Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin Review Page 2

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Gameplay

Ok, the meat and potatoes of the game is the in depth game play that this game delivers. Without a doubt this game has the best setup for wargaming that I have ever seen. In the past there have been two types of wargames-turn based and real time strategy. Turn based games have the advantage of structure but many people find them somewhat boring and almost sterile in their presentation. Real time strategy games have more fluidity but they can become overwhelming; particularly when you have to try to keep track of multiple units. Turn based games work well for play by e-mail games while real time strategy games work best for direct TCP/IP gaming. What would be best is a combination of the genres; one that allows the control of a turn based game wile at the same time allowing the thrill of playing a real time game.

The Combat Mission series has done this with its I-Go, You Go, We Go system of gaming. Basically both sides give orders to their units and these units are carried out in real time, at least for 60 seconds. Once these 60 seconds are done each side gets the chance to change its orders, issue new orders or look around the battlefield. Orders are given again and the game runs for another 60 seconds. For those that think a minute isn’t very long, run your four T-34’s into a pair of Panthers and you will see how long 60 seconds really is.

When I say that this game is the best of both gaming genres I really mean it. One of the things that makes this game so popular is the ability to sit there for one night and play a full battle while at the same time not feeling stressed while managing your troops. Often mistakes are made with RTS style games, a bad click or hitting the wrong command will cause the loss of a unit. With Combat Mission you know that your orders are right before you send them into battle, and you have no one to blame but yourself when they get whacked. Trust me; they will get whacked in this game.

You have a multitude of ways of playing the game. Besides the traditional Wehrmacht and Red Army troops you have units from all the combatants that took part in the war. You can fight as the Finns, Italians, Poles (under Russian command) or even as partisan troops. Hungarians and Romanians are in the battle and some of their unique equipment is present in the game. Troop types range from conscripts to paratroops; from crack SS troops to equally awesome Guards units. Armored forces are available, ranging from the venerable Panzer IIIFs to the awesome King Tiger tank, from BT7s to IS3s. Literally every piece of equipment that was fielded on all sides has been modeled in this game. This is an amazing act of history, not just wargaming. I don’t think I have ever seen such a database of individual weapons in one game. Literally everything seems to be here. I haven’t gone through ever single vehicle to see if anything was left but if something is missing you will certainly have to look for it.

Each unit in CMBB can range from lowly conscript to the extreme Elite units. This experience level plays heavily on the ability of a unit to do what is needed to accomplish the mission. Conscripts may duck and run under fire while veteran or crack units will try to hold when the odds are more against them. In addition all units have a commander attached which affects their overall unit cohesion, ability to react to enemy fire and ability to stand enemy attacks. It is very important to keep your units in contact with their platoon and company commands lest they lose morale and run.

Individual vehicles all have their own strengths and weaknesses. Some tanks have a fast rate of fire but lousy armor, others, like the Tiger, have the reverse. Even the armor quality is modeled in the game. Early Russian (and late German) tanks suffered from poor quality steel used in their construction and this brittleness is modeled in the game. Most games will model armor hardness and angles when dealing with the probability of a kill related to a hit but the Combat Mission series has to be one of the few to actually factor in the quality of the armor when dealing with hit and kill probabilities.

Shot traps (defects in design that allow the deflection of AP rounds into weaker parts of the armor) are modeled on the vehicles. Optics are utilized, particularly on the German side. German optics were considered as among the best in the world and their advantage over the Soviets is modeled in the game. This was probably the biggest reason the Germans had success against Allied armor. The anti-tank guns of the Soviets muzzle velocity and range wise were not really inferior to their German counterparts. In some respects the German’s appreciated the firepower of the Soviet 76mm and 85mm guns and utilized captured types frequently. Soviet optics never did come close to their Wehrmacht counterparts though, and this resulted in the Russian need to close with the enemy to ensure good hits.

The calculations used in this game are simply amazing. This isn’t just a calculation of whether the hit is on the front/side/rear armor type of game; it calculates all of the things above plus the random luck factor that sometimes happens in war. In addition you may find your Tiger knocked out by a lucky gun hit or shocked crewman from a leader accidentally catching a round. The game is amazingly complex behind the scenes, something that should be in place and sometimes missing from most games.

The key to winning with Combat Mission lies in the planning. Terrain holds an importance in all wargames but Combat Mission is currently unique in the ability to get down on ground level and actually see the ground you are walking on. A leader recon of terrain is considered the norm for most front line leaders. In the past, this ability was limited by the game interface. While not totally realistic, in CMBB you have the ability to walk the ground you fight on and you get the opportunity to actually see your avenues of approach, potential bottlenecks and danger areas first hand. This is different than looking at an abstract representation on a map. If I had any kind of a gripe with the map layout of CMBB is lies in the ability to traverse the entire map, not just zones that you control It is slightly unrealistic to be able to walk over terrain known to be controlled by the enemy. The fog of war only covers units in the game, not terrain. A nice potential feature for future versions of the game would be the ability to limit the knowledge of terrain. This could make attacks and defenses more interesting in advance and assault missions.

Orders for units consist of a variety of commands depending upon unit type and quality of unit. There is a basic infantry, tank, and vehicle setup of commands. The list of orders has expanded over the original Combat Mission, particularly for infantry and tank commands. Virtual infantry units now have the addition of movement to contact orders, which means infantry now move until the find something to shoot at and then lay down fire. In addition there are the older moves, run and hide commands that are pretty much self explanatory.

In addition the old sneak and crawl commands from CMBO have been combined into one individual sneak command. I am not totally sure I like this new order but it was probably done to limit the overall number of orders you can give to your units. It does the job, albeit you have to be careful how far out you give the orders.

Probably somewhat controversial will be the new ‘Human Wave’ command that can be given to Soviet Infantry. This was a fairly common tactic used by the Soviet Army in WW2, albeit one that had limited success at times. Russian units have to have a combat rating of at least regular to take part in human wave tactics and the use of the troops in near suicidal attacks I am sure will be met with some alarm by some individuals but it historically did happen and CMBB tries to model the unit tactics accurately.

In many respects the developers of the Combat Mission series have bucked some of the PC trends. You won’t see swastikas in place for German objective markers (sure to be a user made add on though) but Waffen SS units are present in the game, something that developers with less stomach have removed. These SS units were among the best fielded during the war and to eliminate them from gameplay they were cousins to the more notorious SS units would limit the reality of the game.

Tank units also have some new commands. Tankers also have the movement to contact order, along with a shoot and scoot order. Both infantry and armor also have new zone of fire orders which direct the units to look in a certain direction and not waste ammo on side stuff unless the danger is overly present. In addition tankers have the old standard Hunt (a cross between move quickly and move command where vehicles move relatively quickly to a point but keep their ears open), move, move quickly, engage, fire smoke, reverse, and button up commands.

The best addition to the armor commands in my opinion has to be the new hull down order. This is basically self explanatory; a unit moves to a certain location and assumes a hull down position if possible. This eliminates one of the biggest problems I had with the first Combat Mission, the difficulty in protecting your armor from anti-tank guns due to over exposure. There were times that I would either think I had a unit in a good spot only to find out that I couldn’t see the enemy or other times when I would inadvertently expose my armor to attack. This command limits the overall size of the target by ordering the unit to find the least exposed spot. This is a major improvement over the first game and highly commendable.

Overall the gameplay of Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin is just as good as the original and in some respects better than CMBO. AI seems somewhat improved; they don’t just go right at you like in the first game and are more likely to use stealth and flanking tactics to achieve their goals. The AI really shines in the defense, taking objectives against the AI is downright difficult. If you find you can blow through most AI’s in many wargames give CMBB a try, you will be pleasantly surprised to see how well the AI works as a team.

In the attack the AI will advance, probe the line for weakness and concentrate on a spot where they think they can achieve a breakthrough. Units appear to react realistically, a tank encountering a well placed anti-tank gun or enemy tank will back up and either go for the flank if possible. If it isn’t possible the AI vehicle will pull up, pop off a couple of quick shots, then back up again. There is still some problems with some armor rushing into hornets nests without infantry support but overall the AI works with infantry much better than in the past. Overall the AI is among the best I have ever seen in a wargame and if you never play online you will still get literally hundreds of hours of enjoyment playing the game.

CMBB ships with something like 65 single missions that range from short meeting engagements to huge assaults against well prepared enemy fortifications. These engagements can range from 15 to 60 plus turns and can involve literally a hundred different individual units. In addition you have the ability to play these missions from either the Soviet or German side. So, in effect you have something akin to over 100 individual missions for you to play with.

Actually, this is somewhat false because there are literally an unlimited number of missions that you can have with this game due to the quick mission builder that comes with the game. Literally with a few clicks you can have a fresh game or you can develop a game specifically to your liking. The quick mission builder, pretty much similar to the one from CMBO gives the gamer the ability to choose his units (or have the computer do it), the time and terrain involved, who is attacking, what weather is like, and how big a map in being used. This literally extends the life of the game to the point of forever; no two games have ever been alike. Even the maps for the battles are randomly generated so you will never see the same terrain twice-unless you choose a map you want for the battle.

In addition you have what are called operations, a group of linked missions over the same terrain to attain a certain goal. This is something akin to a cross between a single mission and a campaign game. You basically have from 2-10 linked ‘sessions’ where you cover several days in a fight. How you perform in prior missions impacts your resources for the next mission so keeping your casualties down is important to survival. While not a true campaign it is more than just a single mission and these ‘mini-campaigns’ take several days to finish.

There is no campaign in Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin. I really would have liked to see something like a campaign in CMBB, something akin to the old campaigns found in Steel Panthers. If I have one other complaint about the game (other than the performance issues) it has to be with the fractured nature of the single missions and operations. A campaign, where you start out in 1941 with say a platoon and eventually get up to battalion size units would have been a blast in the game and trying to keep your little platoon alive during the conflict would have been pretty interesting. Maybe this is too much for the engine or the designers but it may be something to consider in the future. The campaign mode in Steel Panthers was among the best IMHO and to combine the good parts of that game with the awesome abilities of CMBB would be amazing.

As a stand alone game CMBB is very very good, as an online game it is even better. The first Combat Mission shone as a PBEM masterpiece and CMBO seems to be even better.

You have the opportunity to play one of two types of online games with CMBB, either the old fashioned PBEM (play by e-mail) or a direct tcp-ip connect style for those that don’t mind spending four or five hours in front of the computer. Both seem to work well together although the traditional PBEM method of play tends to be the more popular. This is not surprising, this isn’t quake and a game can take up to six or seven hours to play. Given the complexity of the game and the time involved most people simply don’t have the time to devote at any single time.

The PBEM setup, literally identical to the first Combat Mission, was a brilliant concept right from the start. After both sides set up, one person goes and then sends the results to the other player who then makes his move. The first player then reviews how the battle went and then sends the movie to player two. After viewing the movie player two then becomes player one and gives the first orders. What this does is limit cheating opportunities. Since player one can’t make any more moves after watching the movie he is literally stuck with the results of his move. Since player two automatically becomes player one after the movie is sent to him he has to wait until player one sees and sends the movie back to him before he can make a move. I have enjoyed PBEM games since the first CMBO came out and still do.

As a final topic in the review I need to discuss the mission/map builder that comes with the game. When I said that there are literally an unlimited number of games possible with this game I wasn’t lying, with the mission builder it is literally possible to have thousands of custom games on your computer. People are literally making custom missions now and places like Mad Matt’s CM HQ will have literally hundreds of missions available either by the time of this review or shortly afterward.

The map builder is easy to use but relatively powerful in its effects. With the map builder you can create just about any kind of terrain you want for the game, from the mountainous to the flat. You can recreate the steppes of Russia or the urban areas of Stalingrad. Streams, rivers, swamps, forests, farmer’s fields are all represented in the map builder. In addition you have the ability to place bridges, roads, buildings, and walls on the map. You can start from a totally clean slate or allow the map to randomly generate something that you can modify later. The maps are preview able in 3d so you can check your handiwork prior to placing units.

With the mission builder you have the opportunity to create totally new games or modify existing ones. This allows literally anyone the ability to create custom missions or operations based upon historic or hypothetical settings. The builder allows pretty much complete freedom for the gamer to dictate not only what kind of units participate in the battle, but where they are located, whether reinforcements will arrive, the quality of the units, the objectives to be taken, even the starting casualty levels for each side and the ammo level of the units.

Final Opinions and Conclusions

Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord was considered by many, including myself, to be the finest company and battalion level wargame ever created. My recommendation for the first game was to go out and get it, immediately. My recommendation for Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin is the same. Go out and get this game, it is that good. If your wife didn’t get you this game for Christmas she doesn’t love you. If your kids didn’t get this for you for Christmas they are ungrateful little imps undeserving of Santa’s presents.

CMBB continues the excellent trend started by Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord. There wasn’t much that needed corrected in the first game and the tweaks done for CMBB only improved the game more. There are very few games out there that I can’t find something major to complain about but the Combat Mission series is one of the few. The only things that I really could find wrong with the game is some performance issues on anything less than a top line computer, lack of a full blown campaign and I suppose somewhat dated graphics.

I will be honest; these complaints amount to next to nothing in the face of the fantastic attention to detail and excellent gameplay you will find with this game. The manual, interface, gameplay, AI, mission builder, and multiplayer components of the game make this probably the finest example of what a small developer can produce. After the first Combat Mission I was surprised to see that a major developer did not did not snap up this team for the sequel. My only regret about this game is that it probably won’t see the shelf space that it truly deserves. There is so much crap on the shelves today, it is really sad that this title won’t be there to shove the garbage out of the way.

If you have any interest in this kind of wargaming then you owe it to yourself to pick this title up. Even better, if you have a buddy that you used to play Squad Leader with in high school then pick up two, it will rekindle the enjoyment you used to have all those years ago, but this time you both can drink beer wile doing it without fear of you dad catching you.

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