Close Combat IV: Battle of Bulge
When you get round to reviewing the fourth game in a series, the chances are that most people know what it's all about. For those who don't, the Close Combat series are real-time, top-down wargames with gritty sound effects, highly realistic graphics and terrain, and authentic World War II era units -and not a single hex in sight.
For those who do know, Close Combat IVoffers a full barrage of game improvements, including a new strategic level of play with dynamic supply and weather effects, wonderfully animated terrain, artillery and air strikes, and more realistic leadership effects.
First off, there's the new 'strategic layer' to the game which divides the Ardennes ('The Bulge') into 43 locations linked by roads and separated by rivers or other obstacles, such as forests. Each player moves representative 'battlegroups' around the map, by road link only, in an attempt to out-manoeuvre the other, either by cutting off supply lines or eliminating them in battle. Artillery, air strikes and air supply drops are available on a limited basis and can be allocated to any battlegroup the player chooses.
Running The Risk
Unfortunately, in CCIV these 'battlegroups' are limited to a maximum of 15 vehicles, heavy weapons, or infantry units and only one battlegroup is allowed in each game location. The battlegroups are carefully-chosen representatives of the forces involved in the historical campaign, but you just can't have a strategic wargame worth its salt that doesn't allow you to concentrate your forces for the crucial blow. Sometimes one side or the other will be short of the full range of units, but that's due to attrition, rather than tactical or strategic skill on anyone's part. Too often the 'strategic layer' ends up as a string of 15v15 unit scenarios pretending to make up a campaign, and being about as realistic as Risk.
Okay, so the strategic element isn't really the heart of the game but it's hardly the big step forward its new developers trumpet it to be. There's even a tentative step backwards when it comes to scenario design. Unlike the game's predecessor, CCIII, you're no longer allowed to decide for yourself whether you want tanks, self-propelled guns, half-tracks or whatever In your battlegroup. You can only choose from a limited range of ready-made armoured, mechanised or infantry-heavy setups.
There's simply no way to alter their make up and that becomes a major frustration when you want a little variation. Imagine you have two battlegroups side by side, one with lots of tanks, the other with too much infantry. You want to even them out to make a better fighting force. Or concentrate them in order to drive a wedge through the enemy.
Sorry, you can't do either - CCIV only allows one battlegroup of 15 units on one map...
Taken as a whole, CCIV is out on its own as far as real-time wargames are concerned. Turn-based equivalents, from the vintage Steel Panthers series to Talonsoft's latest all-encompassing masterpiece, Eastern Front II, are ten-a-penny but you have to go a long way to get real-time wargaming with this level of graphical and technical realism. Happily, you can speed up or slow down the game, change video resolutions and select what you want soldier outlines to represent. It can be handy to set the outline colours to reflect their level of cover or morale - green is good, down through yellow and red to black.
CCIV's real claim to fame is the way it reflects the behaviour of individual soldiers. They're frightened, they're confident, they're superheroes or they run for home. If they're under pressure, they duck down out of sight. If their mates are blasted to oblivion, they eat dirt instead of K-rations and refuse to move.
Despite the fact that you can only give a whole unit specific orders, the game looks at each individual's line of sight and reaction separately, so you have between 30 and 40 men behaving much as they would in real life. It's frustrating, but it's utterly realistic.
There's also the 'improved AT. If only I had a quid for every game with an 'improved AT... But, switching out of cynical mode for an instant, CCIV's AI seems to be a big improvement over earlier versions. Its computer-led soldiers use flank attacks frequently and groups of units will often work together when attacking or defending.
Even your own men will fire at logical targets when left without orders, but there are still pathing problems. Tanks, in particular, seem to struggle with the simplest terrain - I watched a Panther struggling to turn round and move along a perfectly straight road by reversing one way, then the other, its turret circling furiously.
The interlace is compact, with each unit's options effectively reduced to seven simple commands. Nine times out of ten this is all that's required, but occasionally it's not enough. There's a desperate need for a quick ceasefire button.
If you're low on ammo - and you often are in Bulge scenarios -and have a dozen widely-placed units firing on one enemy, it's almost impossible to get them to stop firing once the enemy is neutralised. All you can do is quickly select each one and order it into ambush so that it only fires at targets less than 30 metres away. In a furious firefight, by the time you've clicked on all of the firing units and then (finally) hit the 'M' (for ambush) key to stop them from firing, you've wasted a lot of ammo...
Lead On Macduff
Never mind, there are sufficient new features to make this a game worth buying. Artillery and air support missions are deadly and the reserve pools and reinforcements make even the shortest operations and campaigns great fun to play.
All leaders now have battlefield influence and, by keeping leaders close to the action, you can drive your men pretty hard. In defensive scenarios, infantry and support weapons will start in pits and trenches after deployment and the maps can be entered from several different directions, making it much less boring to fight over the same maps. The Ludo-ltke strategic layer is embarrassingly simplistic, but it does add to the game's overall replayability. If only you could choose which specific units to include in your battlegroups... Maybe in CCV?
Download Close Combat IV: Battle of Bulge
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP