Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Close Combat: Panthers in the Fog - Review

Close Combat: Panthers in the Fog
Developed by Black Hand Studios
Published by Matrix/Slitherine Games
39.99 US Dollars (Download)
49.99 US Dollars (Download and CD)

07AUG1944. The German XLVII Corps launches a counter-offensive east of Mortain with the objective of cutting-off the US 3rd Army. Operation Lüttich is one of the best known German counterattacks during the Battle of Normandy and one of the most poorly executed German attacks in record. Plagued by lack of coordination, poor logistics and in some cases just the lack of will by some commanders, the Germans lost the initiative to the Americans in just one day. The close terrain was ill-suited for the German tanks and the Americans, although outgunned on paper, were ready to bring up a significant amount of reserves to the fight. This was a fluid battle of punches and counter-punches. Men, tanks and fire support weapons skating on the unforgiving thin tactical ice of the bocage. It doesn't get any better for tactical war gaming.

Close Combat is a tactical war game that, believe it or not, has been inspired by the extremely complex board game Advanced Squad Leader. The first Close Combat was released back in 1996 and it was a game changer (pun intended). Besides its simple game mechanics and (for the time) great graphics, the virtual soldiers had morale, combat experience, physical state and stamina modeled as variables. No longer could a player order a suicidal charge against a machine gun nest: the virtual soldiers would literally have a morale breakdown seeing their buddies mowed down by the bursts of lead. In addition, only the fittest soldiers could withstand the exertions of continuous forced marches and assaults. It was a true revolution in computer war gaming. The most hard core qualities and the satisfying tactical experience of those"cream of the crop" board games, adapted to a computer game ... The Close Combat series continued for four more years, and then waned down significantly between the years 2000 and 2007, when Matrix Games started re-packaging the old series. Enter Panthers in the Fog, released in late 2012, which is the first Close Combat with original content (i.e. not a re-make of older titles).

The Close Combat game is composed of two layers. The top layer is the so-called "strategic" and this is where the player moves regiments and battalions across a map that covers the historical area of operations. The movement is turn based and the regiments and battalions can be given offensive, defensive and maneuver stances. Other specific actions for them include rest, relieve, merge and disband. The player can also allocate air interdiction and artillery support into specific areas of the "strategic" map. Once two opposing sides collide into the same region of the area of operations, the lower "tactical" layer comes into play. This lower tactical layer is played a 2D, exquisitely drawn 2D maps that are a handful of hundred meters (average) in size. Before the battle starts, the player is able to choose among the different subunits of the regiments and battalions available in the specific subdivision of the "strategic" map region. Once deployed, the battle is played in continuous time. The units (fire teams, MG teams, individual tanks and support systems) are given commands with a left-click and point, very intuitive interface. For movement, the commands are "move", "move fast" and "sneak". For firing there is an obvious "fire" command and for protection there are "defend" and "ambush" orders. Included also is a "smoke" command (throw smoke in a specified direction). Each soldier,  crew, tank vehicle and gun has a damage/status (healthy, unconscious, wounded, immobilized, destroyed, KIA, etc) followed by the game engine. The morale status for every single man in the battle is also taken into account. The system is so detailed that even ammunition is tracked. Defeat or victory is decided by a combination of the amount of victory locations taken and the overall morale of both sides. If men on one side have seen too many deaths among their buddies, their morale will drop and this not only result in a lack of offensive spirit but also a sudden tactical scenario termination if the overall morale level falls below a specific mark.

The emphasis of Close Combat is in the tactical 2D map battles. The upper layer has come a long way since the previous releases and re-releases (better graphics and interface), and there is a good amount of decision-making for the player to do at this level. But the verisimilitude of the game system leaves a glowing gap between moving up battalions and regiments to the front (strategic level) and fighting with just a reinforced company (24 units per tactical map at maximum, to be chosen among fire-teams, MG/mortar teams, tanks, vehicles and guns). One could argue that the 2D tactical maps are just too small to deploy a battalion on them and that is a fair argument. However, each strategic map region features just one playable tactical 2D map so a series of company-sized fights is what decides the occupation or withdrawal of entire battle groups. This modeling of grand-tactical/operational warfare by a series of combat patrol skirmishes has been creeping release after release during the history of the franchise and has achieved a point where a mere paint of good-researched orders of battle doesn't cut it anymore. A game or simulation of combat that follows each soldier's attribute battle after battle is unlikely to have no cracks in its way up of the fighting leagues of divisions and corps. Nonetheless, if you park your generals and colonels outside and you enter the game with just your captains and sergeants, you are guaranteed a very good tactical war game, with immersion added by battles that follow a continuity in events down to soldiers acquiring more experience, abandoned vehicles and artillery craters remaining in the map along the way.

What's new in Close Combat Panthers in the Fog, besides the setting? Graphics have been brought to modern 32 bit standards. The eye-strain of previous releases is gone, but be aware that your screen is showing now less of the 2D terrain than before (a consequence of lower meters per pixel resolution), so there is some serious scrolling needed to play the tactical battles. The interface of the "strategic" layer has been significantly improved in look and functionality, now including NATO icons and graphs plus animations during the review of the whole turn-based movement phase. The new Battle Group system keeps and tracks every soldier's statistics and it has been modified to allow the player a troops selection process more in accord with historical orders of battle. In the "strategic" map, it is now possible to add air interdiction and artillery to hamper the enemy's movement. Some regions of the strategic map feature heights that allow either side to observe enemy movements from longer ranges. For the tactical battles, the setup and fire by mortars has been brought to more realistic standards and now it is possible to load troops and hitch guns onto vehicles.

The game play at both levels will find the player making relevant decision making. At the strategic level, the concept of main effort is crucial as the resources, though not minimal, are eaten up by an enemy that is not passive and a terrain that favors sudden death by ambush. At the tactical level, suppression and the use of cover are crucial. The tactical landscape depicted in Panthers is just plain unforgiving. There is plenty of cover and concealment and the novice player is advised not to get too fond of speed just because the game's interface make it look so easy to just move the troops relentlessly. The player's troops have a sense of preservation that gives a small margin of time for looking elsewhere, but it is always better to practice the principle of mutual support. The computer opponent makes very good use of indirect fire but will rarely throw a curve ball once you figure out how it operates.

The multi-player system has been re-built from the ground up. It is now a lobby-based system and it doesn't allow direct connection. This lack of an alternative connection method has been lamented by veterans of the series. The lobby got off to a rocky start with some players experiencing disconnections and lags during play. The developers moved really fast to fix these problems. I have played no less than eight online games without any lags or disconnections. The only noticeable thing for me was the lack of opponents online at most of the times I logged in. Maybe I'm just unlucky, but I would recommend to prearrange with your gaming buddy a day and time for an online match.

Fog has played and important role in the real operation. It helped the Germans to move during the early day hours without being targeted by Allied aircraft and it cut short more than one movement to contact. Panthers has implemented fog as part of the game play. In some specific scenarios, the entire 2D battlefield is covered by a milky cover of simulated fog, making it a bit cumbersome to spot not only enemy units (maybe a good thing) but also own forces (huh?). After a few games, the eyes get accustomed to the fog (outlining one's units in black helps a lot) but nonetheless the byproduct is friendly fog of war enforced by eyesight. The amount of information and how it is delivered to the player is one of the biggest assets a war game design has and in my opinion the developers should have thought this feature more thoroughly. A patch is on the works and it will include an option to remove this effect.

Score: B. A solid and successful franchise was given a face lift in appearance and content. This is the best Close Combat in many years and features great war gaming value that will appeal both the novice and veteran.


Johan said...

Great review JC! Just a small suggestion: please break up the text into paragraphs. Now there is a slight "wall of text" effect, especially for the longer text blocks. Just a small thing that makes the text much more readable.

JC said...

Thanks, Johan.

That and long sentences are things I have to work on.


Marco said...

So good, I was a little cautious with this but, the multiplayer change that you say, make it work. One thing that you didn't aboard so much is the IA, how is the movement of the vehicles? improve or still very loose? how challenging is the IA now?

Jayson Ng said...

I thought this was a remake of CC1. I guess it isn't.

As for the fog, another option is to form a visible ring around friendly units... something similar to the night effects.

JC said...

Ciao Marco,

Thanks for reading. Slight improvement in pathfinding, just remember to keep your tanks at "sneak" speeds. AI, still the same: a victory locations navigator.


Anonymous said...

Played 2 or 3 games on this so far but before the updates you mentioned, which I'm glad to hear. The only issue I have besides the slightly annoying fog that hopefully can soon be disabled is the lack of targeting circles when you mouse over enemies with the fire order and the much much smaller muzzle flash that makes spotting enemies in buildings incredibly hard.

Matthew said...

@ Anonymous: There are still targeting circles. If the enemy is not spotted by your troops though then there will not be a targeting circle and you will have to target the flashes. Aggravating I know, but that is how it has always been as far as I remember. The smaller muzzle flash is really annoying, and I swear you used to be able to spot mortar fire by watching for the puffs of smoke/muzzle blast from firing. I bought this game based on both this review and the one at Wargamer and so far I am having a blast. Brings back old times with CC2 and 3.

Tille said...

Cool ! I like it.

Vernon said...

This is cool!