And, as the cloak of winter settles comfortably around our shoulders, my thoughts turn to the failed Nazi invasion of Russia, kicked off with Operation Barbarossa.
My thoughts turn this way because I have, of late, been playing (and re-playing) some of the Matrix Games re-implementations of the classic tactical squad-level World War II games in the Close Combat series. Specifically, I’ve been playing Close Combat: Cross of Iron and Close Combat: The Longest Day.
Cross of Iron is a remake of Close Combat III: The Russian Front. The Longest Day is a remake of Close Combat V: Invasion Normandy. Both of them now run well on modern Windows PCs (but regrettably, not on Mac OS X. Yet?)
Close Combat and I have a troubled history. The sad truth is that when it comes to computer games, I often lack patience. This ends up expressing itself in negative ways when I play games that require sneaking, or games that require “leapfrogging” tactics. The way you are supposed to play Close Combat is to carefully move your squads in position one at a time, maintaining overlapping fields of fire, so that one (or more) squads are laying down suppressing fire while another squad is moving from cover to cover. Then, when your moving squad reaches cover, it starts a suppressing fire so your other squads can move.
Back when I played this game in the ’90s, I was usually able to maintain that for about 3.5 minutes, at which point I’d say “Eh, what’s the worst that could happen?” and I’d move all my squads forward at once, at which point they would all be brutally mowed down in a hail of machine gun fire and exploding artillery shells.
I have mellowed a bit since then, and perhaps my time playing the (turn-based) Combat Mission games have given me a greater appreciation of the importance of leapfrogging. So that doesn’t happen as much anymore. But the temptation is still there.
I think part of this tension comes from the inability to pause the game while issuing orders. The ostensible reason for this, according to one of the original developers, is that it “ruined the game”:
We actually did useability tests on live subjects, with a pause feature in the game. We saw the players issue a lot of orders, let the game run for maybe 10 seconds, pause, issue more orders, etc. This destroyed the whole feel of the game.
To which I reply, “Poppycock.” As I’ve said with regard to another game design issue, that of savepoints, the player is better able to manage their own happiness than you, the game designer. There are a thousand ways to allow pausing for orders while still keeping the pace up (the Combat Mission method, of “issue orders, then run for an entire minute” is a fine example). The real reason Close Combat doesn’t allow pausing is that the developers couldn’t make up their mind whether they were making a single-player or a multi-player game, and in this particular instance they let the multi-player use case drive the design. Since I never play multi-player real-time games that aren’t called Counterstrike or Left 4 Dead, I am happy to dismiss this as a completely wrong decision.
Of the two games, Cross of Iron is the better one, in my opinion. The Longest Day tries to provide a strategic campaign mode that allows you to decide which mission to take on next, but somehow that just ends up making me, personally, lose focus. Cross of Iron, on the other hand, is more linear. Which, it turns out, is not a disadvantage, because it’s a wonderful way to tell the story of the Eastern Front. Plus, I like hearing my troops speak in Russian.The graphics and sound are more or less exactly the same as they were in the original release. The player still has a somewhat dissociated, top-down view of the battlefield. The suffering of your troops is vivid, yet distant: the man crawling in agony towards cover might as well be a wounded ant. It is, truth to tell, somewhat unnerving.
The gameplay is straightforward. You can right-click on any squad to bring up a menu of possible actions. Typical actions might include sneak, move, move fast, deploy smoke, and fire, among others. Most battles are won not through direct attrition, but by breaking the enemys’ morale and forcing them to flee the battlefield.
Before each battle, you are given an opportunity to rest, refit, or recruit new squads of different types, both infantry and armor. The game also models command and control through the presence of leaders. Men fighting within the command radius of an officer fight harder, react faster, and are generally more resilient. Losing an officer, often, can quickly turn into losing a battle.
If there is anything surprising about this entire genre, it’s that in 15 years no one has created a game that models squad-based combat better than Close Combat. Combat Mission comes closest, but it is lacking polish in critical places. From my perspective, Close Combat is still the leader of the pack.
Disclosure statement: Matrix Games graciously provided Tea Leaves with review copies of these games.