Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord is a turn-based 3D simulation of WWII warfare with an emphasis on tactics. Players will control squads, teams, platoons, battalions, and individual units. Each turn represents 60 seconds of combat -- each engagement generally takes about 40 turns. Combat Mission's focus is on historical integrity, and everything from weapons accuracy, armor effectiveness, orders of battle, and tables of order and effectiveness (TO&E's) have been created with realism in mind.
I used to enjoy playing Advanced Squad Leader with my buddies. It offered unparalleled historical accuracy and intuitive flexibility in its simulation of small scale tactics during the Second World War. A company known as Big Time Software began working on a PC version of the game called Computer Squad Leader. The development of the title was sidetracked when Hasbro purchased Avalon Hill and most of their game licenses a few years back. Undaunted, Big Time Software took their own title and transformed it in to an entirely new game but one that adheres closely to the same principles that made Advanced Squad Leader such a success on the tabletop.
The resulting game, Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord not only stood head and shoulders above Hasbro's eventual PC version of Squad Leader, it also stood well above every other tactical wargame offered on the PC platform. But as the game was only available online, it suffered a relatively low profile among the other wargame offerings -- all three of them.
Visibility was a bit higher in Japan and Europe where the title shared retail space next to other games. Now publisher CDV is banking on that same principle with the re-release of the title under the name Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord Special Edition. Available at retail shops for only $30, we're hoping that the Special Edition will help introduce many more gamers to the sublime beauty that is Combat Mission
The game represents tactical battles on the Western Front of the Second World War. Although the size of forces involved can stretch up to whole battalions, the game grants you control of individual squads and vehicles. Gamers can lead the forces of six different nations as they fight Normandy, Arnhem, the Bulge or any of 150 scenarios. You can lead Polish paratroopers at Market-Garden or US Rangers at Dog 1 or German tanks as they smash their way through the Ardennes.
All of the missions in the Special Edition offer the chance to play from both sides of the engagement, effectively doubling the number of missions you can choose from. They're further divided in to a few different engagement types so you can pick the right forces and context for each of your battles. Want to lead British paratroopers in a quick counterattack? You can do it. Want to use Fallschirmjagers to protect occupied towns against Allied attacks? That's here too. There are also a handful of linked Operations. These are a series of separate battles played out over the same terrain using the same units. In between each fight you get a chance to rest, resupply and reorganize your units.
Combat Mission is also unique in being an intriguing mix of turn-based and real-time gameplay. While the game is still technically a turn-based game, the results and resolution of your turn-based movement and firing orders are played out in minute-long real-time sequences. During the minute of action, you won't be able to influence the behavior of your units at all, making it a huge priority to remain somewhat flexible and issue orders that anticipate and allow for contact with the enemy.
The turn-based format suits the game well (although it would be less painful if the enemy AI could make all of their decisions and orders while you're issuing yours, particularly on maps with lots and lots of units). It gives the player a nice blend of contemplative turn-based rumination with the nail-biting immediacy of real-time games.
Apart from the flight sims, wargames are probably the only titles that can get away with boasting a manual over 200 pages. (It's right on the box, along with a rousing exclamation point in case you thought they were kidding.) But though the density of the manual may turn some gamers off, it represents only a portion of the routines and arbitrations in the game. The only important thing to know is that things work in the game the way you'd expect them to work in the real world. So many consequences are modeled in the game that it would be impossible to catalog them all so we'll merely mention a few. First, weapon effects are based on real physics and ballistics, taking into account things such as target type, armor slope, shell size, shell type and muzzle velocity.
The game also models individual soldiers within each squad, going so far as to manage the ammo levels dynamically. If a rifle squad loses a man, their firepower goes down by a relatively small fraction. If a crew-served weapon loses a man, it loses much more ammunition (to simulate the extra ammo carried for bazookas, MGs, etc). Amazingly, the game only detracts ammunition levels for crew-served weapons if they're moving. The rationale is that you can still pick up the extra ammo previously carried by your dead crew.
The camera allows you to travel all over the battlefield and view the action from pretty much any angle you desire using (almost) just the mouse. Bumping the camera along the top or bottom of the screen scrolls forward or backward while bumping the sides rotates the camera left and right. The camera could definitely benefit from the strafing motion available in Barbarossa to Berlin. There the sides of the screen were divided in half -- bump the upper half to rotate, bump the lower half to move laterally. In the Special Edition you're forced to use the arrow keys to move the camera left or right. There are buttons for each of these camera movements on the bottom part of the screen and you can also use keyboard shortcuts to zoom around.
There are a few other features from Barbarossa to Berlin that ought to have been included here as well. First and most important is the ability to select a unit by clicking on its movement path. (When movement paths are turned on, you can see the route and destination of all units during the orders phase. Being able to click on the lines means less scrolling back and forth to find the corresponding unit.) Some of the new orders from Barbarossa to Berlin should be here as well. Advancing under fire or executing a "shoot and scoot" maneuver now requires more micromanagement than is completely feasibly within the game's minute-long action sequences.
Beyond these additions, I'd also like to see some entirely new features. While a full campaign seems to go against the point of the game overall, I still want to see some sort of career stats tracking. At the very least, it would be nice to know which of the game's 150 scenarios I've already played. Some gamers might also find it convenient to have access to Orders of Battle that outline the entire command structure of your forces. While it runs counter to the "you are there" approach, it's almost a necessity when dealing with the game's larger battles.
On the subject of battles, the ones included in the Special Edition aren't labeled as clearly as those of the sequel. Searching for a specific battle is much more difficult this time around. Ideally I'd like a date, a battle type and the forces involved rather than the short, somewhat vague descriptions currently offered. Once you select a battle, you can gain access to that info but there's no reason why it shouldn't be included in the battle selection screen.
Once you do pick a battle you'll have a chance to find out a lot more about it in the sometimes small, sometimes lengthy write-ups that precede each fight. Some read like short historical essays, others read like short briefings that really put you in the role of the commander. Overall I prefer the short style of the more immediate briefings but the longer historical essays are still interesting.
Graphics aren't the game's strong suit. The textures are somewhat grainy and blurry and the unit models, while undeniably authentic, are somewhat simplistic in terms of geometry. Smoke, explosion and fire effects seem a bit canned but still manage to convey a sense of real destruction and danger. Considering the scale of the game, the small imperfections in the graphics are easy to forgive. Less so is the fact that some of the roofs in the game don't become transparent when you're issuing movement orders -- particularly if you need a squad to defend from a particular corner of the building. Likewise, some of the roofs sit on top of the command menu layer that you can access from each unit.
Still the attention to detail in the area of graphics makes up a lot of ground. With hundreds of realistically modeled units, I'm pleasantly surprised that things like goggles and shoulder patches are included on some of the soldiers in your squads. And while the animations aren't fantastic, a small bob of the head or an arm extended towards a unit's eventual location goes a long way towards building the illusion.
The same can be said of the game's sounds. While not impressive individually, when taken as a whole they're quite overwhelming. Each unit speaks in the appropriate language and the range of sounds made by the various vehicles and weapons keeps the whole experience very fresh. That there's no music in the game is less of a problem during the battles themselves. Why there's none on the menu screens is still a bit of a mystery.
Buy this damn game! Discounting the sequel, Barbarossa to Berlin, there's no finer representation of battalion-sized engagements rendered at a squad level. If that sounds overly qualified and conditional, let me put it this way: this game is a wargamer's dream come true in nearly every aspect. So the graphics aren't quite up to the rest of this year's offerings; so the interface is a bit obtuse at times; so it has a steep learning curve -- none of that matters compared against the utterly comprehensive and instinctively realistic nature of the game.
Like many of you, I have a list of desert island games -- a half-dozen titles that I plan to take with me if I'm ever stranded with no hope of rescue. (Please, god, let there be a computer there.) The Combat Mission series is firmly entrenched on that list. As you'd hope, the sequel is better in terms of functionality and graphical presentation compared with the original, even taking into account the new features of the Special Edition. Your decision to go with one or the other should best be made on the basis of your interest in the theaters represented.
But if you enjoy excellent wargames or unique strategy titles, you're doing yourself a disservice by not playing both.
People who downloaded Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord have also downloaded:
Combat Mission 2: Barbarossa to Berlin, Combat Mission 3: Afrika Korps, Close Combat 5: Invasion Normandy, Close Combat 4: The Battle of the Bulge, Close Combat 3: The Russian Front, Close Combat 2: A Bridge Too Far, Close Combat, Codename: Panzers - Phase Two
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