I have something of a soft spot for Battlefront.com and Big Time Software’s Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord. Besides being among the best wargames ever created in my opinion, Combat Mission was the first game I reviewed for SimHq. It is one of the few games that I felt truly revolutionized an entire genre, taking wargaming from the relatively sterile top down perspective and finally putting wargamers into the trenches with their troops.
Well, BTS and Battlefront are at it again, this time on the Russian front. Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin (CMBB for short) takes up the conflict during the great patriotic war from 1941 to 1945. In this title Big Time Software hopes to take the best of the original Combat Mission and improve on it while eliminating the few problems that the original game had.
For those of you that don’t know, CMBB is an unusual title from what is becoming less of an unusual style of company. Battlefront doesn’t stock shelves at Wal-Mart or Comp-USA and the only way to get this title is via their website at www.battlefront.com. In the past this has probably put some people off but with the advent of online purchasing this fear is becoming less and less significant. The company doesn’t need to try to buy shelf space, special boxes that catch the eye, or even fancy advertising for that matter. The end result is that the purchase of the game funnels money directly into the hands of those that earned it, the developers and programmers.
Ok, so the title was well received a couple of years ago, how is she now? Does the game live up to the expectations that the Combat Mission faithful placed in it? Or does it show that the BTS developers could only capture lightning in a bottle once?
Concept and Background
The field of battle for CMBB is familiar to many wargamers but unfortunately still pretty vague for the average rank and file Westerner. This is changing, since the fall of the Soviet Union the research of the Soviet Union, and in particular the conflict between Nazi Germany and the Communist USSR; one that cost millions upon millions of lives and reshaped the entire European continent. The ramifications continue to this day, just ask any peacekeeper in Kosovo.
The conflict, and the game, started in June 1941 when the German forces, led by the brilliant Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt smashed into the unprepared and totally surprised Red Army forces. In a larger scale version of the blitzkrieg style warfare that worked successfully in France and Poland the German forces drove literally to the gates of Moscow before the winter and determined resistance finally put a stop on the drive.
While the Soviets survived the first assault more came. 1942 saw a repeat of the conquests of 1941, albeit in the South. German forces drove across the Caucuses in the southern portion of Russia and the Ukraine; again being stopped at the gates of Stalingrad. This was the zenith of German military expansion and while still able to mount vicious attacks; the Wehrmacht from early 1943 on was on the defensive until the end of the war. The Soviets on the other hand, with improving supply systems, excellent armored equipment and a desire to reap revenge on the invaders of their homeland tore into the enemy. They took horrible casualties but their assaults couldn’t be stopped. Unlike the Russians the Germans didn’t have their Stalingrad and in May of 1945 the Hammer and Sickle flew over the Reichstag.
Combat Mission visits this area of conflict, a familiar and favorite area for board game wargamers and increasingly for computer wargamers. Some of the best Squad Leader battles took place with the Russians vs. the Germans and later games like Close Combat III and East Front have had the Great Patriotic war as the focus of the conflict. Upcoming games like WW2 RTS will also focus on this portion of the conflict.
It is a natural setting for a good wargame. Everything needed for a good wargame was fought on the Eastern Front. You had huge tank battles, house to house fighting, great encirclements and massive assaults. There was amazing bravery and enormous ferocity found on both sides of the conflict. Quickly the conflict sucked other nations into it, nations like Hungary and Finland, Italy and Bulgaria found themselves feeding troops into the conflict. There was no quarter given, and none taken in this conflict, something that is lost on many Westerners. The sense of fair play that many Americans feel should be natural, even in conflict, was absent in this war. Become a prisoner and your chance of surviving dwindled to close to nil.
So lets take a good look at this game, it promises to be one of the best wargames of the 2002 year, maybe among the best of the entire year.
Installation and Manual
Like CMBO, CMBB installs without too much of a problem for most people, although of course if there is a hitch in the game it will happen to me. According to Battlefront a small number of disks were shipped with an error toward the back of the disk which caused the game to fail installation after somewhere between 92-99% of the installation. Luckily what were missing were sound files and all the mission files and Matt over at CM Headquarters quickly put those files up for those that had the bad disks. The game ran fine from that point on and Battlefront quickly sent out replacement CD ROMs for those folks that got the bad disks.
The manual for CMBB is top notch, just like the original game. The game weighs in at 260 pages, 250 of them devoted to actually playing the game. In this day of shrinking manuals, PDF files and manuals on CD-Rom this is quite refreshing. I have said before guys need toilet reading and the manual delivers that. One of the great things about this manual is the lack of fluff. You won’t find profiles of the combatants, you won’t see worn rehashes of the Eastern Front Campaign, and you won’t find pictures of all the vehicles in the game. Instead you will get an in depth instruction on the game mechanics. If you don’t know how to do something in the game, look in the manual-it will be there.
Graphics and Interface and Sound
I suspect that many of the mainstream gaming mags are going to criticize this game for its graphics. Its earlier cousin was criticized for its slightly dated graphics and CMBB looks even more dated when compared to some of the new real time strategy games coming out. Yep, if you compare it picture for picture with GI Combat it will look somewhat outdated. The game looks somewhat antiquated but to be honest this is the least important part of the game. The whole goal of the game is to give the gamer the ability to actually get on the ground with his/her troops. The first Combat Mission was a quantum leap ahead in this concept and CMBB continues this tradition. Graphically the game does not take away from the enjoyment of the game and that is what is important.
That’s not to say that the game hasn’t improved graphically over its cousin, it’s just that it hasn’t improved drastically. Trees look better, grass effects look better and the building have more detail but none of these really look a whole significantly better than many of the mods that came out for CMBO right after the first game was released. Vehicles look good, and historically accurate. Smoke and fire effects appear to have been cleaned up but essentially they are unchanged from the first game. Like the first game troops are represented rather abstractly with a squad shown with three men rather than the 8-12 you would see in real life. While confusing early you quickly realize what one person vs. three persons means as far as infantry squads means. Troops have the correct period uniforms for the day and they crawl, run, fire, etc when commanded but they tend to look, well, funny looking. Like other graphic aspects though this is quickly forgotten once you get into the game and start playing.
So overall you will find that the graphics of CMBB look very similar to CMBO and while prettier graphics would have been nice I suppose in reality this is a game that has never really tried to be cutting edge in the graphics department. Like Steel Beasts if you spend your time looking at the graphics you will miss what is no doubt an intelligent and depth filled game. Most folks that follow wargaming aren’t that shallow in the first place, otherwise the genre would have died out-3d is not normally seen in wargaming.
Map size has been increased in the game. The game now has the potential to expand to a huge 4000 x 2240 meter map size. This can create some really huge scenarios but be warned when you do this. If I have on major complaint with Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin it lies in the relatively sluggish nature of the game. CMBO, its predecessor, seemed to run relatively well even on PII 400 systems but some of the larger scenarios in CMBB cause my Athlon XP2100 system to choke. While somewhat understandable, the game has more stuff going on, people with anything less than a PIV 1.5 GHz or better probably should stick with nothing higher than a large battle-and that is somewhat dicey at times. My PIII 700 laptop absolutely chokes on anything larger than a medium battle, something it never did with CMBO. John Sponauer, a fellow devotee to the game, refused to play some of the larger scenarios with good reason.
The interface is very similar to first game as well. Outside the game everything can easily be accessed via a mouse click or a drop down menu. In the game both mouse clicks and/or key commands are available to give commands to troops, change various view aspects of the game, or to quit the game or battle. There are multiple ways of keeping track of your troops graphically in this game. You have the option of showing unit bases, movement lines, and radius of fire. The graphics can be modified to show no trees, some trees or a maximum number of trees depending on your computer horsepower and the tactical situation. There are times, even with a horse of a machine; you will want to remove trees so you can see what you are moving.
In game, clicking on a unit brings up a drop down menu not unsimilar to the one used in the Close Combat series, albeit with many more commands. All commands can be brought up with a key command as well as by clicking with the mouse. I will go more into depth concerning the types of commands that can be given later but at this point lets just say the numbers are considerable and more than in any other similar game. Panning is also available by either clicking on the arrows at the bottom of the page or by using your mouse at the corners of the screen to move around the area. Some of the panning is different than in the first game and veterans of CMBO will find themselves going all over the place at first the movement becomes more familiar and less irritating the more you play. An option to use the old CM method would have been nice; maybe a later patch could do this.
Sound continues to be a strong suit of this game. It’s not that the game accurately models every sound in the game; it’s how it models them. One of the coolest things in the game is to pan around the map while the game is running, listening for the sounds of approaching tanks. If you do it right you will pick up where an enemy armored unit is before your units get the chance to see them. The sound is definitely positional in this game, listen to your left or right and you will pick up stuff. In addition there are ambient sounds like birds in the summer and winter sounds (you know, snow blowing) along with the gunfire of some far off battle. It adds an eerie sound just before contact with the enemy occurs.
Each nationality has accurately (well it sounds accurate) in language that adds to the fun. Give your orders and your troops will call out to rally the troops to move out or when they get clobbered you will hear them holler in pain. Tanks sounds are cool and if you turn up the sound the explosion sounds will rock your world. Any game that causes my wife to get out of bed and yell ‘Turn that crap down’ gets extra points in my book.