Close Combat III: The Russian Front
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When Westwood released Red Alert all those years ago, armed conflict seemed like a fun and groovy thing. Brightly coloured tanks and soldiers with accents more phoney than Antoine de Caunes maimed and killed each other for laughs. Nobody questioned their orders, and everyone was happy to leap suicidally in front of an enemy machine-gun at the click of a mouse.
Today, fashion dictates that Close Combat III: The Russian Front be filled with panic-stricken servicemen, blood-curdling shrieks, ruptured skulls, and bones poking through flesh. Land mines don't just go 'dink' and remove one of your blips from the map, they go "WAHBooooM" and are followed by muffled cries for an ambulance.
That's not to say that Microsoft's long-established strategy series has suddenly become obsessed with Spielbergian realism. It hasn't. It's always been that way. Those of you who are familiar with the two earlier Close Combat titles will know them as true-to-life interpretations of Commands, Conquer, mould-breaking realtime strategy games that won praise from wargamers who wanted to do away with turns but found Westwood's interpretations just a little bit anaesthetised. So there are no surprises when you step into your first scenario and hear beleaguered troops pleading to be allowed home.
Prelude To War
Close Combat III is set on the Eastern Front in World War II and outlines four years of punishing conflict between the Ruskies and the Germans, from the 194I invasion of the USSR through to the tall of Berlin. You get to play as either side, starting off with small-scale individual battles and then moving to operations, to campaigns, and finally on to the Big Kahuna-the Grand Campaign. The game also incorporates its own editor which enables you to redefine the various settings, parameters and objectives of existing scenarios, which should keep strategy buffs satisfied for the next 100 years.
It should be made clear at this juncture that those of you looking for a Total Annihilation-stye blast should apply elsewhere. Close Combat action doesn't come anywhere near the hectic pace of Cavedog's game, and requires a liberal amount of thinking, rethinking, sneaking about, holding position and scurrying between trees. On the other hand, if surveying the territory, considering your options and then laying down some suppressing mortar fire while infantry dash out of a ditch to ambush an opponent sends you into raptures, then this is just the toy for you.
To spice things up a bit, developers Atomic Games have added a role-playing flavour where you are put in command of a special forces unit which moves from battle to battle. Each progression furnishes you with experience points which, as time goes on, aid your success in battle, while technological advancements enable you to add new, more effective weaponry.
Once More Unto The Breach
The maps in this latest instalment are now much more diverse, three times bigger than before and based on aerial photographs. Every region includes highly detailed terrain features such as hills, dales, ditches and foliage, all of which play a vital part in your strategy. Aside from obvious line-of-sight and line-of-fire issues, a slope can hinder your tanks and cause your foot soldiers to exert themselves, leaving them all puffed out and unable to shoot straight by the time they've come to a halt.
The manual goes Into some depth to explain how you should use the scenery and the 300 different squads, 100 different weapons, 60 soldier types and 80 vehicles to your advantage. Given that the enemy AI and its grasp of the situation at any moment on any map is nothing short of distressing, you need to use every trick in the book to gain the upper hand. You can zoom in and out to get a better idea of your surroundings, but the close-up views are rather blocky and thus aren't particularly useful.
Playing as the Russians, many of the early battles see your Red Army forces outnumbered, outclassed and slaughtered. Unfortunately this is considerably disheartening, and after three or four successive wipe-outs you seriously think about jacking it all in and grooming the dog instead.
On the next game, even your troops start giving up: they refuse orders: they start running backwards instead of forwards: they leap out of their tanks and high-tail it to a neighbouring village. Just as they take the Initiative in the heat of battle, they flee if panicked by a lunatic (ie you) issuing orders for them to advance across an open field in full view of six enemy battalions.
Suddenly you feel as If you've let them all down, and resolve to do better next time. So you spend much longer digging into defensive positions and less time ordering troops into the middle of no man's land. You're very careful about keeping them in bunkers, in woods - anywhere that's out of harm's way. And then... Pow!-you realise that you're hooked.
Unlike the way Hollywood likes to tack soppy all-okay-in-the-end scenes on to the end of modern war epics, Close Combat III is keen to remind you, both in terms of grisly gameplay and through data in the manual, that more than 25 million Russians died on the front. Combined with unsentimental action, realistic weaponry and historically accurate campaigns, the game not only makes you desperate for a truce, it also encourages you to reflect on the appalling waste of life during wartime. I mean, 25 million. That can't help but make you stop and think.