Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge Review

Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge, developed by Panther Games and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Supreme simulated combat realism, high-quality AI automates minute tasks and fights effectively, orders delay makes you plan ahead, exhaustively researched roster of units with attributes, extensive suite of editors ensure longevity, comprehensive and informative tutorial videos, many scenarios
The Not So Good: Expensive, AI may be a bit too cautious, occasional stability issues, most new enhancements are subtle, seven-year-old graphics, lacks multiplayer matchmaking, needs interactive tutorials
What say you? The premier operational-level World War II strategy game comes at a steep price, but it’s worth it if you want a truly authentic and comprehensive battlefield experience: 8/8

One of the best wargames to grace the PC was Conquest of the Aegean, a real time game devoid of pesky hexes that focused on realism with a historically accurate command structure and (most memorable for me) awesome pathfinding (yes, that is important…try a game where it doesn't work) on very accurate maps. That landmark title came out four (!) years ago, so dare I say it’s time for an update (sequels to four-year-old games are all the rage, after all). Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge takes the action to the snow-covered forests of the Ardennes in the Winter of 1944. There has been the occasional competitor, trying to replicate the operational-level real-time strategic gameplay the series has produced so well. Will Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge remain at the pinnacle of wargame excellence?

The graphics have received seemingly no enhancements in the past four years, sticking with the 2-D overhead map view the series has utilized for the past seven years (although it now changes in appearance with the weather). I suppose if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but other wargames have gone to the 3-D side of things with acceptable results. The maps use realistic terrain depicted using abstracted textures for less photorealism but easier identification. The essentially hand-drawn maps look OK, but can’t compete with full 3-D representations of the battlefield. Unit can be displayed using classic NATO symbols for hardcore players or a profile view for more casual folk. Battle effects are underwhelming: colored lines dash across the map and defeated units simply disappear, replaced by a cross for reverence. Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge uses the same user interface as before; luckily, most things are easily accessible once you learn the system. While using the same 2-D graphics engine can let your computer focus more on the background calculations, a more updated presentation sure would be nice. The sound also remains the same after four years of additional development: some basic, repetitive effects that highlight constant on-screen action. $80 sure isn’t getting you a better looking or sounding game. Still, I doubt hardcore wargamers really care that much.

Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge concerns the oft-ignored (ha ha) conflict in the Ardennes during the cold winter of 1944, Germany’s last-ditch effort to push back the Allies. The game includes twenty-seven scenarios that span the course of the battle, each lasting between 30 and 300 hours; since an hour of game time takes about a minute of real time, the longest missions can take six hours to complete, not counting time spent paused. In addition, scenarios can include between sixty and six hundred units, though the large scale never really becomes an issue thanks to the ability (and need) to subordinate command to the AI. Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge has a lot of replay value since the AI is not scripted: they will attack different objectives with different units each time you play, and the location-based objectives are numerous enough where you can expect to see a new strategy from the AI most games. Most of the victory points are earned by holding locations with units in a 10:1 superiority ratio, though you can also earn points by killing the enemy or occasionally exiting units from the map. Difficulty can be adjusted by altering the reinforcements available to each side, and historic or seasonal weather options are accessible as well. I guess this is the best place to post the stability issues I have been having with the game: most (if not all) of the scenarios I have played have crashed once, usually right before I was going to save it (of course). I'm not alone, either, and it is annoying to lose all of your progress after spending nineteen minutes (autosave is fixed at twenty; it'd be nice to let us change it to, say, five minutes) carefully coordinating an attack. The crashes are frequent enough where it's making me not want to play the game (never a good thing). But, I figured, it'd probably get fixed by the time I posted the review or soon thereafter, and most people seem to be able to run the game without issue. Still worth noting, though.

Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge is a large game, and the developer has decided to go the route of non-interactive video tutorials to teach n00bs the game. This has both advantages and disadvantages. The videos are dry but quite informative, covering aspects of strategy and execution I never knew or thought about from my extensive Conquest of the Aegean play sessions. It’s certainly better than a slide show or simply reading instructions, but I personally prefer a more direct, interactive approach where you don’t have to alt-tab between the videos and the game to emulate the movements. Multiplayer is still present, but Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge continues to lack matchmaking from inside the game. It would be very nice to have at least an in-game IRC chat program, like what the community did for Sleep is Death. For those that don’t have friends or game at weird hours, matchmaking is a must to get the most out of the game. The developers of Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge have opened the door to modders, as a complete editing suite is included with the game. While the scenario and map editors are standard fare, the estab editor (you know, for stabbing someone electronically) lets you make any unit or equipment item ever used in World War II or beyond. It’s truly flexible, and it should give the game long legs in the effervescent world of user-created content.

Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge takes place in real time, just like life (not the cereal; that’s turn-based)! You can pause and accelerate time, although it never really goes faster than a minute each second. The interface is the same as in Conquest of the Aegean with some minor improvements. Most apparent is the order of battle, which will adjust based on how you have ordered your forces, and it will highlight units you have given orders in pink (the manual calls it “magenta,” but we all know better). Units can be directly selected from the order of battle, which eliminates scouring the battlefield for a specific unit. You can reattach units back to their original superior also, making the process as painless as possible. The path tools have been improved with a time estimate, in addition to allowing you to asses the quickest, shortest, and safest ways to travel. Range rings are useful for determining where to initiate an attack, just outside of enemy range. Those enemies might not actually be where they are shown, though, as intel can be out of date or completely wrong, based on the skill and line of sight of your forces. While it takes a little bit of time to learn your way around the small page tabs and function keys for different displays, the interface of Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge makes most of the important information easily accessible.

You have all of these units, so you might as well order them around. Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge provides a number of commands to issue to your troops, and it’s a very straightforward process: select a unit, select an order, and click a destination. You can tell units to attack, probe, defend, delay, withdraw, deny crossing, secure crossing, construct bridge, exit off map, fire, or bombard. If you’d like to customize your orders beyond the default setting of letting the AI do what it thinks is best, you have the option. You can specify the formation (road column, line, successive lines, arrowhead, left echelon, right echelon, vee, equal defense), which varies the attacking and defending values on all four sides of the unit. You can also adjust the amount of aggression, rate of fire, acceptable losses, supply usage, frontage, depth, facing, and propensity to rest. New include options to pursue stragglers, keep support units near the front of the formation, ambush the enemy, automatically attack enemy units along the way, bypass enemy units, or retake defended objectives. If you issue a waypoint before the final order location (by holding the “shift” key), it defines the forming-up place, where units will organize before entering their formation and starting their attack. The AI can, of course, automatically choose an appropriate location if you don’t want to worry about such details. You can also coordinate attacks by specifying a start, end, duration, or assault initiation time in your orders, and the AI will extend time if needed and inform you of the changes. Finally (well, for this paragraph anyway), Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge contains realistic orders delay, so your commands take some time to filter down the order of battle (usually 30-60 minutes, depending on many factors). This really makes you plan ahead, which is something most (if not all) other strategy games totally miss.

If it fought in the Battle of the Bulge, it’s found here. Units are divided into general categories: headquarters, line, line support, support, and base. These can include a myriad of platoons and companies, from infantry to armor to engineers to artillery to rockets to armored cars to machine guns and more. The smallest units in the game are platoon and company size, placed into brigades that are placed into regiments that are placed into divisions, which is what you usually command. The companies and platoons have a very impressive level of detail. Each unit is rated in experience, training, fitness, aggression, stubbornness, strength, and firepower. Speaking of firepower, Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge has tons of details on the individual equipment used by your troops: caliber, shell weight, rate of fire, range, reliability, armor thicknesses, speed, fuel usage, plus a short historical description of most items. Additionally, the game tracks each round used by every company. Seriously. During battle, the game engine also keeps track of personnel, equipment, morale, cohesion, fatigue, and suppression levels. Even the commanding officers have stats for determination, staff quality, judgment, aggression, and leadership. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more comprehensive simulation of battlefield combat. Thankfully, supply is handled automatically (that’s what subordinate units are for!), so it’s just a matter of keeping your supply lines clear of enemy troops.

I wonder if the actual combat uses all of these individual weapon attributes, or if they are just for show. Either way, the battles in Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge are quite realistic (if the History Channel is to serve as a point of reference), with units being suppressed, losing cohesion, and panicking as the bullets fly. This is where the strong AI comes into play. Thankfully, the computer does all of the minute tasks for any order: determining a forming-up place, undergoing reorganization, defending, resting at night, and assigning units to specific roles: support line, forward line, left or right guard, main guard, rear guard, center guard, or support filler. Units will also build bridges automatically (if able). This is coupled with some outstanding pathfinding, and the pathing tools mean unexpected movement is a very rare occurrence as you can determine where they will head before issuing an order. Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge wants to you command brigades, but leave the individual companies to the AI. Honestly, keeping track of company-sized units when you have three hundred on a side would be impossible, as it would be in real life. That’s why there are battalion and company commanders to deal with all of the minutiae, so you can focus on the big picture strategy. Rare are the games that you can trust the AI to do sensible things with their troops, but Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge is one of those select few. You can, of course, just issue a couple of attack orders to the regiments and sit back and watch the fireworks, but coordination of artillery and offensive or defensive maneuvers is how you become victorious; the order execution time command options make this possible. You do have to micromanage the artillery in order to strike specific targets; a "defend radius" order to automatically strike any units in a particular area would be nice instead of trusting the AI, though it does do an able enough job I suppose. As an enemy, the AI is very good but not great (still better than 99.44% of strategy games): they appear to be slightly too cautious on the offensive, keeping too many troops back instead of going for the objectives in an all-out attack. I have routinely seen a superior attacking force fail to dislodge my inferior defending force, but maybe it’s because of my l33t skillz. The AI works better as a defender, although both sides of the battle are just as interesting to play thanks to the non-scripted behavior and varied plans that the AI brings to the battlefield.

On the surface, Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge is, obviously, very similar to Conquest of the Aegean, and a lot of people will see the incremental changes in the engine and wonder why this time around the game is significantly more expensive. Well, first off the level of detail here is improved and remarkable: the historical unit positions and orders of battle, in addition to the individual company stats in many, many different areas of effectiveness (including the weapons they use), are thoroughly researched. Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge also features some outstanding enhanced AI that will effectively manage their subordinate units when issued orders, splitting up a simple “assault” command into its individual steps and assigning units to specific roles appropriately. You can trust your AI subordinates to do smart things that you couldn’t possible manage yourself in real time, and on the actual battlefield you wouldn’t anyway. There’s no reason to play a “classic” wargame where you have to painfully and tediously move each unit every turn ever again. The AI also makes for challenging competition, looking for holes in your defenses and playing a single scenario many different ways (from the initial setup, of course) due to the lack of scripting. Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge also provides nice tools to assess line of sight and path transit times for any unit under your command. The twenty-seven scenarios offer nice replay value thanks to the dynamic AI and large maps that provide multiple paths to each objective. If that’s not enough, Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge features complete editors that lets you create your own units, maps, and scenarios, so the game can be adapted to any near-World War II conflict (and probably will be by the dedicated community). The game can be complex, but a set of comprehensive video tutorials are included to teach the basics; while this doesn’t substitute for real-time in-game instruction, they are quite useful for new and veteran players alike. I would like to see in-game matchmaking in the form of a chat client or some other method, but since the AI is good you don’t need to rely on human competition for ultimate enjoyment. Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge also exhibits more crashes than I care to experience in a high-ticket item (more than zero). A smattering of minor complaints aside, Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge is a complete authentic battlefield experience. Sure, it’s $80, but I feel it’s justified: historical strategy fans should be playing this title for a long time thanks to its realism, detail, AI, and editing possibilities. It's a marked improvement from Conquest of the Aegean and I gave that four-year-old game an 8/8, so here we are. As Fran├žois-Marie Arouet once said, if you're going to spend $80 on a computer game, it might as well be a really good one. And who can argue against the French?