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GF! Archival Version Copyright 1995-2004

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by Big TIme Software

Ups: Wide variety of units; accurate ordnance; exceptional graphics;intelligent AI;  overall great game system.

 Limited multiplayer; occasional minor clipping.

System Reqs: P166, 3D accelerator, 32MB RAM, 100 MB HD space, 4X CD-ROM.

Way back in 1974, just after I graduated from high school, I attended my first Gencon.  Gencon was one of the first wargame conventions, and since I was an avid board wargamer, I drove up to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, for a little head-to-head Panzerblitz.  I took along my friend Dwayne, who had no interest in wargaming but was nonetheless intrigued by Lake Geneva because 1) Wisconsin’s drinking age was 18 and 2) one of the Playboy mansions was located there. Though Dwayne did manage to get staggering drunk the night before Gencon, no Playboy bunnies materialized, so he ended up coming along with me to the convention. I figured he’d be bored, but he almost immediately found a group playing a new pen-and-paper game called Dungeons and Dragons. That was it for him. I had to listen to stories about dwarves the whole way home. As for me, well, I was swept off my feet by historical miniatures. I’d never seen thousands upon thousands of meticulously painted Napoleonic figures arrayed on a tabletop before. It blew me away. Even better, I got into a few WWII battalion-level miniatures games using HO scale models and the Tractics rules (what TSR was known for before D&D).

Of course, over the years D&D has become a spectacularly successful roleplaying system that is as much a part of the cultural landscape as fast food and music videos. And of course historical wargames are still played by a few old grognards in back rooms—and by Brits. This is reflected in computer games as well. At this year’s E3, there were scads of games based the D&D rules system, and one could argue that any RPG—of which there were dozens at E3—owes most of its gameplay conventions to D&D. But there were almost no historical wargames to be found. The bad news for wargamers is that since Talonsoft has more or less left the historical fold, no big publisher is doing wargames. You want a hardcore game, you’re going to have to find an independent publisher on the web. The good news is that these small publishers are turning out excellent games that don’t look or play like they’ve been produced on a shoestring budget. Big Time Software’s Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord is the best of the bunch so far, and possibly the best computer wargame I’ve ever played. No kidding, it’s that good; I haven’t been so excited about a wargame since playing Tractics in Lake Geneva in 1974. 

Combat Mission lets you refight World War II’s post-Normandy West Front at the tactical level. Your units will include individual tanks and vehicles and infantry squads and crews. These units come in a wide variety of flavors, too—almost every nationality and branch that took part in the campaign is represented here—Poles, Brits, French, Americans and airborne troops on the Allied side, and SS, Volksgrenadiers, and paratroopers on the German side. You’ll see just about every significant piece of ordnance, too—from M3 halftracks to infantry with Panzerschrecks to the many varieties of Shermans to Tiger IIs, the guys at BTS did their homework. Along with a great collection of scenarios and an excellent editor, this comprehensive variety of troops gives CM just about infinite replayability.

Usually small wargame companies don’t have the resources to ratchet up the graphics quality. That’s not the case here. Don’t expect Unreal, but Combat Mission’s graphics are well above average, and excellent by wargame standards. Tanks and vehicles are superbly modeled, and while infantry looks a little stiff and puppet-like, CM does a fine job of making infantry easy to find on the battlefield without making the game’s scale feel skewed. It’s harder to do than it sounds. The game’s moveable camera is a wonder, allowing you to zoom from eagle’s eye view to worm’s eye view in no time. And you’ll need to, since the terrain is so well-modeled that every battlefield offers numerous folds and gullies to hide in or rises to fire from. This means you have to scout the ground thoroughly and take advantage of every piece of terrain. This is much more realistic than other games, where vast stretches of ground are represented as billiard-table smooth. Special effects are nicely turned as well, and I’m very fond of the game’s sound. In a word, it’s amazing. Artillery shells will rattle your monitor, non-penetrating hits on tanks will ping off, and as you scroll closer to combat on the field, the noise of battle will gradually grow louder. You’ll be able to hear that enemy MG a lot sooner than you see it.  All of this ran very smoothly on my PIII 450 with a TNT2 and 128 megs of RAM; even at high resolutions and with all the bells and whistles on, I never experienced lag or stutter.

At the heart of Combat Mission is a very slick game system. Rather than the typical Igo/Ugo system most gamers are familiar with, CM uses a Wego system. Each turn is made up of two phases. First, you issue orders to your troops—these are quite extensive, and include such actions as move, target, fire smoke, hide, and (my favorite) hunt. After issuing orders, you then enter the action phase. You hit the “go” button, and one minute’s worth of action is played out in real time. Of course, during this action phase your troops will usually run into hidden enemy troops, come under fire, and sometimes be destroyed. After this phase action comes to an end. But you don’t go on to the next orders phase just yet: CM allows you to replay the turn’s actions as much as you like, from any camera angle you like. This means you can garner valuable intelligence you might have missed the first time through, or just watch really cool tank duels over and over again.  This system provides an elegant combination of the strengths of turn-based and real-time gaming, and it captures the feel of WWII combat exceedingly well.

It helps that the friendly AI is exceptional—rarely will your troops do something stupid. They’ll take cover, back away from suicidal situations, and fire upon enemy units without your prompting. Of course, sometimes they’ll bolt, but that’s just realistic. Tank units with hunt orders will seek out enemy tanks and automatically take hull-down positions. If there’s any weakness to the friendly AI, it’s that it sometimes targets the “wrong” enemy. But that’s realistic too. Enemy AI is pretty beatable, but much better than most. As usual, it plays a much better defense than offense.

CM offers over forty missions, and they range from small infantry skirmishes to massive tank broil-ups. The scenario editor is easy-to-use and very deep, and already the CM community has posted loads of free new scenarios for download.     

CM has a few little glitches—sometimes line of sight can be quirky, and there are occasional clipping and seam problems. There’s no easy way to get a roster view of your units’ status—you either have to seek them out on the battlefield or tab through them individually. Most disconcertingly, the only multiplayer option available is PBEM, even though the game’s menu lists a TCP/IP option. Apparently this will appear in a forthcoming patch, and I can’t wait for it.

I’m a wargamer from way back, so I was pleased but not surprised to be so taken with Combat Mission. But I knew it was something special when my non-wargaming friends (including my son and his mob) first gathered around to watch me play and then wanted to play it themselves. That never happened with Rising Sun, or even with Panzer General 3D.  And apparently it’s not just my friends who like the game: BTS sold out of their two-month supply of Combat Mission in less than a week. It’s back in stock now, but don’t expect to find it in stores—you can only order it from Here’s hoping that the grass roots success of this excellent game leads to wider distribution of Big Time Software’s future games.

--Rick Fehrenbacher