Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Combat Mission: Shock Force Preview

Combat Mission: Shock Force (Preview), developed by Battlefront.com and published by Paradox Interactive
The Good: New communications rules and advanced commands accompany authentic gameplay, improved user interface, first-rate scenario editor, both real time and WEGO gameplay, graphically detailed units
The Not So Good: No more randomly generated maps, WEGO is no longer resolved before the turn is displayed resulting in two playbacks

It’s not often that I do a preview of a game before it’s released. I don’t like to tease my faithful readers with stories of fancy and games that won’t be out for several years just to make it look like my site updates with fresh content every day. Plus, since I talk about everything I can in the preview, it makes my final review much shorter. So if I am doing a preview, you know it’s for a game I really like. Combat Mission: Shock Force is one of those games (Europa Universalis III is pretty much the other). I’ve been familiar with the Combat Mission series ever since I bought Barbarossa to Berlin shortly after it was released, and I reviewed Afrika Korps a while back. It’s with great excitement and a lot of annoying nudging on my part that I bring you a preview of the highly anticipated Combat Mission: Shock Force, the first of the next-generation games in the Combat Mission series, moving the strategy franchise to the present day. The new game is built from the ground up, incorporating a lot of new features into the gameplay while making the game more approachable to beginners with a vastly improved user interface.

As you would expect, the graphics have been improved from previous versions. The most dramatic change is in the unit detail: both the infantry and vehicles in the game are spectacular with life-like animations. Infantry marching and reloading, vehicle suspension responding to the undulating surface, and deformable terrain all add to a very realistic game environment. This is the first game in which I can remember seeing a significant number of rifle rounds bouncing off of buildings; although I can't attest to its accuracy, I would imagine this is quite plausible. The setting of the game doesn’t really lend itself to a variety of environments to play in, although aspiring mission designers should be able to craft nice looking levels. Since I haven’t seen any of the official campaign or battle missions, I can’t really gauge what the maps are going to look like, but based off the map editor potential is there for some good designs. Combat Mission: Shock Force still has “floating maps:” the game levels and backgrounds are disconnected like they were in previous titles. This game lacks the transition of Theatre of War, but it does make for easier map editing. Once it all comes together and a last layer of polish is applied, I imagine that Combat Mission: Shock Force will look very good, especially for a tactical wargame. The sounds in the game are what you’d expect for a Combat Mission game: accurate. From unit speech to weapons fire, the audio looks to continue the strong tradition exhibited in the other Combat Mission games.

Combat Mission: Shock Force simulates a hypothetical conflict between Syria and the United States in 2008, similar to the current conflict between the United States and the 51st state of Iraq. The beta version I played with lacks official single battles and the campaigns that will ship with the release version, but based on the scenario editor and the custom battles made by the beta testers, the potential is there for some very exciting and tactically different scenarios. The campaign will have semi-dynamic missions: each campaign will have the same missions, but the order in which they become available will depend on your performance. You will also have units carry over from previous missions. Quick battles are still present (although they weren’t in my version) where you can purchase your forces, but you must play on an existing map and the objectives are much more limited. Single player games can be played in real time or in the WEGO turn-based format present in other Combat Mission games. I prefer WEGO format since it requires you to plan ahead, since you can only issue commands every minute (in this game with modern weapons, a lot can happen in a minute). This time around, though, turns are not resolved before playback, which means you’ll have to watch the action unfold in real time and then watch a playback of it. I liked the WEGO format before because you could skip past boring sections of the battle (namely the beginning), but now turn-based mode takes even longer than the real-time mode. This is the only real step backwards that I’ve seen in the game from previous titles (well, and the lack of random maps, but that’s minor). Two player modes are still available: real time play over a LAN or the Internet (but no in-game matchmaking), or turn-based play on the same computer (hot seat) or play-by-e-mail (PBEM). Future plans for expansion modules include adding cooperative and team multiplayer for more than two players.

People are going to go absolutely bonkers (in a good way) over the scenario editor and the flexibility it provides in the game. It almost makes up for the lack of random maps (almost). One of the highlights of Combat Mission: Shock Force is the multiple and asymmetric victory conditions. You can set casualty, condition (injuries), and ammunition thresholds for friendly and enemy forces, in addition to terrain (occupy, destroy, preserve, and touch) and unit (destroy, destroy all, spot) objectives. These don’t have to be the same for each side, either. For example, while the U.S. forces might need to occupy the center of a town while keeping friendly casualties under 20%, Syrian forces might just need to eliminate two U.S. tanks to win. It’s this kind of flexibility that makes for a great game, and I’m really interested in seeing what the developers and third party authors will come up with. The game allows for the creation of a scenario in different weather and time of day conditions, in addition to allowing blue-on-blue and red-on-red engagements. The map editor is easy to use: if you are adept at using Microsoft Paint, then you should have no problem here. This is good since the game lacks a map generator. You can place ground textures, trees, roads, walls, buildings (from 1-8 stories), and flavor objects like ATMs, ponds, and road signs. All of the units in the game are arranged in pre-organized order of battles. There is no longer any buying of units before a battle, as the mission designer selects the composition of forces (you can still do this in quick battles, though). The designer will choose a force (at the battalion level) and deselect troops they don’t want. Combat Mission: Shock Force also lets you set five different strategies for the AI to follow, issuing general orders for movement. This is great, as it lets the same scenario play out differently by allowing the designer to “nudge” the AI along. It's just a matter of setting waypoints (usually coinciding with objective locations) and the tactical AI will do the rest. The ability to have five different plans per side makes the AI much less predictable and a single scenario (and, you would imagine, the campaign) has more longevity. An inexperienced designer (meaning myself) is able to create a complete and functional scenario in about 30 minutes. The intuitive mission editor is a powerful tool that should be thoroughly enjoyed by the community.

To make the game more accessible to a wider audience, Combat Mission: Shock Force features three levels of difficulty and realism. While beginners will enjoy instantly shared spotted enemy units and extremely fast treating of wounded soldiers, elite players will have to content with spotting friendly units, identifying enemy units, and waiting a realistic amount of time for artillery support. Again, flexibility is the key to appealing to a large audience. Another vast improvement over previous titles is the user interface, which has undergone an upgrade. The player is given loads of information in a small part of the screen; this makes assessing the situation and deciding on a course of action a lot easier. Unit attributes can provide bonuses (or penalties) to your squads for good leadership, fit physical condition, and morale. You are also given a suppression indicator: a good indication of impending doom. New to Combat Mission: Shock Force is the communication engine. Units need to communicate with their leader units in order to be effective, and this is done through several means: visual contact, audio communication (voice or radio), and satellite operations for the U.S. This is a better way to abstract units being too far from their commander. Branching off from this is the new spotting system, where friendly units will only know about enemy units they can see instead of automatically spotting units found by other friendly units. Of course, units in the same platoon will quickly learn of enemy units (especially on the U.S. side), but this is another realistic wrinkle to the gameplay. Combat Mission: Shock Force also has a great interface for calling in off-screen artillery and air support. Once you select a scouting unit (preferably one that has a clear view of the target and isn’t under fire; HQ and JTAC units work best), you choose an artillery or air unit and set the target type (area, point, or linear), number of guns to use, mission type (light to heavy bombardment), duration, type of target, and delay if any. It’s really slick and it gives the user a lot of control over their support units without being confusing. One significant thing the game lacks is helicopters. The primary focus of games like Air Assault Task Force, these important components of the modern battlefield are completely ignored in Combat Mission: Shock Force, instead focusing on ground-based advancement.

Of course, what would a strategy game be without units? Combat Mission: Shock Force features over 30 infantry weapons, such as the M4 with M203 grenade attachment, RPG-7, AK-74, and PKM. There are a lot of things tracked by the game for each individual soldier, like ammunition levels, body armor type, and their rank that roughly translates into a skill rating. There is also ton of detail in the game if you choose to look at it. Units can have an ammo report, a defenses report (the ability to defend against specific incoming rounds), a damage report, and a unit report for commanded units. The units for the U.S. are components of the Stryker Brigade Combat Team, the new infantry fighting vehicle currently in service in Iraq (you know, the thing with the funny rails along the side). The U.S. forces are conventional, with the typical arrangement of motorized infantry and armored tanks. On the other hand, the Syrian forces are mostly unconventional in nature, using IEDs and small groups of infantry to harass U.S. units, along with the more conventional Syrian Army. The first time you send a car rigged with explosives careening towards an enemy tank, causing mass destruction and leaving a smoking crater behind is a magnificent experience. Units are now rendered and represented independently with a 1:1 ratio (before, each squad was shown as three units), indivdually tracking ammo usage and other key facts. The commands from earlier Combat Mission games have been expanded and organized into four categories: movement, combat, special, and administrative. Each unit in the game can execute one order in each category at the same time. For example, a tank can be moving, targeting, and popping smoke simultaneously. Since these commands are all given their own tab, the amount of confusion that might be present is negated. Movement commands consist of move, quick, fast, slow, hunt (good for known enemy presence), assault (a leapfrog infantry maneuver), blast (for demo charges), mark mines, and reverse. These options give you great control over your units. Units can be instructed to target a specific enemy unit, only use their light weaponry for soft targets, cover an area with a target arc (very useful for covering all directions in a defensive mission and dispersing fire to multiple targets automatically), stop firing, and face a different direction. Special commands include hiding (for an ambush), deploying weapons, dismounting units, bailing out, popping smoke for cover, pausing, and opening up for better spotting. Finally, unit groups can be split up to provide recon, assault, or anti-tank activities with a smaller group instead of exposing unfit soldiers to certain threats. You can also tell all of your units to pause, cancel their current orders, or evade if things get really hairy. Units are pretty easy to find on the battlefield as each squad and vehicle is given a large icon, just like the ones from Theatre of War (I wonder which came first?).

The battles of Combat Mission: Shock Force are much faster than previous titles because modern weaponry is more accurate. The tactical AI performs very well: units that aren't given specific orders will find cover if they are under fire (which is more than I can say for other games) and return fire if attacked. Units disembarking vehicles will also automatically set a safe waypoint to meet at. It's pretty impressive to watch these little guys move around on their own and actually behave realistically; it's easily the best tactical AI since Company of Heroes (and maybe even better). Combat Mission: Shock Force strikes a good balance between the automation of menial tasks (like automatically returning fire if doing so is prudent) and giving the user control over their troops to maximize their strategy. The command interface really comes together well in the game, and it's certainly a step forward from previous titles. The morale model is intact, resulting in some realistic behaviors for your troops; units that are panicked (or worse) can't be issued orders, so throwing troops into the fire is usually an extremely bad idea. Watching battles unfold is a treat: surveying the battlefield over the shoulders of your troops as they lob anti-tank rounds that cuvre over tanks and bounce off armor, infantry scurrying for cover and administering aid, troops piling out of Stryker vehicles. Combat Mission: Shock Force delivers one of the most viceral and realistic representations of tactical modern warfare available (well, soon to be available). Although it’s hard to tell how things are truly going to play out without the official scenario battles, based off some user-made beta scenarios all indications point toward what you would expect: great authentic gameplay.

Combat Mission: Shock Force sure has the look of a great game. The Syrian setting allows for both rural and urban combat, wide open tank skirmishes and intense close quarters battles. The graphics engine has been upgrades and unit design is amazing. The user interface is much improved, which allows for additions to the game, such as the unit commands and communications, to not be a burden. The mission editor is absolutely fantastic and the range of possibilities for mission design is beyond anything I’ve seen in any other strategy game. Sure, I’ll miss my random maps, but the rest of the game is emerging quite well and the deluge of user created scenarios soon after release will more than make up for it. Combat Mission: Shock Force is poised to be the premier tactical strategy game and I, for one, can’t wait for the release on July 27th.