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Close Combat II

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by Microsoft
With Close Combat: A Bridge Too Far, Microsoft follows up on the success of last year’s Close Combat, a game that covered the Normandy campaign from D+1 to the breakout at St. Lo. This time it’s Operation Market-Garden, the overly ambitious and ultimately doomed brainchild of Field Marshal Montgomery. In September 1944, with the Germans reeling and the Allies closing on the Reich’s borders, Montgomery planned to attack with the British XXX Corps on a narrow front across the canal-and-river laced Dutch countryside, with the ultimate objective of seizing a bridge across the Rhine at Arnhem. If successful, the Allies would be able to flank the Siegfried line, pour onto the Northern German plain, and end the war by Christmas. But it was a risky plan, and depended much upon the Allies being able to seize many large and small bridges along the attack corridor before the Germans managed to blow them. Montgomery’s solution to this was to drop American, British and Polish paratroopers behind enemy lines. Their job would be to surprise the Germans, seize bridges and important objectives, and serve as "carpet over which the ground troops could pass." If all went well, Montgomery promised, the XXX Corps would link up with the British 1st Airborne Division in Arnhem within three days. All did not go well, however, and Market-Garden became one of the great allied disappointments of World War II.

Close Combat: A Bridge Too Far employs an improved version of Close Combat’s real-time engine to recreate the campaign at the small unit level. You can play individual scenarios, operations, or the entire campaign, and most scenarios will see you commanding somewhere between ten and twenty squads, with perhaps a few tanks and guns thrown in. This isn’t Panzer General; battles here are fought street by street, house by house, ditch to ditch. And Close Combat 2, like its predecessor, does an exemplary job of modeling WWII small unit tactics. Running out in the middle of the street or field in this game is suicidal—your troops must move from cover to cover, provide covering fire, use smoke, watch their ammo supply, and work flanks in order to succeed. This is all the more entertaining because the game is real-time, and like Sid Meier’s Gettysburg manages to combine the pulse-pounding action of real-time games with the more cerebral pleasures of traditional wargames.

Gameplay is fast and furious in CC2. Partially this is due to the campaign itself—many of the scenarios are fought at close range in small towns, and often the objective for the Allies is to capture a bridge before the Germans blow it. This makes for some very anxious moments as the Germans desperately try to stave off Allied paratroopers until a bridge can be demolished. Adding to the tension is the fact that your troops often won’t do what you tell them to do—morale plays a major role in this game, and if you leave a unit under fire for a long time they’re not likely to follow orders for a while. Troops will also balk at the kind of John Wayne heroics you can get away with in other games. If you tell them to charge across an empty field at a tank or a machine gun they’ll get a little testy—the British troops under your command will even go so far as to inform you that "you’re mad!" Credit Microsoft for improving the interface since Close Combat as well— it’s much easier to follow the action, much easier to tell what unit is doing what, and (most importantly) much easier to see your units, who stand out nicely from the terrain without losing that spiffy camouflage look.

Speaking of terrain, it looks great, especially since Microsoft has added 16-bit graphics to the game. Units and especially tanks look very stylish as well, and a large part of the game’s appeal stems from its state-of-the-art graphics and sound. Like Sid Meier’s Gettysburg, you can often tell how your unit is reacting to a given situation by aural cues—they’ll scream "Blood!" (or "Das Blut" if German) if they’re feeling a little down.

Yet again, Microsoft has outdone themselves with an excellent manual; it includes all you need to know to get you playing the game, loads of information—hard and anecdotal—about World War II and Market-Garden, and a very helpful section on tactics, which I strongly suggest you read before playing the game. There’s a nice on-line help section as well, which includes a very good overview of the weapons and vehicles you’ll be using and fighting against in the campaign.

Some of the new features that Close Combat 2 adds include the Battlemaker, a scenario editor that allows you to use the many maps in the game (no map editor, though) and build new scenarios around them, and a much wider selection of troops than in Close Combat—everything from reserve units to SS vets to Polish paratroops. Perhaps most importantly, elevation now makes a difference—buildings have multiple levels, and taking the tall ones is crucial in the street-to-street combat that characterizes the game.

There are still some things I’d like to see added to the game; there is no provision for air support or off-board artillery, and the campaign game is not as well-constructed as I’d have liked it to be. It is dynamic, you do have to manage supply and resources, but you rarely get a glimpse of the big picture—it would have been nice if Microsoft had included some sort of campaign map that gave you an idea of how far XXX Corps had progressed and what effect your skirmishes were having on the campaign.

Overall, then, Close Combat: A Bridge Too Far is a big improvement on the already excellent Close Combat. It combines the depth and historical realism of traditional wargames with the excitement of real-time strategy and sets them in a dramatic, tense context. The resulting game is nothing short of excellent, my co-choice for wargame of the year along with Sid Meier’s Gettysburg. I only hope that there’s a Close Combat 3—perhaps covering the Bulge, or something a little different like Guadalcanal, or even better the campaign I’d really love to see this engine brought to bear on, Stalingrad. Close Combat 2 has a lot to offer to a wide range of gamers; one can only hope that serious wargamers will not be put off by the game’s real-time engine and that Total Annihilation fans will not shrink from the game’s historical aspects, because this game successfully capitalizes upon the strengths of both.

--Rick Fehrenbacher