Monday, November 10, 2008

Close Combat – Wacht am Rhein Review

Close Combat – Wacht am Rhein, developed by Strategy 3 Tactics and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Robust grand campaign, new maps, slightly improved AI, easier to modify
The Not So Good: New maps aren’t much better graphically, no new units, interface could have been updated
What say you? A good amount of new maps and other minor additions for an outstanding classic game: 6/8

Ah, the Close Combat series. Probably the first tactical strategy game I played extensively, getting late in the game with 2000’s Invasion Normandy, the fifth (and final) game in the series. Since Matrix Games got the rights to the original series, they have been updating the classic titles with improved compatibility and enhanced features. Close Combat III turned into Cross of Iron and now Close Combat IV has become Wacht am Rhein. The Battle of the Bulge is represented here, bringing snowy conditions to the struggle of World War II. Let’s go shoot some Germans! Virtually speaking, of course.

Close Combat – Wacht am Rhein (German sounds cool) features some minor new graphics for the interface and some of the vehicles, but overall the game looks quite identical to the original version that came out in 1999. Some people won’t mind the overhead perspective, while some will say that it makes it extremely difficult to see troops (which it does). Personally, it looks outdated, not surprising considering Close Combat – Wacht am Rhein doesn’t include any significant upgrades to the graphics. I certainly wasn’t expecting a 3-D version of Close Combat, so only minor upgrades is not unexpected. The twenty-or-so completely new maps (plus some that have been improved from the originals) look the same their predecessors; while this is not a bad thing (the hand-drawn 2-D maps look great), you would expect some sort of improvement almost ten years later. The audio, as far as I can tell, is identical as before. It wasn’t bad then so it’s not bad now: disturbingly realistic sound design puts you right in the middle of the battle, although some of the spoken phrases do become repetitive after a while.

Close Combat – Wacht am Rhein actually comes with the original game; why you would want to miss out on the improvements is beyond me, but the option is there. Since the mechanics of the Close Combat series are well established, I will focus mostly on the improvements made in this new version of the fourth game. The most apparent improvement made in Close Combat – Wacht am Rhein is the grand campaign, which is a lot like the original campaign, but grander. This time around, you get more provinces to attack and defend (a total of sixty-four instead of the original forty-three) and a longer time in order to do so. This, obviously, gives you a lot more strategic options as a larger area of operations would. This updated version does not come with the ability to search for active multiplayer matches, as you must know the IP address in advance. This is disappointing, considering that the previous Close Combat reboot came with better multiplayer support. Close Combat – Wacht am Rhein is also apparently easier to modify, as the developers have consolidated and simplified the ability to change unit attributes and scenario conditions.

Apart from the new maps, the rest of Close Combat – Wacht am Rhein suffers from the same limitations as the original game. Most notable, you are restricted to a maximum of fifteen units per battle. This is not due to the game engine, but rather the interface that can only display a maximum of fifteen units, so that’s what the game is limited to. You can customize which fifteen units to choose (at least somewhat) before single battles, but this means that Close Combat – Wacht am Rhein consists of relatively small skirmishes instead of large battles. Of course, that’s what the game is intended to simulate, so you get what you get. The interface could have been modernized, putting more specific information on troops without necessitating them being selected. This is something that a higher game resolution could have done, but Close Combat – Wacht am Rhein is fixed at the old 1024x768 standard. Close Combat – Wacht am Rhein also contains the same units as before, so you won’t find any additions here either. The AI has apparently been improved; although this claim is difficult to verify, I never noticed many problems with pathfinding (only a couple of problems with tanks not using bridges) or units behaving unrealistically.

Close Combat – Wacht am Rhein is essentially a map expansion, but a total of sixty-four maps is a lot. Of course, that’s only twenty-one additional maps, so you have to decide whether twenty-one maps are worth $50. Sure, you get an expanded campaign, improved AI, multiplayer enhancements, and modern system compatibility, but I would feel a lot better if Close Combat – Wacht am Rhein was about $10 cheaper. $40 for a digital download (or $50 for a boxed copy) seems kind of overpriced for a bunch of maps. Granted, the game is great fun, but it was great fun almost ten years ago. At least Cross of Iron came with that massively multiplayer campaign to justify its existence more. In addition, the interface limits the number of units you can have to fifteen, although, to be honest, I prefer having a smaller roster to deal with anyway. The improvements are not spectacular and the price is pretty steep for what you get, but you cannot deny the awesomeness that is the Close Combat series, and Close Combat – Wacht am Rhein is no exception as a whole. If you have at least a moderate interest in tactical strategy games, then Close Combat – Wacht am Rhein should fill your gaming quota.