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Close Combat gets both a video and written restrospective in this Tacticular Cancer Special

Close Combat gets both a video and written restrospective in this Tacticular Cancer Special

Editorial - posted by Trash on Sun 14 July 2013, 10:30:56

Tags: A Bridge Too Far; Atomic Games; Close Combat; Microsoft; The Russian Front

Close Combat Series

A Bridge Too Ignored

Braving the “here there be dragons” reaches of my attic, I managed to rediscover a trove of video games: an illustrious box that folds awkwardly from four angles. A faceless cube on the outside, said box is filled with every title – and their accompanying packaging – that I have ever owned.

When I opened it, moans from the darkness urged me to leave. These are old memories, the voices warned, not to be trifled with, lest one wish to depart the place with bleary cynicism and disgust for the modern gamingscapes.

“Blessed you all are,” I said, looking about the attic’s Christmas decorations through a foggy sieve of cobwebs. “But you, too, have some shit games amidst your ranks.”

The voices screamed in horror so wretched was my opinion. A dark wind blew and the pink insulation bubbled like magmatic cotton candy. Somewhere out in the world, a thousand dial-up modems cried out in terror and then were suddenly silenced. These demons were not to be trifled with. Incorporeal spirits in my corporeal mind, they believed my quest was one set on tarnishing the elders. But I stilled my heart, for I had come in the name of incline.

I reached deep into the trove, my hand sinking past game box after game box. Caesar opened up to me, pleading, scratching at my elbow, demanding more plebs. Civil War Generals cracked and hissed, playing videos of reenactments gone terribly wrong. Even Nightmare Ned warned he had greater nightmares yet if I did not stop.

But I was not to be deterred. I knew I had what I wanted when the voices reached a simmering peak – their green shapes screaming and hollering as they swirled around my very head like a rotten halo. Yes, my fingers clutched what I had come for. I took the game from the pits of the box and quickly drew my arm out, shaking off a litany of Starcraft repurchases and a particularly odorous Squad Leader.

Standing in the dark and shadow, I realized the voices had gone. When I peered down, the box closed up on its own. I turned away only to be met by a familiar face in the far corner. An ancient bard: a grey machine with one wide, glaring eye. It gave a slow, approving nod. I attempted to wave back, but the relic passed into dust before my very eyes.

“One day, I shall return,” I told the attic.

With great courage, I looked down at the game in my hands. Close Combat. A man on the cover pointed me to a scene of total carnage. He urged me to join him. Flipping it over, I saw old friends. Tiny men rushing to battle, all of them observed by a godlike perspective. Not one piece looked any different than the day I had laid them all to rest so many years ago. There was dust on them all, but it didn’t matter.

I looked up, tears in my eyes.

A good game doesn’t age in years.

My treasure was priceless.

“War is the last of all things to go according to plan.” – Thucydides

Like most genres, it didn’t take long for the real-time strategy market to stagnate in the very profitable gaming era that was the 1990s. Little significant change had come since the release of the Dune series. Bases were built, units were recruited, and armies fought in emotionless combat. The genre could only improve laterally: titles gained better artwork, music, gameplay balance, etc. Rock-paper-scissor mechanics continued to be the dominant form of gameplay with very little nuances. Units remained mindless HP-counters used to fight – with unyielding conviction – other HP-counters. If one asked a peasant to go attack the enemy fortress singlehandedly, the unit would give a brief “zug-zug” and be on their marry way to the grave.

While this bread-and-butter approach to the genre more or less still exists to this day, there was a brief time when it was shaken up by Atomic Games’ Close Combat series. Just when all the gameplay mechanics of the RTS were blending into a monolithic sludge, Atomic Games offered a fresh – and unforgiving – taste of another kind of combat: one based on realism.

If one gazes into the Close Combat manuals, you’ll find a few choice keywords. They are: the human factor, the realism factor, and dynamic play. Mashed together, you get a game that very much looks like its contemporaries, and yet plays like something you’ve never touched before.

Borrowing heavily from the wargame genre, Close Combat instituted the idea that people who are shooting bullets at one another are not going to do so robotically. Atomic Games’ “human factor” is a pretty simple concept: it asks, “What would you do under fire?” When the first game landed, there was a very consistent stream of likeminded first-impressions: reviewers asked their soldiers to move ahead, but when their squads were met by an MG-42, the troopers stopped and laid down. And then they panicked. And then they started moving backward.

One can imagine the shock of this. I’d like to think many people did the same thing I did which was smack themselves in the head and say, “Oh my god, this is brilliant.” Such a simple device dramatically changed how the games were played. You weren’t just trying to get from point-A to point-B, you were trying to do it efficiently and with as much care for your soldiers as you would expect a real-life commander to give. Would you charge across a football field into withering enemy fire?

And if this gameplay device wasn’t obvious in its rigid manipulations, perhaps Atomic Games’ “realism factor” would better help reinforce it. When units died in RTS games, they died without theatrics or even a sense of loss. Even the most pathetic of grunts, such as the previously mentioned peasant, would march stoically to their death.

So it came as something of a shock when one first moved a squad only to be met by blistering machine-gun fire, a quick clank of a soldier being shot through the helmet, and the devastating screams of the group of men who just watched him die. Troopers that were just a second ago sprinting toward the enemy, gungho as any unit in any RTS, were now on their bellies, slinking to any cover they could find. They would cry for mercy or yell for medics. The more hardened veterans barked at their comrades to buck up. Weakminded grunts would go insane, either fleeing the battle entirely, or madly charging the enemy lines. To put it simply, the game presented chaos and carnage in its most basic form: men killing one another, and the effect that has on the human body and psyche.

Close Combat’s audio and visual cues were very demanding on the virgin eyes and ears that had grown up with the series’ more cheeky contemporaries. When soldiers truly got into close combat, they battled it out hand to hand. Men grunted as they chucked grenades before charging one another with explosions going off all around them. They swung rifles butts and stabbed with their bayonets. Sickening clunks filled the air as men fought one another with shovels, fists, and whatever they could get their hands on. From the unsettling shunk of mortar rounds flying out of their tubes to the staccato pops of bolt action rifles, Close Combat makes sure you’re feeling what’s happening on the ground. It serves as both an element of flavor and a gameplay indicator of what’s actually happening. A bunch of your men are screaming? Things probably aren’t going well at all.

But how could one tell who was winning, many gamers asked. When enemies clashed, and shots were exchanged, what determined the outcome? Atomic Games’ third, and perhaps most powerful element, was that of randomness, the fuel that really made the series’ dynamic engine run. Most RTS games presented their combat like Patton looking at a map, scooting pieces of wood around the table. Close Combat, on the other hand, was Audie Murphy down below, manning a .50 cal and fighting off a sea enemies

It is the random element that ties everything together. You attacked that machine-gunner with overwhelming numbers, so how did one sneaky Kraut with an MP-40 waste two whole fire teams? Close Combat takes its human factor – the body and mind through which your men will bend or break – and its realism factor – the means with which your units act – and squishes between them a whole bunch of randomness.

Being set on fire with a flamethrower tends to lower morale somewhat.

Definitive HP-counters and damage stats were replaced with what one could call emergent gameplay. “Water cooler discussions” about RTS games typically revolve around choices the player made and little else. Close Combat discussions revolve around not only tactical wit, but also events that occur outside the player’s control. Because soldiers behave like men and not just corporeal realizations of directions given by the player, narratives tend to develop on their own. Every battle has an opportunity to present to you something you didn’t think possible.

Whereas old RTS games get replaced by their updated sequels, the Close Combat series manages to be playable regardless of era thanks to its unique gameplay, sharp presentation, and dynamic narrative. Unfortunately, “realism” was but a brief respite in a market dominated by cheap tricks and pleasing easiness. Close Combat failed to spark a genre revolution. It didn’t even conjure much in the way of competition. Much like the FPS’s momentary fling with realism (e.g. Rainbow Six), Close Combat’s style of gameplay could only fade after its initial flash of brilliance (e.g. Rainbow Six: Vegas). Its elements linger – albeit thinly – in a few modern games. For example, Company of Heroes mixes Close Combat’s pinning and randomness elements with the more mainstream rock-paper-scissor conventions. But, overall, the only continuation of Close Combat’s design is none other than Close Combat itself.

Much like its 1990s brothers, the series has now lived long enough to see itself become the enemy. It is stagnate, churning without improvement. Milked dry, all gone. It is only right, then, that an inventive vision like Close Combat lie mangled by the spear of its own self, the sharpened tip too long beneath the rays of comfort and contentedness, all things bronzed with age and stagnation. But the original trilogy will always stand as an imaginative breakthrough that everybody ignored. Even if genius is not followed, it is still genius yet.

Why ABTF is a brilliant game

Most folks who look at the Close Combat series are really looking at the series’ initial trilogy: Close Combat, A Bridge Too Far, and The Russian Front. Each game set out to do something a little different. Close Combat gave us a tight campaign where we were always moving forward. Focusing on the initial Allied push into Normandy, the game is a quick breeze from the beaches to St. Lo. A Bridge Too Far introduced resource management and a much larger, expansive campaign. It also picked one of the most interesting military operations in all of history, Operation Market Garden. And The Russian Front, of course, is about Germany’s ill-fated invasion of Russia. It takes the narrow aspects of the previous titles and completely blows them up: instead of playing with an operation or two, the game gives us what is, more or less, an entire war to play through. The Russian Front lives up to its name as it is easily the biggest game in the entire series.

So which is best? Is it the first’s sense of novelty, the second’s focus, or the third’s scope?

I believe the answer is, rather definitively, A Bridge Too Far.

ABTF introduced a number of features to the Close Combat series, but primarily resource management, unit advancement, and the element of time. Resource management was simple: as operations wore on, commanders were given the opportunity to reinforce their lines. The Allies had to weigh their options carefully, typically resupplying one paratrooper zone meant the abandonment of another. This opened the game up considerably, letting players get a taste of more strategic gameplay elements.

Unit advancement was another integral part of the game. When you first begin playing ABTF, most of your soldiers are fairly green. But every soldier has his own stat line containing attributes like leadership, physique, experience, and morale. Most of these stats are affected positively or negatively by acts of “Heroism” or “Cowardice”, and health states are, obviously, harmed by wounds suffered on the field. (Also interesting is that the game keeps track of unit kills like a fighter pilot’s tally.)

It’s toward the end of the game that you see what unit advancement means, as your more hardened troops are more willing to follow seemingly insane commands, while the green troops – sometimes just landed as reinforcements – are not so gungho about getting into dangerous situations.

But the most influential element in ABTF, and the one that separates it from many other RTS games, is the element of time. “Operation Market Garden” was a real life timed quest if there ever was one. The very basic story of the operation is this: paratroopers dropped behind enemy lines to secure a number of bridges; meanwhile, the ground army’s job was to push ahead, linking up with every bridge and, consequently, pushing straight into Germany. It was a knife to the heart kind of operation and required the world’s largest concentration of big-balled men in history.

Atomic Games picked up on the tense nature of the operation perfectly. As the Allies, your job is to swiftly capture the bridges and then hold out until the army can reach you. As the Axis, your job is to stop the bridges from being captured – usually by blowing them up at the last moment possible – and prevent the Allied army from reaching its paratroopers as your own army mobilizes a counter-attack. Sounds simple enough, right? What’s so great about all this?

Well, I’m about to blow your mind.

They won’t know we’re coming they said! Piece of cake they said!

This picture is the very first map of A Bridge Too Far. Within seconds of starting ABTF’s campaign, the player is shown everything they need to know about what the game demands to win. The British paratroopers start out in the open, coming in from the hinterland to take the bridge. The Germans, though outnumbered, are well positioned behind walls and the bridge.

But what’s so special beyond all that?

At the bottom of the image there is a timer: two minutes. That’s what you got before that bridge gets blown. Now, if you fail, the Allied army is going to have to sit at this chokepoint in the operation until the bridge gets fixed. As they sit there, the airborne units further ahead are going to still be fighting, and every combat encounter they have they’re going to walk away from with fewer and fewer resources. And every combat encounter for the Germans means they have more time to mobilize to counter the surprise attack in general.

Literally on the first map, ABTF says: you better move, or you are going to lose the game.

The game earns its “Close Combat” title very quickly:

We are being so badly led form above that I can no longer carry out senseless orders. – Lt. Gen. Wilhelm Bittrich

Whereas Close Combat and The Russian Front focused on Fuller-esque gameplay – the destruction of your enemy’s forces, hack at their limbs, etc. – A Bridge Too Far was about objectives. It narrowed the gameplay to being very goal oriented. Whereas in The Russian Front your focus might be on eliminating that enemy tank sitting hull down in the defilade, your focus in ABTF might be to ignore the enemy tank, and go get the bridge before they blow it up. Ignore the 88mm-cannon fixed in the street and go capture the hospital so that the next time you fight on that map you won’t be starting out in the open meadows again.

The game is one of constant transition. Airborne units are often tasked with pushing to better areas on individual maps, the army units are tasked with pushing across the game on an operational scale. There’s a very keen, obvious sense of progress in the game that slowly develops a narrative sorely lacking from the other titles.

In one of my playthroughs of the game, I failed to stop the Germans from blowing two of the bridges. In turn, the Army got held up. Meanwhile, the British 1st Airborne was stuck in Arnhem, miles and miles away from relief. The time spent building bridges over the river gave the Germans room to mobilize their counterattack. When the Army finally got on the road again, they were meeting German armor divisions. The sudden arrival of a Jagdpanther singlehandedly stopped the Army’s advance once again.

Back in Arnhem, I had run out of resources. My paratroopers, holding half the city, started giving up ground to the ever increasing pressure of a German counter-attack. Every squad was at half-strength. Not every man had ammunition. They were shooting PIAT rounds into tanks right outside their rubble-ruined buildings. Melee combat took place more often than ranged. By the time the British were wiped out, not a single man had ammunition. Every squad had been broken. Arnhem itself, because the game replayed the map over and over again, literally turned into a pile of rubble. The only piece of green – a patch of a little park – was mottled by mortar rounds and the husks of destroyed tanks. My men were overrun and I was defeated.

But I had fun. It’s difficult to design a game in a way that losing can be fun. Gaming has certainly seen a number of titles that do it – I’m looking at you, Dwarf Fortress – but most designers are content with going the simple route: just make everything easy. One has to give Atomic Games credit for what they achieved with their series. Close Combat’s mixture of “casual” and “hardcore” elements into a seamless experience that can satisfy both crowds is astounding.

We’re unlikely to see another series quite like Close Combat.

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