Serious strategy gamers can fight through the North African battles of World War II in this 2005 release by Big Time Software. Built on the game engine that powers Combat Mission: Barbarosa to Berlin, the 3D game features tactical combat that is managed in a turn-based fashion, for precise orders and adjustments, but plays out in a real-time flow.
Players will fight their way through seven campaigns and over 140 scenarios that feature earth-shattering artillery shells, grenade impacts, and burning tank wreckage. More than 800 unit types including tanks, infantry, artillery, and planes are available as players prepare to invade Crete in May of '41, or engage enemy forces in the African desert from 1940 to 1942.
Internet, network, and email support multiplayer action, while the "Quick Battle Creator" produces war scenarios in seconds, for immediate action. A full editor is also included, so that players can create their own maps for use in various battlefield situations.
If you don't have one of the earlier Combat Missions, Afrika Korps is a way to challenge everything you think you know about wargames. This is the latest in a series that marries hardcore World War II realism with qualities you wouldn't expect in a wargame: seat-of-your-pants tension, 3D graphics, hearty sound effects, and thrilling multiplayer gaming. For those who haven't experienced Combat Mission, Afrika Korps represents your latest best chance.
On the flip side, if you've been a Combat Mission fan all along, Afrika Korps is a way for the publishers to charge you an exorbitant price for what amounts to desert terrain graphics and new TO&Es. And if you have to ask what a TO&E is ("Table of Organization and Equipment", i.e. the wargame equivalent of adding a new faction in an RTS), then you probably won't get excited about being able to play battles with, say, the Free French, Italy's funky little tanks, or the twin-gunned M3 Grant.
Most of the work here is either cosmetic or carefully researched minutiae which doesn't do much to change the way Combat Mission plays. It's disappointing that there's nothing new in the gameplay more substantial than dust clouds. Vehicles now kick up dust in the desert, which allows them to be detected farther away and occasionally blocks direct lines of sight.
However, for casual Combat Mission players who couldn't care less about the difference between an M4A1 Sherman tank and an M4A3 Sherman tank (the latter has a better engine), Afrika Korps is not without its appeal. First, it's good to see the considerable improvements from CM: Barbarossa to Berlin, set on the East Front, brought into a more familiar context. The battles between Russia and Germany were epic, to be sure, but they don't have the familiar hook of playing American and Commonwealth forces (a roundabout way of saying you finally get to hear units barking orders and freaking out under fire in English). Even if one Sherman is like any other to you, it's still nice to get to play as the home team again.
More importantly, the new desert settings are an exotic alternative to the familiar hedgerows and villas of every World War II game this side of Saving Private Ryan. Afrika Korps' boast of offering bigger maps is a bit hollow; it's not as if having maps that were too small was ever a problem. But the wide-open desert of North Africa makes a much more dramatic impression than the wide-open steppes of Russia. In one scenario, there's a moment when British tanks top a ridge looking down onto an Italian fort, which is basically a walled village. You're driving platoons of tanks across the dunes and into hundreds of sun-bleached buildings to reach your objective. For all the limitations of Combat Mission's artwork, the effect is still impressive. Similarly, even the quaint palm oasis in the tiny "Scouts Out" scenario is just as evocative of the desert. You can almost feel the heat. As rough hewn as it can be, Afrika Korps looks absolutely wonderful.
A continuing problem for new players will be the presentation. The scenarios are just thrown in willy-nilly, with no way to sort them. There are a handful of operations, which are linked battles, but these are a poor substitute for the sort of narrative structure -- a campaign or even simply arranging the scenarios into chronological order -- that could ease new players into the game. Wargamers are used to picking from a list of desultory battles, but Combat Mission has the potential to reach so many more types of players; Afrika Korps continues to squander that potential by just dumping a heap of scenarios onto the screen.
A much worse persistent problem is the A.I., which is still so bad that at times it's hard to recommend Combat Mission as anything other than a multiplayer game. The enemy A.I.'s behavior consists of either sitting in one place or rushing straight at you, with no evidence of any tactical considerations like flanking, using the terrain, or laying ambushes. It's telling that many of the scenario briefings explain that the A.I. isn't quite up to the task, so you should either play multiplayer or give the A.I. a bonus. This is, to be fair, a common failing among wargames, but it's another example of how Big Time Software's continuing work on the series occasionally misses the forest for the trees. Combat Mission is still a superlative achievement in the annals of wargaming.
People who downloaded Combat Mission 3: Afrika Korps have also downloaded:
Combat Mission 2: Barbarossa to Berlin, Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord, Close Combat 5: Invasion Normandy, Close Combat 4: The Battle of the Bulge, Close Combat 3: The Russian Front, Codename: Panzers - Phase Two, Close Combat 2: A Bridge Too Far, Codename: Panzers - Phase One
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