Close Combat: The Bloody First Review

By Martynas Klimas 03 Oct 2019 2

Close Combat: The Bloody First Review

Released 03 Oct 2019

Developer: Matrix Games
Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Available from:
Direct
Steam

The Close Combat series has a long and storied history of letting you command teams of dudes in various theatres of World War II (mostly in Western Europe, but there was that one time when things went East). Matrix Games/Slitherine did some remasters and quasi-new games when they acquired the license, but the series hasn’t seen an entirely fresh new title in a long time. But here comes Close Combat: The Bloody First - in 3D!

TBF follows the path of the US 1st Infantry Division, known as “The Big Red One” as well as “The Bloody First.” You will be commanding a nameless company across battles that took place in Tunisia, Sicily and Normandy. Along the way, you will fight various German and Italian formations in deserts, towns, bocage and more.

The biggest quirk of Close Combat was always the control scheme. You don’t just click a spot to send a unit moving or attacking. No, you bring up a short menu of things the unit can carry out at said spot. This feature hasn’t gone anywhere and you’ll soon master the subtleties of the system. For example, if you want your dudes to hit the dirt on the spot, you set them to ‘Ambush’ order! There’s also several ‘types’ of movement, which with their own behaviours.

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In Close Combat, you command teams, not squads. That means that instead of, say, a regulation 12 man US infantry squad, you’ll have a BAR team (commanded by the sergeant) and a rifle team. In theory, the former provides covering fire, the later moves. In practice, teams don’t need to honor their squad cohesion at all and go around the place doing whatever. However, you will want to have HQ squads near the thickest fighting, as they provide a morale and rallying boost to your troops.

Morale matters a whole lot in Close Combat. This isn’t Command and Conquer, where a unit is either fully functional or dead. Your troops will panic for a variety of reasons, incoming fire being the most common one. Keep them in cover, keep them alive and they’ll do well. Concentrate fire on the enemy to silence them. Sometimes a trooper may feel heroic and hold the line while the rest of the team flees. They can also go berserk and single-handedly charge the enemy line.

Now, since this is the first fully three dimensional Close Combat game, navigating around the map is a bit more intuitive but also somewhat more confusing. You will be able to tell at a glance what gives cover and concealment. However, various pits and small rises of ground will interfere with your ability to judge firing lines. Thankfully, at the press of a button, you’ll see anything a troop could see from a certain position. For tanks, it will even color the parts of the vehicle than can be seen (and hit).

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But how do you get your units? You select them before the battle! The scenario you play - whether in a campaign, a one off skirmish or even a custom scenario - will allow you to choose a main force (of between 9 and 14 units) from a company’s-worth of troops as well as a support force of whatever has been allotted by the scenario designer. Recon, armored infantry, engineers, Italian coastal divisions - all this and more are in the game. You can then gently customize your selection by splitting off specialized teams (assault, tank hunter, snipers) from your units or adding formation-specific upgrades, like an additional BAR or a rifle-grenade launcher (that’s “a single additional BAR to for a single team,” not “BARs for everyone” - what fresh hell would that be!?).

The support units get no such benefits, but they don’t need it - they’re already special. Tanks, anti-tank guns, HMG teams (more often than not it’s your MMG on a tripod and with a bigger team of dudes), engineers and so on comprise the support pool. The big difference in the campaign is support units aren’t your constant, so you can sometimes allow yourself to be more carefree with their lives.

Incidentally, fire support comes in three forms - mortar, artillery and air - and it’s just a check-mark in the scenario editor. I don’t know how it is determined what exactly you’ll be getting. The most variety exists in air support, however: you may get an ineffectual strafing run from a P-40E, or you have a Fw 190 swooping in to deliver a bomb with JDAM-level of precision.

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You certainly can’t go sending your actual men into the meat grinder! Close Combat campaigns - especially in A Bridge Too Far - always had an emphasis on managing loses, but it’s especially ruthless in The Bloody First. Let's start with the good bits: your troops in the campaign (or an operation, if you’d like for a smaller experience) will carry over between battles, improving in experience and performance. You can see their track record, skill level, as well as any medals they’ve earned. Keeping the same teams in battle will wear-down their minds as well as bodies. I had elite-rank BAR teams that would break without even being wounded, they were so ground down. Remember to cycle your troops!

However, if a team does get wiped out, you’re not getting it back. Not for the next mission, not for the next operation, not even for the next theatre. Ask me about losing my .30 cal MG teams early in Tunisia and then having to do without them forever. Go on. Ask me. Casualties mean a lot more to you than it does to the enemy since you can’t afford to lose even a single measly rifle team.

It’s also somewhat annoying how in the Tunisian campaign, each US platoon has a squad of replacements, which you can’t use to replenish your teams. Instead, the replacement squad is your desperation reserve, a unit you will use when you’re down to putting Mortar Section HQ-type units on the line. The end of Tunisia campaign sets you against Fallschirmjäger units which have better morale than you, more MGs than you have intact teams, don’t really care about casualties, have positions overlooking the entire map, and can depend on a Tiger I. It’s a bit harsh.

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If you try playing the game from the Axis side, you will see how hilariously the odds are stacked against the Allies. Having machine-guns in every team is extremely good. Missions where you get to control a Tiger I can be completed without a single casualty. There’s also the fact that German 8cm mortars feel like WMDs compared to the American 60mm ones.

Why is this the case? Well, the multiplayer section implies that it’s for historical balance. My guess is that it’s more about working around the AI limitations, since the AI isn’t that smart. It’s not exactly Men of War (Cold War)-dumb, but it’s not that great either. It has serious issues with trying to mass troops for a push, being somewhat prone to sending single units to attack.

The AI also loves to hold the tanks back before sending them in for an end-match Hail-Mary run to capture objective points. It’s also hilariously afraid of vehicles and thus will waste a barrage on an M3 half-track (which still has more than even odds of surviving said barrage). In fact, it once used its mortar support to take out my HMG jeep, a soft-skin that could be handled by an LMG and a stiff breeze.

Speaking of tanks: they’re a pain. Tank vs. tank engagements last forever as they keep missing. Going closer doesn’t help, as they then start complaining of 'bad shots' and 'steep angles.' Then again, infantry at close range have their own issues. I had two teams occupy the same room as a single German, with no way to make them shoot him. I also had Nazis slipping into a compound even if two units were watching the entrance not even 10 meters in front of them.

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The maps generally look OK. And while you’re zoomed out, the units are decent enough. Only the M4A1 tank looks ugly no matter how far you are from it. Once you zoom in, you start noticing things like running and walking being the same animation played at different speeds. The sound design fares better: when firefights get intense, you really hear it. You can also learn to differentiate guns by their sound. There’s not much to music - it doesn’t play in battles past deployment - but it’s well executed, even if the European theatre feature this one surprisingly sad accordion tune. The biggest issue comes from unit barks, as the one that plays for panicking teams really gets on your nerves. This is especially bad when the crew of a tracked tank gets into a panic-rally loop.

Close Combat: The Bloody First is a divisive game. It’s fairly satisfying while it’s all about infantry firing at each other at range. However, once you reach tanks, they are either woefully ineffective when fighting others of their kind or become game-ending when they get to maul infantry unopposed. Many of the issues can probably be fixed by a patch, and there’s always online multiplayer to consider as well. For me, if they tweaked the team replenishment and replacement systems in the campaign, I would happily recommend picking this up.

Close Combat: The Bloody First Review

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