When I first heard that Battlefront were upgrading Combat Mission Shock Force (CMSF) to their latest engine I felt like a kid waiting for Christmas. Little did I know that I would be exactly like a kid waiting for Christmas and not be able to open my present until Christmas day (well, give or take a couple of weeks!) Battlefront have always had some problems in communicating through the forums and didn’t do themselves any favours by suggesting an earlier release of the updated game (I think it was September at one point and then October) but then not keeping people informed as the launch slipped.
The actual release of Combat Mission: Shock Force 2 at the beginning of December came as a complete surprise – there was no fanfare or big announcement, just a bunch of excited forum posters who had received emails about their pre-orders. In the event the release still isn’t the fully updated release that was initially suggested. Instead the game engine and scenarios have been completed to the new CMSF2 standard but only the base game and marines’ module campaigns have been reworked – the NATO and British campaigns are playable at the moment but are still to be upgraded to suit the new features.
Although their communication through the forums could do with some work, I have to say that my experience with their customer service has been excellent. I had the original Paradox version of the base game and had bought the modules through the Battlefront site (after Battlefront left Paradox). The Paradox version didn’t come with a serial number (which is required for the upgrade process) and I didn’t have the Battlefront patch that added a serial. I was sure this would cause problems and I raised a ticket with Battlefront technical support. The next day I got a personal email with a serial code for the base game along with a message thanking me for my support. When I ordered the update I also messed up by not updating my email address and so missed the download location (I know, but remember I was behaving like a kid waiting for Santa) and they sorted that out for me too.
Anyway onto the review: The upgraded version of Combat Mission Shock Force (CMSF2) models a hypothetical war between Syrian forces and Western allies in 2008, as did the original, although that was released before the onset of the on-going Syrian crises that began in 2011. Since the game is offered at a huge discount to owners of the original CMSF, the short version is that this should be an automatic purchase for that demographic. Prospective new owners, however, might be put off by the high price and it’s them that this article is mainly aimed at.
The base game includes US forces (a Striker brigade combat team and a heavy brigade combat team), Syrian infantry, mechanised and armoured units and a load of unconventional forces (irregulars, spies, IEDs, etc). The vehicles included are M1 Abrams (4 versions); M2 Bradley (4 versions); M7A3 Bradley (two versions); Strykers (8 versions); M113 (1 version); Humvee(3 versions); T-54/55(3 versions); T-62 (4 versions); T-72 (6 versions); BMP (3 versions); BTR-60; BRDM-2 (2 versions); UAZ-469; Ural-4320; Pickup truck (3 versions, all with big guns); car bombs. There’s also a whole bunch of artillery and air assets included as well.
The base game also comes with around 20 individual battle scenarios and a campaign with its own battles. There’s also a training campaign included to get you started. The size of the battles range from engagements involving sub-platoon level forces all the way up to battalion level battles. There’s also a quick battle creator and a full scenario editor if you feel creative. It’s also possible to create full campaigns in the editor.
In addition, it’s possible to buy (currently) three expansion modules. These modules add new units (for both sides), battle and campaigns. The Marines module adds a Marine expeditionary unit and an US army infantry brigade combat team on the NATO side and units from the 14th Airborne division on the Syrian side. The new vehicles include another version of the M1; LAVs (6 versions); AAVs (2 versions); TOW Humvee; MTVR (2 versions); LMTV; T-90SA; BMP-3. The module contains another campaign involving the marines and 14 additional battles. The campaign and battle scenarios in this module have been completely reworked to the CMSF2 standard.
The British Forces module includes infantry, mechanised infantry and armoured formations along with a host of supporting units. Included vehicles are Challenger 2 (2 versions); Warrior (6 versions); Spartan; Sultan; Scimitar; FV432 (3 versions); Jackal (3 versions); TUM (5 versions). The British campaign involves a Scottish battlegroup which I like (being a Scot!) and the module also includes 28 standalone battle scenarios. The individual battles have been updated to the latest CMSF2 innovations, but the campaign, while still playable, hasn’t been modified for the new features yet. Battlefront have been clear that they intend to do this, but the timescale hasn’t been set.
Last, but not least, is the NATO module which adds three new nationalities: the Germans, the Canadians and the Dutch. The Germans are represented by a Gebirgsjagers, Panzergrenadiers and armour, the Canadians by an ‘independent’ battlegroup, a mechanised infantry battalion and a tank squadron, and the Dutch by a light infantry company, and tank and mechanised battalions. The new vehicles are Leopard 1 (2 versions); Leopard 2 (3 variants); CV9035, Marder, YPR-765 (4 versions); Wiesel (2 versions); LAV III (3 versions); Coyote; Fuchs; Fennek (3 versions); Nyala (2 versions); M113; G-Class (7 versions); ZSU-23-4; ZU-23-2; Zil-131. There are 24 upgraded standalone scenarios and three campaigns (one for each nation), although the campaigns are still waiting to be upgraded to use the new CMSF2 features.
In addition to the Battlefront supplied content, CMSF1 had a large modding community and there’s every sign that this will carry over to the upgraded game. Modders have added battles, campaigns and new textures to model modern conflicts throughout the Middle-East (and beyond).
CMSF2 has several different ways in which it can be played. For solo play the difficulty setting can be adjusted across 5 levels. Except at the very lowest level the difficulty setting doesn’t ‘buff’ hit rates or damage, but instead alters the amount of information the player is given about the enemy and the delays involved in some tasks such as calling support. As well as the difficulty the player can also alter the way in which the game is played. The two options are pausable real-time and turn-based. In the real time version of the game things move, as the name suggests, in real time. This gives a real sense of immersion, but is a bit impractical for anything larger than a platoon. Turn-based play allows the player to give orders for the next 60 seconds of play which can then be watched repeatedly and rewound to observe the interesting bits. Turn-based is the way I always play the game because I can’t cope with the stress of real-time! CMSF2 also offers four two-player (opposite sides) modes: hotseat; Email; Internet/LAN real-time; Internet/LAN turn-based.
Graphically, the upgraded game is functional although I think rival Graviteam’s games look nicer. The look of the game on the screen can be altered by various hot keys that do things like turning trees off and hiding landmarks and text. There’s even a key that toggles ‘movie lighting’ that produces a washed out graphic that looks quite realistic.
The gameplay involves giving orders to individual vehicles, weapons or infantry sections. You have much more control over the individual units than you have in games like the Graviteam series, but this comes at the price of a pretty high work load. You really have to worry about whether an infantry section should stick their heads around a corner, or pop some smoke first. The game features a lot of battles that take place in an urban environment where things can seem very quiet for a long time before all hell breaks loose. When the action kicks off and tracers are flying everywhere, explosions are deafening, and lots of your icons are flashing indicating troops taking losses you really get a feeling of the total horror of being caught in such a battle.
More than any other game I’ve played CMSF2 really makes me care about my virtual troops. While I don’t particularly care about the names of the squad leaders (they are there if you do!) I feel awful when I see squads taking casualties. Even if I win a scenario with ‘acceptable’ losses I’m always tempted to try it again to cut the body count (on my side, at least). I don’t know why this is: In every other game I’m objective focussed and will happily let major units like aircraft carriers sink if they don’t affect my victory points too much. CMSF2 seems to be much more involving at an emotional level. Maybe I need to turn my speakers down so that I don’t hear the screams of the wounded and dying.
There are a couple of things that annoy me about CMSF2: Troops still bunch at windows if there’s a large squad and only a few windows. This maximises firepower, which is great, but also means that most of the squad gets wiped out when someone with an RPG takes a shot at the window. Sure it’s possible to split squads into fireteams and distribute these independently throughout a building, but it’s a lot of micro-management. Another thing I’ve noticed in CMSF2 that I don’t remember in the original is how often squads panic. In one game I had a crack marine squad enter a building, get shot at and then run from the building into machine gun fire like a bunch of actors in a ‘Carry-On’ film. In the same game I had a bailed out vehicle crew oscillate several times around a building in a panic. However, compared to all the positives the complaints I have about the game are minor.
As I said above, the upgrade should be an easy buy ($35 for everything) for current Combat Mission: Shock Force owners. For new purchasers the price ($60 for the main game and $35 for each of the modules) is pretty steep compared to other games. Battlefront don’t really do discounts (although they are currently doing some bundles), so it’s likely that these are the prices you’ll have to pay. There is an excellent demo for the game, so you can really give it a try before spending anything. If you like it there’s loads of content to keep you going for a while in the base game and you can add the modules when time and budget allows. If you are interested in modern platoon level warfare my advice is to buy it – you won’t regret it.