Thursday, March 15, 2007

Close Combat: Cross of Iron Review

Close Combat: Cross of Iron, developed by CSO Simtek and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Lots of scenarios of varying difficulty and complexity, great tactical gameplay, massively multiplayer utility included, great mod support, enhanced AI, additional units, powerful sound
The Not So Good: Nine-year-old graphics are outdated
What say you? A tremendous updated version of Close Combat III is filled to the brim with improved AI, a new scenario, community modifications, and engine tweaks: 7/8

One of my favorite strategy franchises is Close Combat. Coming out in the late 90’s, I was introduced to the series with Invasion Normandy, which I reviewed a long time ago on a website far, far away. The successful combination of morale-driven AI and solid tactical combat made the series a cult favorite, and it’s still a favorite today. Close Combat: Cross of Iron is a renovation of Close Combat III, continuing Matrix Games’ mission to re-release every strategy game ever made (exhibits A, B, and C, with more to come). How has time treated this franchise, and does this update update enough?

Two things not changed from the original game are the graphics and sound, and, not surprisingly, Close Combat: Cross of Iron looks and sounds like it’s nine-years-old. That’s not to say the game looks terrible: the top-down 2-D graphics hold up OK, and they are still better than a lot of wargames that are released these days. The backgrounds are static and it’s difficult to tell elevation with some of the shadowing present in the game, but Close Combat: Cross of Iron will run on older computers and newer ones using Windows XP, so that’s something. Obviously, you won’t be wowed by graphics from a game released almost ten years ago, but the engine holds it own. Sound is something that ages a little better, and Close Combat: Cross of Iron features some imposing sound effects and appropriate background music that accurately convey the chaos of war. The emphasis of Close Combat: Cross of Iron was certainly not on improving the graphics, so we’re stuck with old 2-D warfare. The game is still functional, so as long as you don't need 3-D graphics running at two frames per second, you'll do just fine with Close Combat: Cross of Iron.

The goals of Close Combat: Cross of Iron were to make the Close Combat III work on modern operating systems (if you can call Windows XP “modern” and an “operating system”) and add several realism tweaks and third-party applications to the game. In both of these senses, Close Combat: Cross of Iron is a successful title and should definitely appeal to people who didn’t have the chance of playing the original. The developers went beyond just simply porting Close Combat III to Windows XP and DirectX 9: they changed many settings in the game as well. First, the soldier types, weapons, and vehicle available have been altered to more accurately reflect real life on the Eastern Front. The large numbers of tanks in Close Combat III have been scaled down to realistic levels, and infantry has more of a fighting chance against armored opposition. Pathfinding and movement have also been improved, and the importance of commanding units has been increased. Close Combat: Cross of Iron has also integrated a number of third-part utilities to increase the replay value of the game. A matchmaking and chat program called Battle HQ is included with the game, as well as MMCCIII, a massively multiplayer application where you can join a dynamic campaign on a central server. MMCCIII works a lot like Guild Wars, in that individual matches are instanced in the game and results are recorded on the campaign map. The system works very well, and it gives an amount of freedom that the strictly linear campaigns of Close Combat: Cross of Iron don’t offer. It’s sad that a little third party application offers more compelling multiplayer gameplay than a dedicated MMO like Battleground Europe, but it works to Close Combat: Cross of Iron’s benefit. If all that wasn’t enough, we also have an easy-to-use mod-swapping utility and a new campaign with 26 new maps, along with all of the content of the original game. Unlike previous Matrix remakes, Close Combat: Cross of Iron is not simply a re-hash of an already-existing game: there are notable improvements made that make the game significant even to people who own the original.

The core gamplay of the Close Combat series remains the same, and Close Combat: Cross of Iron brings back all of those good memories of the quality tactical simulation. For the uninitiated, there is a tutorial to get you acquainted with the game. The gameplay of Close Combat: Cross of Iron is similar to that of Combat Mission and Squad Assault: Second Wave (or, more accurately, those games are similar to Close Combat). Before each mission, you choose your troops. You have a limited on the number of companies you can have (based on the size of the scenario, represented as your military rank) and a number of requisition points to purchase additional troops or refit existing ones. Units have different experience levels, and obviously more experienced troops are better and subsequently more expensive. At the beginning of each level, you deploy your troops, and the object of each battle is to secure a number of victory locations around the map. This is done by issuing commands to each squad: move, move fast, sneak, fire, use smoke, defend, and ambush. This may seem fairly simplistic, but there is some deep tactical gameplay under the surface. Close Combat: Cross of Iron is driven by morale, which is assessed on an individual level. Constantly putting inexperienced troops in harrowing situations is a recipe for disaster, so a good deal of planning is required, especially when you encounter unexpected or superior troops. The game progresses in unpaused real time, so there is only a short time to react to each new threat and situation (although time can be slowed). I like this aspect of the game, as it simulates the pressures endured by real commanders. Close Combat: Cross of Iron is a very fun tactical game, and each of the game’s battles are short (20-30 minutes), so the game never becomes boring or tedious. The planning required to defeat the capable AI opponent enhances the game experience as well.

If you’ve never played the Close Combat series, you’re really missing out on a great tactical strategy game. If you have, then Close Combat: Cross of Iron treads familiar ground, but the compatibility improvements and game enhancements are enough to justify a look. Close Combat: Cross of Iron has a lot of scenarios covering battles, operations, and campaigns on the Eastern Front of World War II: plenty to keep you busy. The tweaks made to the game are meaningful and driven by user feedback, and the replay value is high with the included modification tools and multiplayer components. Because the game has been out for quite a while, there are already a huge number of modifications and additional battles available, and the community is feverishly converting them over to this title. This is by far the best of the Matrix remakes so far, and even though Close Combat: Cross of Iron appears to be a superficial revision to a nine-year-old game, the added content makes the game a notable improvement.