Review: Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy (PC)

8 mins read

It’s safe to say that you need to approach Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy a little differently than you are used to with most modern games. I, in my infinite wisdom, jumped straight in without even a glance at the manual. That was a big mistake. At first, I persisted in trying to learn as I go but after struggling through the tutorial scenarios, after taking way to much time to finish them, I gave up and started reading. I’m not one to shy away from a juicy manual and I kind of miss their presence in most modern games.

Where there’s smoke…

The fact of the matter is, developers have gotten so much more efficient in relaying all relevant information to gamers, through tutorials, that manuals have become almost extinct. Combat Mission’s tutorial system feels like it was made in the nineties. The manual is essential and the tutorial scenarios are only exercises in frustration without it, especially if you have never played a wargame before.

The number of units you need to manage at times can be daunting

The two tutorial campaigns are essentially split into teaching you how to move around and give out various commands, and how to setup a battle, strategise and overwhelm the opposition. Both deliver their intended purpose adequately, but I feel like the developers could have done more to inform you in-game rather than making you read the manual for any relevant information. When it comes to helpful hints and tips the UI is a wasteland. There is plenty of information there, but the game requires you to learn its language to make any sense of it all.

To its credit, if your knowledge of real world military structure and tactics is good, then everything will make more sense. My own apprehension of such matters was rusty at best, so I began reading up on the basics. It helped a great deal as I began to grasp the intricate details of the game.

The user interface makes little sense before you read the manual, but is actually quite nice once you decipher it. I still would like to have some pop-up tool tips 

CM:BN’s greatest strength, and perhaps its most discouraging hurdle, is the amount and quality of the systems included in the simulation. If you want to master the game you need to be able to understand the tactical doctrine that it’s based on. Everything needs to be taken into consideration when forming a strategy to take on a specific battle. The chain of command, the terrain, the weather, your troops morale, and everything else you could imagine would factor into a real battle.

There are two basic ways to play the game. Real time where you can pause at any time to give out orders, and turn based where you give out orders and when you start the turn a minute, real time, passes during which you can’t influence the battlefield. In multiplayer the turn-based system, called We Go, players issue orders simultaneously and then the turn plays out. I’ve been switching between the two modes and I can’t decide which one to choose. Both are very competent ways to play the game, and each offers unique challenges.

You can set up your own Quick Battles where you customise your force with a predetermined allowance. Choose the size of your battle field and select from a variety of different map styles. This feature insures a high level of replayability where you can play hundreds of battles without hitting the same scenario again. The AI insures you wont get bored doing this, assuming that you have a general interest in playing endless battles.

The ground type can make a big difference. A wet swamp will significantly slow down and tire your troops.

It has also plenty to offer in terms of campaigns, my preferred mode of play, which are both based on real battles and completely fictional. A nice little touch by the designers is recommending reading material, that relates to the battles at hand, in the briefing menu before each battle.

The AI, both friendly and enemy, is impressive. The enemy will usually behave in a way that makes sense, tactically, and will move and strike where it’s most inconvenient for your forces. A source of frustration, for sure, but not to the game’s detriment. Your units will take their positions in a smart way by taking into consideration their surroundings and usually never stopping in awkward places in plane sight of the enemy unless you give no choice. I’ve encountered occasional glitches in the way the friendly AI handles obstacles like choosing the correct way around the environment, but nothing that’s too frustrating and I could usually avoid it later in similar situations.

The environment plays a big part in choosing your tactical approach, as it should, and the games art style absolutely supports that notion. Every piece of pixel on the battlefield has a purpose and it’s definitely a no frills style. It enhances the play giving you cause to consider every building, wall and bocage, when choosing your approach. The units are beautifully detailed and every single soldier is animated, which really gives you a sense of immersion.

The units in the game are beautifully detailed which really enhances feeling of WWII.

I thoroughly enjoy CM:BN especially because it appeals to my inner history nerd and strategy inclined nature. As an introduction to the tactical wargame genre it’s probably not the most user friendly experience. If I were to endorse it to inexperienced wargamers I would make sure they are willing to overcome the learning curve, but the learning part does in no way make a boring experience if you are so inclined.
When you strip it down to its most basic elements, it’s a great war simulator but it fails at being a great game. That said, it’s still a good game and absolutely worth every penny. The feeling that I get when I fire up a battle is one of anticipation. Every situation is different and I really enjoy plotting out my approach and deciding upon my tactics.

– Arnar L.

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