24 October 2014

PC Game Review: Combat Mission: Fortress Italy

New writer Russell Sakne reports about his experience on the ground in Sicily in the latest iteration to the Combat Mission series. Does it produce results? Or is it a stalemate reminiscent of the fighting that took place on the Italian Peninsula during World War 2?

Published on 22 OCT 2012 10:13pm by Russell Sakne
  1. world war ii, ground combat, armor combat, tactical, online or multi-player, single-player, intermediate, real-time pausable, turn-based wego, pc, 3d, 3rd person, company, platoon, squad

Publisher: Battlefront.com

Developer: Battlefront.com


Introduction

Combat Mission: Fortress Italy (CMFI) is the latest offering from Battlefront.com (BFC). It covers the American sector of the invasion of Sicily and subsequent fighting in July–August 1943 in meticulous detail. The engine offers a number of improvements over Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy (CMBN), its predecessor, as well as all the new units and terrain needed to fight across Sicily in the summer heat. There is a demo available from the Battlefront website, which makes this review an exercise in helping you decide whether you should give it a go.

I've always been a wargamer, ever since my Gran bought me an Airfix battle set against the wishes of my parents. As a youth I avidly devoured every book on wargames in the local library, paying especial attention to the WW2 and Ancients bits. I never really liked (or was any good at) painting figures: fingers too stubby and clumsy, and wanting to just get on and play the game (the models were a means to an end, not an end in themselves). Finding opponents was never that easy either. So computer wargames, like the original Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord, was the answer to my dreams: I don't have to paint the figures; there are plenty of online opponents; and if I can't fill my gaming hours against humans, there's an AI. The computer is a perfect umpire, allowing me to play imperfect information games with ease.

 

Initial Impressions

The most recent incarnation of Combat Mission is the Fortress Italy product. It's the first in a “family” (as BFC terms it) of games which will include a number of expansions that will cover ALL the fighting in Italy. The product has a new iteration of the Combat Mission engine, which has been significantly reworked in the graphics department, with “bump mapping” now being supported. There are also improvements in the pre-game menus and in the in-game GUI. Of course, as well as the incremental improvements in the game engine, you get brand new tables of organisation and models (both graphical and in game data) to support a rather more arid and mountainous combat environment; as compared to the Normandy terrain.

The “Italian Family” (I have to resist calling it Cosa Nostra) will be developing alongside and in parallel with the existing product. It’s notable to mention that the improvements to the game engine will be made available for a nominal upgrade fee for the older product, as future updates to the engine will, we are told, be made available to all the “legacy” game families as far back as CMBN.

The game is available by post direct from BFC, and if you're quick they might have some natty tin cases still available for you to store the other members of the family in when they're released; or you can download the game directly. At $55 either way ($65 for both if you want it now, but want the hardcopy manual and collectors case too), it might seem a bit pricey (especially if you're outside the US and you end up having to pay customs fees too). But if this kind of thing is your cup of tea, it really is a bargain for the thousands of hours of entertainment you'll get out of it.

The game installed for me after the first time of asking. I put the main install files in my “Games” folder, and the installer creates a subfolder in “My Documents” for the user-specific files like: save games, hotkey preferences and mods. The downloaded game requires activation, which can be done via an automatic process if the machine you're installing it on has access to the “intertoobs.” If you're putting it onto a machine behind an air gap, the process is a bit more involved. This activation is part of the DRM that BFC have elected to apply to the software: you're only allowed a certain number of activations, which might be problematic if you're constantly fiddling with the configuration of your machine. But barring you installing it on the machine you use to review products for computer blogs, I can't see the limits of the activation model being a problem for most, and BFC will, I understand, consider exceptional circumstances that might lead to you not being able to get at your game.

So, what do you get after all of this? Quite simply, the best conflict simulation game of this scale of pretty much any period and certainly of the World War 2 period. That's a fairly large opinion, so let's break it down a little bit.

 

A Conflict Simulation Game

“Conflict simulation game,” I say, and by that I mean it's a game that tries very hard to simulate as accurately as possible as many aspects of the conflict it's dealing with as it can. There are enough concessions “making it fun” and for it to be called a game, but for the most part, the fun here is of the serious kind: figuring out how to defeat your enemy and watching your little pixel troopers (pTruppen) put your plans into action. And that's good, because this is all put together well.

As to the scale of the game, the smallest unit you can buy (in the “Quick Battle” mode) is a two man team. The upper limit of what you can have in any given battle is likely limited by your hardware before it is limited by any conditions set within the Quick Battle mode. But the maps can be up to 4km square (that's 16km2 to be clear) and you can field multiple battalions of troops and equipment. Every single individual trooper is modelled here, even the crew inside vehicles. They each have their own individual morale state. Each pair of eyes is assessed for spotting capability, each weapon system (from sidearm to 150mm infantry gun) is rendered in loving detail, and each bullet and shell fired is assessed for line of fire, trajectory and terminal effect. But your basic manoeuvre element is a 2–6 man team, unless you're the Italians (more on this later), so it's a team level simulation up to the regiment level. As you might imagine, really big battles can take some time to play and aren't really practicable for real-time management; the “TacAI” isn't that good.

 

Intricate detail on models.

The command scale is the same as the unit scale. You're assumed to be both the most senior commander, issuing broad tactical direction (“C Company to take a farm”; “a squad to give fire support on the ridge overlooking that farm”), and the senior officer of any specific unit. The latter helps you figure out how best to respond to the immediate demands of your tactical environment because of the varying levels of command. Sometimes the crossover between these two roles can give you advantages that your real world counterparts could only dream of, including quite better coordination of infantry and armour than any WW2, or even modern army, could achieve. But I don't find that a problem, and those that do, who wish to be as realistic as possible, will apply their own strictures and prohibitions.

The display lets you zoom in to the weeds and look about, or zoom out to see the whole battlefield. The time scale is 1:1. You can play it real-time, while pausing at will (in single player; in RT vs another human you can request a pause) to issue new commands. Or you can play in the “WeGo” (as opposed to “I go, you go”) turn-based mode, which I personally vastly prefer. In this mode, which was pioneered, I believe, by BFC back at the dawn of the century. In this style of play you have as long as you like to issue orders at the top of each minute. When you're happy (or as happy as you think you're going to get, depending on how badly your troops are getting chewed up) with your moves, you hit the big red button and a minute's action is computed; with the pTruppen attempting to execute your orders to the best of their ability. This might sound like suicide, but the little guys are often ably assisted (within limits) by a pretty good reactive “Tactical AI” (TacAI) which will have them take appropriate alternative actions should either crisis or opportunity present itself: infantry coming under fire will return fire and attempt to take cover; armour spotting infantry close up will fire HE (high explosives) and MGs (machineguns) at them and generally will back away. The best bit about WeGo is that you get to watch everything that happened, even on a large map, because you can rewind the turn and change your viewpoint at will. This can show some outrageous heroics by individual pTruppen who get lucky. Just being able to watch from multiple angles as you finally kill that pesky Tiger/57mm/sniper that's been holding up your attack is priceless.

The opponent’s scale is 1:1 too. The format doesn't have any support for cooperative play, and I can certainly see that it's a lot of work to shoehorn the game into the coop corral. With Human vs. Human play though, you can play WeGo either by hotseat or by email (PBEM), or RT across a LAN or the Internet. BFC provides no support for opponent finding outside a section dedicated to this within their forum. There are no lobbies for setting up TCP/IP games, and you have to enter IP addresses to connect your machines for multiplayer. While this might seem restrictive, I was able to find many PBEM opponents—more than I could handle—in the game’s community; which is broad and, largely, welcoming.

If you're lacking any human opposition there's always the AI. Combat Mission's “top level” AI is, strictly, non-existent. Without human input, the AI units will just sit there and react until the TacAI says they need to (which can, on the defence, be all that's needed). Fortunately, every battle has the chance for a human to have some input, in the form of “AI plans,” which are created by the designer of the map or scenario that you're playing on/in. This is, as the Curate said of his egg, “good in parts.” If you're playing against an AI with a good plan, it can be a challenge. If you're playing against a plan that was a bit rushed in its creation, or where the force selected by the Quick Battle random force generator isn’t compatible with, you can largely be wasting your time in a humdrum turkey shoot. It's entirely adequate to play against if you are getting acquainted with the game. Once you've learned the game, human opponents are where the real action lies.

I understand there are some contenders in the ACW period for attention to detail and, given period parameters, scale too. But other than that, I've not heard of any game that gets so deep into modelling every soldier and shot trajectory in a 3D space. Most wargames abstract weapon effects into “firepower” and “HP” (hit points). BFC are firmly committed to simulating as much as possible and keeping the abstractions or “design for effect” as rare as they can. This does lead to some pressures on the design, since a weak link in the simulation can produce very odd-looking results. There are a couple of bugs pending resolution which can cause lopsided affairs.

I'm not saying it's perfect. BFC knows it's not perfect, and they are working continuously to improve their product. It's worth mentioning that BFC's team is tiny. There are a grand total of two whole programmers and a couple of handfuls of artists and designers. That they've produced a game that works this well and has so much in it is nothing short of astonishing. It's probably being worked on and the few guys working on it are pretty darn good. I'm probably just nit-picking.

 

So, what's really in the box?

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Game menu.                  Loading screen.

You get to play with the Americans in Sicily in July and August 1943, as well as their enemies. Other nations’ armies (Commonwealth units, the German and Italian) will be added in subsequent expansions to the Italian Family. The Italians only had infantry divisions on the island at the time of Operation Husky, so you don't get to see much in the way of Italian armour. There are some tank destroyers and assault guns to accompany the obsolete light tanks and tankettes of the Regio Esercito (RE), but any medium or heavy tanks on the Axis side will be provided by German formations.

Scenario selection.

There are two general formats for playing CM games: the Scenario and the Quick Battle. Scenarios are complete sets of a map and two opposing (predetermined) forces, with potentially complex and asymmetrical victory conditions. The scenario's briefing outlines the situation presented to the player, with a historical background. Often these are attempts to recreate, to a greater or lesser degree of fidelity, historical situations.


A briefing screen.

Quick Battles are where you choose your own forces, of historical compositions, with the option of salting the selection with individual elements of your preference. You then fight over terrain that can be as complex and detailed as a scenario, but for much more generic victory conditions and with no back story.

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Quick Battle setup.          Select your troops.

There are also campaigns of linked scenarios which can branch according to your levels of victory in a component scenario, and carry formations over, including losses, while incorporating potential resupply and reinforcements. In Fortress Italy there are three such campaigns: American, German and Italian. These have so far only been created as single player affairs against the AI, due to the challenges inherent in making a human vs. human campaign both remain enjoyable and feel like a campaign for both sides. In addition to the above options are three tutorial missions of two scenarios each.

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 Campaign selection screen.

The game includes an editor wherein you can create your own maps and add AI plans that transform a map into a quick battle map, with the additional features (briefings, units) that turn a quick battle map into a scenario. There have been some improvements in the editor in this iteration of the CM engine: there are more groups available to lump troops into within AI plans, allowing more sophistication; the layout of linear features has been simplified; you can jiggle a BMP into the editor to trace over. I say “jiggle” because, typically for the first time any feature gets added to the CM engine, the interface is clunky. You don't hit “load overlay” then browse for the file you want to use or anything as simple as that. Oh no, you have to drop the file you want to use, with a specific filename, into the mods folder, and although the manual is quite large, it doesn't even tell you about this folder.

 

Editor: The roads in the background are a Google Earth map; the terrain tiles are the default randomness of a new map.

There are also an ever-growing number of maps and scenarios designed by the community, available from the BFC “Repository” and various fan club web sites. Given the work needed to make a good scenario, though, the number available for FI is still quite small. There are 300 maps included with the game with a large variety available for quick battles, not to mention start points for your own experimentation with scenario creation.

Once you’ve loaded the scenario you then go through the “setup and first orders” phase, where you can position your forces (sometimes with restrictions applied by the scenario), set up initial artillery bombardments and your opening manoeuvres. The game begins once you hit the red button, and runs either til you pause it or a minute has elapsed. You can give orders to any of your units, and those orders can be pretty complex, since you can have the unit do several things (approximately one combat action, pauses and “special” actions like deploying a machine gun) at any given waypoint. You can direct the fire of units, or allow the TacAI to do that for you. Units will follow their orders until they feel they have to abandon them for self-preservation, so issuing a long string of instructions in the face of the enemy won’t necessarily mean they will be completed. While giving orders to units in the backfield, you can give long, convoluted movement paths, which can be adjusted once they're laid down (an improvement over the previous iteration of the engine). Shuffling assets around that aren’t on the frontlines is something you can set up and leave to its own devices.

The TacAI will position infantry in the best possible cover and firing positions for the general location in which they deployed, relative to the direction they're facing. You get control over which way they face and what floor of any given building they're to set up on. Because spotting is calculated for each individual soldier, you’ll often find that part of an element has eyes (and rifle sights) on the enemy while the other part does not (or can see a different enemy). Within their orders, they'll engage what they can see, so micromanagement of engaging the enemy isn't always necessary. Tracers have also been added, rather than the noticeable, but renowned, line-of-fire lines stretching across the battlefield: a more realistic approach to portraying gunfire.

Command and control of your units is simulated: a unit in “C2” (command and control) will behave more reliably than one with no control path. Indirect fire assets need to be able to communicate with the elements calling their missions. Radios and line of sight, as well as hearing, are explicitly modelled. Information gathered by a unit in C2 will percolate out to other units more quickly than scouting by an out of C2 element. As the player (taking the role of the scout team corporal) you'll know what your scouts see, but your other units will not.

The spotting model is complex and an important limitation. Each unit can only see what it sees, and can only directly target enemy that it has spotted. As the overall commander, you can direct most units to “Area Fire” anywhere they can aim their weapons. But “hosing down a bush” will have less effectiveness than if the unit could see the target and aim properly. Spotting information percolates through the chain of command and spreads to nearby units, so once one element has spotted something, it becomes easier for their comrades to acquire the target.

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Each unit can see different things.

Morale is, as is only right and proper, a key factor, explicitly represented. Casualties taken, both in a given unit and its nearby comrades, will decrease the willingness of the unit and its neighbours to continue fighting. The faster casualties occur, the more impact they will have. The more motivated the unit, the better they will be able to shrug off losses; and the better their leader, the faster they will rally. Being in C2 also affects the mental state of the troops, and once they've been pushed too far, they'll become largely combat ineffective, cowering or fleeing at the first sign of incoming fire. Eventually they'll reach the point of surrender, if the enemy are dominant enough. Even fatigue (also tracked and displayed) will affect the troops' willingness to continue: tired troops, as well as being unable to sprint, will suffer worse morale hits from casualties.

 

Even though it can see and hear their HQ, this unit has sustained casualties and thus is “Shaken"; it is unlikely to follow any further commands at this time.

There is a limited inventory system. Infantry units can acquire some types of ammo from vehicles or bunkers that harbour it. Units that “Buddy Aid” fallen comrades can sometimes recover the weapons those men were carrying, and possibly their ammo too. Also, units from the same platoon can share ammunition if one of them runs low. The simulation is close enough to generating realistic results that realistic tactics are required for success. Rushing across a field in the face of an enemy ready to repel you will lead to high casualties, and their surviving comrades will probably be demoralised too. Infantry is still dangerous to tanks in close quarters, and hidden ATGs will claim the silhouette of incautious armour. Careful combined arms, using cover and suppression fire, is the way to success—bullets and bombs are cheaper than training new warm bodies anyway. This is the key to the appeal of this game. If you like tactical struggles where the principles of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu apply, and a WW2 field manual has advice in it that's useful and relevant to achieving success, then you'll get on with Combat Mission games in general; FI in particular.


Cute. Renault R35 Light tank. Captured during the fall of France by Germany, sold to the Italians.

The period following Operation Husky offers unique challenges in the days before the big cats roamed the battlefield (while there were Tigers on Sicily, there were only 17 of them, and in the mountainous terrain, they more likely would have had their drive trains repaired than doing any majestic roaming). Here, we see unwieldy Italian infantry supported by obsolete armour fighting against G.I.s backed up by halftrack tank destroyers. A particularly knotty challenge is the handling of Italian troops. Battlefront.com has certainly not fallen into the trap of stereotyping all Italian soldiery as craven incompetents. In fact, these soldiers can be as hard bitten and determined as any other soldier on the island, and their individual leaders can be as inspiring as their counterparts. What BFC has done is much cleverer. They've simulated the real problems faced by the RE at that time: lack of effective armour, lack of automatic weapons and obsolete organisational doctrine.


 Cuter. Italian L5/21 Light tank. The reason the Italians needed to buy the R35s.

As I mentioned above, the RE had only infantry divisions in Sicily at the time of Operation Husky. As a result, the selection of Italian armour available is catastrophically, if historically, limited. Renault R35 light tanks are the full extent of your options. While Italian medium tanks of that period weren't anything to shout about, at least they mounted weapons that could reliably pierce the skin of a Stuart light tank. 

1930s vintage L3/33 and L3/35 Tankettes.

 

 

Semovente Self Propelled Guns.

An Italian platoon only consists of four sub par LMGs, which is more than other platoons, but the Americans compensate with their semi-auto Garands and the German LMG is the excellent MG42. The Italian company has no support weapons organic to it, whereas the American infantry company has integral light mortars and MMGs in its 4th platoon. Italian platoons only have two squads, but those squads are massive. Each squad comes already split into two nine man sections (which can't be split further) and a command element. This means that an Italian platoon only has seven potential manoeuvre elements, three of which are two-man. This is compared to a US infantry platoon's 9. The four elements with any firepower are cumbersome, and their firepower is nothing to write home about either since their puny 6mm rounds seem to bounce off cover that M2 and 7.92mm slice through like mozzarella. Also, you'll be hard pressed to find any radios in an RE platoon, which makes maintaining command and control somewhat more challenging than even the German formations.


 Semovente 90/53: The 90mm gun had excellent range and penetration, but only 8 rounds.

A problem faced in common by RE and German infantry formations is that there are no infantry antitank rockets, as the Panzershreck and Panzerfaust are not yet in service during the time period that the game covers. Thus, Axis infantry have to rely on their antitank guns much more than they do in later periods. Historically, this issue is somewhat mitigated by the Axis being largely on the defensive in this theatre; but it's something to keep in mind. This does lead to the primacy of armour: if you can keep an American tank alive until all the ATGs (antitank guns) and enemy tanks are gone, they can operate with relative impunity so long as they stay out of grenade range. There's always the chance of a lucky rifle grenade hit. But generally, Axis infantry pose much less of a threat to Shermans in Sicily than they do eleven months later in Normandy.


 T30 HMC with 75mm Pack Howitzer.

The Americans are operating in a much less challenging environment as far as equipment is concerned. They have their Bazookas, and the Sherman is, even with the shorter 75mm gun, marginally better than the general run of Axis armour. They lack “proper” assault guns and tank destroyers though, with those roles being filled by half-track based weapon systems, which are much more vulnerable and less mobile than the vehicles later deployed to Normandy.

 

M3 GMC.

The Americans’ (as the attackers) biggest challenge is the terrain. There just isn't anywhere to hide, and it's uphill all the way! Of course the Axis forces will likely face this same challenge in the game, because we all like to see the fight go both ways. It's not all hopeless though; as the attacker, infantry antitank weapons aren't as critical. If you're playing a points-based quick battle, the less effective Italian infantry are cheaper. However, the quick battles don't permit mixed German-Italian forces, though. If you've encountered Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy, Sicily is a refreshing change from the claustrophobia of hedgerow fighting. The balance of power between the arms and armies is very different, presenting novel challenges and opportunities.

 

Interface

As I've said, it's not perfect. Most of the flaws with the game are likely because the small development team has had to concentrate on just getting this beast to run. Curry combing its coat has for the most part taken second place. There are a few bugs that are irritating and need ironing out, and a couple that might constitute game-breakers if not treated carefully: a bug is making mortars a bit more effective than they're meant to be, and losing a spotter while an artillery mission is being called can lock out the artillery asset for the rest of the game.


Italian mortar team in the prone position.

A lesser disappointment, more of a limitation, is the look of the game. It's a massive improvement on the first generation of a decade ago, and it can produce great still shots, but it's not “pretty.” The graphics and textures are accessible for the “savvy” to modify, and the community boasts some very talented artists who can improve the game markedly. But given the sheer number of moving entities that have to be rendered (and again, the miniscule size of the development team), it's not a surprise that it doesn't look as consistently pretty as the most modern shooters. Sometimes, shadows can be jagged, but there is a hotfix which goes a long way to correcting the issue. But the looks aren't what the game is about. So while it may occasionally bring a grimace, if you let it put you off, the game wasn't for you in the first place. The hotfix does a good job on the shadows that fall on the bump-mapped textures; less good for shadows that fall on the ground.

 

Jagged shadows.                                        Hotfix.

For me, the most obvious flaws are in the interface. There have been some improvements in this addition to the series, but there's a lot of work yet to do. The improvements are mostly in the game menus: you can now delete saved games from within the running game rather than having to go through the operating system.

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 You have to mark the files you want to delete, then press the “Delete” key.

 

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Controls menu: Better than a text editor, but still no scroll bar.

There are now options for the sortation of scenarios and save games. Game control options can now be set in a menu rather than having to be edited into a text file, though you still can't use a full selection of key presses/combinations. Still, there are no scroll bars anywhere in the interface, which is jarring in the world of modern interfaces. There have been changes in game control, but they are marginal. You can get a menu of commands for a unit by pressing the “Space” bar. This new version is prettier, but whether it's better would depend on your preference, and if you ever use it. The unit equipment display has also been changed from ten small spots for individual items (bazooka shells, rifle grenades, radios, binos) to six large spots with stacks of items. But the list of ammo types is limited to four, so many “weaponed” units can't display all their ammo types.

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Space bar pop-up commands menu.

 

 

Equipment display: 6 bazooka shells.

 

 

The numbers to the right show how many rounds there are available, including those potentially donated by other nearby units.

The new “Target Armour” arc command is a welcomed addition—a feature that was in the first generation of game series but hadn't been added to the second generation—allowing your antitank assets to focus on shooting at threats they're meant to attack rather than just shooting at any available target. Another welcomed return, as mentioned previously, is the implementation of moveable waypoints. Now you can adjust intermediate waypoints in long sequences without having to cancel back to the errant waypoint and then recreate the rest of the route. This feature makes handling multiple units more efficient, as you can give a general command to a bunch of selected units, then just adjusting the routes for those elements that need it.

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, this game is certainly not for all. But if you like tactical challenges or enjoy the World War 2 setting, even if the campaign in Italy has previously left you uninterested, it's well worth giving the demo a go. If reading the manual (pdf, with the demo) is too much trouble, you might find the game just a bit challenging itself, let alone handling the AI.

 

Review written by: Russell Sakne

 

 

 

About Russell Sakne

Russell Sakne has been a gamer for three and a half decades, starting with Airfix models and progressing into Ancients. Basic D&D got him hooked on RPGs as well, and university dragged him into LARP. Somewhere along the way, board games got added to the stack of hobbies, as well as computer games. He's always been most interested in historical periods that have muscle power or cordite powering the weapons, rather than black powder. Russell has lived in the Midlands of England all his life and has been joined there by his splendid, hobby-sharing wife and cat (who only pretends to like computer games). His favorite word is “verisimilitude”.

Forum username: womble

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