Sunday, September 19, 2010

Close Combat - Last Stand Arnhem Review

Close Combat - Last Stand Arnhem, developed by Strategy 3 Tactics and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Lots of battles, operations, and campaigns, more flexible strategic mode, nighttime missions, robust editor and user modification support, informative tutorial, windowed mode and higher resolutions
The Not So Good: Lacks in-game multiplayer matchmaking, can't accelerate time, can't save mid-battle, small battles still take place on large maps, poor attacking AI
What say you? Another decently enhanced remake of a classic strategy title: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
There is no doubt that the Close Combat series is one of the finest examples of tactical gaming known to man (and if you do doubt that, get off my lawn). So much so that when Matrix Games bought the right to the series, they saw fit to re-release each of the games from the late 90’s with enhanced features and modern compatibilities. The first was Cross of Iron (a remake of #3), then came Wacht am Rhein (a remake of #4), and then The Longest Day (a remake of #5, my first introduction to the original series), which I did not review for some reason (I blame this). It’s time to go back to what we missed, as Close Combat - Last Stand Arnhem addresses the theater of the 2nd game: Operation Market Garden (also a memorable Battlefield 1942 map). What new stuff do you get for $40? An enhanced strategic map, new tactical battles, troop buying, bridge demolition, and improved unit organization, to name a few. Do these list of new features warrant a new investment into this classic game series?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics of Close Combat - Last Stand Arnhem have received very minor updates from their initial, thirteen-year-old condition. The most noticeable change is the addition of nighttime battles, complete with darkened maps and circular flares. There are also new graphics for plane, vehicle, and map icons that work well. The game itself looks the same: a top-down 2-D representation of the battlefield with very small soldiers. Close Combat - Last Stand Arnhem does add more resolutions and windowed mode support, which is a very nice feature. While the game does look old, the nice map graphics hold up surprisingly well thanks to their level of detail. The sound design is still the same as before (and in all the other Close Combat games), so there is nothing new of note in that department.

ET AL.
Close Combat - Last Stand Arnhem starts with Close Combat: A Bridge To Far and adds a number of enhancements. First off, the game has been expanded to include over sixty battles, each having a very detailed map with plenty of cover to fight over. The game can be played as a single battle, or over a small area in one of the seven operations, or over a larger area in one of the six campaigns, including the grand campaign that involves all sixty-plus battle areas. If that isn’t enough, you can create your own operations and campaigns in the easy-to-use in-game editor, pitting customized battlegroups against each other. The editor also allows you to define the starting date and when reinforcements will arrive. Close Combat - Last Stand Arnhem also has great support for modifying the game’s various values, as scoring, supply, and battlegroup properties can be easily altered in text files. Each scenario can involve multiple nations with different capabilities, and airborne operations (obviously a focus of this game) are heavily involved. The difficulty level chosen can provide more off-map support, while realism settings adjust how much you see enemy units and whether friendly units will act on their own. Victory is usually determined by who breaks morale first (which produces multiple battles in the same place), but you can also introduce a time limit and location-based conditions. Multiplayer features are disappointing: there is no in-game matchmaking, so you must rely on third-party applications like Battle HQ to find people to play against. I don’t understand why Cross of Iron includes a fantastic persistent online mode (MMCCIII) and this version is so limited. At least the tutorials do a good job teaching the basics. Overall, despite the limited multiplayer features, Close Combat - Last Stand Arnhem does add noteworthy additions.

Gameplay in Close Combat - Last Stand Arnhem comes in two flavors: the strategic overview and tactical battles. In the strategic mode, you move battlegroups around the scenario map, fighting over resources and creating battles that are played out in the tactical mode. A single battlegroup may actually be of several sizes (companies, regiments), which determines how many troops are available during a tactical battle (up to fifteen). Rarely are all of your forces allowed to play at once, though, because of the fifteen-limit limitation in the tactical battles. Because of this, it can take many four-hour turns to resolve a single conflict. Unfortunately, the game does not resize the battle area for smaller skirmishes involving companies or depleted forces, so there can be a lot of waiting, especially if you are the defender. Battlegroups can be ordered to attack, rest, merge with another group, swap roles (front line and support) with another group, disband, or provide support (air, artillery, mortar, or supplies). There can be two groups in one location at a time; the front line group will provide most of the available troops while the support group can lend a couple of forces if needed. Groups will automatically construct defenses if they do not move, and static troops may be present as a final form of defense. During battle, cohesion may be lost, which reduces the number of force pool points available next turn, and completely defeated groups may retreat off the map or dissolve altogether. Other features include night battles, river crossings, and weather (which affects air support and the movement of vehicles). The main fight is for control of supply points, which resupply your troops with ammunition and fuel. Most of the time, you’ll simply be moving troops around to take more terrain. While the strategic mode lacks the depth of more dedicated strategic-level games, it does offer a good platform for dynamic tactical battles.

The tactical portion of Close Combat - Last Stand Arnhem is what it’s always been: a detailed simulation of battlefield dynamics involving up to thirty (fifteen per side) squads of troops. This is thanks to individual tracking of ammunition and morale (eight classifications from “healthy” to “panicked”) to determine the outcome of their current action. It’s a great system that takes advantage of cover, buildings, and squad dynamics to flank and destroy the enemy. Close Combat - Last Stand Arnhem includes all of the fighting elements of the Western Front of World War II: infantry, snipers, anti-tank infantry, machine guns, flame throwers, tanks, halftracks, mortars, and off-map artillery and air strikes. You can choose from any of the available troops in your battlegroup through a point buying system that gives more choice than simply handing you troops that may or may not be appropriate for the terrain and enemy. Individual soldiers are rated according to leadership, intelligence, strength, and experience for even more detail. The over sixty maps include lots of places to hide, from houses to forests and hedgerows, and the game seems to incorporate these elements well with realistic line of sight and range for weapons. Orders are the standard fare: move, move fast, sneak, fire, smoke, defend, and ambush. The game still requires you to right-click directly on the unit in order to issue a command, instead of using the unit roster at the bottom of the screen. New to the series is the ability to blow bridges, a last resort action by the Germans that results in immediate withdrawal, but a significant blow to the Allies on the strategic map. Also added are night battles that allow you to bring in flares to illuminate the area for better killing. There are some features that Close Combat - Last Stand Arnhem still does without: you can’t save during a battle, you can’t accelerate time when you are waiting for the AI to attack, and the mouse wheel still does not zoom. Despite occasional improved pathfinding, the AI is becoming increasingly outdated because of its slow, unorganized attacks. I found the game almost trivially easy to beat unless I am outmanned by a significant margin. Close Combat - Last Stand Arnhem is better on the offensive, as the computer player typically throws one unit at a time into your waiting defenses, rarely dislodging you unless they have a clear numerical superiority.

IN CLOSING
Close Combat - Last Stand Arnhem takes a great game, makes noticeable improvements, and comes up a bit short of “must buy” status. The number of battlefields has been expanded to over sixty, producing more varied campaigns and operations that should provide a lot of gaming bang for your buck. The editors allow you to create custom operations and campaigns, and most of the game’s important data has been converted into easy-to-edit text files. Close Combat - Last Stand Arnhem features a nice set of tutorials for the newcomer as well. Multiplayer requires you to use a third-party chat application instead of adapting the excellent MMCCIII dynamic online campaign from Cross of Iron. The strategic mode allows you to move around battlegroups, establish front line and reserve units, engage static defensive troops, and try out night battles while fighting over supplies. The fixed fifteen-unit limit for the tactical battles restricts the size of the conflicts and ignores how many troops each battlegroup might actually contain, which is a bit disappointing. The tactical battles still use morale to great effect and feature point buying for complete customization of your forces. The deficiencies of the AI is becoming more apparent with time: acting much better as a defender, the computer just can’t seem to put forth coordinated attacks on a reliable basis. There are other limitations that should be resolved by now: you can’t save a battle and you can’t accelerate time. However, Close Combat - Last Stand Arnhem does give you increased resolutions and the ability to play the game in a window, so that’s something. It's not the best Close Combat remake, but Last Stand Arnhem is better than the last one I reviewed. If this game had the same multiplayer capabilities as Cross of Iron, improved AI, and a couple other minor additional features, then we'd have a completely fulfilling update.