Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Combat Mission Afghanistan Review

Combat Mission Afghanistan, developed by and Apeiron Games and published by
The Good: Unique setting with numerous scenarios and period-specific units, all of the good features of the previous game
The Not So Good: Interface and command shortcomings, no tutorial, no difficulty settings, jarring pop-in with identical graphics, no random maps, lacks distinctive battle mechanics to differentiate from earlier titles, lacks multiplayer matchmaking
What say you? This standalone expansion has new content but fails to improve in several key areas: 5/8

Likely the most infamous review of mine was for Combat Mission Shock Force, which received a glowing 8/8 despite not having a tutorial, lacking random maps, and exhibiting poor game performance. But there was a lot I really liked about it, from the scenario editor to combat detail. It was followed by a number of disappointing and kinda disappointing expansions (the last one I skipped), but now we get a full-fledged, standalone product in the form of Combat Mission Afghanistan. Oh those wacky Russians: they gone and invaded Afghanistan because it wasn’t Communist enough! This unique setting, both in time and place, might offer some distinctive elements around the tactical gameplay. And remember: in Soviet Russia, game plays YOU.

Combat Mission Afghanistan looks the same as Combat Mission Shock Force: the game hasn’t received any sort of facelift in the graphics department. As before, the vehicles have an excellent level of detail, but things go downhill soon thereafter. The infantry units have some terrible animations, clipping into buildings and the terrain or floating above it. While fire and weapon tracers are fine, smoke is obviously a 2-D effect in a 3-D world. The setting does allow for some more interesting terrain, but I spotted the same buildings recycled to the more mountainous setting. The 3-D maps still “float” against the 2-D background, which ruins the immersion a bit. Most significantly is the terrible pop-in and fuzzy texture transitions used in the game; this is done to make Combat Mission Afghanistan playable, as the graphics engine seems poorly optimized. I’m shocked there haven’t been more enhancements in this area. The sound design is the same, except for an increase in Russian background dialogue. The rest of the effects are the same recycled sounds from before. Combat Mission Afghanistan looks and sounds like it is three years old, and that’s because it is.

Combat Mission Afghanistan features two campaigns involving the Russian invasion of Afghanistan during the 80’s. Each campaign, told from the Russian perspective, has ten missions unveiled in the same order, which removes the semi-dynamic nature of the campaign from the original game. Most of the missions are assaults on enemy positions; this means the enemy AI does not have to do much, leaving the difficulty up to the scenario designer. Enemy troops are usually hidden in buildings or the terrain, promoting cautious play as you slowly advance and attempt to achieve your objectives. There are also fourteen standalone scenarios to test your mettle. The two campaigns and standalone missions are designed well, but nothing dramatically better than what the community can make on its own. Combat Mission Afghanistan still lacks the capability to generate randomized maps on the fly, resorting to thirty-seven quick battle maps and giving you a random assortment to troops and simple, location-based objectives to fight over. Granted, these maps have some nice, varied designs, but I’d still like to have true randomness. Combat Mission Afghanistan features the still excellent editor that allows you to easily create scenarios and campaigns with custom maps, objectives, and AI plans.

Combat Mission Afghanistan offers four realism settings that affect spotting of units and the speed at which artillery is called in and soldiers are healed. I feel that “elite” is a good balance of realism, as the higher difficulty level requires you to manually keep track of friendly units, which can be annoying. What the game lacks, though, are true difficulty settings: the number of enemy units is never decreased, so Combat Mission Afghanistan does a terrible job of introducing new recruits into the game. This is compounded by the fact that Combat Mission Afghanistan still lacks a tutorial, a true necessity. I guess they couldn’t be bothered to do one given only three years of additional time. They did have time to offer one new objective type: exit. Talk about innovation! Multiplayer options are the same: Combat Mission Afghanistan lets you play on the same computer, through e-mail, over a LAN, and on the Internet, but it still lacks a lobby for matchmaking in real time.

The interface is the same, and it’s been passed by more efficient methods of controlling your troops. The only new feature I saw is that icons blink when units are immobilized: helpful but certainly not dramatic. The problem lies in unit selection and ordering (which is what you actually do in a strategy game). Accessing units is difficult, as Combat Mission Afghanistan lacks an overall order of battle hierarchy list (as seen in Command Ops) to keep your troops organized. You also can’t issue orders to a superior unit and have the commands trickle down to their subordinates: you have to select all the units in a squad and then send them on their merry way. The other problem is the twenty-seven commands (for movement, targets, and organization) you can issue: Combat Mission Afghanistan hasn’t figured out how to make them all accessible. Personally, I think some (or a lot) of the orders should be automated by the AI, and the level of micromanagement Combat Mission Afghanistan expects you to handle is too high. You can bind specific commands to specific keys on the keyboard, but you’ll quickly run out of places and it’s simply easier (but not faster) to click than having to memorize that “B” is for “move fast” (it’s so obvious!). Combat Mission Afghanistan also needs to have a compromise between “hunt” and “move”: I like units stopping when an enemy is spotted, but I would like them to resume moving to their waypoint after the enemy has been eliminated. Combat Mission Afghanistan also does a terrible job keeping units in formation, as there are absolutely no tools to assist in this effort. The constant movement of vehicles into each other doesn’t help matters, either.

Combat Mission Afghanistan features a host of period-specific units, but a significant number of units from Shock Force reappear. There is (obviously) more of a focus on Russian units and there are more anti-RPG options and rapid fire cannons, but the technology between the 80’s and today isn’t really dramatically different, so the game tactics are generally identical. You still get tanks, armored fighting vehicles, APCs, and an assortment of small arms, but most players will fail to find a difference between the BTR-70 and BTR-80. Calling in artillery is still a detailed, multi-step process where you define the area of the attack, type of ammunition to use, and the duration of destruction. Combat detail remains a highlight of the game engine, as units can earn increased performance by having high morale, being in close proximity to leaders, or rated highly in experience or physical condition. Individual weapons and ammunition counts are also tracked, and vehicles can receive progressive damage to specific parts, impacting performance. Communication with superior units is also important, and Combat Mission Afghanistan supports both visual and audio contact. Combat simulation is strong, but so it was originally.

Like its predecessor, Combat Mission Afghanistan features both real-time and simultaneous turn-based modes of play, the latter of which allows you to tweak orders every thirty seconds. I prefer the second option, as it gives you more time to think and coordinate your potentially large roster of units. As I alluded to earlier, pathfinding is OK: units will utilize roads and generally will intelligently navigate to a distant waypoint, but vehicles still love to constantly run into each other or stop altogether, which can make coordinating an attack impossible. The tactical AI (all of the attack are automated) seems to be slightly improved, as storming buildings and taking locations is more fluid. Still, Combat Mission Afghanistan is eerily similar to Shock Force, using the same mix of units in a similar setting (though now there are more mountains). The scenarios from the campaign could easily be made using the editor, and while the ones included here are better than what the community at large would produce, the gap isn’t that wide. The things that could have been improved (a tutorial, multiplayer matchmaking, difficulty settings, the interface, random maps) remain untouched. I am quite disappointed by how little has changed in three years: Combat Mission Afghanistan is the same game with new scenarios and insignificant new units.

Combat Mission Afghanistan is, simply put, new scenarios. Are thirty-four scenarios worth $35? I would say “no,” because there have been so many other areas that have gone untouched three years after the first game was released. That said, the scenarios are well designed and offer a good challenge, except that challenge cannot be lowered as Combat Mission Afghanistan lacks difficulty options to decrease the amount of enemy troops for the benefit of new players. Also, the gross similarity in units between Afghanistan and Shock Force means you’ll generally be using the same tactics over again. The quick battles still do not have randomized maps, multiplayer still lacks matchmaking from within the game, and Combat Mission Afghanistan still comes without any tutorial whatsoever. The core game is almost identical, with none of the small additional features you would expect with three more years of development time. The interface remains cumbersome with lots of commands that can’t be issued quickly (making auto-paused simultaneous combat a more preferable option), although you can take the time to assign specific hotkeys to each of the 27 commands, if you have room on your keyboard. Keeping units in formation and organized according to the order of battle is difficult, as Combat Mission Afghanistan offers no changes to the interface to streamline command. The game retains the excellent simulation of combat, using morale and communication to great effect. The pathfinding is generally good, although vehicles still engage in road-blocking maneuvers that scatter your carefully lain formations. Combat Mission Afghanistan looks like it was released three years ago, as the visuals have not gotten an upgrade. The handful of new features (exit objectives…who cares?) are so insignificant that the new missions are the only reason to venture to Afghanistan. While fans of the series will enjoy the new selection of scenarios (which could be easily replicated using the editor, by the way), there is a ton of features and improvements that frankly should be present in Combat Mission Afghanistan by now.