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Close Comabt III: The Russian Front Review

Johnny_B By:
PUBLISHER Microsoft 

"Did You See The Frightened Ones? Did You See The Falling Bombs?"

1998 and 1999 are shaping up to be years of many high pitched squeals, tales of sound and fury, all signifying a renewed interest in World War 2. WW2 has always been something of a national obsession. It was one of the few times in world history where genuine evil was clearly and blatantly committing its foul deeds. It was also one of those times during which many will forget the occasional moral lapse on the part of America, some of the hypocrisy that was offered bare to the world. It was as close to Right vs Wrong as modern warfare will probably ever see.

It was also the largest battle ever fought. The images of huge, clashing armies of soldiers, tanks, ships, and planes in combat over most of the globe are some of the most epic scenes in all of history, challenged only by the Crusades. Perhaps some of you critically huddled, semi-literate (just teasing, you are reading this after all) masses out there have seen the incredible animation scenes from Pink Floyd's The Wall: Images of thousand-foot-tall flaming demons morphing into metallic skeletal towers spreading their arms out to herald in the thousands of fighters and bombers raining apocalypse down on London. So it's a bit of a pity when many of the World War 2 games out there fail to have a similar effect on the gamer. Or, like Close Combat 3, they don't even really deal with one of the more tactically interesting scenarios from the greatest and most dramatic conflict in history.

To drop from the emotion and hype, World War 2 is also one of the most interesting conflicts in history from a military standpoint. This makes it great food for gaming. Most of these titles, like SSI's Steel Panthers, or almost any pick of the TalonSoft games, are extremely complex turn based board games inspired by classics like Axis & Allies that deal with large battles in a purely strategic, somewhat sterile way. Back in late 1996, Atomic games created Close Combat. Published by Microsoft, Close Combat merged deep strategy war-gaming with real-time strategy. Close Combat, which dealt with D-Day, and Close Combat 2: A Bridge To Far, which dealt with Operation Market Garden (possibly the most interesting battle in all of World War 2), were both excellent and revolutionary games.

So now, for Close Combat 3, Atomic turned away from the American and British conflicts and instead chose the entire Russian Front. It's a sad mistake.

The basic idea of Close Combat, is that you control several teams of ground soldiers and tanks in real time over a small battlefield, one roughly the size of 4 hexes in a TalonSoft game. In these battles you command these troops, who have emotional states that play heavily on what they will actually do, which may at times differ from your orders. You must use your forces to destroy your enemy and capture all of the 'victory location' on the map. Though a simple premise, the precise nature of the ground warfare simulation makes this a complicated and involved task that will daunt anyone who lacks an innate gift for strategy.

The problem that arises when you apply this formula to the Russian front scenario is that Close Combat is not designed to handle such large scale conflicts. Like the name suggests, the Close Combat series was designed to simulate tightly focused, tactically intriguing small situations like combat in a small town or the taking of a bridge.

So, in simulating the Russian Front, Close Combat must still focus on small skirmishes, not large battles. This gives the player next to no sense of the large battle taking place. In addition, the campaigns are just a bunch of strung together missions with little context.

As far as the actual gameplay goes, Close Combat 3: The Russian Front retains the same basic quality gameplay of its predecessor, but in order to do that in the confines of the gaming system, makes some terrible lapses in realism.

In the actual Russian front, the Germans lost about 3 million troops, and the Russians lost about 43 million [Figures are from the Close Combat 3 Manual]. That's roughly a 14 to 1 kill ratio. But in the game, the numbers of Russian and German troops in any one mission are nearly identical. Also, the power and precision of the two sides is very similar. In actuality, the Russians were essentially a bunch of poorly trained bumbling fools with bad equipment who only won because they had a population that could support an army 20 times larger than that of the Germans.

Also, many of the missions are poorly designed, with the sides being woefully mismatched. Like a real war, there are plenty of unwinable situations in CC3. However, that makes the game a bad choice for those for whom strategy gaming is less than an obsession.

Although graphics are not usually a prime concern in slower, more onerous strategy games like CC3, the visuals are competent enough. The terrain and the troops are well detailed and easy to make out. Although the engine does not seem to have been changed from CC2, it still works well.

The sound is also adequate, although the aesthetics of CC3 (or any tactical war sim) are not a huge factor in the game.

For those who have played the first two Close Combat games CC3 is essentially a mission pack dealing with a new, less interesting scenario. It does add many new troop varieties due to there being a new Russian army to play with, and a much appreciated waypoint feature.

For everyone else, Close Combat 3 is a difficult, onerous, almost unapproachable game that fails to capture the drama of its subject matter or to take advantage of the intriguing elements of the Eastern battlefields. Besides, who would want to play as an idiotic, Stalinist Russian or a spiteful, goose-stepping German anyway? Give me some good old American elbow grease any day, god darn it!

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