PC Game Review: Close Combat: Panthers in the Fog
James Cobb engages in tactical and strategic warfare in World War II with this latest release in the Close Combat series.
The Close Combat series is the granddaddy of historical real-time tactical games. Since 1996, seventeen games, including remakes, bundles and military training versions, have been spawned from the basic engine. Most products cover World War II but a few deal with modern warfare. The series has gone through three commercial publishers and four commercial developers. The series continues with a ninth addition, Panthers in the Fog, published by Matrix Games/Slitherine and developed by Black Hand Studios. The cynical among us may ask if this series has been milked dry. The answer is a resounding “No!”
Something New Under the Sun
The biggest change in graphics is the introduction of 32-bit graphics. The top-down view makes this change not as dramatic as 3D games but soldiers, vehicles, terrain and elevation are much more pronounced than in older versions, although a zoom level on the battlefield screen would be appreciated. Even the overview map is clearer. Another innovation is fog. Early morning fog was quite common during the campaign so many battles start with players looking through a haze like a cigar bar at closing. Some players have trouble with this view and a patch will have a toggle to turn the fog off. However, choosing the “Outline Soldiers in Black” option and playing awhile yields an immersive effect that makes the view enjoyable.
Other graphics are enhanced by 32-bit graphics. Barrages and shell fire create shell holes and damage buildings. Black smoke spews from knocked out vehicles and white smoke comes from shells or grenades covering movement. Night turns can be brightened briefly by illumination rounds. Casualties are outlined in red. Planes swoop in for air strikes and flamethrowers flare red. Yellow tracers fly. The animation of infantry movement is very good with slow soldiers straggling behind the rest of their squad.
Sound effects are useful as well as ornamental. Soldiers don’t chatter idly but give verbal cues such as “Enemy sighted”, “We surrender” as well as the screams of the wounded. Each weapon system has its unique sound. Flares hiss and shells ping as they bounce off armor. Each order has a different colored line to a destination. The important soldier and team monitors have been improved with the ability to drag them around the battlefield map allowing for a less cluttered view. The mini-map can be handled the same way. The monitors clearly show each soldier’s and vehicle’s ability, weapon and status through bar graphs and colors. Yellow and red status bars indicate a unit with morale problems.
Advance, if it’s OK with You
The game mechanics have not changed from the original. A unit is selected with a left click and given orders through a right-click menu or hot keys. Movement orders include “move”, “move fast” and “sneak”. The unit assumes either a “defend” or “ambush” posture at the destination depending on the move type. Regular movement allows for better spotting but leaves the unit more vulnerable. Fast movement creates the opposite situation while “sneak” is safe but slow. Destinations can be ordered by a single drag-click but paths can be tricky. Left to their own devices, units will choose the easiest, not necessarily the quickest, path. A keyboard command can force units to follow the selected path. Vehicle pathing is even more quirky with units driving into terrain that can disable them. Creating a series of short paths with waypoints can ameliorate this problem. A new movement order is “mount” allowing infantry to ride in and artillery to be towed by trucks and halftracks.
The crucial “Fire” order is handled the same way. Direct-fire weapons have their trajectories marked with green lines for clear shots, yellow and red for less effective fire and black for blocked shots. Indirect fire such as howitzers and mortars can fire over obstructions to suppress targets. Other commands include “smoke” to provide cover, “ambush” for stationary units to hold fire until enemies are very close and “defend” to fire on approaching foes at longer range. Both of the latter two commands have firing arcs that can be set by players. An improvement in firing is mortar targeting: when a fire order is given to a mortar, a spotting round lands about twenty seconds later, followed by a correction and then a furious barrage. Orders are usually given to individual units but groups of units can be formed and numbered with a left-click drag and CTRL+#. Off-board mortar, artillery and air strikes may be called with a click once per battle. Illumination works the same way but can be used more than once. All orders can be given on the 2D overview map where units are represented by NATO symbols.
In a way, these orders are really just strong suggestions. Units will react to situations on their own even while following an order. Units and soldiers who are losing cohesion and morale may refuse to follow orders, eventually running for a safer spot. A good HQ unit can improve performance; hitting the space bar will show a HQ’s area of influence.
Nipping the Breakout
Panthers in the Fog can be seen as the continuation of the 1996 Close Combat. The earlier game stopped at St. Lo, the last bocage battle. The newer game begins with Avranches, a key point in the early days of the COBRA breakout. Most of the battles revolve around Fall Luttich, the German attempt to cut off the spearhead of the breakout. The 36 single battles cover both rural and urban areas and are fought between battle groups of up to 21 units each. Group size can range from one platoon of six squads, an HQ and two support units to two full squads and six support units. The first two platoons can be swapped out from the force pool with other platoons but support units can be changed by squads. If an armor platoon is chosen as first platoon, fewer support units will be available. The number of support units is impressive ranging from recon squads, company HQs and .30 cal. MGs to tanks and self-propelled artillery. The battle groups screen also allows for a peak at the opponent’s force and a large overview map showing victory locations and set up areas.
After arranging the battle group, the game goes to deployment. The deployment area is small and the number of placement choices great. A glance at the overview map shows many more victory areas then the defender can cover or that the attacker can take without dispersing his force. The attacker can concentrate his forces to gain a morale victory by inflicting heavy casualties or do what the AI does and take victory objectives on the periphery. The defender can either hold forces back or wait to see the attacker’s thrust or choose to hit back with a morale-crushing counterattack. These decisions can be influenced by how long the scenario was set with ranges from fifteen to sixty minutes of play.
Key to solo play is spotting the enemy on the battlefield map. Units must have a clear line of sight for an enemy to show up. Fortunately for beginners, a realism setting allows all enemy units to be shown on the overview map. Infantry tactics require teams of two squads using overwatch and smoke to advance. Gaining a multi-story building aids not only protection but spotting. Tanks need to maneuver for side and rear shots against their counterparts – Panthers and Tigers are extremely hard to take out- and rely on infantry support in cities and wooded areas. The AI will challenge beginners but veteran players will have to lower the quality of their own troops for a challenging game. Battles cannot be saved and no orders can be given when battles are paused.
Two other modes of solo play are included: seven operations and four campaigns. Both of these modes are fought over abstract maps constructed with sectors. Players can move battle groups into sectors with battles beginning if the enemy is met. Operations have a handful of battle groups with smaller maps while campaigns have many groups on larger maps. An innovation in these modes is strategic high ground. Hill 314 was a crucial vantage point in the battle against the German counterattack. Whoever holds the sector containing it will be able to spot enemy groups farther away. Campaigns and operations can be saved after battles. Victory goes to the side holding the most sectors at the end of the operation or campaign.
Replay value is assured for solo play by the different realism options, unit quality and battle group compositions. An editor allows players to set different parameters and forces on the many maps. Multiplay has been important for the series. The developers changed the system from the old one requiring an IP address to a lobby system where the host, after a one-time registration, can choose a battle and mission settings. Early reports indicated problems with the new system in terms of connection lags. However, tweaks have been made and battles play out as advertised. I experienced only a small connect lag and difficulty chatting in the lobby but not during the game.
Nits can still be picked about the pathing, AI and lobby but none of them need be fatal. Far from being the end of a series, Panthers in the Fog’s innovations and topic revives a fine old warhorse.
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, Gamesquad and Grogheads.