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Combat Mission (2000)

May 9th, 2009 by Troy Goodfellow · 7 Comments · Battlefront, Feature:Map, WW2

What this is about

In spite of the underwhelming Combat Mission: Shockforce, it is fair to say that the Combat Mission series remains one of the best and most important wargame franchises in PC gaming history. It used 3D terrain and simultaneous movement to make an even then too familiar World War II setting come to life. Until Company of Heroes came along, this was the closest you could get to playing a war movie. (Combat Mission still wins on the history count, but is less action friendly; if John Wayne could star in a game, it would be Company of Heroes.)

The decision to make the game 3D was born from Steve Grammont and Charles Moylan’s experiences working on aerial combat games for Avalon Hill. Grammont explains that it was Moylan’s idea and that it took a little bit of persuasion.

Going 3D was Charles’ decision which, after a couple of beers, I fully supported. The primary reason for doing it was to do something different. Neither Charles nor I have ever been content with rehashing the same old ground. Most of the kick we get out of doing this comes from breaking new ground. Going 3D made a lot of sense in that regard. It was also just starting to become viable.

The first time Charles suggested the game should be 3D, long before one line of code was written, I didn’t see what the advantage would be. 3D graphics were still crude at the time and at first I didn’t think that it was worth pushing the envelope. At least not yet. But within a few minutes he had me convinced that it really had so much more to offer the core of the game over a 2D game engine. The first prototype I saw, as butt ugly as it was (and boy was it!), showed why we were headed in the right direction.

I think the primary reason Charles wanted to go 3D was because of his work on the aerial combat games (he was finishing up the 3rd installment at the time Combat Mission started). Doing areal combat without the third dimension was quite difficult and the end result was inherently compromised because of it. This had always been the case with ground combat. Look at the problems Close Combat had with buildings, for example. Plus, to do a really ground breaking modeling of armored combat really needs that third dimension.

The comparison to Close Combat is interesting, since the games have much in common. Close Combat is real time and top down, Combat Mission is WEGO and 3D. But both have the same basic idea. You start with a fixed order of battle and set up your men. The terrain is partially deformable, you can enter and destroy buildings, and much of a match is spent getting your mortars into range so you can make things easier for your infantry advance.

The move to true 3D, however, allowed for the house to house combat that makes for great story telling.

Like Sid Meier’s Gettysburg, studying the terrain you faced in a scenario (especially in multiplayer) was crucial. Many players would spend points on off-map artillery that could then be used to bombard likely enemy hiding places. Just like George C. Scott screaming “I read your book!” in Patton, a large part of multiplayer Combat Mission was putting yourself in the shoes of your opponent, looking at his approach lines and guessing what his smart move would be.

Grammont is not entirely happy with how the random map generator worked, and can’t see one ever being feasible for the new Combat Mission engine.

The old map generator was quite simplistic, which was possible since the amount of terrain types it had to work with was rather small and always an either-or situation for base terrain (i.e. you either had forest or water or a house or fields, never some sort of combo like the new game can do). Roads were laid down randomly, terrain was elevated randomly, etc. all depending on user settings and predefined parameters for them in the code. It emphasized things based on the user defined characteristics.

Because of the far more complex terrain and elevation system in Shock Force, we will likely never have a random map generator. Even big fans of the old CM generator agree that it did only a passible job (sometimes great, sometimes horrible, generally OK). Too much work would be needed to get even close to that with the new engine, so we’re going to borrow from boardwargaming and have pre-made “mega tiles” which the game will assemble to make unique maps. Users can make more mega tiles so that the variety CM has to choose from will always grow.

Despite the limitations on terrain possibilities in the maps, Combat Mission maps were never dull. There would usually be just enough places for a machine gun team to hide or for a bazooka squad to ambush approaching armor. Lucky shots would become part of the mythology of the series, and these stories, in many ways, relied on how the map was laid out. (Check out this classic Tom vs Bruce about their match in the second Combat Mission game, Barbarossa to Berlin.)

So what makes a map interesting?

Visuals. A map that looks interesting generally will be a joy to play on even if the battle turns out to be somewhat lopsided. This is one reason, I’m sure, why many people don’t like the desert battles in CM: Afrika Korps or CM:Shock Force… to them arid environments are inherently boring visually and therefore not all that interesting to fight on. I disagree heartedly, of course, since variety is the spice of life. And this is coming from a guy who lives way out in the northern forests on purpose.

Anyway, a map that has interesting features visually tends to have interesting features for tactical combat as well. A nicely laid out village tends to look nicer and offer more tactical possibilities. That sort of thing.

But visuals are only part of it, I think. Combat Mission was never a pretty game, but the maps were persuasive. The best players would integrate the terrain into their planning not simply as a matter of approach angles or cover, but could estimate the time it would take for one squad to catch up to another.

One of the best ways Battlefront used the maps was for sensory cues. Though computer wargames had often hidden precise troop strengths from the player, Battlefront would give you even less as a way to make the battle seem real. You would hear the sound of a tank moving or the flash of an anti-tank gun, and the game would mark that location for you. Of course, by the time you got to that location the enemy might have moved. But this simple series of cues effectively worked as an information cloud. If you hear two tank sounds is that two tanks or just one? If you see a Russian conscript crawling for cover, is he trying to draw you into a trap?

Then, of course, there were the ways you could just break the maps. Though not completely deformable, you could set grass on fire, hide in craters from artillery shells and – most importantly – clear a building by leveling it. Combat Mission and Close Combat were way ahead of their time regarding occupying structures and giving the attacked a variety of means to clear them. Relic’s RTSes go part way, but in those cases the buildings are either occupied or not occupied by friendly forces. Combat Mission doesn’t go for the zero sum option, making buildings something you have to fight for. Different sides can hold different floors and the battle for a single church can turn the tide of a contest.

On the traditionalist side, Combat Mission would ascribe victory points to specific locations on the map, and these often made little sense outside of a scenario. One of the great weaknesses of the random map generator was in how it would situate the victory flags. You could earn points through slaughtering the other guy, of course, though that was the harder option. Capturing a town center or a rail depot might make sense on its own, but often the maps would fall into the “enchanted terrain” model of map design, where certain spots were important and it wasn’t really any of your business asking why. Just trust what the map says.

Though it’s almost a decade old, there have been few real successors to the Combat Mission legacy. The Panzer Command and Theatre of War series revisit the same battlefields and use many of the same mechanics. (Of the two, Panzer Command is more faithful to the CM model, but most of the battles are too large in scale to capture the same intimate war movie feel.) Only Battlefront itself has moved outside of the World War 2 setting, but that’s more because history hasn’t given wargame designers many options for the same variety of combat situations.

The cancellation of Combat Mission: Campaigns was probably for the best, though. Though the idea of stringing together battles sounds appealing, that’s really not what CM is for. It’s for tight and tense encounters, watching that turn clock tick down and noticing that you are out of movement points just as a heavy machine gun comes into view.

Next up, the Europa Universalis games and how history is a trap.

(Thanks to Battlefront’s Steve Grammont for his comments.)


7 Comments so far ↓

  • salwon

    Since the new Close Combat came out (a remake of IV), I’ve been playing a ton of it. I tried going to CM, but something about wego just doesn’t work for me. I really hope the next CM gives me the CC-in-3D that I so richly deserve, and as one of the ten people who enjoy CMSF I believe Battlefront can deliver.

    You’re right though, there’s really no question about the terrain in CM versus CC. I think one of the most obvious metrics in the 2d vs 3d fight is that being okay in CM will make you great in CC, but being great in CC will only make you okay in CM.

  • salwon

    *I should have said, “going BACK to CM.” Afrika Korps and the hundreds of megs of textures that go along with it have, of course, never left my hard drive.

  • George

    a lttle bit off topic: but you guys mentioned DEFCON on your last podcast… I think DEFCON was the first game where I thought: hm, that is really an anti-war game like any of the best anti-war movies. I don’t know any other *real* anti-war game. Of course you could argue that any realistic war game is also an anti- war game… but I think there has to be something more than realism to define an anti-war game.

    do you know some other anti-war games?


  • JonathanStrange

    When Combat Mission first came out, I recall reading an essay titled, iirc, “How Combat Mission Killed Wargaming” whose theme was I believe that Combat Mission’s vivid portrayal of tactical combat combined with an attention to wargamerlike detail would seduce new wouldbe wargamers into expecting more exciting, dramatic depictions of warfare instead of the then current lethargic spreadsheet combats, ancient graphics, virtually nonexistent sounds, and overall “I made this wargame in my spare time from my CPA job” feel of many wargames. Wargaming didn’t die but didn’t experience a reformation either.

  • cheeba

    @George: I’d single out sensible software’s Cannon Fodder as a good example of an anti-war game, or at least one with anti-war sentiments. Despite the seemingly light-hearted tone, there’s a lot of commentary hidden under there.

    Like each of your soldiers having their own name, earning promotions as they progress, only to often die in random, stupid, throwaway fashion before getting their invididual little tombstone on a hillside, beside which a stream of replacements line up to take their place. You’re also faced with situations where your troops can be fatally wounded, lying twitching and roaring on the ground, where you have to decide whether to let them die a slow death or finish them off yourselves. It’s all presented in a stylised, cartoonish fashion, but it’s definitely still there. Every mission even ends with a slowly crawling list of the ‘heroes’ lost in action. The higher the rank, the flashier the tombstone they get as their reward.

    For a game that was slammed by the tabloid press at the time for trivialising war, it has more human touches and real anti-war sentiment than anything I can think of since.

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