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Posted on Sep 27, 2010 in Electronic Games

Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge – PC Game Review

By Jim Cobb

Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge. PC Game. Publisher, Matrix Games. Developer, Panther Games. $89.99 boxed; $79.99 download.

Passed Inspection: Superior use of time and space; great AI; accurate detail at all levels; accessible interface; covers topic well; three editors; multiplay

Failed Basic:Bland graphics and sound.

Gamers like control, either through using the breathing space provided by turns in turn-based games or by micro-management using “pause” or slow speeds in real-time games. One of the reasons for this predilection is that AIs are usually so stupid that turning control over to the computer leads to absurdity. Exceptions to this rule are few and far between. Panther Games has always tried to overcome this weakness by investing their AI with a great amount of “situational awareness.” Their latest product, Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge, achieves this goal to the point where yet another Bulge game is justified.

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Over Hill, Over Dale

The graphics for Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge are hard-core military. The maps are ordinance maps with appropriate contours and shading for elevation with 100 meter grids, although the game’s six levels of zoom can cover miles or mere yards. Vegetation, rivers, streams, roads and towns are shown clearly. Play aids such as range circles, line of sight, supply lines and march paths can be toggled on and off. Battle graphics are limited to quick sparks or flairs. Units are NATO-style counters at company level, with filters for unit type and scale subject to players’ choice. A sidebar shows a data display of six tabs with information about the unit with up to thirty factors such as strength, morale, supply, efficiency and weapons per tab. Clicking on a weapon brings up its picture and statistics. Sound effects are minimal but are rather peripheral to play.

The primary center of the mechanics is the utility display in the control pane to the left. The usual mini-map and time of day features are there but actions and information are given through the three tabs. Here, twelve specific orders such as blow bridges, defend or bombard can be ordered from one tab while the two other tabs allow mandating the mode of march and other tools. All of these actions can also be accessed via shortcuts.

The game is almost over-documented with eight lengthy videos and three manuals, the primary manual running over two hundred pages. However, this information, if not optimally organized, is essential for play.

Transcending the Norm
If the description of graphics seems off-hand, it’s because the mechanics and play concepts make them almost a side issue. Every game requires planning but Battles from the Bulge requires an almost four-dimensional approach. Time, not bullets or bayonets, determines efficient play here. Players can choose to give orders to individual units but they can also command several units by issuing orders to all units in a regiment, division or corps. The time it takes for those orders to trickle down to the sharp end is a function of distance, terrain and staff efficiency as well as the static of battle. Time for forming up, reaching an objective or ordering a barrage is shown in a small line on the upper left pane. Giving these orders is a simple select-and-click on objectives or targets. The key is to watch the use of time so that the best coordination of force is used. For instance, a bombardment should lift before friendly units attack but not so soon that the defenders can recover. Factors that players can control include orders to ignore or engage enemy units on route, the maximum rate of fire and march speed. Incorporating all these factors is important because the shortest of the twenty-seven scenarios is a day and a half while most last between four and five days. Exhausting a unit in the first phase of a battle leaves it as dead weight for most of the remainder of the fight. Timing is also important in choosing objectives. Not all objectives are immediately available for points while others must be taken and held by a specific time for maximum victory points. By the same token, players should plan their second stage before launching their initial move, timing movement of reserves to coincide with the operations of the first attacking units.

Play is launched in a pausable, continuous run mode that can be accelerated from normal to slow, or fast or until a pre-set time. Scrolling messages updates events and unit status. Players who are used to action might want to speed things along but are making a mistake in doing so. Not only is fog of war intense but this game’s AI is devastatingly good. Units will be ambushed and shelled en route. At this point, players must discipline themselves to stay away from the command panel. The impulse to micromanage and order individual companies to deviate from the original plan is strong but should be resisted for two reasons: the AI of the subordinate units have great situational awareness and the time taken for orders to reach them can cause the new orders to be counter-productive. Players must either trust their original plan or use uncommitted resources.

For all that, players are not mere spectators. Orders can be queued up using the timing function, e.g. a unit can rest after achieving an objective and then fulfill an order with a future start time. Bombardments and air strikes can be called in. Even managing a company or two in a tight spot may not result in disaster. Using a fast unit to nip an enemy supply line is also a trick players can pull.

The scenarios provided cover the entire month of combat. The AI on either side is incredibly challenging and weather and orders delay can be adjusted to taste. The game comes with a map maker, a scenario editor and what amounts to an order of battle editor. If that’s not enough replayability, online play is provided.

Many games have the various elements Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge has: detailed unit features, timed objectives, issuing orders in a queue to upper echelon entities. However, Panther Games integrates them in such a way that this game sets the standard for all World War II tactical games.

Armchair General score: 97%

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 deals 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, Ganesquad and Gaming Chronicle.

2 Comments

  1. Hi,

    My husband had this game for windows XP, but now he has another pc with windows 7. So the game dosn’t work anymore.

    Wher can I buy this game for windows 7 in Belgium?

    Greetz

  2. should still work. make sure he downloads the game then each of the patches in order – dont skip any patches and it should work.

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