Written by  :  Ashley Pomeroy (233)
Written on  :  Dec 29, 2005
Rating  :  3.2 Stars3.2 Stars3.2 Stars3.2 Stars3.2 Stars

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Cyrillic: The Russian Font

The Good

This was the third of the Close Combat games and in my opinion it ties with CCV as the best of the series. It covers the entire Eastern front from 1941 to 1945 and is much larger in scope than the other Close Combat titles. The graphics, sounds and interface are better than the first two games, and they still do the job well enough today. Some of the tanks are just boxes, but the landscapes are attractive. The graphics would be improved further in CCIV, which was an otherwise inferior game. The campaign is represented as a series of mini-campaigns consisting of a handful of battles across several maps in similar terrain - there is snow, tundra, mud, grasslands, some small-scale urban environments and later on the ruins of Berlin. You can play as either the Russians or the Germans, although you cannot alter the historical outcome of the war; the game ends up with you fighting a last battle for the ruins of the Reichstag. As you win battles you gain points which you can use to replace your troops and equipment with better equipment, historically correct for the period, and thus each time you play the game you can enter the battle with a different set of units; if the enemy has Tigers you might decide to counter them with an SU-85, or perhaps a couple of anti-tank guns, or a clutch of lend-lease Shermans. This kind of flexibility was a great leap forward from the previous games and was sadly ditched in CCIV and CCV, the final two games in the series.

In general, the action in the Close Combat games is less complex and hardcore than the slightly later Combat Mission games but is considerably deeper than Command and Conquer; it is quickly accessible and has a simple mouse-driven interface. The attention to detail is impressive if you are a casual military enthusiast and the game places an emphasis on the morale and well-being of your troops. Indeed, the very first Close Combat game was an attempt to combine the soldier-level combat of action games with the depth and detailed unit modelling of a table-top wargame, although CCIII strays from the blueprint by placing a great emphasis on armoured vehicles, more of which later. You can win battles by breaking the enemy's will. Often the enemy will flee rather than die to a man. The equipment is all generally realistic and the atmosphere of fighting in snowy wasteland is well done.

Although there are only a couple of dozen maps they are designed in such a way that you can play them from either direction successfully, and they mix open and closed terrain well. The big limitation of the engine is the fact that you are playing on a map that is much larger than the screen, and the computer is better at working out angles and long range gunnery than you are; but generally this is not a problem, because the maps are simple enough to memorise and the few urban areas tend to be quite small. Later games were exceedingly frustrating in this respect - you would move your tank forwards slightly, and a distant enemy gun would spot it through a minuscule crack in some houses and blow it away.

There is a level maker that seems as fully-featured as that which the designers used to make the game; it was not included in the later Close Combat games but it is easy to use and great fun if you want to pit a Josef Stalin III heavy tank against a mass of German conscripts in a kind of twilight of the footsoldiers.

The Bad

The tank movement AI is very poor. The impression I get is that the programmers had trouble writing vehicle AI that could cope with traversing turrets, such that the turret and the hull might point in different directions in a sensible way. Furthermore, because you do not have a 'reverse' command - instead, the game tries to work out from the context of your clicks whether you want your tanks to back up - it does not seem to understand that tanks should not reverse towards the enemy. This is a problem that dogged the entire Close Combat series, and must have been hard-wired deep into the code because it is terribly and conspicuously flawed. The tanks move from place to place well enough, but you can never simply let them do their thing; you have to keep an eye on them. Frequently, you will order a tank to move forwards, and it will instead start to spin around, the turret rotating in one direction and the hull in the other direction, as if the gunner and driver were fighting each other. Often tanks will spin all the way around and reverse into combat; I have lost games because, instead of presenting their solid frontal armour to the enemy, my tanks have advanced backwards into battle. Even when they are not approaching the enemy arse-first, the tanks are hyperactive. Order them to change course and they will instead stop and rotate slightly in the wrong direction, whilst the turret tries to match the hull's bearing; then the hull will rotate back to the correct heading, whilst the turret will try to catch up. Frequently your tanks will zig-zag into battle, or do so in little jerks. It is often hilarious and frustrating and is a problem that did not seem to affect Combat Mission or any real-time wargame I have played.

The game does not model air attacks and although there is artillery, it is hard-wired into a couple of the scenarios and then only for the Germans. The enemy AI is not very smart but usually makes up for it in weight of numbers. The game does not really model the kind of shortages and supply difficulties faced by the Germans - at the end of the game you will probably have an unstoppable team of King Tigers, and you will wonder how the Germans could have lost - and it doesn't really model the weight of Soviet numbers. Playing as the Russians you have the same amount of teams as the Germans, although the infantry squads tend to be slightly larger. However the equipment is such that both sides match each other, so it is not as irritating or problematic as the tank AI (which, if anything, got worse in the next game). The game has what seems to be an unrealistically negative view of Russian morale, and does not model the NKVD, the feared Russian political officers who ensured that their soldiers did not desert or flee; the Russian troops in CCIII frequently surrender or run away, even later in the war when they are winning.

There is no strategic map. The epic confrontation between Germany and Russia is modelled as a series of battle that consist of three or four maps at the most. You cannot direct your forces strategically. Subsequent games in the Close Combat series modelled this, although without much depth. This is not a great drawback if you assume that your in-game avatar is a relatively low-level officer (you are a character in the game and you can be killed!).

Some of the sound effects are silly. The early tank guns sound like Champagne corks popping. The German/Russian voices are probably hilarious if you are German or Russian. It helps if you know a bit about the military technology of the time; if you don't know that a 10.5cm L/28 is a less powerful anti-tank weapon than an 88mm L/56 you might end up buying the wrong equipment.

The real strength of the Close Combat series was its modelling of infantry combat; morale and unit cohesion were the first game's selling points. In this and subsequent games, however, the tanks become the deciding factors on the battlefield and the infantry turns into scouts for the armour, which plays against the engine's strengths. If you have a lot of tanks, you will probably win. The last game, CCV, rectified this by emphasising airborne operations with paratroops, but there are perhaps only one or two maps in CCIII where the infantry have a purpose other than as a means of determining the position of the enemy's anti-tank guns and armour.

As with the other Close Combat games, CCIII has a top-down map. It models elevation and multi-storey houses, but it can often be tricky to tell if your tanks are safely behind a hill or, instead, if they are out in the open.

The Bottom Line

The above might sound damning. However, the biggest problem is the tank AI, which can be worked with if you are patient and do not expect too much. To be fair, it must have been very hard to drive and command a tank in the real world, and the soldiers were probably under a lot of stress; perhaps they were drinking.

In general this is still an entertaining wargame. More modern titles tend to use a 3D game engine that lets you spin and zoom around, but the top-down map in CCIII is practical enough (there is a handy mini-map in the corner of the screen that makes things a lot easier). It is fun to fire up the game for a ten-minute blast, certainly more so than the aforementioned Combat Mission, which models the anguish and stress of combat rather too well at times.

Sadly the online Close Combat community seems moribund nowadays; the game is quite old, and wargames are not as popular on the PC as they once were.

As far as I am aware this game is still available new, from Microsoft. Later games were published by SSI, and might be quite hard to get hold of (CCV is on budget, and is worth buying; CCIV is not, and is not worth buying).