With this summer marking the 70th anniversary of D-Day, it's not surprising that historical wargame publishers are releasing D-Day games this year. Michael Peck reviews one such game.
"Close Combat: Gateway to Caen" is the latest iteration of a classic series of tactical computer wargames that began almost 20 years ago, and is still such a good design that the U.S. Marine uses a version ("Close Combat: Marine") as part of its Deployable Virtual Training Environment simulations package.
"Close Combat: Gateway to Caen" focuses on Operation Epsom, the British offensive in late June 1944 to capture the vital city of Caen, and enable Allied forces to break out of the Normandy beachhead. Barring their way was was an entire SS panzer corps, which managed to stave off a British breakthrough, though at the cost of depleting the elite German armor.
Close Combat is a real-time-strategy wargame. While RTS games often tend to emphasize rapid mouse clicking rather than strategy, Close Combat is a quite sophisticated simulation. Units, which include individual tanks, infantry and guns, are rated for experience and morale. Each individual soldier is also rated for health, intelligence and leadership.
Vehicles, and fire teams of troops, are given basic orders such as Move, Fire, Defend, Ambush and Sneak. Troops and vehicles under fire can suffer casualties or morale loss. Hitting the enemy from the flank increases that morale loss.
It's the morale aspect of Close Combat that tends to distinguish the game -- and also distinguishes good troops from bad within the game. Units under fire will gradually become suppressed, which affects the effectiveness of their own fire. After enough bullets head their way, they become pinned, and then eventually break and rout from the battlefield.
That's where leadership comes in. Each leader is rated for effectiveness, from excellent to poor. As unit take casualties and suffer morale loss, leaders - or at least the good ones -- can keep their troops from breaking and rally those that do. The flip side is that losing a leader in Close Combat can devastate the morale of his troops.
Playing Close Combat is an exercise in entropy. Troops start fresh and then gradually wear down as the battle progresses. Much of the game boils down to keeping your force cohesive and able to continue the fight until the other side breaks.
Naturally, as an historical simulation of Normandy, Close Combat: Gateway to Caen features the prominent weapons in that battle. Unfortunately for the British, they attracted the best German armor, including Tiger and Panther tanks that far outgun the Shermans, Cromwells and Churchills (though the British do get some Sherman Fireflies with Tiger-killer 17-pounder guns). The Allies have plenty of artillery, but the Germans have deadly 88-millimeter anti-tank guns.
Other game features include snipers, entrenchments, pre-registered artillery barrages, and air strikes by rocket-armed Allied Typhoon fighters.
Close Combat is one of the better tactical computer wargames. The game may lack the graphics of the latest first-person-shooter, but the tactical lessons and insights are far deeper. If there is one complaint, it is that the game is not pausable, which hampers those who like to take a moment to stop and assess the battle.
But overall, for a taste of small-unit World War II fighting, Close Combat is a worthy game.