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GF! Archival Version Copyright 1995-2004

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by SSI and Atomic Games


Ups: Latest version of classic series with additon of excellent strategic game and new features.

Downs: Inconsistent AI; battles can get repetitive.

System Reqs: P200, 32 MB RAM, 4x CD-ROM, 4MB video card.

cc2.jpg (12544 bytes)When SSI decided to continue publishing Atomic Games’ Close Combat series after Microsoft abandoned it, it made a lot of wargamers very happy. When SSI decided to use the engine to produce yet another Battle of the Bulge game, it made a lot of wargamers’ heads hurt. It’s not that the Bulge isn’t a good gaming scenario—it’s OK—it’s just that the Bulge is probably the most overworked wargame subject ever. From  AH’s classic Battle of the Bulge to SSI’s underrated Ardennes Offensive, wargames have been made and remade about the Bulge while other--very worthy--game subjects have gone begging. For example, many  wanted CCIV to be a Guadalcanal game—and what a game it would have been—but no, instead we get yet another visit with the battlin’ bastards of Bastogne.  What’s done is done, however, and I guess there’s always room for another good Bulge game (like GMT’s Tigers in the Mist or the Gamer’s Ardennes Offensive). And that’s just what Close Combat: Battle of the Bulge is.

cc3.jpg (11602 bytes)For those of you unfamiliar with the Close Combat game system, it’s a real-time squad level wargame (think computerized Squad Leader). You can play either individual scenarios, large campaigns made up of many scenarios, or smaller operations of fewer scenarios. In each scenario you control about 10-15 squads or vehicles, and the CC system is especially renowned for modeling the effects of psychology and morale on the battlefield. Tell your troops to run across a field, and they’ll get tired. Tell them to attack a Panther with rifles, and they’ll think twice about it. Tell them to charge into heavy tank and machine gun fire, and they’ll probably tell you exactly where to go. It makes for a realistic and tense game, one that has found favor with both casual gamers and all but the most hidebound of turn-based grognards. As the series has developed, each game has added new features—like elevation, leadership, and different troop and weapon types. This time, the system has been blessed with the addition of two big improvements—air and offboard artillery attacks and a workable strategic game.

cc7.jpg (10870 bytes)The new strategic game is especially welcome.  The previous Close Combat games consisted of a series of scenarios from a specific campaign—Normandy, Market-Garden, and Russia.  While the individual scenarios were enjoyable, Atomic never really found a way to tie them together in a viable campaign. With Battle of the Bulge, they have. If you choose to play the campaign, you’ll move units about on a strategic map of the Ardennes made up of areas (much like GMT’s Tigers in the Mist). You can only have one “battle group” (a small unit made up of about 10-15 units and representative of a division) in each area, and when your battle group occupies the same area as an enemy group, you’ll be switched to the tactical map to battle it out. Do well, and your side will send the enemy scurrying in retreat; screw up, and you’ll find yourself running out of room and the reserves necessary to reinforce your chewed-up forces. While the strategic game isn’t particularly deep, it is fun, and does take account of such important Bulge phenomena like supply depots and the Operation Greif commandos. You’ll also be able to assign theatre resources like off-board artillery and air units to particularly volatile sectors fo the front. Unlike CC3, you can’t purchase specific units in the campaign—you’re pretty much stuck with what your battlegroups give you. Though some may miss tailoring their own fire brigades, I much prefer the realism of  Battle of the Bulge. When facing an SS Panzer division with a battlegroup of green U.S. infantry and no anti-tank weapons, it gives you something of the feel for what the beleaguered GIs went through on the first couple days of the surprise German attack. 

cc5.jpg (12685 bytes)In the tactical scenarios, the game has changed very little. You still give the same orders—move, move fast, sneak, fire, smoke, defend, and ambush, and the same elegant click-and-drag interface is still in place. As in Close Combat III, leaders are very important and impart valuable morale bonuses. The game’s strength still lies in its spot-on representation of WWII infantry tactics. The only way to succeed is by using cover, smoke, and fire-and-move tactics. Suicidal attacks just don’t get it in this game. The only really noticeable change to game’s tactical side is the addition of air attacks and off-board arty, something fans have been begging for since the first Close Combat. They seem pretty well implemented. Sometimes a barrage of off-board artillery will devastate an enemy force; sometimes it’ll miss entirely. Air attacks tend to be more efficient, but rightly so; when the cloud cover lifts and the allied air supremacy makes itself felt, you’ll know why Patton asked his chaplain to compose a prayer for good weather.

cc4.jpg (11959 bytes)Graphically, the game is on par with CCIII, and even has some improvements—I particularly like the way tanks belch out smoke, and explosions seem much more spectacular than in the previous games. But Battle of the Bulge also has some graphical shortcomings, mostly due to the fact the Bugle was fought around Christmas, and all the maps are covered in snow. This is particularly problematic when it comes to spotting your infantry units, almost all of whom are wearing (very effective) winter camouflage. Losing track of your infantry has always been a problem with the CC series, and the solution has always been to use the game’s graphic options to outline them in red or green or some status indicator color, but it’s not a happy aesthetic compromise. Similarly, it’s always been difficult to get a feel for elevation in the Close Combat series—and it’s even worse in Battle of the Bulge, where the white background tends to obliterate any hints at terrain elevation.  Neither of these problems is insuperable, but they’re a pain, and taken together point to the next logical step for the series—3D.

The game’s sound is exceptionally good—as in the previous games in the series, your units will shout out warnings if they take an objective or are taking too much fire, and the weapons effects are first-rate throughout.

cc6.jpg (9929 bytes)For all my enthusiasm about Battle of the Bulge, it does have a few problems that need to be addressed. First, the AI—especially the armor AI--does have some problems. While one’s own tanks usually behave pretty well, and rarely turn their flanks or rears to the enemy, your opponent’s tanks will sometimes behave in very odd ways. Strangely enough, this doesn’t happen all the time. I’ve played scenarios in which German tanks stood off in cover and out of range and provided covering fire for an infantry assault. Great stuff. But I’ve also seen JagdTigers rumble blindly into villages packed with bazooka-armed infantry, where they were quickly dispatched. And the game also tends to get a little repetitive. Almost every scenario entails either taking or holding a small town, and while much of the real battle was fought in this way, it still gets a bit tiresome. Finally, the German Nebelwerfers (rocket launchers) are vastly overpowered. A recent patch has fixed this, but beware of these guys if you’re not running it.

Overall, Close Combat IV is a more-than-worthy entry in the CC series. The addition of a solid and enjoyable strategic game and off-board air and artillery are big steps forward for the series. But some things remain to be done, including improving the AI, making terrain graphics less ambiguous, and giving some thought to moving to a 3D graphics engine. And let’s not forget about that Guadalcanal campaign, either.

 --Rick Fehrenbacher