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Close Combat: The Battle of the Bulge (Windows)

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100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
3.7
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Written by  :  Ashley Pomeroy (233)
Written on  :  Oct 09, 2005
Rating  :  2.2 Stars2.2 Stars2.2 Stars2.2 Stars2.2 Stars

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Summary

The mud is slowing us down.

The Good

Close Combat IV was the fourth of five Close Combat games. The first two now seem very crude. The third remains the fan's favourite, and is biggest in scope of all the games, encompassing the entire Germany vs Russia conflict. The fourth game introduced a new graphics engine, with well-drawn units fighting over well-drawn maps which nowadays resemble something from Google Earth. The fifth game fixed all the faults of the fourth game, and is on a par with the third game, although its scenario - Utah beach and the Cotentin Penisula, in north-west France - was relatively small-scale. The people who made the game split up, and the publishing company went bust. The games have a dwindling fan following today.

I played Close Combat V extensively before finding a copy of Close Combat IV, which is unfortunate for CCIV. The latter game is a comprehensive improvement on CCIV, and similar enough to make it obsolete. The few good things about CCIV are impressive only when viewed in its historical context; although the game introduced a new, impressive graphics engine, and a wide range of dramatic sound effects. The other things which at first seem good are actually not good at all, as I shall now explain in tedious detail.

The Bad

One of the problems is scale. The previous games emphasised close-range infantry combat, whereas CCIV is very much a tank-on-tank affair; or, at the very least, tanks are the decisive factor in each battle. The problem is that is that Close Combat's engine does not scale up to tank combat at realistic ranges; tanks and anti-tank guns can engage themselves from outside the boundaries of the screen, and despite scrolling around like a frantic ant I often found my tanks being unexpectedly blown up by distant guns. The computer has no problem determining which angles provide cover and concealment at long ranges, but you are always handicapped because you are a human being, a limited thing of blood and bone. The hands-on feeling of the other games is often absent, because your tank crews are usually better at spotting distant enemies than yourself. The gameplay often degenerates into a dull, static round of cat and mouse, as you hide your tanks away, hoping that the enemy makes a mistake.

There are infantry units, but they do not play a major part in the game, except as scouts. The American and German anti-tank bazooka teams tend to be shot up before they can bring their weapons to bear. The terrain is covered in snow and devoid of trees and bushes, and so there is no cover apart from a few buildings; again, this lends itself to a game of long-range gunfire, which is easier for the computer than yourself.

The second problem is that theatre itself. The Battle of the Bulge was a dramatic event, but it does not make for a dramatic computer game. The real-life battle started off with a crushingly powerful German assault, which bogged down and was followed by a crushingly powerful Allied counter-attack. A good wartime should take place in a strategic situation where each individual battle could go either way. However, playing the grand campaign as the Americans, you will initially lose and lose and lose, because you will only have access to light infantry, whilst the Germans have great quantities of Panther tanks and tank destroyers. This is historically accurate, but it makes for a frustrating game. It is possible to hold up the computer's advance, but this seems to have more to do with the computer's duff AI than any heroics on your part, which makes for a series of hollow, disappointing victories.

Playing as the Germans, you have plenty of tanks, but the computer's mastery of long-range gunnery works against you. Either way, it is a frustrating experience. Perhaps this is historically accurate; I'm sure the real battle was very hard and full of unexpected death and defeat. But other games, such as "Combat Mission", get this point across more thoroughly and fairly, whereas CCIV just seems arbitrary and frustrating.

Duff AI. Tanks, in particular, are irritating. You order them forwards, and they reverse. You order them forwards again, and instead they turn slowly to the left, whilst their turrets counter-rotate. Then, the tank will advance into battle; but backwards, having rotated all the way around, presenting its weakest face to the enemy. The tank AI seems to have terrible trouble with the idea of independently-traversing turrets, and it often gets confused. Frequently I found myself winning battles not because of my great tactical acumen, but because the enemy tanks would refuse to advance. They would slowly spin around, move forwards, reverse, spin around etc, in a loop.

Historically, the most common American tanks were not as powerful as the best German tanks, which in turn were at a considerable quantitative disadvantage, and were at the mercy of allied air support and a tenuous supply of fuel. In CCIV, this is modelled to such an extent that the American Shermans are at a loss as to defeat the German Panthers, whilst conversely the American Jumbo Shermans are immune to almost anything the Germans can put up against it. The result is a series of battles where one super-tank, placed in a strategic location, can bring everything to a complete halt. You cannot advance, because you will be destroyed. The computer opponent is unable to mount a proper attack, and you end up waiting for the clock to count down. The other Close Combat games were much more dynamic, and there was always something you could try, some avenue you could exploit. But here, the open nature of the terrain and the dominance of tanks and long-range gunfire brings everything to a halt.

There are other faults, which are mostly of a picky variety. Unlike CCIII and CCV, you have no choice over which units you choose to bring to a battle. The artillery and air strikes are really just special effects. The game makes

The Bottom Line

I believe this game is still available from Amazon.com, although it will be very hard to find in the shops, as SSI went bust. The company was one of those long-term survivors from the age of black and white cinema - like Digital Integration, Psion, Sierra On-Line etc - which was killed by television. I believe it is now part of Ubi Soft, having been bought and sold several times.

Still, the game. CCIV is essentially a dry run for the superior CCV, which in turn seems a bit shallow compared to Combat Mission, which is conceptually similar, but more hardcore, and in 3D. It's frustrating, and inferior to its sequel in every way. There is a popular "veteran's mod" for the game, which is about 76mb large and makes it harder but fairer, and it's not quite as bad played with the mod, but it's still not worth it. Fans of the series prefer CCIII and I agree with them.