Pioneering games, if successful, often create templates. In 1996, Close Combat pioneered real-time squad action games. The game did much more than that, modeling morale, fatigue and experience. In doing so, developers paved the way for all other serious small unit games. In short a template was formed. Yet templates can wear out and be passed over by successor models. Counting re-makes but not bundles, Close Combat: Gateway to Caen represents the sixteenth entry into the series. Has the template become tired, worn or faded?
As in the previous games in the series The Longest Day and Panthers in the Fog, action takes place in northern France but this time concentrating on the Commonwealth drive on Caen through the Odon valley. The 32-bit graphics capture terrain on thirty-plus maps very well. The attributes of terrain is now explained in detail by mousing. Plowed fields are hemmed with thick hedges and groves of trees provide cover while blocking line of sight. Highways, roads and paths are shown clearly. Streams not only provide color but also affect movement. Structures include everything from sheds to large compounds with walls. The birds-eye view covers the map on two different levels. The colored lines for different orders are very useful. Burning tanks and persistent smoke yield a feel for battle as well as having an impact on line of sight. Flames spit from flame-throwing vehicles. The three command screens are very accessible and easy to understand; when a unit’s or a soldier’s health or morale bar goes from green to yellow to red, that element has had about enough of the fight. Some players will miss the gory splashes indicating fallen soldiers. The major problem with graphics is the lack of a third, closer zoom level. Troops and units can be seen by squinting. Units are outlined in orange and have small NATO tabs. More detail would be nice. By the same token, fonts are a bit too small for older eyes, especially when the dominant scheme is gold on black.
Sound effects are superb. Opening a scenario brings forth a rousing rendition of “Scotland the Brave”. Commonwealth voices not only sound authentic but use appropriate slang. The German voices are properly guttural. Along with the rattle of small arms fire and artillery shells, these voices give players important clues to the action.
Bocage is everywhere
The zoomed-out view of the area above
The outline of units and the three group screens are evident
Mechanics are basically the same as in Panthers in the Fog (http://www.wargamer.com/article/3283/Close-Combat:-Panthers-in-the-Fog) but repeating them does no harm.
The game mechanics have not changed from the original. A unit is selected with a left click and given orders through a right-click menu or hot keys. Movement orders include “move”, “move fast” and “sneak”. The unit assumes either a “defend” or “ambush” posture at the destination depending on the move type. Regular movement allows for better spotting but leaves the unit more vulnerable. Fast movement creates the opposite situation while “sneak” is safe but slow. Destinations can be ordered by a single drag-click but paths can be tricky. Left to their own devices, units will choose the easiest, not necessarily the quickest, path. A keyboard command can force units to follow the selected path. Vehicle pathing is even more quirky with units driving into terrain that can disable them. Creating a series of short paths with waypoints can ameliorate this problem. “Mount” loads infantry and hitches artillery to vehicles while “Dismount” allows infantry to leave vehicles and artillery to be unhitched from trucks and halftracks.
This section is waiting for commands
The crucial “Fire” order is handled the same way. Direct-fire weapons have their trajectories marked with green lines for clear shots, yellow and red for less effective fire and black for blocked shots. Indirect fire such as howitzers and mortars can fire over obstructions to suppress targets. Other commands include “smoke” to provide cover, “ambush” for stationary units to hold fire until enemies are very close and “defend” to fire on approaching foes at longer range. Both of the latter two commands have firing arcs that can be set by players. Orders are usually given to individual units but groups of units can be formed and numbered with a left-click drag and CTRL+#. Off-board mortar, artillery and air strikes may be called with a click once per battle. Illumination works the same way but can be used more than once.
In a way, these orders are really just strong suggestions. Units will react to situations on their own even while following an order. Units and soldiers who are losing cohesion and morale may refuse to follow orders, eventually running for a safer spot. A good HQ unit can improve performance; hitting the space bar will show a HQ’s area of influence.
One improvement in firing is mortar targeting: when a fire order is given to a mortar, a spotting round lands about twenty seconds later, followed another and by a four-round barrage. Mortar crews remember previous target areas so hitting them again is done quicker.
Mortar-delivered smoke saves lives
Smoke from shells and burning wrecks also provide cover
Smoke Gets in Their Eyes
Naturally, the introduction of Commonwealth forces brings a plethora of new units. Armored vehicles are represented by Cromwells, Churchills, Achilleses and Fireflies. Unarmored units include the Loyd carrier, the 17pder AT gun and Bren gun carriers. The handheld anti-tank weapon is the PIAT. Infantry units are sections with Bren gun sections being the most numerous. In fact, the Bren gun sections define infantry tactics as they are best used in pairs using overwatch movement. Weapon effectiveness seems accurate except for the PIAT which might be too effective. German tactics revolve around the MG42 and good tanks. Artillery and mortars are used plentifully by both sides.
Action takes place in 39 battles, six operations and six campaigns. Each of these starts with a battle group composed of three platoons. Each platoon is divided into squads. The first platoon always has a full count of six squads and defines whether the battle group is infantry or armor types. The size and composition of second and support platoons depend on this type. Players can choose to keep the ready-made forces or remove squads and replace them from the force pool. Players can choose to play either side and change the quality of both forces to one of five levels from recruit to elite. For operations and campaigns, the date and time of the start can be changed. Changing the date can affect the weather which, in turn, can affect movement. Time changes have an impact on visibility.
The battle group’s platoons can be arranged to taste
The battle’s in this operation will be fought over this area
The first step in a battle is repositioning units in a prescribed area with a drag and a click. Operations and campaigns add another initial step. A strategic phase allows moving the oblong representing the battle group to another map area. Operations feature one or two battle groups fighting a series of battles on a medium sized map. Campaigns are fought over larger areas with more battle groups. Losses are carried over but groups can be reorganized and reinforced after a battle. Fuel and ammunition supplies are also factors with unit colors indicating levels of supply.
The Germans have moved in from the northwest in this campaign
The Commonwealth triumphed this time
Combat commences when both foes are in the same area. Once the battle starts, the enemy begins movement and shelling. Players should make use of cover and smoke to protect vulnerable elements. Yet battles are won by occupying victory spots and breaking morale within a set timeframe so units must show dash at some point. Tanks can play a role but the terrain in this game limits their mobility; victory is up to the “poor bloody infantry”. Off-board assets such as artillery and air may become available during battle but cannot be counted on to appear when needed. The AI is far from stupid and knows how to use terrain. Battles can be paused but not saved. Operations and campaigns are saved at the strategic level after every battle.
Players may want different places and units can use the powerful editor. Multiplayer opponents can be found via the Steam lobby.
Close Combat may not be cock of the roost of tactical RTS games anymore. Other series have added better visuals and different interfaces. However, Close Combat: Gateway to Caen shows the old system still has life, giving players innovative challenges and new situations. Each battle requires thought and understanding of historical weapons and terrains. Sticking to a proven system that makes players understand what battles were like and why they went as they did is what serious gaming means. The template is just fine, thank you.
About the Author
Jim Cobb has been playing board wargames since 1961 and computer wargames since 1982. He has been writing incessantly since 1993 to keep his mind off the drivel he dealt with as a bureaucrat. He has published in Wargamers Monthly, Computer Gaming World, Computer Games Magazine, Computer Games Online, CombatSim, Armchair General, Subsim, Strategyzone Online, Wargamer and Gamesquad