Sunday, August 12, 2012

Combat Mission: Fortress Italy Review

Combat Mission: Fortress Italy, developed and published by
The Good: Detailed units with realistic weapon ballistics and damage, authentic behavior and communication between units, lots of specific orders, real-time or turn-based gameplay, decent number of battles and campaigns, enhanced editor, capable AI, range of realism options
The Not So Good: Some cumbersome interface elements, bare multiplayer features, non-interactive tutorials, assorted graphical shortcomings
What say you? Satisfying strategic gameplay that lacks some feature polish common in contemporary titles: 6/8

While D-Day and Normandy get all of the attention, Allied forces invaded mainland Italy a full nine months before that other, more famous amphibious landing. The mountainous terrain proved difficult for the invading American and British armies, but a tough victory was eventually earned. This relatively novel landscape is the setting for Combat Mission: Fortress Italy, the latest entry in the series of simultaneous turn-based/real-time tactical strategy games. In addition to having locale-specific units to play with, new engine enhancements include improved graphics, moveable waypoints, and enhanced editing capabilities, plus a $55 standalone price tag. Is Combat Mission: Fortress Italy worth the investment for newcomers and veterans alike?

While the graphics of Combat Mission: Fortress Italy are improved over its predecessor, there are still several areas in need of improvement. The new version of the game engine has introduced better shaders and bump and normal mapping, along with better performance. While these are nice and all, far more noticeable problems are still present. The most common of these is clipping: units pass into the ground and through each other on uneven terrain and when moving near one another. It really hurts the immersion of the game, since the unit models are very detailed and the terrain is passable (the textures could be less “grainy”). Units also have occasionally spastic animations and can appear to slide across the terrain during animation transitions. The cowering animation is just plain silly as well. The command lines also pass through hills, which can make them difficult to see in Sicily’s mountainous setting. Weapon fire and explosions are canned, but sometimes effective during the chaos of war. The map detail is better than previous games in the Combat Mission series of games, but the maps still float against a monochrome background that looks terrible. On the sound side of things, the battle sounds are convincing yet repetitive, and the sporadic unit voice work adds some life into the game. The menu music is generic, but the background sound effects (distant gunfire and explosions) are done well. Overall, Combat Mission: Fortress Italy offers up some good graphics along with areas that fall short.

Combat Mission: Fortress Italy covers the Allied invasion of Sicily during Operation Husky. Like previous entries in the series, the game features both real-time and turn-based modes; I prefer the turn-based mode where a minute of action plays out with no interaction, since it gives you an unlimited amount of time to plan between turns (useful for large scenarios) and you can skip through the replay if you wish. The standalone expansion offers three campaigns covering the U.S., Germany, and Italy; each campaign features five or six missions and occasionally offers variants based on user decisions and past performance. In addition, damage, ammunition, and morale values carry over for “core” units (the identities of which are not disclosed to the player) from mission to mission. Combat Mission: Fortress Italy also has two three-mission tutorial campaigns; while it’s nice to have tutorials, you have to print out the documentation for them from the manual and read along, as none of the instructions are actually in the game. Seventeen standalone battles are also present, as are 250 quick battle map layouts, which is not as good as randomly generated content but close enough with so many options to choose from. Each battle can have a different environment (forest, rough, town), time of day, temperature, duration, size, and type (assault, attack, probe, engagement). Victory conditions include holding terrain, destroying or spotting units, and causing casualties and wounds to enemy soldiers. In the quick battle maps, you can also specify the units or have the computer pick random orders of battle for you.

Multiplayer options in Combat Mission: Fortress Italy are disappointing: there are hotseat, e-mail, and internet options, but PBEM is manual (there is no central service to handle transferring data like in Decisive Campaigns) and online play requires an IP address in advance, so matchmaking leaves a lot to be desired. Combat Mission: Fortress Italy is certainly behind the times in offering painless multiplayer to the masses. The game features five levels of realism that alter friendly and enemy spotting, morale, healing, and artillery time. The middle setting (“warrior”) has realistic times without annoying friendly spotting rules, so it’s the option I choose. While having flexible realism is nice, the settings to not adjust the difficulty: you are still at the mercy of the scenario designer, who must give each side the right number of units for players of every skill level, obviously an impossible task. Combat Mission: Fortress Italy does allow you to make your own battles, however, and new features include the ability to use a map overlay for more realistic terrain and painting linear features like roads and fencing (no, not that type of fencing). Finally, Combat Mission: Fortress Italy is available for both Windows and Macintosh, so that’s nice.

Combat Mission: Fortress Italy has an occasionally cumbersome interface that hasn’t changed in five years. It starts with the obtuse camera controls that have become very obsolete. It took me a bit to figure out why I dislike the camera controls so much, and then it hit me: Combat Mission: Fortress Italy does not use the mouse wheel to zoom towards the cursor, a mechanic that most strategy games employ nowadays. This feature would make navigating the landscape so much easier, but instead you must rely on increasingly outdated and inefficient methods like the WASD keys and moving the mouse to the edge of the screen. You also have to shift-click to box select units and right-clicking controls the camera instead of issuing orders to units. Combat Mission: Fortress Italy places a floating icon above each unit that gives quick reference as to its type; it flashes when the unit is under fire, but the game never gives other pertinent information using the icons like the morale level. Also, the game never clearly shows where the bullets are coming from or if your units are firing, both of which may be helpful things to know in a strategy game. Accessing units can be difficult, as there is no master order of battle where you can select and zoom to units. You can click unit information boxes to zoom to their superior commander and vice versa, but that means you have to fine the unit or its HQ first using the aforementioned camera controls. The game is also very inconsistent displaying tool-tips: weapons and items have them, but ranks and leaders do not. Combat Mission: Fortress Italy also lacks a minimap or easily accessible overhead perspective. Frankly, it’s surprising the number of areas that need improvement in the interface, considering the same game has had several expansions in the past five years of development since Shock Force.

Combat Mission: Fortress Italy features a wide range of orders to give to your units. The series is simply not satisfied with “move”, as there are a number of speed and organizational settings you can choose between: quick, fast, slow, hunt, assault, and reverse, along with marking mines and blasting gigantic holes in somebody’s house. “Attack” is also insufficient, as you can target, target light, set an arc for armor, deploy smoke, or change facing. You can also split infantry units into fire and assault teams, deploy weapons, bail out of a wrecked vehicle, or pause to coordinate actions. Combat Mission: Fortress Italy finally adds the ability to move waypoints (I can’t believe that wasn’t in there before), and you can stack orders of different types on the same waypoint, like moving fast, then targeting an arc while hiding. The tactical AI will also do some things automatically, like using nearby cover (very handy), healing wounded soldiers, sharing ammunition, and surrendering to the enemy (not handy at all). Artillery and air strikes are simple to use: pick a target (a point, area, or line), the rate of fire, duration, and a delay. Some scenarios have target reference points that can be placed before time starts for increased accuracy. Combat Mission: Fortress Italy certainly has an impressive array of specific commands to issue to your troops.

Combat Mission: Fortress Italy features all of the units that were involved in the invasion of Sicily. Highlights include the American M4 Sherman tank, M3A1 armored car, M1903A3 Springfield, and M1918 BAR, the German Panzer IVH tank, StuG IIIG self-propelled gun, Messerschmitt BF 109G6 fighter, and Karbiner 98K, and the Italian Renault R35 tank, Obice da 100/17 howitzer, and Breda M37 heavy machinegun. The game keeps track of individual rounds for every weapon each unit holds, adding to the realism Combat Mission: Fortress Italy offers. Units can have performance modifications based on their leader, current condition (tiredness), and morale. Combat Mission: Fortress Italy also features an impressive communication model: units outside of voice or sight range of their superiors will have reduced effectiveness and also be unaware of nearby enemy (and friendly, if you chose one of the higher realism levels) units they cannot see. The sporadic use (or complete absence, in the case of the Italians) of radios means keeping units organized is very important.

Morale is an important cornerstone of most strategy games, and Combat Mission: Fortress Italy is no exception: each unit can become pinned and eventually panic when under duress. Detailed damage reports are also available for armored units, informing you whether an incoming round penetrated the hull and what important piece of equipment is now destroyed. The visible bullet deflections when rounds hit the side of a structure is sometime most games do not model, and it’s effective here. The AI of Combat Mission: Fortress Italy continues to be solid, with pre-programmed strategy scripts (usually multiples per scenario) and on-the-fly tactical decisions. Units behave plausibly and the AI will sometimes use some nice strategies to break through defenses or encircle your forces. The computer will also surrender if you have a significant lead and destroy most of their troops, so you’re not stuck playing through thirty minutes of dead time.

While Combat Mission: Fortress Italy features minor enhancements to the game engine (moveable waypoints, armor target arcs, 2-D map editor overlays) that should really be patched in instead of being touted as new features, the amount of new content, in the form of the three campaigns, various battles, hundreds of quick battle maps, and the new theatre-specific units, justifies most of the standalone $55 price tag for fans of the genre. I say “most” because there is still room for improvement, starting with the increasingly outdated interface. The interface suffers from being essentially five years old, and I found the camera controls to be especially awkward: the inability to use the mouse wheel to zoom towards the cursor position really needs to be fixed. Finding specific units could also be improved by adding a master order of battle list. The graphics still have some areas of concern, and finding and coordinating multiplayer battles is difficult. Luckily for Combat Mission: Fortress Italy, the strong features of games past return: outstanding unit detail, accurate morale and damage, and realistic communication between units really make the game feel true to life. The AI is also strong, offering up varied strategies and plausible tactics during combat. While the amount of gameplay contained within the campaigns and battles is commendable (and can be expanded with the editor), the difficulty cannot be tweaked and the tutorials require a read-along with the manual instead of placing the instructions within the game. Overall, Combat Mission: Fortress Italy continues the strong aspects of the game engine but has several areas that need further enhancements beyond new content.