Rick Atkinson’s fine trilogy on the US Army in Europe in World War II approaches the subject in three phases: North Africa, Sicily and Italy, and Western Europe. Battlefront seems to be taking a similar approach with Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy and Combat Mission: Fortress Italy with Combat Mission: Red Thunder thrown in to cover crucial battles in 1944 on the Eastern Front. The Western European Front in 1944-45 is being wound up with Combat Mission: Final Blitzkrieg. Of course, no World War II Europe series is complete without a Bulge game but Battlefront recognizes that the vicious fighting that occurred in the two months before December 1944 and in January-February 1945 deserves a stand-alone game. Will the Ardennes offensive still overshadow the rest of the package?
A Winter Wonderland – NOT!
Snowy landscapes are expected for this period and Combat Mission: Final Blitzkrieg has them along with heavy to light snowfalls. However, not all of the Bulge battles were fought in snow; Kampfgruppe Peiper ran into mud with just an occasional dusting of snow. The most pervasive and important natural graphic feature is trees – trees in forests, trees in copses, trees along roads. Anyone who has taken a walk in a northern European forest during the autumn knows they are dark and dank, a scene from the Brothers Grimm. The fighting from the Huertgen Forest to the Vosges took place in these nightmares where each winding road and path could hide a pillbox or an ambush. This game underscores the limited visibility of these spots with mists, fogs, rain and pre-dawn darkness or dusky twilight. The developers took some pity on players by adding an option for three levels of tree density and the ability for a “bright” night. Nonetheless, visibility plays an enormous roll in gameplay. Persistent man-made smoke and explosions don’t help matters.
Graphics meld over into mechanics with paths. Depending on unit type, players can have up to eight kinds of movement. Each kind has its own color showing a path with circular and triangular waypoints. Line of fire has a similar color scheme for different fire orders and line of sight. Additional fire graphics include arcs, circles and lines. Players should note that, at a distance, a disparity exists between the position of the cursor and the end point of a path or line a fire. Precision is obtained by moving the view very close to the intended location or target.
Sound is absolutely integral to play. Sound effects get louder or softer depending on the cursor position. At times, a boom or a rat-a-tat-tat is the only clue that something’s happening. The American and German soldiers’ chat is meaningless in stretches of little activity but is vital when the balloon goes up. A nice option would be to turn off speech unrelated to events.
Newcomers to the Combat Mission series may find the learning curve steep. The key to easing this problem is to realize each game has two manuals: one for the engine and another for that specific game. The engine can be around 120 pages and goes into great detail of the mechanics and controls of the series. The game-specific manual is divided into a detailed walkthrough of the multi-mission training campaign and an encyclopedia listing the specifications of units and weapon systems in the game. Players may find that they spend more time reading the manuals than with other games but it is time well spent.
A Beaten Army?
Lightning Allied advances during the summer of 1944 created the impression of a crushed German army. As the Allies neared the German border, however, a wall of determined enemies appeared. Patton’s thrust into Alsace-Lorraine stopped in front of Metz while forces in the north were shredded in the Huertgen forest. Stretched logistics explains only part of this slow-down; even second-rate German troops were giving the American and British forces all they could handle. Meanwhile, Hitler gathered the cream of what little resources left to him for the famous Ardennes offensive.
Combat Mission: Final Blitzkrieg’s mechanics are very well suited to the murky autumn and winter battlefield environments, especially the spotting mechanism. Often, the first and only hint of an enemy unit is the trace of a bullet or shell. Following the projectile’s direction with a friendly unit may reveal a faint floating icon representing a suspected contact; more thorough scouting may confirm the contact and yield information about the foe. However, the suspected contact icon could just be that enemy’s last position. The spotting unit does not tell friendly unit of any contact. This difficulty and confusion of spotting is very realistic and makes spotting the central task of all activity as units can’t target what they don’t see and can be killed by enemies they overlook.
The six infantry movement commands should be used with spotting in mind. The two faster commands decrease spotting ability while increasing fatigue; “move” and “slow” are good for spotting but bumps against the mission’s time limit. “Hunt” stops movement when an enemy is spotted while “assault” divides squads for overwatch maneuvers. “Blast” and mine operations require engineers. Between turn-based and real-time play, the former divides missions into one-minute intervals allowing players the control needed for adequate spotting. Vehicles have limited spotting ability; scout cars are too fragile to safely reconnoiter a field.
Spotting is also crucial for on-board and off-board artillery. Spotters, usually a HQ or forward observer unit, calls down fire in terms of specific targets or areas defined by lines and circles. Fire missions have parameters for length and intensity. Such indirect fire can compensate for the uncertainty and danger of spotting.
Fire commands also recognize the difficulty of finding certain targets. “Target” is good for the rare clear enemy but is usually used more often for area fire to suppress suspected foes or hoping for a lucky hit. The scarcity of confirmed targets can be overcome with commands using arcs for both infantry and vehicles. Some new vehicles like the Flammpanzer 38(t)can make areas into death traps. The commands in the Special panel allow deployment of weapons, popping smoke and other actions depending on unit type. Players should not be intimidated by the multitudes of commands as both men and vehicle will avoid obstacles and fire on visible targets automatically.
These commands fit well into Combat Mission: Final Blitzkrieg’s three campaigns and 25 individual battles. The three campaigns represent Peiper’s dash for the Meuse, Third Army’s drive to relieve Bastogne and the ugly, vicious fighting around Aachen. All campaigns carry over casualties and supply expenditures so, with “repl depls” running dry; the Red Ball Express only able to do so much and the perpetual German shortage of everything, players must conserve men and ammunition; reinforcements and re-supply are rare. The number of units in a campaign can seem overwhelming but modes for multi-selection ease the pain. The battles cover all five months and four countries. Some are short skirmishes of thirty minutes while others involve many units and last two hours. Victory is determined by points for holding or taking objectives while inflicting enemy casualties and avoiding friendly losses.
Replay value is great with an easy Quick Battle generator, a powerful editor, hotseat/Internet/PBEM play and five levels of difficulty. Each level enhances AI cunning which is pretty good even at lower levels.
As usual, Battlefront will offer add-ons for Combat Mission: Final Blitzkrieg providing other nations’ forces and covering the actions through May 1945. Waiting for the add-ons is unnecessary as this game captures the feel of a most dramatic period of the war. The series remains the epitome of World War II tactical simulations. Is it too early for a Game of the Year nomination?
About the Author
Jim Cobb has been playing board wargames since 1961 and computer wargames since 1982. He has been writing incessantly since 1993 to keep his mind off the drivel he dealt with as a bureaucrat. He has published in Wargamers Monthly, Computer Gaming World, Computer Games Magazine, Computer Games Online, CombatSim, Armchair General, Subsim, Strategyzone Online. He was adjunct faculty at Cardinal Stritch University for fifteen years.