Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy

Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy

In Wheaton, 30 minutes west of Chicago, sits Cantigny Park. The estate of the Chicago Tribune’s patriarch, the late Colonel Robert R. McCormick, it is home to the First Infantry Division Museum. The U.S.’s first and longest continuously serving regular Army division, the Big Red One has participated in WWI, WWII, Vietnam, and every major military action since I was born. The museum is a fixture of the western suburban middle school curriculum. Trips through its halls are as common to Illinois’ pre-teens as trips to the Adler Planetarium, the Field Museum, and the Museum of Science and Industry.

I have personally, on multiple occasions, “rode” inside it’s LCVP cum movie theatre, experienced the dramatic dropping of the craft’s doors that serve as the gateway into the museum experience. I have reached out and touched the .50 cal shell casings laminated into the simulated Utah beachhead. I have stared in wonder at the waxy mannequins, bedecked in period uniforms, that serve as waypoints along the tour. Between my PBJ and string cheese I have straddled the barrel of the weatherized relic of an M-24 Chaffee tank hulk, a majestic vessel rusting into its concrete plinth. But in all the trips I have made to this museum I have never learned about war like the war portrayed in Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy.

CM:BN is the successor of the celebrated Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord. 12 years ago the game arrived in the waning months of a fantastic stretch of industry-changing PC titles. But its impenetrable interface, geologic pace and abstracted conceits crippled mainstream reception. This spiritual successor solves none of those problems, and I for one could not be happier. CM:BN builds on the weaknesses of its forefathers and follows them to their logical conclusion. If you are to excel at this brutally difficult game you will become a student of the history of fire and maneuver warfare or the men under your command will die. This is the first game I have ever played whose mission briefings include a reading list.

Like Cantigny, most first-person shooters focus on the experience of a single soldier or a single unit. They get you “down in the trenches,” they dirty you up, they make you want to find a pack of unfiltered Lucky’s and take long drags while you stare into the middle distance, trying to un-see what you have seen. CM:BN raises your perspective two or three tiers. You command battalion-sized forces (or smaller) ranging from pure infantry, mechanized infantry, or armored units. Like the fifth episode of Band of Brothers, “Crossroads,” that finds Major Winters writing endless after-action reports, your decisions may lead to your ultimate recognition by your superiors. But you will also find yourself reflecting on every decision you made, every order you gave, and mourning each man you lead to their death.

The concept of command and control is a pivotal game element. If units without radios journey outside line of sight of your leadership units, if they range outside of earshot, they are unlikely to respond to your commands. In these situations the game’s sophisticated TacAI is all they are left with. When your units are forced to rely on their training in this way the results can be dramatic, but you as the player have your agency removed from them. They are stranded and denied your benevolent omniscience. When they die it will be your fault for letting them go where you could not save them.

There is a lot of death in this game. In CM:BO individual squads of twelve men were abstracted out to 3 barely animated stick-figures. When pinned down they all three in unison bowed ponderously like drinking bird toys. In CM:BN each of those 12 men is clearly and desperately in danger when caught in the open.

Every round of every weapon is tracked individually by the game engine in 3D space. In a scenario I played, “Silence the Guns,” which simulates the aforementioned Maj. Winter’s text-book assault on the guns outside Brecourt manner on D-Day, a single artillery shell blasted a yard wide crater in the earth and took two men with it. As the sergeant patched his men back together in a spontaneous act of first aid individual rifle rounds sent up plumes of dirt around him. As more and more fire zeroed in he dropped his bandages and cowered next to his dying teammates in the shell hole that took them from him. And there was nothing I could do. I commanded him to crawl away into the safety of the bocage, to re-join the main forces and press the assault, but he would not leave his men. Only after their wounds were bound, and they faded off the map, would he listen. And I was left to watch it all, at my leisure, over and over again with a free-ranging camera allowing me access to every painful angle.

On another map I sent a self-propelled howitzer column, led by their command half track, careering over a river ford. Screened by Sherman tanks on their right flank and mobile infantry guns on the left, I thought it would be an easy crossing especially if made at full speed. As I hit the button to start the minute long timer in which my commands would be acted out I noticed the dust clouds along a distant road. One, two, three rounds came screaming in and vaporized the command vehicle and the first gun to follow it. Men who moments before could be seen crouched inside the cabin of the open-topped gun, vanished as the screen went white for a moment. Over the course of the next minute rounds cooked off inside the wasted hulks. Other vehicles in the column popped smoke and retreated as additional volleys from the Panzer column exploded against the trees in front of them. The terror I felt was not for myself but for my men, and it was clearly emoted by the shuddering of the vehicles on their suspension as they took evasive maneuvers.

When the Panzer’s cleared the treeline my Shermans took their revenge. Gyrostabilized guns belched fire as they reared back on their haunches. Commanders opened hatches, exercising their right to mow down the Panzer crews that emerged from the broken, smoldering tanks. .50 caliber machines guns showered armored hulls with tracer fire and jack-booted Nazi officers were caught in between. These are real scenes of war, circumstances under which our grandfathers actually fought and there is nothing like this in any museum in the world.

The finest compliment I can give to the development team behind CM:BN is that they have given the player the tools to take on the heavy mantle of command and be rewarded. Armor thickness, weapons payloads, unique unit elements were masterfully modeled by this team over a decade ago. This time around they have put life into their waxy mannequins at a remarkable scale. This game is a historical simulation of the finest caliber and in my opinion better than any museum.

Battlefront.com was kind enough to provide GWJ with a preview build for this article. At the moment they are running a pre-order for the PC and Mac version. Next week I'm told there will be a playable beta demo. You can also download the manual, which is in the style of US Army field manuals. I would also recommend downloading vintage FMs to enhance your play.

Comments

Little issue loading the massive screenshots I took. Here's a link to them now.

I was just watching the VAAR for this when I came to GWJ today. Looks spectacular and I can't wait to get a few PBEM games going!

already pre-ordered the premium edition! can't wait to give it a go

And you're already cited on Battlefront's front page. Very nice review, I think you've caught the essence of the series quite well. I look forward to the game.

Charlie, sorry if I missed it up top but what's the speed of play? Is it turn-based or real time?

That was a great write-up, and as someone who used to love a rousing game of Axis and Allies I have to say that I'm intrigued.

Glad you asked, CM:BN is a "we go" game at it's roots, which is a concept they pioneered over a decade ago. One player gives commands to his units, then the other to his. Then you hit the play button and an entire minute of battle takes place before your eyes. The TacAI takes over during this period as well, fully pathfinding for each unit and making decisions to take cover, pop smoke, fire or maneuver out of your predetermined waypoints. During that minute you get to move the free range camera all around the action. It's like playing your own war movie minute by minute.

It also has a real-time mode. I did not try this, but honestly... you'd have to be 11 different people to have enough fingers to make it work.

Lots of additional info that did not make the cut on the article:

- The game will ship with 3 campaigns, two of which I sampled. The scenario designers have spent a lot of time on these, one I played was already at revision 10. The campaign is a connected series of battles where the designer has added the ability for dynamic changes to take place from battle to battle, including losses of men, equipment, and objectives.

- This is the launch of a new game "base" if you will that will be filled with additional campaigns from the relative period that will be sold later on (hence the steel case for 4 disks they're giving with pre-orders). So, add-on modules will all take place around the same time and involve units common to that theater. To quote their President/PR guru Martin van Balkom "at least three are currently planned, including Commonwealth forces, Market Garden, and a generic Battle Pack of odd/rare units." So, expect the Eastern front to be a seperate base unit with additional modules added to it.

excellent info, thanks

Getting ready for this now....

Have the deluxe package ordered and I am waiting patiently...well...kind of patiently!

Made my day!!!

My pre-order was in on day one. I still play the original CMBO...11 years since it was released. I have been a member of their forums since Dec of 1999. I am an old geezer...WOW

Goonch wrote:
My pre-order was in on day one. I still play the original CMBO...11 years since it was released. I have been a member of their forums since Dec of 1999. I am an old geezer...WOW :(

Feel free to PM me for a PBEM game. A friend and I are in the middle of one right now, and I need more to do between turns!

I wish you jerks wouldn't make these games seem so damn intriguing. I have so little time to learn, but it sounds so damn satisfying when it all comes together. Great piece!

Certis wrote:
I wish you jerks wouldn't make these games seem so damn intriguing. I have so little time to learn, but it sounds so damn satisfying when it all comes together. Great piece!

Where's the LIKE button?!?

Yeah, this looks amazing and I'm sure I will never touch it. I made a similar comment in the iRacing thread that I love the fact that games like this exist. Gaming is a great hobby so full of diversity.

Man, this game brings me back to high school playing Advanced Squad Leader in my buddy's basement. Those little freaking cardboard chips everywhere, haha.

Ever check out VASL? It's a supposedly very strong recreation of the board game experience. I messed with it some but I never had friends to play with me. ):

Wow, this sounds fantastic, super-immersive. Definitely gonna check this out.

Thanks for the writeup!

For those jonesing for the new game, Battlefront just posted the game manual.

Steve

I don't need to preorder this game -- my pile is huge.
I don't need to preorder this game -- I have other things to do.
I don't need to preorder this game -- I said I wasn't going to buy a game without checking reviews.

...

Two hundred page manual, you say? Space in the box for expansions?

Oh, dear. I...don't...need...to...preorder...?

Enabling from the Front Page now? Lunacy. Ordered.

Any important differences aside from the much-improved graphics for those of us who have been waiting very impatiently since CM:BB? And what do the campaigns cover? Is the Battle of the Bulge in there?

jonnypolite wrote:
Enabling from the Front Page now? Lunacy. Ordered.

Don't worry, we scaled it back for today's article.

Thanks for the heads up! I played CMBO from the day it was released. And the next 3, but then went to a Mac and haven't kept up with Battlefront. So seeing the Mac is available for the game (although my Mac is at minimal requirements, which has me worried.), I'm going to go for it, and hoping this is just not a sentimental buy:)

My other big question will the pbem files be 'universal' so I can play against PC folks.

notes: checked out youtube vid of set-up and game play. Basically looks the same with some slight graphic upgrade. And play seem's more refined with more helpful aspects in set-up. So not a big upgrade, but if the game engine is the same but more refined and upgraded, I'll be very happy to have this excellent sim on my Mac. (I always enjoyed CMBO over CMBB and CMAK)

derbius wrote:
Any important differences aside from the much-improved graphics for those of us who have been waiting very impatiently since CM:BB? And what do the campaigns cover? Is the Battle of the Bulge in there?

As far as the campaigns go, know that I play even fast paced games at a stately pace. I did not come near finishing a campaign. I don't see any Battle of the Bulge specific campaigns, but I imagine there will be a few battles that are themed in such a way.

As far as changes from CM:BO, I can name more than a few that I appreciate.

- Arcs of fire can be set. The arcs are fixed to the unit, not the map, so as a tank maneuvers through a winding forest the arc will swing left and right as the tank turns. This means that you can tell a stationary unit to focus on an area where you expect an enemy to pop its head out, and don't have them popping off shots at the first thing that piques their interest and leaving the area important to you, the commander, unattended.

- Artillery, both on and off map, is assigned to all command units as an "asset". This means that any command unit with eyes on an area of the map can call in support from any arty asset in range. Now, bear in mind it will take 4 or more minutes sometimes for those fire missions to be dialed in, but when they are in effect they are more precise than ever. You can select area fire, linear fire, shaped fire. It's all quite customizable (check the manual) where before you had area fire or precise fire.

- Every round is tracked, both in flight and in inventory. In CM:BO infantry units had 3 demo charges, 2 rifle grenades, and what amounted to about 5 minutes worth of small arms fire for the entire engagement before they resorted to "conserving ammo" and were mostly worthless. Now every soldier has x rounds for this weapon and x rounds for that weapon. You can also tell them to fire with everything at their disposal, or provide lighter harassing fire to conserve ammo. And they can be resupplied. For example, MG teams even have dedicated ammo carrier platoons that can run back and forth to the jeeps for more rounds. It's as if they took the basic army field manual and designed infantry units to fill each role, instead of abstracting multiple roles into the "chit" that is an infantry unit in CM:BO. You must make the units work together though, it doesn't just work itself out. Proper orchestration keeps your front lines supplied and fuel the advance.

- For one-off battles there is a points system in place that is as historical as it is fair. Each side gets so many points for material and rarity. Each unit is assigned a material cost and a rarity cost. Exceed either total and you can't march, you have to trim the fat before you can start the game. The numbers behind material and rarity cost come from research the team has done on actual troop counts captured in period records.

- The number of maps for random battles was stunning, easily over 2 dozen. And full weather and day/night effects. In some of my screenshots you can see burning tanks lighting up the night missions, blowing my recon team's cover.

What else do you want to know?

Donan wrote:
Basically looks the same with some slight graphic upgrade. And play seem's more refined with more helpful aspects in set-up. So not a big upgrade, but if the game engine is the same but more refined and upgraded, I'll be very happy to have this excellent sim on my Mac. (I always enjoyed CMBO over CMBB and CMAK)

Gotta contest the above. This is a whole new engine from the ground up. I haven't looked at the VAAR, but in motion the game looks even better than the stills I captured. Comparing CM:BO to CM:BN is like comparing Morrowind to Battlefield 3. Add in the changes I mentioned above, and others I'm forgetting, and you really have a much richer simulation.

TheWanderer wrote:
Donan wrote:
Basically looks the same with some slight graphic upgrade. And play seem's more refined with more helpful aspects in set-up. So not a big upgrade, but if the game engine is the same but more refined and upgraded, I'll be very happy to have this excellent sim on my Mac. (I always enjoyed CMBO over CMBB and CMAK)

Gotta contest the above. This is a whole new engine from the ground up. I haven't looked at the VAAR, but in motion the game looks even better than the stills I captured. Comparing CM:BO to CM:BN is like comparing Morrowind to Battlefield 3. Add in the changes I mentioned above, and others I'm forgetting, and you really have a much richer simulation.

I'm sure it is much richer and I wasn't trying to say anything negative. But it is hard for me after seeing the video that it's a whole new engine, for it just seem's so familiar. But I'm sure the physics engine has had an entirely new overhaul. Many things seemed to be tracked more precisely with a much richer combat environment. But then I haven't played CM:BN, obviously you have played both CM:BO and CM:BN recently so to have a clearer picture of the differences.

As I said tho', regardless, I'm so very happy to see this released. Can't wait!

There was some discussion somewhere of how infantry is less abstracted in the AI now than it was before - is the infantry AI noticeably better? Do you have to micro-manage all the infantry ammo stuff or will the AI resupply MGs etc itself?

I have to say, however, that I thought CM was very nearly perfect IMHO so I would be happy to buy this even if all it did was update the graphics engine.

Is it easier than it was to figure out how to go hull down?

The AI will not resupply MGs etc. by itself to my knowledge. I didn't see it happen. Hull down is easier, if only due to the graphics. I saw evidence of the TacAI automatically going hull down when you told a unit to "Hunt". And, there are textual cues of both your units and enemy units when they are in a hull down position.

As far as "better AI" for the infantry, there were several moments where I was screaming for them to get into the damned trench and they did not. It's certainly much less abstracted than in CM:BO.

edosan wrote:
I don't need to preorder this game...

Ed from the past! This is Ed from your future! I have come to tell you that you will give in. You will cave. Stop fighting it.