It’s all too easy to dismiss Firefight as a cheap Close Combat knock-off. Trust me, I’ve done it myself: Way back when the first edition was released, back when most people got their demos from magazine CDs and Atomic Games had yet to establish the “real-time tactical” genre, I sneeringly wrote off Sean O’Connor’s efforts after just a few minutes of playing it. In my defence a print deadline was hours away and it was my job to write the magazine blurb for the demos on each month’s coverdisk, which back in the days of Command and Conquer and Quake, tended to be stuffed with more clones than a Cylon Basestar. Sneering was part of the job description.
The thing is, it’s really okay to call Firefight a cheap Close Combat knock-off because that’s exactly what it is. Clearly Firefight could never have existed had Atomic not done its pioneering work, plus at £6.99/$9.99 it’s a good deal cheaper than either Gateway to Caen or Panthers in the Fog, the two most recent additions to the Close Combat series. So, yeah, call Firefight what you will – cheap knock-off, Clone Combat (ho-ho), whatever – just don’t make the mistake, as I once did, of dismissing it out of hand.
That said, Firefight is a difficult game to build up any affection for, certainly for the PC release. It was actually back in 2013 that O’Connor started updating his 1998 code, effectively remaking the game for a new audience of touchscreen gamers. Judging by some of the reviews on the App Store he’s done a good job, but sadly the 2016 Steam version doesn’t appear to have been lavished with the same amount of effort.
Take the controls, which have obviously been devised with screen pinching and prodding in mind. For example, to move your units you have to drag a marker, which is fine, but either side are two rotate buttons, a finger space apart, which really has no place in a mouse-based control system and should simply require dragging a line to set unit facing. Similarly there are no contextual mouse selections to left click and the right button is barely utilised at all – only it seems to order a unit to fire, which requires a few seconds to keep the button pressed down, a method utilised in far more touchscreen games than mouse-controlled ones. As for the keyboard controls, there are just a few to select units. No order shortcuts, no WASD/cursor map scrolling and not even a key to bring up the in-game menu (for that you have to pull down a tab at the top of the screen.)
If despite its many control hangovers you do decide to plump for the PC version, not only will you learn to accept its control limitations, you might actually start to enjoy them. Let me explain: there’s a fundamental difference between Firefight and the Close Combat series that almost makes the limiting controls desirable, which is entirely to do with the amount of tactical information you’re given access to. Close Combat games, certainly when it comes to the more recent ones, delight in revealing an abundance of information that, while useful, can often be too precise and too in-depth in that you can become bogged down in unnecessary micromanagement. Firefight instead offers very little information – a unit’s well-being (to paraphrase: tip-top, wounded, alive, dead, blown to bits), ammunition levels, tired/stressed icons, as well as a unit’s position on the map – just enough info for the player to have to rely on some measure of instinct, timing and tactical cleverness to complete a scenario.
You can’t win a map by dragging a box around your units, nor by utilising specific orders to suit certain conditions – as is the case with sneaking in Close Combat – but by positioning your units to maximise firepower and cover and timing their movements to use suppression and advance effectively. In essence, while it’s possible to get bogged down in the game, it’s very difficult to get bogged down in its stats and mechanics, simply because there are so few of them to take in or as the overhead commander you get to effect.
Speaking of which, the AI is pretty good. Although the infantry units are hard to make out when fully zoomed out, if you mouse wheel in and track your squads individually, they take decent decisions about positioning and have convincing levels of awareness. Obviously they don’t always respond immediately to your limited palette of orders – least of all when under fire or transitioning to different types of cover – but that’s of course how it should be when situational awareness, stamina, morale and battle experience factor into a unit’s capabilities.
Tanks aren’t nearly as reliable, however, with the pathfinding causing armour to take odd and often fatal detours around buildings. That said, no tank commander likes to reverse, certainly when under fire and with friendly troops nearby, so perhaps there’s some accuracy to the AI that I’m not fully appreciating.
Be mindful though that there’s no facility to set waypoints. Click a destination and your units will take a direct route there, even it means breaking cover and entering open ground. There’s no pause function either (or any speeding of time for that matter), which together with saves that are entirely automated, means that if you do make a mistake that’s down to the control system rather than poor tactics you can’t go back and correct it.
Despite the lack of any multiplayer options or any structured campaign, the selection of nine maps with eight scenarios a piece offers a favourable return should you choose to invest. Set across various French villages, the missions take in the early and latter periods of WWII, namely the Blitzkrieg across France and the rout of the British Expeditionary Force and the post D-Day allied return trip into Belgium. All the scenarios are attack focused, meaning you can’t choose sides. Nor are you able to pick units prior to battle, however both sides are well represented, with upwards of six squads to manage, plus supporting armour and off-field artillery. Sadly there’s no weather to contend with (which seems odd given how prominent fog and mist were during the Ardennes offensive), nor any time of day considerations to worry about, which does tend to limit the scope for nasty surprises, but there’s a tactical purity at the heart of Firefight that’s never anything less than compelling.
It’s just a shame much of the presentation is so scrappy, from the stifled controls to the lack of basic options, documentation and functionality, all the way to the limited stock soundscape of weapons and voices. The pleasing news however is that, as is typical of any title that plays a good tactical game, such deficiencies are easy to overlook. If accessibility and ease-of-use issues could be addressed, Firefight would make for an excellent gateway game for those looking to explore the likes of the Close Combat series for the first time. Otherwise, for those well versed in the ways of real-time tactical games, it’s a fulfilling diet option that could just do with a little more fizz. Dismiss it at your peril.