting mix of Soviet-styled equipment (e.g., T-72 tanks and BMPs) along with asymmetrical units (guerrilla and terrorist units), but it just doesn’t strike much of a chord with me, despite the possible insights the game imparts vis-à-vis Iraq and Afghanistan.

CMSF, like its predecessors, can be played in a number or different ways. There is a campaign mode that links a series of missions detailing an American invasion of Syria after a series of 9/11-esque attacks. There are also individual battles, of varying difficulty, to try your hand against. And, of course, the ever-popular quick battle generator makes a welcomed return as well (albeit, I understand it was missing from the initial release version). I am very disappointed to learn that the quick battle generator no longer generates a new, random map. Instead, it requires a pre-made map for the type of battle you desire. I question this decision. After all, it was the ability to generate a new map on the fly that added so much replayability to the game. Likewise, why can’t we purchase specific units for quick battles? I just don’t understand why the vital QB generator was so hamstringed.

Unlike the original series, CMSF now incorporates two modes of turn resolution: the familiar turn-based “We-Go” and a new RTS mode. We-Go is as fun and appreciated as ever, with each player’s movement and combat orders being resolved simultaneously in sixty second increments. However, there is also now an RTS mode for those of you looking for some quick action. Over all, I found the RTS mode to be forgettable. The truth is that the CMSF interface is just not efficient enough to handle the RTS battlefield, resulting in an oft frustrating experience. Frankly, I don’t understand why Battlefront even attempted this mode as I would expect its core wargamer audience would much rather stick with its turn-based, We-Go system anyway. Trust me: even though CMSF is workable as an RTS game, just skip it for the much more enjoyable turn-based gameplay.

Being a CM vet, I decided to jump right in with the first battle from the campaign. I was promptly presented with a rather detailed brief on my objective for the coming fight. Clearly, CMSF has abandoned the somewhat simplistic battles of yesteryear whereby the player was tasked with controlling a number of victory flags placed about the map. Instead, CMSF provides you with a much more realistic tasking order that includes such things as terrain-based objectives (capture an area, destroy /preserve a particular target, or ‘touch’ an area with your units), unit based objectives (destroy or spot enemy forces) and force-wide objectives (limit casualties, inflict a percentage of casualties upon the enemy, and conserve ammo usage). Each victory objective is worth a certain amount of points that will factor into the final score.

After digesting all this info, it is on to the game. CMSF is, um…less than attractive. I found this to be something of a surprise as the new graphics engine had been promised to be an improvement upon the original. Now, let’s be honest: the original series did not exactly possess beautiful graphics. In fact, the earlier graphics of the series could probably best be termed ‘cartoony’ in nature. They were not hyper-realistic (heck, infantry squads were only represented by three guys) and the terrain could be a bit overly-geometric at times. But despite these flaws, they had a sort of appeal to them. It was almost as if Battlefront set out to create what I call ‘virtual miniatures’; something not realistic but charming nonetheless. CMSF has gone in the opposite direction; it has now tried to achieve a photo-realistic quality. Alas, it doesn’t quite work. Oh sure, when you zoom in close to the units they are nicely detailed. In fact, your little soldiers, whom are now modeled on a 1:1 basis, move about so realistically that it is almost creepy. But when you zoom out all this wonderful detailed is gradually lost (with noticeably phased drops in detail) and you are presented with a sight somehow worse than its predecessors (the drab desert terrain doesn’t help matters much). Ugh! Even the presentation of the map is a step backwards. Unlike the original CM maps that had a game table quality to them, this map appears as little more than a hovering two-dimensional plane set against desert wallpaper. Double ugh!

The graphical user interface has also received a facelift. While the original GUI presented a smattering of unit info, the real details were presented by hitting the spacebar which would bring up an informative screen listing all the nitty-gritty details. No longer, as Battlefront has now endeavored to put all that information at the bottom of your screen. For example, the leftmost portion displays the “unit info panel” that includes such basics as the unit’s name, the chain of command, the experience level and any bonuses the unit might possess, an inverted pyramid depicting its suppression level, the quantity of ammo available for each weapon, means of communication and special weaponry. The next section to the top right is the “fire support panel” that lists any elements that are available, from mortars to airstrikes. Next is the “team info panel” that includes such items such as the weaponry of the vehicle or individual members of an infantry unit (color denotes the health of each soldier), crew seating positions, vehicle weight and so on. Then there are three tabbed “reports,” which include damage, ammunition, defensive characteristics and a unit report (for HQ units only). All in all, this bottom portion of your screen crams a ton of information into a small area. While it works, doubly-so for the RTS component, it has some issues. For example, I was displeased to discover that when your mouse hovers over some of the more ambiguous graphical icons, you don’t get a helpful explanation of what it represents. Also, I would have liked to have the old spacebar info screen back with a more detailed presentation of the unit characteristics. These icons are a nice shortcut, but they are no substitute for plain English.

Finally, on the far right is the unit orders menu. Unlike the previous versions of CM where you would right click for a list of possible orders, this time all the orders are presented on a tabbed menu broken down into four sections: Movement, Combat, Special and Administrative. Most of the commands found here will be familiar to veteran CM players and largely intuitive to newbs (albeit, a few checks of the manual will be required for both groups) and, as in the past, not all the commands are possible at the same time due to the status of the unit. For example, an exhausted unit will not be able to move ‘fast.’ There are a few new commands, such as “deploy weapon,” and “blast” an entry into a building, but, again, these are largely self-explanatory (I did find the “deploy” command to be the most difficult to use due to ambiguous feedback from the GUI).

In CMSF, each unit has a little blue (or red for the enemy) icon floating above it. Simply click on it and you can begin to issue orders. This process is largely the same point-and-click operation of setting waypoints as in the original with two exceptions: unlike the original, your command lines do not always follow the lay of the land but sometimes plow right through it. I found this to be annoying as command lines would disappear into a hill and reemerge on the opposite side, making it all the more difficult to envisage the actual movement path. Secondly, unlike the original, I could not find a way to adjust the position of each waypoint; instead I needed to delete it and replace it with a new one. Needless to say, being forced to delete a string of orders to correct one waypoint can be very annoying.

Another major difference concerns the ordering of fire support. Battlefront has gone to great lengths to make it more realistic. To issue a fire support order, you need to first select the spotting unit and then click on the fire support unit you want to use (arty or air). A series of options are then presented. For example, for a mortar, you can select target type (point, area or line), choose how many tubes to use, mission type (which primarily affects the rate of fire, from light to heavy), duration (how many rounds), type (anti-personnel, armor or both), and delay (how quickly you want the rounds to arrive). Air strikes are similarly configured except with slightly different considerations (for example, an A-10 can hit armor targets with its Gatling gun while an F-16 will be better equipped to nail a building with a LGB). Unlike in the past, indirect fire is no longer guaranteed as the game calculates a number of factors to determine when or if the actual fire support will arrive. All in all, this new, more realistic fire support scheme is welcomed because of the greater control given to the player, but the multiple steps can be a bit tedious, especially when playing in RTS mode.

The combat in CMSF feels right as in the original. Units move about, sighting, identifying and engaging targets with seemingly commendable realism. It can be quite an impressive sight as tracers begin to fill the sky (some with striking ricochets), tanks fire their main guns, ATGMs fly (we finally get to play with missiles!) infantry form assault teams and storm buildings, artillery shells rain airbursting death, and vehicles (inevitably) explode. Like its predecessor, the combat returns realistic results due to the myriad factors that CMx2 incorporates into its calculations (penetration values, the individual skill levels of soldiers and crew, C3I considerations, etcetera). One improvement to combat concerns how casualties are handled. In the original series, a wounded soldier stays wounded for the duration of the game. In CMSF, a wounded soldier has an opportunity to be gradually healed with the aid of a medic. This adds a nice twist to the game as enemy units thought to have been rendered combat ineffective can suddenly come alive a few rounds later once their casualties are healed.

All is not perfect with the combat, though, as some old issues are still with us. For example, pathfinding is a big problem with vehicles often running into each other and taking some time to untangle themselves (making perfect targets for the enemy). Or sometimes they do the inexplicable. In one game, I ordered a bunch of Strykers to move in a straight line along a dirt berm. For some bizarre reason, most of them began to cluster together as they advanced, with one jumping the berm and ultimately making a wide, grandiose U-turn is plain view of the enemy! Yeah, that’s not a good way to sneak into position. Likewise, vehicle AI still leaves something to be desired. I once saw a M1 Abrams do a complete circle around an enemy tank, come to a halt, and prepare to engage a different, quite distant target! Frustrating. Clearly, micro-management of vehicles is still the required order of the day. Sometimes units appear to ignore your orders as well. Why this is, I do not know but it can be frustrating to order three squads of infantry to advance and watch only one actually do so. Vehicles have exhibited the same problem from time to time. There are other bugs too. Line of sight issues are problematic and ‘occupy’ objectives…well, aren’t. Also, where the heck are my smoke shells?!? Hopefully, some of these will be erased with the forthcoming 1.5 patch.

Perhaps the most frustrating element of CMSF is the point of view movement scheme (for a lack of a better term). Once the action starts, you naturally want to glide around the battlefield to get an up close view of the action. It is here you discover just how annoying this task can be. You move your POV around the battlefield primarily using your mouse. Putting the pointer to the center left or right edges of your screen moves the POV from side to side. Putting it to the left or right corners of your screen pans it up or down respectively. With a right click, you get a fluid panning motion. Personally, I often found myself using the mouse in combination with the FPS-familiar W, A, S, and D keys and a combination of other hot keys. Taken together, I found this movement scheme to be an exhausting nightmare and not an improvement on the quirky original at all. After an hour-long battle, I wanted to cast my keyboard through the monitor because it often felt like the interface was working against me rather than with me. Argh! This is something that needs to be improved post haste! With all the other changes made to CM, you would have thought the movement scheme would have been far better by now.

I did enjoy the sounds of battle. While vehicles have an annoying audio loop quality to them, the other sounds are very realistic. Individual weapons are readily identifiable by their audible discharge and help bring the combat to life. Sure, shouted orders and the cries of pain of infantrymen are little changed, but the new bark of their rifles is a step in the right direction.

Taken as a whole, combat does possess some of the magic of the original…when everything works as it should. As detailed above, there are more than a few annoyances that serve to hinder the experience. While few approach the level of game killer, all of them taken together make the CMSF experience more than a little annoying. However, I do suspect that if it was not for the transcendent nature of the previous CMx1 series, many of these imperfections would not be so galling.

This version of CM also includes a robust scenario editor. Like the original, you can create detailed maps, set environmental conditions, set objectives, and place units. However, unlike the original, this editor allows you to create pre-defined AI for the battle. After playing a few of the pre-made battles, I can say this will cut down on some of the dumb herd tactics that was so prevalent in previous versions. In more than one battle scenario, I was pleasantly surprised at how the AI was reacting to my attack (in general, the AI makes for a very tough opponent, even as the Syrians!). Likewise, I noticed that with a replay of the same scenario, the disposition of the enemy can change, adding some nice variety to the battle.

Lastly, the manual is the usual comprehensive fare from Battlefront that provides clear explanations of all game mechanics, as well as detailed description of the forces and equipment used by the game. It should definitely be considered required reading by new and veteran CM players.

Closing Comments:

So, what does this all add up to? It’s actually quite difficult to say! I have had to re-write this review three times because each time I play CMSF, I have found some sessions to be enjoyable, but others to be more than a little frustrating. Quite simply, the game is quirky. There are elements that are nice improvements, such as the scenario creator’s robust set of tools, but there are also some lapses, such as the emasculated Quick Battle generator. In short, CMSF is, in some ways, one step forward and one step back. That being said, I do think there is a potentially good game underneath the quirks. By squashing the extant bugs, perhaps enhancing the graphics (or at least moving the theater of war to someplace more pleasing to the eye), bringing back a map generator for quick battles, and improving the pathfinding process, this version of CMSF could ultimately be a decent wargame if given enough time to mature.

6.5 out of 10
 

Michael Dorosh

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Not sure if I saw this at the time, but scrolling through the forum listing, noticing this now. Well-written and I tend to agree with your reactions.
 

Michael Dorosh

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Announcement today that CMSF2 will be available on Steam, in about 3 weeks.
 
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