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Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin Review
Say hello to the new king of PC wargames.
November 18, 2002 - Don't run just yet. I know you've been bored with wargames in the past. You'd rather be reading the Adams' family Christmas letter than trying to decipher another Order of Battle. You'd rather be worrying about whether those collection agents were serious about the thumb thing than puzzling out the armor facings on a T-34. And as much as I love the genre, I agree -- wargames of late have been pretty uninspired. There is therefore a real risk that some of you may lump Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin in with the rest. But those of you who dismiss this as just another staid and dry wargame are really going to be missing out.
Set in the Eastern European Theater of the Second World War, Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin is the follow-up to the previous reigning champ of the genre, Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord. In June of 1941, the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa, their codename for the invasion of the Soviet Union. It grew in to one of history's largest and most significant series of land battles. 60 years later, Big Time and Battlefront.com have recreated these battles in a game that does justice to the scope and severity of the fighting.
The game comes with almost 60 pre-scripted missions that display a commendable range. Everything from small infantry engagements in a dense town to massive armor clashes on the broad steppes of eastern Europe are represented here. Larger, linked battles are offered via the game's few Operations. These are linked battles across portions of a single map. As the front line shifts back and forth, the player will have to wrestle with new issues of supply and reinforcement.
Since you can play each side in any of the engagements, you can also choose the battle type. Want to walk in to a German ambush in a small European village? You can do it. Want to stop enemy armor from reaching an important crossroads? Those are here too. The game also carries the player to battles all along the 2000-mile front of the war, stretching from Finland in the north to the Crimea in the south.
The chance to run things on the defensive and assaulting sides of the battles greatly adds to the replayability. And the fact that the battles are drawn from across four years of the war means there's much more variety here than in the year or so simulated in Beyond Overlord. While battles like Normandy and Arnhem and the Bulge are the bread and butter of Second World War wargaming, it's nice to get a chance to see what this whole Blitzkrieg thing is about. Seeing more of a progression in terms of unit availability and theater selection is an added bonus.
Barbarossa to Berlin is unlike other wargames in countless areas. Perhaps the most significant of which is its hybrid turn-based/real-time nature. Orders are first issued to all units in a paused mode. Once you've told every unit what you want them to do, the game plays out a full minute of real-time resolutions. You're completely powerless to affect the game at this point and can only watch as your units carry out their orders. Once this real-time phase is over, you have another chance to issue orders before the next real-time sequence starts.
It's a wonderful system for several reasons. First and most significantly, it perfectly weds the contemplative nature of turn-based games (a feature that most grognards are comfortable with) with the striking immediacy of a real-time game. The excitement is even more expanded since you won't be able to adjust orders during the real-time action phase.
Helmuth Von Moltke, one of the early architects of German war policy, once said, "No plan survives contact with the enemy." The dual nature of the action and orders phases makes this wonderfully apparent. You'll need to keep your orders flexible enough that your units can respond to unforeseen enemy action. And since changing orders results in a variable command lag, you'll want to keep your orders clear and concise. (The game models the poor communication of the Soviets early on by increasing their command delays.)
Moving units is merely a matter of right-clicking them, selecting a command and issuing a destination or objective for that command. A few new commands have been added this time around to allow for greater flexibility and initiative. Units can advance under fire now, hopping from cover to cover as they approach an objective. Tanks can now "shoot and scoot" in which they approach one waypoint, search for targets and then retire towards a second waypoint. Tanks can also go "hull down" relative to the surrounding terrain thus minimizing their exposure to enemy fire. But the best and most useful command is the "advance to contact" command instructing your units to follow their movement path and stop at the first sign of the enemy.
The developer's bold claim is that, if it works in real life, you'll find it works in the game. So far, I've found that to be true. Even something as normally straightforward as armor penetration receives numerous layers of added detail. The ballistics of the weapon are taken in to account first. These even include the shape of the charge, the angle of impact and the armor facing of the vehicle. This game also adds some new visibility concerns to the mix granting heightened spotting ability to units when and where it makes historical or intuitive sense. A sophisticated command hierarchy means you have to keep your units together somewhat to maintain their effectiveness.
During both phases of the game, you can move the camera about and view the battlefield. Assuming that your government would spring for a map or two -- especially if they're bothering to give you a few dozen tanks -- Barbarossa to Berlin does away with the impenetrable shroud surrounding the battlefield. You can survey the entire field from high above or drop down to the level of your units and see what it looks like from their perspective. What you won't see are any enemy units -- at least until one of your own units spots them. There are even varying degrees of identification so a sound contact will show up as a simple button on the map. The real 3D terrain of the levels makes this adjudication fairly easy and requires the player be aware of intervening obstacles.
The camera is fairly easy to use. Bumping the edges of the screen scrolls or rotates the map (a bit too quickly for my tastes), while a system of hotkeys snaps you to pre-determined zoom levels. I'd love to have seen an incremental, mouse-wheel-driven zoom but the nine or so levels included here offer just about every magnification you could want. The camera also responds to impacts during the action phases so, if you're close to an explosion, the camera will shake and vibrate realistically.
The effects of the explosions are still just slightly canned but nevertheless much improved over the first game. In fact, the entire graphics palette has undergone a much-needed rehaul. It still fails to compete with the big names in 3D strategy (titles like Age of Myth or Warcraft III) but, for what it is, it's fantastic. The environments are much better rendered this time around with believable trees, time of day effects and realistically dense cities. While the vehicles look great, the soldiers are still a bit cartoony and suffer from stuttering animations.
The sound in the game is impressive but not in a way that's particularly easy to notice or appreciate. While it's not a dig at the developers by any means, few gamers will appreciate the fact that various units each make unique sounds. "Hey, that guy's tank sounds slightly different from this other tank," I suppose is what the developers intended. You will notice that the different units have nation-specific acknowledgements however. Weapon sounds are likewise varied.
I was a bit nonplussed that there's almost no music in the game. There's a Wagner-fied intro screen but that's it on the music front. I'd have loved the chance to throw a couple of Shostakovich or Marlene Dietrich tunes to liven things up a bit but, short of playing them somewhere else in the house, you're out of luck on that front.
What did you think of Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin?
The game supports two-player hotseat and LAN play which can be a blast. Separate action sequences and player passwords ensure that no one takes your turn or finds out where your units are. A PBEM version is also available but lacks the immediacy of actually playing against someone. The same old editor has been included as well so you can design your own missions pretty easily.
The game's only available from battlefront.com so don't bother looking for it in stores. The gang at Battlefront are even offering a bundle of this game and the original Beyond Overlord for $65. For two of the best wargames ever on the PC, it's a real bargain.
Wargames have long been a niche market. While early PC gamers were often of a mind to appreciate these types of games, interest in these titles has dwindled as gaming has become more mainstream. And as publishers have become more profit-minded, this poor-selling segment of the market has been seriously neglected. But as the Talonsofts and Strategy Firsts have diversified their catalogs, there's a real opportunity for other developers and publishers to cash in on this oversight.
Enter the sequel to Combat Mission. Not only is it one of the greatest wargames we've ever played, it also takes everything that normally makes wargames so inaccessible and throws it right out the window. A slick interface keeps you focused on tactics while the level of detail and modeling forces you to adopt realistic strategies. Add to that the comprehensive range of units and scenarios and you have a game that you won't put down for years to come.
For those interested in a game that's more involved than the current RTS crop or one that's less tedious than the usual wargame, Barbarossa to Berlin is a perfect fit. With all the new holiday releases coming out each week, we don't always have as much time as we'd like to spend with the games that we really, really love. The upside is that I'll now be spending my Christmas break trying to find new ways to breakthrough to Berlin.
-- Steve Butts
It's a mixed bag with few frills but lots of depth. Though the interface and setup are a bit gummy in places, the detail is unbelievable. Love the manual. 8.5
While it's not as impressive as a lot of recent RTS games, the scope of what's been accomplished in terms of variety is commendable. 8.5
Slightly better than average. Voice cues are dead-on and combat sounds are believable. The lack of music options is distressing. 7.5
It's utterly captivating in a way that's hard to explain. The dual/hybrid format of the game is quite refreshing and utterly captivating. 9.5
Lots and lots of missions and a brand new scenario designer give this one exceptionally long life. 9.5
OVERALL SCORE (not an average) 9.0
[ November 19, 2002, 09:21 PM: Message edited by: Voxman ]