Monday, July 16, 2007

Combat Mission: Shock Force Review

Combat Mission: Shock Force, developed by Battlefront.com and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Superb gameplay, great user interface with precise control over your units without being overwhelmingly complex, usually excellent tactical AI, an unmatched scenario editor, real time and turn-based modes, nicely detailed units
The Not So Good: No random maps, pathfinding can be iffy at times
What say you? The premier tactical strategy game: 8/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Once every couple of years, a game comes along that defines a genre. Future titles try to emulate its quality gameplay and smooth style, but they can never quite match its excellence. I am, of course, talking about Barbie Horse Adventures: Wild Horse Rescue. On a completely unrelated note, it’s time to review the release version of Combat Mission: Shock Force, a game I previewed back in May. You should probably go read that first; it’s heavy on the details and I’m trying not to repeat myself that much in this review (I tend to be long-winded about games I like, and this is no exception). In the preview, I said “Combat Mission: Shock Force is poised to be the premier tactical strategy game.” Is it? Stop looking at the score already, cheater!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Pretty much everything I said in the preview still holds true. Combat Mission: Shock Force has outstanding unit detail on both infantry and armored units. Watching these units operate in the game mirrors their real-life counterparts and it’s really fantastic to see. When battles become intense, Combat Mission: Shock Force is a joy to watch. The environments are realistic as well, although they suffer from the “floating map” effects as they are projected against a 2-D background. All of this graphical splendor comes at a price, though, so make sure your computer is up to snuff. The game will adjust your settings to achieve more reasonable frame rates, and I did need to change anti-aliasing settings in my control panel outside of the game (to not use application-specific settings) to improve performance. The sound in the Combat Mission: Shock Force is great: the battle sounds are superb and put you right into the middle of the firefight. The game even has realistic sound velocities: the first time you see an explosion off in the distance and then hear it seconds later you'll appreciate how much work went into the game. The music is annoying at first (well, when loading a map; the front end music is OK), but annoyingly catchy after a while. While Combat Mission: Shock Force could benefit from some better performance, the game looks and sounds amazing.

ET AL.
Combat Mission: Shock Force centers around the U.S. invasion of Syria (right, like the U.S. would ever invade any Middle-Eastern country). The game comes with a semi-dynamic campaign: there are two to three missions per “round” of the campaign and the order in which they are chosen depends on your results. This means you don't need to win each mission in order to advance to the next one. There are “core” units that carry over to future battles (not necessarily the next mission), but the user is never told which ones these are to prevent saving core units and sending disposable units into the fray. This makes it important to carefully plan for each mission and save as many friendly units as possible, both for victory conditions in this battle and having more troops in future ones. The twenty-two mission campaign is enjoyable, lenghty (as each mission takes upwards of one hour to complete), and it gives you a good range of mission types, although most of them are offensive in nature (you are invading as the U.S., after all). The missions also take place in a variety of environments (large cities, small towns, open desert, forests, and mountains) each with their own tactical challenges. Unlike Theatre of War, Combat Mission: Shock Force has fully realized buildings with windows and doors that are used appropriately. Witnessing a grenade being tossed through a window at enemy forces is something I don't remember seeing in many (if any) other strategy games. I would like to see the campaign battles available as single-play missions as well, but as it is you have to do them in the order that they are presented. Combat Mission: Shock Force also comes with eighteen stand-alone battles, including five by some guy named “James Allen” (those ones are particularly awesome). Battles have units and objectives that are set by the scenario designer; although you can play as either side, five of the battles are intended to be played from the U.S. side, so those particular ones are not very good for multiplayer. Quick battles use fourteen maps with the set objectives and starting locations but allow you to customize the force composition (although not to the specific level available in previous Combat Mission games). There are no random maps in the game, a deletion I truly miss, but I think the developers were counting on (and rightfully so) a proliferation of maps occurring quickly after release due to the excellent scenario editor.

The missions themselves are challenging; the game quickly dispels the erroneous notion that U.S. forces are superior against entrenched infantry units at close range. The battles are on a much smaller scale than previous Combat Mission games, and I personally like the scope of this title: it makes things much easier to handle. Combat Mission: Shock Force is geared towards veteran strategy players; although it is fairly easy to get into for beginners, the missions require planning that might frustrate new players used to just buildings tons of units and blindlessly attacking the enemy with no thought. The game has a slow pace when compared to “classic” RTS games and you will do some waiting around while artillery strikes receive their orders, though things happen more quickly on lower realism settings. You will need to take things slowly, especially on dense city maps as the enemy will hide and they can take out your armored units with a well placed RPG or two. The hour-long missions may wear on some players, but these are quick engagements if you compare them to real-life encounters. You don't have to wait until the time limit, though, as the computer player will accept a cease fire at any time and you'll instantly go to the results screen.

The scenario editor is one of the highlights of the game, and this is part of the reason I expect Combat Mission: Shock Force to become the strategy title of choice for designers. The editor is easy to use, from making maps to setting AI patterns to determining objectives. The flexibility is great and shows how comprehensive the game design is. For example, victory conditions can include holding (or even just passing through) locations, destroying or spotting specific enemy units, and immobilizing a percentage of the enemy forces. Objectives don’t need to be the same for each side, either, which can make the technological advantage enjoyed by the U.S. player negated by the objectives and result in a more balanced scenario. The included scenarios don't really take advantage of the objective freedoms available in the game; I forsee some scouting missions where all you need to do is spot an enemy unit without dying, eliminating a single enemy units, and a whole host of other options being implemented in user-made scenarios. The game also allows for up to five complete plans for the AI in each scenario, which means you can have the enemy coming at you from different directions each time you play; this extends the longevity of a single scenario greatly. You can even link battles together to create your own campaign using the same semi-dynamic nature as the included campaign, and a templete is given in the root directory. Combat Mission: Shock Force really lets your imagination run wild and the community at large should come up with some excellent scenarios with varied objectives to vastly extend the life of this game.

Other than purely single player action, you can engage in hot seat, play by e-mail, or multiplayer games using known IP addresses (no in-game matchmaking, sorry). The difficulty can be changed that will alter spotting friendly and enemy units, as well as healing and artillery time. Combat Mission: Shock Force features both real time and turn-based gameplay, although it was designed with real time gameplay in mind. This is the preferred method of gameplay for single-player affairs as the implementation of turn-based play is less than ideal. In previous games in the series, each turn was resolved in the background and then replayed so you could see what happened. In Shock Force, the turn is resolved in real time and then replayed again (though you can skip to the end). Because of this, there’s no reason to play turn-based mode as a single player as it’s really intended for e-mail games.

Combat Mission: Shock Force features a great interface that shows a lot of information without taking up a majority of the screen. The game is easy to navigate once you get accustomed to it and the camera controls are decent. Combat Mission: Shock Force uses icons above each unit like another Battlefront.com product, Theatre of War (coincidence? I think not); this makes finding units extremely easy. Clicking on a unit gives a ton of information about it, from ammunition and suppression levels to the various bonuses it is enjoying because of leaders, experience, morale, and physical condition. Issuing commands gives you variety and specificity without being complex. You can issue movement, combat, special, and organizational commands to each unit (detail on each particular command can be found in my preview). I like the commands because they are the same for all units (“fast” is “fast” for every unit type) and in the same place on the interface; this makes playing the game easy once you learn the conventions. The tactical AI does a decent job moving units across the map to a distant waypoint, although it has issues with trenches and some terrain textures that can lead to immobilized tanks. I'm actually having more issues with pathfinding in this version of the game compared to the beta preview versions: vehicles seem to have a tough time navigating through certain terrain types and will back up, drive in circles, stop, or cross into each other on the way to a destination. I wasn't experiencing this type of behavior before. Infantry units will automatically find cover, a nice touch found here and in Company of Heroes. Infantry units with rifles engage enemy tanks on their own for some reason, even though their weapons are just there to annoy and slow down the simulation. Combat Mission: Shock Force features advanced communications; units that are not in contact with friendly units through visual, radio, or satellite means will not be able to receive orders and might panic (at the disco, no doubt). When you use more realistic difficulty settings, paying attention to communication is very important, as enemy information must be shared and having routed units is never a good thing. The communication features are just another realistic trait that sets Combat Mission: Shock Force apart from lesser strategy titles.

Combat Mission: Shock Force is centered on the Stryker unit currently deployed by the U.S. Army. This improved armored personal carrier is represented in almost all of its variations (infantry combat vehicle, mobile gun system, headquarters, et cetera) and is accompanied by Bradley and Abrams armored units. Air and artillery units, like the Thunderbolt and Paladin, are available for support operations. Really, pretty much every piece of hardware that is used in modern combat is in Combat Mission: Shock Force, including a vast array of rifles, machine guns, launchers, and the like. The Syrian Army is equipped with Soviet paraphernalia, including the T-72, AK-74, RPD, and SVD. Probably the most fun unit to control in the game is the vehicle-based improvised explosive device: it is a blast (get it? ha ha ha!). Units will automatically use the most appropriate weapon in engaging enemy units, including RPGs and grenades when they are needed. Calling in off-map artillery and air support is a piece of cake (the procedure is outlined in my preview). Artillery will deform the ground surface, providing cover for advancing troops; another realistic touch to the game.

The tactical AI in Combat Mission: Shock Force is outstanding; while the strategic AI is programmed by the mission designer, giving general movement directions, the tactical AI is done on the fly and executes commands in a very realistic manner. The result is slick, authentic gameplay and a very entertaining game; I really like playing Combat Mission: Shock Force. Most strategy games abstract a lot of the game mechanics or have “arcade” elements to make the game easy to learn and play, but Combat Mission: Shock Force provides the most realistic gameplay possible on today’s computer hardware while making the mechanics approachable to veteran and novice players alike. The urban combat is very tense and you're never really sure what's around the next corner; you get a sense of what real soldiers have to deal with on a daily basis, and this is one of the few games to approach that level of realism. Of course, no game is perfect, and I have been experiencing lockups and units moving across the map in an instant. The developers came to the conclusion that it's bad video drivers for my nVidia 8800; I turned by settings down to “fast” and turned off write combining and the problem was reduced to a playable level. I guess that's what I get for having a swanky video card.

IN CLOSING
Combat Mission: Shock Force is a must-have title for all strategy gamers. All of the features in the game come together to form some great strategy gameplay. This is the most realistic and compelling tactical game available, and anyone who is looking for an authentic experience should look no further. This is as close to modern combat that you can safely get, and all of the features in the game make it a joy to play: the quality AI, slick interface, and highly detailed units make this a believable simulation. The fantastic scenario editor will allow for some incredible designs by the community, and the content included with the game highlights the flexibility of the game engine. The game has a couple of small issues, like no random maps and the lack of multiplayer matchmaking, but these are vastly eclipsed by the awesomeness of the remainder of the game. You owe it to yourself to check out this high-quality strategy game.