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.