Review: Combat Mission: Black Sea30 Mar 2015 0
Review: Combat Mission: Black Sea
Terrain graphics in this game are nice but more functional than glitzy. Use of the camera angles to zoom in and out, raise, lower and rotate allows easy switches from god’s eye to worm’s eye views. Fields, roads, fences, marshes, fords and rivers are clearly shown if a little too neat. Getting down in the grass not only depicts nice flora but also folds in the land that may be critical to infantry operations. The outside and inside of buildings - including different levels - lack local flavor other than late Stalinist collective styles but serves their purpose well. The graphic handling of forests, however, is crucial to play. Forests are often the dominant geographical feature of maps. Movement and fire are often dependent on them.
Even friendly units can became hard to track in a forest where players truly can’t see the forest for the trees, not to mention individual branches and leaves. Combat Mission: Black Sea offers the hotkey combination of Alt-T that gives two layers of forest view. The first layer rids the map of all trees, making units easy to see. The second layer only hides trees close to friendly units, allowing players to see where cover exists in the distance. Environmental effects such as night, fog, rain, dust, artificial smoke and flames from burning wrecks are also done well and have a definite effect on line of sight and spotting. Damage from combat is very realistic and lasts throughout a scenario. Rubble in particular can have an impact on tactics.
The true graphic triumph of this game lies in its presentation of the 183 units and weapon systems complete with variants. The 3D detail is incredible from the teeth of the biggest tanks’ drive sprockets to the features of the much criticized M9A1 pistol. Players can almost see through the sights of a team-crewed automatic grenade launcher. American, Russian and Ukrainian vehicles are featured with the changes in variants visible. Animation further enhances the feeling of authenticity as the TOW module on a Bradley folds out or a Javelin AT rocket goes into its initial horizontal stage followed by its ballistic approach to target and its final, lethal downward plunge onto the top of some doomed AFV. Helicopters buzz around the battlefield while jets zoom in to strike if the revolving turrets of anti-aircraft vehicles don’t get to them first. Individual troopers are not neglected as they run or crawl through terrain in their forest camo dress holding and firing their weapons. Casualties can be a bit grisly with the wounded curled up.
Other graphics are more mundane. Floating icons bearing the outline of a unit’s type are above the actual position colored blue for NATO troops and red for Russian units. A new feature replaces the “?” for suspected enemies with faint floating icons. Broad lines represent movement paths, lines of communication and targeting with colors differentiating the type of movement and targeting. Across the bottom of the screen is a broad info panel with information on units’ type, status, experience, quality, communication, devices, weapons and ammunition. Infantry units have details for each soldier while vehicles have a profile with information on weight, speed, armor and damage. Vehicle profiles also have small boxes for crew and passenger positions. Vehicles transporting passengers have weapons and ammunition divided into those that the passengers can take with them and those organic to the vehicle. Small tabs on top of the panel indicate the unit’s ability to call for artillery, air and Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) support. This panel as well as editors could be improved with larger text font.
Sound in the game is great. Engines rumble and treads clank. Small arms and machine guns have the appropriate reports while income artillery and airstrikes have powerful booms and bangs. Soldiers may have some useless chatter but voice cues are usually helpful in indicating status and progress. A steep learning curve is eased by two manuals: one deals with the Combat Mission 3.01 engine and the other describing with new additions to the system and a comprehensive encyclopedia of each nation’s unit structure and individual unit types.
Stalking the Bear
Combat Mission: Black Sea’s twenty-one battles and four five-mission campaigns can be played either in real-time or turn-based simultaneous movement. Either way, players use the same commands executed from a menu or hotkeys. These commands are in four categories: movement, special, combat and administrative. Each unit type has unique commands under each category. For instance, vehicle movement commands range from “fast” to the methodical “hunt”. Infantry movement has the same number but “slow” is the tiring crawl. Combat commands for all units include several levels of targeting. Combat commands seem similar with precise or area targeting and placing different target arcs but the differences in weapon range and effectiveness make the execution of these commands very different. Some special commands can be somewhat bland just as “pause for a few seconds but others are very different. Special vehicle commands include “pop smoke”, bail out”, “open up” and “hide”, shutting the motor down for quiet. Infantry commands include “assault”, “blast” acquire weapons and dealing with mines. Administrative commands are primarily for infantry to split platoons into specific teams such as scout and anti-tank. All these commands don’t have to be given each and every moment. Units will automatically fire on enemies, take cover, stop to spot and care for wounded comrades. Player commands just give units broad instructions in terms of direction and action.
Another set of commands deal with off-map assets. Units or spotter teams that can call in artillery can designate individual targets, areas or smoke with other options for intensity, mission length and when the shoot starts. The routine begins with the usual spotting rounds before “fire for effect”. If a Paladin artillery piece is available, its precision round can hit a dime at ten miles. Air assets include helicopters and jets. Helicopters pack a lunch and stay the day over the battle field while jets roar in, do their thing and roar back out. The new cards in the deck are the UAVs. Most are used for reconnaissance but a few are armed with missiles like the Hellfire.
Players’ ability to handle units in real-time versus turn-based depends on the size of the battle. Handling a reinforced company in real time is possible but any larger force requires more agility than a first-person shooter. Using the mouse is good to get the broad picture but finding units and giving orders is best done with the standard WASD-style keys and hotkeys. Fortunately, keys can be bound to player preference. Turn-based mode allows for an unhurried cycling through units to check on position and status, a procedure not easily performed in real time.
Battles start out with an in-depth briefing followed by deployment of forces. The first set of orders should be to set up and plot movement of scout teams to the immediate surroundings and send available recon UAVs up above objective areas. Movement, the next phase, is a balancing act between speed and observation. Players are racing the clock to reach objectives but speeding units can miss spotting the enemy until it’s too late. Therefore, spotting teams should move forward increments and combat teams strike when the enemy positions are clear with on-map mortars, automatic grenade launchers and heavy artillery softening the foe. Once battle is joined, fights become soldiers’ battle with players providing support. This support is only available if units are connected with HQs through satellite uplinks, radio or shouting. Missions are won by touching or occupying objectives while achieving a positive loss ratio. The AI is cunning but is vulnerable to ambushes and strikes from the flanks.
Replay is assured by the five difficulty levels, the ability to create a quick battle through purchasing units or having the computer do it and the powerful scenario editor. As usual, the ultimate challenge is against a human player in hotseat, email or internet play.
A few issues with the game remain. Spotters and forward observers tend to prefer survival over doing their job and take cover. Questions about the effectiveness of some ammunition have been raised.
Nevertheless, Combat Mission: Black Sea mission is deep, tense and a serious learning experience in high-tech tactical combat. No serious gamer should be without it.