Saturday, October 11, 2008

Combat Mission Shock Force: Marines Review

Combat Mission Shock Force: Marines, developed and published by
The Good: Lengthy new campaign, a number of stand-alone scenarios
The Not So Good: Marines aren’t terribly different and the subtle changes don’t impact the gameplay, general bug fixes and improvements will be included in a free patch anyway
What say you? A lot of new missions, but the remainder is fairly superficial: 5/8

Sometimes I get preview beta versions of games, and one of those games was Combat Mission Shock Force. While I was doing the preview, I messed around with the map editor and created some maps that actually made it into the release. They weren't very good and the developers cleaned up and improved them a lot. Consequently, when I gave the finished product an 8/8, I caught some slack because I was now “one of the scenario designers,” which, I suppose, is technically true but a bit misleading. Now that we have that explanation out of the way, we can now talk about Combat Mission Shock Force: Marines (the colon has migrated), the first in a series of planned expansions (or modules, as they like to be called) for Combat Mission: Shock Force. Do the Marines bring the goods?

The new additions to the graphics consist of models for each of the new vehicles and troops introduced with the Marines expansion (module). These maintain the high level of quality seen in the base game: they are essentially identical to their real-life counterparts. Unfortunately, the environments have not received the same level of attention, as the CPU-hungry textures and buildings remain in their underwhelming state of overall blurriness. Performance has been improved, but this is only because the game automatically decreases the resolution of distant objects in order to keep the frame rate respectable. The result is a game where the vehicles and troops look fantastic, but the places in which they fight do not. There are a couple of new sound effects that Combat Mission Shock Force: Marines introduces, mostly dealing with artillery and air strikes: they are done well. The music and remainder of the effects remain the same. The graphics and the sound receive exactly the type of enhancement I would expect in an expansion (module): new models and not much else.

Combat Mission Shock Force: Marines is, in essence, a scenario expansion pack (module). On this front, you get a whole lot of content: a nineteen mission campaign presented in a semi-random order, fifteen stand-alone scenarios, and twenty-five additional quick battle maps. If you figure about an hour per scenario, that’s 35 or so hours from the scenarios and campaign alone, not counting the quick battles. The scenarios and missions maintain the same level of quality as before: most are hit, some are miss, and all require slow, deliberate movement across the terrain against a heavily dug-in foe. If its scenarios you want, Marines certainly delivers. A new difficulty setting is added, changing the old “elite” to “iron” and making the new “elite” the same as the old “elite” except that you can see the icons for all friendly troops, even if they venture outside of radio contact. A lot of the missions are heavily scripted with deliberate enemy placement, so replay value is a bit small, but 35 hours of additional content is still a good deal.

Not surprisingly, Combat Mission Shock Force: Marines introduces the Marines into the Syrian fray. What’s the difference? Not much, actually: there are more men per squad and the weapons are more powerful, but your tactics will generally stay the same. The Marines do come with a more versatile MEU (Marines Expeditionary Unit) that has variety of wonderful toys to blow things up with, but the small differences in tanks and APCs will only be noticed by the hardcore military crowd (which, arguably, is who this game is designed for anyway). I wasn’t really expecting a drastic change between the Army and Marines, but the similarities are plentiful enough to question the existence of this expansion (module) in the first place. Unless you really care that the Marines carry the M16A4 rifle instead of the M4A1, then I doubt Combat Mission Shock Force: Marines will have much appeal.

The rest of the changes in Combat Mission Shock Force: Marines are going to be delivered as a free patch for the base game anyway. These include almost-important improvements like specifically highlighting where troops will go given a move order, having a new disc color for KIA troops, and infantry firing while moving. The tactical and vehicle AI as been slightly improved, resulting in less “traffic jams” in the urban areas that populate a majority of the maps. The rest of the improvements are small things like better tree damage and reduced carrying capacity for soldiers. These things won’t get noticed by most everyone, and I know I wouldn’t have known about them if it wasn’t specifically spelled out in the readme file.

How much is $5 worth? Well, it could buy you a foot long sub (man, I love that song) and it's the difference between Combat Mission Shock Force: Marines being an OK expansion (module) and an overpriced expansion (module). I have a hard time justifying paying for an expansion pack (module) that mostly includes new scenarios when you can go online and download comparable ones made by the community for free. All of the bug fixes (which, arguably, should not have been problems from the start) will be included in a patch for the base game anyway, so you are just paying for the scenarios and the Marines. The Marines don’t bring drastic enough changes to alter the gameplay much at all, and most of the time you won’t notice any difference if you don’t check out the specific weapons being fired. Only people who are huge fans of the military and this series will notice the changes other than the new scenarios. Are you willing to pay $25 for 35 new missions? I don’t think I am, but if you play Combat Mission: Shock Force enough and are aching for some new content, then I could see investing some money here. However, the crowd that would do this probably already bought it (and won’t be swayed by my review) and I don’t feel that Combat Mission Shock Force: Marines comes with enough core changes for the price.