Thursday, October 20, 2005

Combat Mission 3: Afrika Korps Review

Combat Mission 3: Afrika Korps, developed by Battlefront.com and published by CDV.
The Good: Many strategic options, turn based/real time hybrid gameplay, quick mission builder, good unit AI
The Not So Good: Outdated graphics, sometimes hard to identify troop locations, opposing AI becomes easy to beat, exactly the same as earlier Combat Mission games but with different missions
What say you? One of the best strategy games available, but hardly any changes over previous offerings: 6/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
One of my all-time favorite strategy games is Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin. It had the right mix of original gameplay elements and strategy that makes a good game. Since that game was released, Battlefront.com has come out with Combat Mission: Afrika Korps (also known as CMAK), which uses the same game engine as CMBB but adds some new units and theatres of operation, namely the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Battlefront.com recently allowed CDV to publish the game and release it worldwide in stores a year or two after the game was first released (I believe the same agreement was made with CMBB). Armed with my intimate and dirty knowledge of CMBB, we’ll dive into the newest iteration of the franchise and see how it compares.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Unfortunately, Combat Mission 3: Afrika Korps uses the same graphics as CMBB, with hardly any new enhancements, which means it looks very old. The graphics in the game were passable if you look at it from a wargame perspective in 2000, but that’s means they are way behind the times now. Up close, the units look OK, with some detail with the textures on both the infantry and tanks. The explosion effects are underwhelming, as pixilated puffs of smoke rise into the air. From a large distance, the game shows its age, with rough ground textures and jagged structures littering the landscape. The unit animations are absolutely horrible, as units slide across the ground, run in place, and fall to the ground. The animations look more like placeholders for unit conditions than actualy components of the game. The graphics are very similar to those found in another, similar game I reviewed, Squad Assault: Second Wave, and I essentially said the same things about the graphics in that game. Neither of these games comes close to the graphics seen in Codename Panzers, probably the benchmark for tactical RTS games of late. The sound also has the same problem, in that it’s the game as five years ago. I do like how all of the infantry units communicate using their native language, but the rest of the sound is missing the brawn of huge explosions and dynamic environments. The game in these two aspects certainly feels outdated.

GAME FEATURES
Combat Mission 3: Afrika Korps has several ways to play the game. There is single player action against the AI, hotseat mode for two players using the game computer, play by e-mail (a wargame staple), and Internet play over direct IP. In each of these modes, you will play one of the included battles or operations (series of battles with experienced troops carrying over). This version of Afrika Korps includes over 80 scenarios designed by fans of the game and the scenario builder, a quick way of customizing a battle for easy play in any situation. You can change the available credits for purchasing troops, the location, time of year, combat experience of the units, and much more. You can also provide bonuses to either player as a sort of handicap. There is a great deal of replay value in Combat Mission 3: Afrika Korps, from the immense number of included missions to the infinitely repeatable random mission generator.

THE BATTLEFIELD
Each battle in Combat Mission 3: Afrika Korps takes place on a designed or random battlefield, where troops will jockey for position. Each mission has an attacker and a defender, or both countries are attacking. Defenders are allowed to purchase defensive units such as land mines, barbed wire fences, and other fun stuff. The battle is assigned a certain date, which has a great affect on gameplay. The month of engagement will determine the weather conditions that are possible during play, and the year establishes which units are available for use. The weather on your particular day can cause different ground conditions (like snow, mud, and the like), which obviously affects the movement characteristics of your units. The battlefield is populated with several kinds of terrain, each of which provides different amount of cover and attacking ability. Forests, hedges, walls, brush, marsh, and houses are all modeled realistically in the game, and appropriate use of the landscape can determine the victor. The game lasts a certain number of turns, which can be flexible, sending the game into overtime if any number of victory locations is still under dispute. Speaking of victory locations, the primary purpose of the game is to capture strategic locations on the map, each indicated on the map with a giant flag (like Battlefield 2). The player who controls these locations at the end of the battle will usually win.

UNITS
Combat Mission 3: Afrika Korps has a complete suite of units at your disposal, including infantry, tanks, anti-tank, artillery, mortars, and more. All of these are excruciatingly accurate for each of the involved countries, and rated for attack and defense capabilities. Each unit at each moment is performing a particular action, such as reloading, taking cover, or being destroyed. The proximity of each unit to its commander provides several morale bonuses, so it is important to keep your commanders close to their troops. The units are also rated according to their experience (which carries over in operations), from useless conscript troops to elite forces. An important aspect of Combat Mission 3: Afrika Korps is the morale model (which all games seem to have now). As the unit engages enemy units and received or gives damage, their morale can change within eight different levels (from OK to routed), which determines whether they press on or run away. The fact that there are eight different levels is helpful, as you can identify units that are becoming increasingly scared and move them away, instead of units that become instantaneously routed.

COMBAT
Each of your units are issued orders, usually to move to a waypoint using a set of behaviors or fire at a specific enemy unit. Typically, the faster a unit moves, the less able it is to return fire or take cover. Units can be instructed to march until they encounter an enemy unit (make contact), run (ignoring all enemy fire), advance using cover, assault a position, crawl along the ground, or withdraw from a position. While they are moving, your units may sense enemy units, depending on the current level of fog of war. Combat Mission 3: Afrika Korps has several levels of contact, something that other games do not model. Units can sometimes identify units only by hearing them, and they provide the type of unit (tanks sound different from infantry) and their approximate location. Units can see an enemy unit but not be completely sure what kind of unit it is, especially if it’s far away. Once an identified unit is lost, a marker will be displayed where it was last seen, so you can track enemy movements as they use cover. Once enemy units come within range, your troops will automatically engage them (unless ordered to run) with appropriate weaponry. Your individual units behave pretty realistically, as they will follow their orders to a point and act according to their current morale level. This makes the level of micromanagement low, especially when the bullets start flying. Where the unit AI is good, the overall enemy AI is not so good from an overall tactical perspective. The enemy commander, after you’ve played the game a while, is not too quick, especially at the beginning of the battle. If you are playing a meeting engagement with an important objective located in the middle of the map, I am almost always the first to reach it with no enemy resistance along the way, so I generally win those kinds of missions. Of course, I initially set all my units to move towards the central flag, and I suppose the enemy AI commander does not do this, and because of this indecision, he loses. All of the handicapping bonuses in the game really just adjust the experience and number of units, so there is no way to make the AI better, which is unfortunate.

IN CLOSING
Combat Mission 3: Afrika Korps is a good game, but it’s also the same as Combat Mission: Barbarrossa to Berlin. Same graphics. Same sounds. Same AI. Same gameplay. Same overall features. New missions, which means Combat Mission 3: Afrika Korps is really just a stand-alone expansion pack of CMBB, which is fine if that’s all you’re looking for. The game still has the small AI shortcomings the previous game had, but the game is still fun to play, it’s just not different at all. If you’ve never play a Combat Mission game before, this would be the place to start, especially if you want to play the underrepresented Mediterranean theatre. Previous owners of any Combat Mission game will not find anything new here other than the missions, and a strong sense of déja vu will dominate the game. Sure, they skinned the user interface from green to red to reflect the predominately desert environments, but I don’t consider a color change a new feature. This is a good final chapter in the Combat Missions series, as the engine has now covered most of the European battlegrounds. I’m sure at some point they’ll release The Complete Combat Mission with all the scenarios from all three theatres in one game, so previous owners should probably wait for that instead of purchasing this glorified expansion pack.