Thursday, August 20, 2009

Combat Mission Shock Force: British Forces Review

Combat Mission Shock Force: British Forces, developed and published by
The Good: Lengthy new campaign, plentiful single scenarios and quick battle maps, new British military toys
The Not So Good: Pathfinding and movement issues still remain, $25 is a bit too much
What say you? The second module is a lot like the first: content heavy but pricey: 6/8

While the American military typically gets most of the attention in the world of computer gaming, there are other important nations on the Allied side of things, like Australia. But since they aren't dumb enough to invade Syria, it's time for some British Forces! The second expansion (module) to Combat Mission: Shock Force puts an ol' English spin on the give-orders-and-kill-people tactical strategy game. The previous module (expansion), Marines, added a new campaign, some stand-alone scenarios, and new weapons and vehicles for a slightly inflated price. Are the Brits any different?

If you have seen or heard any of the previous Combat Mission: Shock Force games, then you know what to expect here. All of the British vehicles look very good up close, although admittedly you'll spend most of the game zoomed out. The special effects are the same, with tracer rounds screaming across the landscape and smoke-filled explosions dotting the map. The scenarios take place in some of the most realistic looking maps the series has seen; although Syria is not the most visually stimulating location in the world, the designs offer some good tactical gaming. Sound effects and background music remain the same, using the same sounds from American vehicles for their British counterparts.

As with the Marines module, the focus of Combat Mission Shock Force: British Forces is on the new campaign. It seems the Brits didn't want to feel left out and joined in the American-led invasion of Syria. Like the previous games, the campaign is a series of interconnected missions rather than a story-driven affair, although units carry over and the order in which you play the missions is determined by your level of success. The scenarios are well-designed, assault-heavy missions (better suited for the AI) across a variety of open and urban environments; they offer a high level of challenging difficulty that's suited well for the fans of the series that would be interested in this game. In addition to the main campaign, there are thirty stand-alone scenarios suitable for games against the AI and human opponents. For those who want a more random gaming experience, there is also a rather healthy 226 quick battle maps to choose from. British Forces adds 27 to the total, which is 185 or so more than when the original game came out. It almost makes up for the lack of randomly generated maps (almost). Most people will be buying Combat Mission Shock Force: British Forces for the new scenarios, and they are well designed and challenging for veteran players.

Controlling British Forces means you get to play with British stuff and use words like “armour” and “lift” and “fish and chips.” The order of battles are similar though some things are named differently; this has little impact on the actual gameplay, as changing the number of tanks or infantry in a section doesn't make a whole lot of difference. British armour seems to be less stout but slightly faster (this may be my eyes playing tricks on me), from the Challenger 2 tank to the Scimitar light tank and Sultan APC. Really, you could interchange the British units with American ones and most people won't notice any alteration in performance or capabilities. This goes for the weapons as well: the L85A2 rifle seems just as capable as the M16. For most people, I think the changes are purely cosmetic and certainly don't warrant a purchase solely based on the new hardware.

There are still a number of annoyances with Combat Mission Shock Force: British Forces, made even more so because the developers continue to avoid fixing them. Pathfinding is still significantly problematic, as units refuse to use roads for faster travel unless explicitly told to do so; playing a recent tactical game such as World War II General Commander only highlights the shortcomings in this area. Getting units to move in formation requires you to manually move them first, and you can't scroll past the map edge to better visualize units placed near the border. AI has gotten continual improvements and is now capable of putting up a good attack in addition to a quality defense. I will also mention that I experienced a handful of lock-ups while playing, and since the game doesn't automatically save, hours of progress was instantly lost.

So here's the $25 question: are you willing to spend that much on a new campaign, 30 stand-alone missions, and a host of quick battle maps? I would feel a lot better if Combat Mission Shock Force: British Forces was $5 to $10 less (I had the same opinion of the Marines module). The British forces of British Forces aren't terribly interesting or exotic, as they perform and behave much like their American counterparts; there aren't any drastic changes in tactics you need to make. The campaign is challenging fun and the missions and quick battle maps do make for a good increase in features, but the overall need to play this module (expansion) depends on how much you like Combat Mission: Shock Force in the first place. Personally, I have a hard time justifying the price when a lot of the basic interface and performance problems are still intact.