Review: Combat Mission Red Thunder

By Michael Dorosh 08 Apr 2014 0

For those of us who have been following the story from the outset, it is hard to believe, but twelve years have elapsed since battlefront.com (BFC) released their last game set on the Eastern Front. Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin was the middle game of the trilogy using the original "CMX1" game engine. Combat Mission: Red Thunder (CM: RT), released on April 4th, marks the debut of the 3.0 version of the second generation CM game engine.

I spent approximately 20 hours with the game before writing this review, engaged in a number of activities, including scenario design in the editor, working with the modding tools, playing Quick Battles, and playing one of the published scenarios from the release. I own copies of Combat Mission: Shock Force, Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy and Combat Mission: Fortress Italy, as well as all the modules for the latter two games. 

CM Red Thunder 1

The Verdict

A solid showing though perhaps a middling one. Despite a number of new features, and the return of some old ones, CM:RT fails to completely deliver on some of them. However, ardent fans of the series will not be disappointed as there is, as always, a mix of old and new that works in the familiar way. CM:RT is an excellent step forward in the ongoing evolution of the game engine with a number of well-thought out changes and additional features. While not as "content-rich" as the first generation games there is enough on the release disc (and of course, the download for us who pre-ordered) to keep a player occupied for weeks if not months, and if you are a fan of Quick Battles the large number of high quality maps included could very well keep you occupied indefinitely ? and if they don't, BFC hosts a repository for third-party content that is already up and running and has proven popular among players of their other titles.

Description in Brief

To the uninitiated, games in the Combat Mission series depict ground combat in the modern (20th and 21st Century) era using individual squads, vehicles and weapons. The player enters a fully 3-D environment where games last from 30 minutes or so to as long as 4 hours. Either one or two players command up to a reinforced battalion each (more if you want, but there are no higher-level command-control links built into the simulation). A good-sized game is usually a company (15 or 20 units a side). The game's appeal has always been that each side gives its orders (your opponent can be human or the computer) and the game then executes those orders simultaneously while you watch. There are two modes of doing this. Either real time, where you try and give commands on the fly, or "WEGO" where play automatically pauses every 60 seconds for command entry. In WEGO you also get to rewind the game play and watch it as many times as you want from any angle you want. The turn-based WEGO mode permits play by email. Real time can be played over the internet using TCP/IP connection. This latest entry now permits WEGO by TCP as well, though the replay feature is not technically feasible at this time in this mode of play.

CM Red Thunder 2

The original trilogy focused its attention on World War II. In 2007, graphics were brought up to a new standard and the introduction of "1:1 representation" further enhanced the fidelity of the game. Every soldier was now depicted by a 3-D avatar on the map, and every bullet was said to be tracked in flight. The new game engine has visited modern conflicts in the Middle East, the 1980-88 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the World War II campaigns in northern France and southern Italy.

The Market

If you needed the explanation, though, it may already be a sign that the game isn't for you. Games/simulations set at this scale and in this period tend to appeal to a narrowly defined demographic. If this is the kind of game for you, the odds are you have already heard about BFC and Combat Mission. Incidentally, polling of small numbers of CM fans over the years has indicated that the Eastern Front is the most anticipated subject not yet covered by the new game engine. It's quite possible if you're an Eastern Front fan, you've already pre-ordered. If not, keep reading.

What You Get

There are no big surprises for anyone who has purchased any of the other recent CM titles. You get 18 standalone scenarios ("Battles") and three Campaigns (scenarios strung together, with a "Core Unit" along for the ride that suffers casualties and is depending on your skill as a commander to see them through). One of the campaigns is a tutorial for CM beginners. There are some additional files in the main scenario listing that are "master maps. This feature debuted with the Market-Garden add-on to the Normandy game. The function of these is apparently just really big maps that would-be scenario designers can pare down. As a scenario designer myself, I always thought half the fun was researching and designing the map. Marketing a few oversize chunks of the Eastern Front seemed a bit at first like offering crumbs at the local restaurant given the scale of the conflict. Perhaps it was a cost-cutting move since the volunteer mapmakers cost the developer little in the way of coding time.

CM Red Thunder 3

Then I saw this thread. It seems an enterprising community member has noticed that the old boardgame Panzer Command (not to be confused with Matrix Games' own 3-D World War II tactical battle game) covers the same terrain that the Combat Mission "Master Maps" do, at the operational level. In other words, one could conceivably play out operations using Panzer Command and resolve combat using the Master Maps provided in CM:RT. A marriage of operations and tactics that wargamers have dreamt of for decades. Even BFC flirted with the notion of a "campaign layer" for its Eastern Front Combat Mission game, almost ten years ago. The CM community has always had a strong, loyal and clever fanbase. Provide the content, and the fans will, apparently, make the most of it. I can only say that I was obviously wrong about the utility of the Master Maps.

To my mind, however, the most impressive inclusion are the Quick Battle maps - 178 in total - for use in the random battle generator. I have not studied all of them, but playing out a couple of quick battles, I am impressed by the care and attention to detail in the design of the maps, and the fact that AI plans have been included for them. (The maps in the Italy game were similarly stunning.)

The ever-evolving map and scenario editor seems not to have received any major UI upgrades in this iteration, but there is still some good news here. There is a healthy mix of terrain types in the new game, with two distinct palettes (Soviet Union and Eastern Europe). The colours and 3-D models are subtly different from those used in the western and southern Europe games, giving a distinct feel to the scenarios.

CM Red Thunder 5

There are a couple of new terrain types that will help in that regard also. And of course, the user is given a set of "doodads" to sprinkle across his map, all with an eastern European style. The module is set during Operation BAGRATION, June to September 1944, consistent with the time period of the Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy (CM:BN) game set on the Western Front. Perhaps the biggest concession to the time and place of the module is the inclusion of different styles of marsh (read: swamp), a first for the CM system. The strange modelling of bocage (thick hedges) as virtually impregnable still baffles me, and only the "low" style is included here. A nicer touch is the attention paid to Eastern European architecture, and different styles of wooden fences. There are even outhouses, a nice nod to the decidedly poorer rural make-up of the region.

The Quick Battle maps are all very nicely designed (read: minor works of art) and the 3-D modelling of the terrain is pleasing to the eye. This is not an unimportant consideration, and BFC has done this seamlessly for so long it is perhaps easy to take for granted. No doubt this is a matter of individual taste, but other games with harsh colours and shadows have struck me as depressing and acted as a disincentive to playing them. Here too, though, BFC offers more than one option; if the pleasant, warm tones of a sunny Polish summer day aren't to your liking, you can opt for a "war movie" look, which will over-saturate the images on the screen. Taking a cue from cinematographers on movies like Saving Private Ryan, you can wash everything out with a dull sepia tint. Add to that, playing at night, you can hit "artificial brightness" - think of old war movies which were obviously shot during the day with heavy filters so the audience could see the movie stars' faces.

Which brings us to the new camera controls which must be configured in the "options" menu. One emulates a First Person Shooter, and basically enables the ASDW keys for camera control, for those used to playing with them. There is also a Real Time camera setting. I can't comment on how well this works as I am very much used to the current controls, but again, these are personal choices, and the more options, the merrier. I fiddled with FPS but saw no compelling reason to change ? others may think differently. There are threads on the BFC forums for those who want to know more.
 CM Red Thunder 7

The Promises

There are additional features that have been oft-discussed at the BFC forums; for example:

Casualty Status: it was announced that casualty tracking would be done during the game. This is true; casualties taken during a scenario are now noted in the unit status boxes. Previously, killed men simply disappeared. It was assumed this meant that players could accurately identify which units suffered what percentage of casualties at the end of the game. Not so. They still disappear. The "casualty" identification is only temporary. The effect this has on gameplay is nil.

On the same lines, "hit decals" are now included. Basically, you can now see where armour piercing rounds landed hits on vehicles. Unlike infantry casualties, these are persistent. Like many CM features, these are crudely rendered but effective (see image). They also follow the path of shells. Take a Tiger platoon against an armoured car company and you can count the holes, on both sides of the vehicles, as "exit wounds" are tracked along with "entry wounds." Put a round through the drivers hatch on a Russian tank, and when the crew bails out, the hit decal stays in place on the hatch as it opens up during the bail out. Some nice touches with these. 

Triggers: This is a feature that activates AI actions as a result of unit activities in a given scenario, as opposed to simple clock-driven functions. The manual takes great pains to point out that the new feature is complicated. A couple of pages of text are all you get by way of explanation. A scenario design tutorial may have been nice; the Market-Garden game had one, though another 115 page treatise is probably not necessary either. Something brief and to the point, yet with a clear illustration of how the new concept works would be good. BFC has started to make use of YouTube as a marketing tool; perhaps we could see a video or two from them in the near future? I suspect this feature will be expanded in future as the customer base gets more familiar with it. For now, it appears mainly to be an alternate way of altering the timing of AI orders. The manual notes that you still can't do branching triggers, just sequential. This may become a bit of a fad among third-party designers as they get the hang of them.

Mod Tags: this was discussed on the forum during beta testing, and the functionality appears in the editor. Apparently it permits user-made graphic mods to be grouped and bundled with specific scenarios by assigning specific names to them. (Want to use all of Ari's tank mods? Tag them [AriTanks]. Want to have your troops fighting with the Grossdeutschland Division? Tag your mods [GDDiv].) Unfortunately, neither manual nor the ReadMes contain any documentation on how to use the feature, unless my search terms have somehow failed me.

CM Red Thunder 9

Flamethrowers: a much awaited feature returns to CM. The animation has some nice effects, including a blue ignition flame and lingering burning effects on terrain. Also, terrain fires are not yet modelled in CM, so while the effects of the flame weapon are in the game, collateral damage to buildings, trees, etc., are not. 

Command Lines: Command lines - red and black lines linking a headquarters to its subordinate units - are back in the game. These work exactly as they did in the original game engine, and are a nice complement to other UI elements already in existence.

Overall, a nice mix of new features and a return of some older ones.

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