Combat Mission: Afrika Korps Review (PC)

Well I will be up front and honest with you (if you can trust the words of a game reviewer…we are all black hearted liars you know?), the boys from Battlefront have left me in a bit of a pickle. This independent band of grog-hillbillies who burst onto the scene of computer wargaming back in 2000 by showing the mainstream basement Golems who play in this genre that, "yes, computers can do 3-D" and drove us further into our subterranean hovels in search of the "perfect game".

This is the third game in the Combat Mission series...

...and it takes you to the Mediterranean theatre of WW2.

Battlefront brought into the world Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord (CMBO), a title which will no doubt stand as a benchmark in wargaming. CMBO, a game that brought 3-D miniature to the computer screen but did not lose one wit of its hardcore roots and accuracy. Though the stuff of legend, CMBO was not perfect…nay, but it could fly! The graphics were cheesy and could make your eyes bleed if you stared at the screen too long (luckily an outstanding mod community came to our rescue here). The friendly AI could drive grown men mad…seriously….right now in mental hospitals all over the world you can hear screams of…"NO NO, not the Halftrack Crew…the Tiger….AAAHHH IT WAS RIGTH IN FRONT OF YOU….AHHH!!!". Yes, CMBO could be clunky and maddening at times but it was so revolutionary in design and style that one could not but love it.

Then came the next installment, Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin (CMBB). The Eastern Front in all its glory. This is where we separated the men from the little girlie boys who like to wear Momma’s dress and put lipstick on the cat. CMBB was not only a graphic improvement (albeit a brown one) but also added many game features that provided a significant improvement over the original (arcs of fire, cover armour only, advance, assault etc). All added to the overall game play and brought the original to a new level. Also the scope of the game was enormous, the entire Eastern Front with those nasty Russian tanks..makes one drool to remember it. The Friendly AI could still drive you to tears but the sheer chaos the We-Go system (more on this later) could bring to the screen along with bearable graphics left us in love with the savagery of the Eastern Front.

Well here we are again a year later with the next installment Combat Mission: Afrika Korps (yup you guessed it…CMAK). Unlike what the name may suggest, this game is set in the entire Mediterranean Theatre of WWII (Africa, Italy and the Balkans) and allows the player to again play either side of this "sideshow combat" but very interesting piece of military history.

The problem I am having with CMAK has nothing to do with any changes from CMBB, in fact graphically I think we may finally be at the stage I won't need to download mods (I will anyway). The game play is nearly identical to CMBB…well hell it IS identical (ok there is now dust…wow)! The problem I have is that CMAK is really an add-on pack rather than a new game in its own right. It does bring about new terrain and new vehicles (although you will recognize a lot of them from CMBO and CMBB) but it really doesn't bring anything…er…new.

So I guess it leaves me in the age-old game reviewer problem of "More of the Same Game" but more of a very good one. I guess I am talking to myself anyway..if you bought the other two you probably will go out and buy this one…freakin junkies. If you are new to the genre (yes I think this should classify as one) then this is not a bad place to start. So for the four or five of you out there who bought CMBO and are wondering if this one is worth on. The rest can shove off and play Jock Column as the British…enjoy...heh, heh, heh.

The graphics in the game aren't terrible...

...but they're starting to look dated.

CMAK is a turn-based tactical 3-D WWII wargame. What makes it different from a lot of other drek out there is that it: 1) actually looks very good, but keep in mind we are talking about a wargame, no lens flare or anti-aliasineringifying (whatever the hell that is). 2) the We-Go system. This is a system where each player (silicon or carbon) plots their moves during a planning phase and then the computer runs the two plans against each other in one minute chunks simultaneously. In the Action Phase you are treated to a one minute movie where you can watch all of your tanks explode, from any angle you like, pause etc. Then you repeat until the game is done.

Key here is the "blue" (or friendly) AI that fills in any gaps during the action phase. For example you can't tell every tank to watch for every possible target so the AI will evaluate, select the biggest threat and engage. This is one example of the blue AI that is very important in game where the player losses control on order to broaden scope. CMAK is by far the best of the three for its blue AI but there will still be times when your little digital G.I.s do something really stupid. I have to say though that in CMAK we are getting close to the point where the number of bonehead mistakes are approaching reality (i.e. what you would expect real boneheads to do in combat).

This turn system will feel more stilted than any of the Real or Continuous time game out there but you do trade accuracy and realism for flow. Trust me though, those one-minute turns can be serious nail-biters and the action can be very intense but no Orc rushes here for you twitch monkeys.

The game comes with an adjustable Fog of War (FoW) setting that can go anywhere from all units displayed to the grueling "death-clock", which means you can see the hit but that doesn't mean the tank is dead until enough time has elapsed to realistically give your troops that indication. All in all the FoW settings are a very good feature allowing the player to ease into the game.

The games focus is on the tactical level…think Bns. You can play at the Bde level (i.e. a VERY big battle) but these can really be slow to compute and bloody onerous to keep track of in the long run. CMAK shines at the company level and clearly is what it is designed for. You can play a large array of pre-made scenario battles or an "Operation" (very loose terminology here) of a series of set battles. When you've done all that you can download a vast array of new scenarios from any number of zealots out there or even make your own with the excellent editor provided. This game has legs and will keep you busy for a long time if you want it too.

There are a number of pre-made scenarios for you to attempt...

...and you can download or create scenarios to augment the game.

Lacking still is any campaign game that would allow the player to play within a bigger picture through a series of actions. In an earlier article, I wrote on how you can do this thru meta-campaigning or team multi-play. It would be nice to see someone finally build a Operational/Strategic layer to what is a fine tactical game. This would give purpose to the tactical brawls you have to fight.

CMAK is a "bare-bones" game. By this I mean don't expect fancy videos or historical archives to crawl thru. You buy a game and that is what you get. But you do get a whole lot for the package so no real complaints here.

Sound and graphics have definitely come along way. The series definitely has come to a point where a new engine build is in order (and rumour has it that is exactly what the developer is going to do) to take advantage of the fancy-dancy graphic potential of todays machines. Sound is solid with a interesting atmosphere in the background and accurate sound files for the weapons being fired during action. What is cool about the sound is that in high levels of FoW you can actually use the different gun sounds to try and figure out what you are facing.

Lastly, one not need about playing totally alone. CMAK comes with the same 2 player options (hotseat, PBEM and TCP) as its predecessors but still no online sever support. You are going to have to hunt down other nerds to play but as none of us actually have dates, this is pretty easy to do on any number of chatrooms etc.

So we have a solid product and again an outstanding wargame on our hands but I can't shake the feeling that we are looking at an add-on rather than a whole new game. To Battlefronts credit they did drop the price to $35 bucks US, $10 dollars cheaper than the first two. But that is still a bit steep for what really feels like it could have been released as a $15-20 add-on CD.

I guess at the end of the day it will be up to the consumer to decide. I got mine free and probably would have paid full price at the end of the day. Unlike CMBB though, I think this is the end of the line for this engine and I would need to see a serious overhaul before I would purchase another game based on it.

Combat is entertaining and engaging.

Don't expect fancy videos or historical archives as far as presentation goes.

Top game moment: Creating your own scenario through the excellent provided editor and sucessfully completing it.

Through the jigs and reels, CMAK is a healthy, bouncy second son and should be loved and enjoyed for what it is. I can recommend this game solely on the shoulders of greatness upon which it stands. For you grogs out there who need another fix of tactical combat then there can be no doubt this game will deliver. For newbies who have sat back trembling in self-doubt, CMAK is as refined as the series gets so far and you can't lose in jumping onboard at this point. For grumpy ol bastards like yours truly…well we'll play and get our mileage out of CMAK, but I think we will miss that initial thrill that Villers Bocage sent thru our wrecked nervous systems, like a drag on a spiritual cigar…ah the memories... next year maybe.

by Capt