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Platform

PC

 

Genre

Strategy

 

Publisher

Paradox Interactive

 

Developer

Battlefront Games

 

ESRB

T (Teen)

 

Released

Q3 2007

 

 

- Attractive and atmospheric graphics

- Incredible realism and attention to detail

- New possibilities in infantry tactics are exciting

 

 

- Vehicle pathfinding is frustrating

- The camera is unwieldy

- US technological superiority creates balance issues

 

 

Review: Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars (PC)

Review: Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel (PC)

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Combat Mission: Shock Force

Score: 8.5 / 10

 

combat mission shock force          combat mission shock force

 

Battlefront Games have been poised on the brink of greater things for a while now.  What began as a boutique development group specializing in hyper-realistic war games has grown into a respected force in strategy gaming.  The spring release (with Russia ís 1C Games) of Theatre of War was one important step, and despite some snags the result was a great game that probably didnít deserve the battering it took from some critics.  The release (in cooperation with Paradox Interactive) of the much anticipated Combat Mission: Shock Force is an even more important move, a much-anticipated continuation of the legendary series that made Battlefrontís reputation.

 

For those who donít know, the Combat Mission series of World War Two strategy games first emerged in the late nineties, and set a lofty mark for ingenuity, attention to detail and staying power.  I canít think of many games of Combat Missionís vintage that are so regularly played and enjoyed today.  A near perfect

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fusion of number crunching realism and genuine visceral excitement, CM used a turn-based WEGO system where players planned their forcesí movements and actions, then sat back to watch the result play out in one minute real time segments Ė an engrossing and sometimes harrowing experience.  While CMSF does offer a workable real time mode, I was pleased (as many other will be, 

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I suspect) that it also offers the classic WEGO mode for the sentimental (and the slow-reflexed).

 

CMSF takes place during a fictional US invasion of Syria , retaliation for dirty bomb attacks on Western targets and centers on a Marine strike force built around Stryker vehicles.  The Paradox review copy I examined contained one US semi-dynamic campaign, a number of standalone battles and a quick battle generator as well as options for online play and play by email. 

 

In most respects, CMSF is exactly what the faithful have yearned for, an intelligent and imaginative reinvention of a classic.  The graphics, though not in the same league as slick RTS titles like Company of Heroes, are attractive and atmospheric -- you can almost feel the shimmering desert heat.  Not that the bells and whistles would matter at all if the core wasnít sound, and the developers have done a fantastic job of rebuilding the classic CM engine to suit twenty-first century warfare, making shrewd choices about what needed changing and what didnít.  And along the way theyíve addressed a wish list of changes from their previous releases: individually modeled infantry, less abstraction and more direct representation, a more detailed user interface.  The new possibilities for infantry maneuver are especially exciting, the splitting off of teams and bounding overwatch assaults.  The ďTAC AIĒ (tactical AI that allows units to operate autonomously) is further developed from past releases, and itís gratifying to watch infantry realistically seeking cover and advantageous positioning, hopping fences and dropping down from balconies.  Artillery and Air support are also well simulated, with a new easy interface for calling in and managing strikes.  Command and communication are also intriguingly handled, with options for increased complexity at the gameís higher difficulty settings.

 

combat mission shock force         combat mission shock force

 

As the game manual stresses, despite superficial similarities, CMSF is a very different animal than its predecessors, and players need to take seriously Battefrontís warning that success in the new game requires some ďunlearningĒ of the old games.  While thereís a temptation to play old school CM, players used to the prolonged slugfests in Battlefrontís WWII games are in for a rude awakening in CMSF.  My first experiment, a quick mission battle, was shockingly brief, bloody and chaotic, with ricochets screaming off hulls, infantry scattering and taking cover, armored units dispatching numerous targets in seconds.  I found myself having to replay turns repeatedly just to see what the heck was happening.  The game is quite unforgiving as well.  Mistakes Ė leading an infantry squad out of cover or moving a vehicle too close to an unscouted building Ė have immediate and disastrous consequences. 

 

The game (at least in the review copy I played) is not without some flaws, none of which are deal breakers, but a few of which are annoying enough to impede play.  While the new UI is well-designed, intuitive and visually rich, the camera, both mouse and keyboard controlled, feels a little unwieldy right now.  Vehicle pathfinding, both enemy and friendly, is lamentably bad.  This might have something to do with the overzealous TAC AI, which handles infantry well but seems to overcomplicate vehicle movement to the point of absurdity.  Tanks and vehicles often get lost en route, tend to clump and lag, and occasionally do very strange things like execute complete figure eights at intersections.  Units sometimes refuse to fire -- even at point blank targets -- to face the nearest threat or to choose the most effective weapon.  The enemy AI is passable when itís heavily scripted, as in the campaign and the scenarios, but pretty dismal in quick battles where the enemy force can barely make it up a hill in a cohesive group, let alone mount an attack or seize an objective.  Unit spotting also feels a little questionable.  Though the implementation of a Theatre of War-style system of relative spotting allows for greater realism, spotting distances often seem quite short.  Watching a noisy T-72 materialize out of nowhere forty feet away in the middle of a road in broad daylight is scary and thrilling, but doesnít feel quite believable.    

 

Right now, CMSFís choice of just over a dozen maps feels a little skimpy for quick battles and online / PBEM play.  Maybe Iím spoiled by the old Combat Missionsí randomly generated maps, but I was a little disappointed by CMSFís lack of variety.  I also might have liked the option to select my own forces in quick battles.

 

Finally, as much as I hate to bring this up in a game where realism is paramount, an unavoidable problem in the game is balance.  Reflecting real life, the US is so technologically and tactically superior that, in most head to head combats, the Syrians donít stand a chance.  I noticed this is in quick battles in particular, as in my first attempt where my gang of Strykers, in spite of my half-assed leadership, made mincemeat of a Syrian force with such ruthless ease that it was more disturbing than fun.  Though Battlefront have come up with ingenious ways to recreate asymmetrical advantages that could level the playing field (IEDís, stealthy enemy combatants who can masquerade as civilians), most of these arenít implemented in ways that makes a noticeable difference and most often scenarios address the balance issue by piling on the Syrian foes (even the campaignís first mission, the opening of a road guarded by a Syrian fort, is pretty daunting) or through wily scripting. 

 

But the gameís pluses clearly outweigh itís minuses in the end.  Battlefront are an admirable group whose games all feel like labors of love, and you can feel developersí blood, sweat and tears all through Combat Mission: Shock Force.  I even appreciated additions like the discussion in the manual of the developersí soul-searching as the fictional game they were developing began to eerily converge with real world events.  I canít imagine many other developers spending time in a manual to acknowledge political and ethical realties outside their game.

 

I have to say, like Iím sure many will be, part of what Iím most excited about here are future possibilities for this new engine.  BF has hinted that a WWII title will follow, a prospect that already has me salivating (unlike many reviewers, Iím in no way sick and tired of WW II.)  I also think that with some well-crafted patches as well as mods and scenarios (created using the included editor) supplied by the enthusiastic Battlefront community, this could be the beginning of another classic series.

 

- John Tait

(August 16, 2007)

 

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