Combat Mission Fortress Italy – PC Game Review
Combat Mission: Fortress Italy. PC game. Publisher/Developer: Battlefront.com. $55.00
Passed Inspection: Great historical detail, fine graphics, excellent AI, good interface, much replay value
Failed Basic: Steep learning curve, disconnect between cursor and destination spot, no battles in Italy proper.
The gaming industry distinguishes between wargames and simulations. One possible reason for this differentiation is that simulations require more focus by players than wargames. Players must be more aware of many factors at one time when flying a plane or handling a tank than moving individual units on a map. However, some wargames demand the same level of concentration. Battlefront’s Combat Mission series is a case in point, as exemplified by the latest entry, Fortress Italy.
Sicily is a beautiful land with olive groves, vineyards, and grain fields between small villages of whitewashed buildings with red shingle roofs. The game does justice to this pastoral scenery. However, such beauty can hide snipers, machine gun nests and mortar positions. The open areas and roads are good avenues for armored vehicles but make them vulnerable to anti-tank ambushes by infantry, AT guns and unseen tanks. Terrain like this makes any artificial fog of war functions unnecessary. Fortress Italy aids players with terrain by toggling off trees and buildings, revealing rare high ground and more numerous folds in the landscape that can hide a gun section. Such abilities underline a constant tactical theme, reconnaissance. Zooming and rotating camera view of the camera via mouse or hotkeys makes viewing easy.
The same attention is extended to the depiction of units. Soldier figures are accurate down to canteens and rifle swivels. Crew-served weapons have adjustment knobs, and vehicles are detailed down to rivets. Illustrations of all weapons, along with great information, can be found in the 96-page manual. Data for each unit is shown on screen in a bar with information on experience, fatigue, weapons per soldier, ammunition levels and present unit condition. An icon floats above each unit with a symbol identifying unit type. This icon lights up and units are highlighted with a circle when the unit is selected. Selecting a headquarters turns on the icon for each of its subordinate unit. Figure animation is realistic and structure damage remains, even fences crushed by tanks.
Other special effects aid play. Smoke is persistent, while tracer rounds pinpoint enemy positions or indicate friendly fire. Artillery creates shell holes. Sound is especially helpful, getting louder as the cursor gets closer to the origin. Gunshots are not random, so a rifle crack means somebody really is shooting. Vehicle noise is different with each type and is somehow gratifying. Even soldier chatter, usually just an annoyance, gives players clues to action. Short on-screen messages tell of damage inflicted and suffered.
A Click Away from Doom
Infantry sections, platoon headquarters, crew-served weapons, and vehicles are selected by clicking on their figures or floating icons. Groups can be created by the usual “lasso” system and can be designated with CTRL+#. Selection brings up one of four command panels: movement, combat, special and administration commands. All commands differ for infantry and vehicles. The seven movement commands revolve primarily around speed but some deal with behavior such as “hunt” and “assault.” Paths are traced with the mouse, with different colors for the various kinds of movement. A series of waypoints can be set, and right-clicking on destinations allows stacks to have different commands to be performed on arrival.
Players should be aware that the cursor is a few centimeters away from where the destination dot will be and pay more attention to the highlighted ground.
Soldiers will always return fire when fired upon but may not finish some movement if exhausted or rattled. Vehicle movements are similar but with reverse drive. Combat orders allow targets to be fired upon directly or by area fire. Fire can be restricted through firing arcs. Black-colored lines of fire indicate obstructed shots. Special orders include popping smoke, setting up crew- served weapons, throwing explosives, and using anti-tank weapons such as bazookas, AT grenades and satchel charges. Administration allows sections to be split and merged. Artillery and air strikes have their own panel. A headquarters in voice or radio contact of a readied artillery unit can pinpoint a target, determine length and intensity of bombardment and the shape of the targeted area.
Oddly, this plethora of commands actually helps players instead of confusing them, by forcing them to focus on the details of tactics. The seventeen ready-made battles, playable from both sides, emphasize reconnaissance and command control rather than “blazing guns” rushes. The enemy begins hidden, which requires a player to use slow initial movement by infantry to enhance spotting and reduce fatigue. Meanwhile, support weapons like machine guns and mortars should seek positions with clear fields of fire close to headquarters that can give them target coordinates.
Action begins with enemy fire, usually harmless. Units go flat and move even slower while keeping in voice range. Overwatch fire should come from units with at least a vague idea where the enemy is, with crew-served weapons keeping enemy heads down and perhaps laying smoke. Other units calmly use cover to finish the job with direct fire or assault.
These missions and the linked missions in the five campaigns put pressure on players by imposing time limits from thirty minutes to an hour to accomplish objectives, either taking or holding positions while limiting losses. Realistic limitations also make matters harder. Green units are easily rattled and pinned; the ubiquitous mortars have very limited ammunition, “borg” spotting—allowing all units to see all spotted enemies—is gone, so a unit that sees a bad guy but is out of voice or radio range of friendlies is on its own. The AI is not only clever but will approach a mission differently each game, so an approach that worked once probably won’t work next time. Winning on the lowest difficulty level is a challenge; the other two levels are horrendous.
Players can alleviate some of this pressure by choosing between “Wego” and real-time modes wisely. “Wego” slices missions into one-minute periods with orders given between turns and then playing them out. This mode allows easy control over many units but does not allow for quick reaction to mistakes. Real-time allows quicker reactions but controlling the large numbers of units in some scenarios can feel like a click fest, leading to a loss of focus. Players should try scenarios using both modes, a concept which increases replay value. Replay value is also increased by the nineteen-value quick battle generator and detailed scenario editor. Network play is icing on the cake.
Combat Mission Fortress Italy’s concentration on early American action in Sicily leads one to believe that add-ons for British troops and battles that actually took place in Italy are coming. Given the excellence of the base game, gamers should save their holiday money for these treats.
Armchair General Rating: 89%
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 and Gamesquad.