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Combat Mission: Fortress Italy
Reviewed by Boggit 1 November, 2012
Developed and Published by Battlefront.com
How does the latest Combat Mission game stack up? Charge on, intrepid readers!
Fortress Italy is the latest incarnation of the Combat Mission 2 Series developed and published by Battlefront.com. For those unfamiliar with the series, it is a 3-D real-time tactical squad-level wargame set in Sicily 1943 during World War II. For those familiar with Combat Mission Shock Force and Combat Mission Battle for Normandy, the gameplay is essentially similar, albeit that new features have been added to the game engine and front end and that the battlefield terrain now reflects an Italian setting as opposed to the Near East or France/North West Europe.
The game plays in either of two modes, pausable real-time, and WEGO, where a player plots his/her moves and then watches the moves play out in real-time, rather like watching a film. It’s actually a very nice option to have in the game since it holds appeal to those who like to plot and consider their moves and to those who like the excitement of immediate action and reaction from the moment time is running. It’s quite fun to play one battle in one mode and another in the other mode since although it is the same game, you do get a very different feel to the gameplay.
I had already cut my teeth on Combat Mission Shock Force and Combat Mission Battle for Normandy, so I felt right at home with Fortress Italy. If you’re not familiar with the gameplay then you’ll need to invest some time and effort to get to know the intricacies of the game system. It isn’t that the order system is not intuitive, but the game is quite unforgiving when the pixel bullets start flying and knowing the likely effect of your orders and how things take effect is at first as important as whatever tactical plan you have to achieve victory… (not that mine ever survive contact…).
Fortress Italy sports some new features and a revised interface so I felt I was playing a much more polished game compared to other Combat Mission 2 games. It was nice to see the option to be able to set an armour arc to limit fire for armoured vehicles and the ability to click and drag waypoints, which are ideas ported from the Combat Mission 1 series. I know that the Combat Mission 2 engine was developed from the ground up, but given that the interface and gameplay operates so familiarly it does seem a little strange that such features were omitted up till now in the Combat mission 2 series. Similarly, it would have been nice to see from the outset of the Combat Mission 2 series other action features that were available to a player in the original Combat Mission series, such as orders to “seek hull-down” and “shoot and scoot” in respect to armour and “withdraw” in respect to infantry. Flamethrowers and Fire effects are also missing from the game system. That said, with the exception of the use of the Churchill Crocodile and the Canadian Wasp, flamethrowers were more prevalent on the Eastern Front and the Pacific so it’s perhaps unfair criticism for a Western front game. Nonetheless, Combat Mission 2 draws inspiration in large part from Combat Mission 1 and that feature was present in the earlier game and so draws comparison. Perhaps, as has happened with some of the “new” features for Fortress Italy that will come in time as the series is evolving.
It is wrong to think that Battlefront are just introducing old ideas in Fortress Italy. There are innovations too like the new action to “briefly target“, which allows a player to quickly put down a bit of fire for a few seconds before your units move or take other actions. This is a useful tool, particularly in the WEGO use of the game especially when your units are running low on ammo, or to combine with movement. I’d also have liked to see the ability for gun crews to abandon and subsequently re-crew heavy weapons, as is possible with vehicle crews, so enabling them to duck for cover during a bombardment before returning, but maybe this will be a future innovation as the series evolves. Elsewhere the user interface has been streamlined and tidied up. File options now include the ability to delete an obsolete game file, although no autosave is yet implemented. The scenario editor has also been enhanced to simplify map making and to improve the range of Artificial Intelligence plans available to scenario designers. The tweaks and changes are an undoubted improvement to the game engine.
Graphically, the game is not at the latest cutting edge, but I found it good and detailed enough to enjoy an immersive game experience. It’s not Men of War or Company of Heroes in the graphical sense, but it doesn’t need to be. The game engine is becoming more polished and mature with each iteration and gives, in my opinion, a better reflection of reality particularly with its spotting and morale rules than such other “comparables”.
One thing that sort of surprised me is that “Fortress Italy” is essentially the “Battle for Sicily” played out between the American, Italian, and German protaganists. The British Eighth Army and the Canadians (as well as the French North African troops – the Goumiers (despite their collaboration with the Americans at Troina)) are left out. This gives a lot less historical meat to hang on the game by way of scenarios and campaigns.
From a historical perspective there is no doubt that on D+1 the Americans were under a lot of pressure during the Gela Counterattack, particularly at the Niscemi Highway and Biazza Ridge, which are both represented in the game. However, the subsequent intensity of actual combat operations for much of the campaign was low in comparison compared to that experienced by the British and Canadians (See by comparison: Primosole Bridge, Crossing the Simeto and the Dittaino, the Battle for the Gerbini Airfields, the Battle of Adrano etc ). Patton’s drive for Palermo was largely a pursuit which received relatively little opposition until the latter stages of the battle. An opportunity to portray the fierce action between Darby’s Rangers and 10th Bersaglieri at Agrigento was one scenario I thought might have shown up, rather than the fictional ones for this part of the conflict, but it was overlooked. There was hard fighting towards the end of the campaign near Troina (which, ironically was indecisive and turned ultimately into a delaying action as the Germans withdrew at night after a few days) and this is represented in the Troina campaign. However, I feel opportunities were missed to capitalise on where the Americans were heavily engaged. The efforts of 3rd Infantry at San Fratello and Santa Agata, together with the TF Bernard end runs were overlooked as scenario/campaign opportunities. Similarly, the experience of the 45th Infantry Division after the Palermo dash where they advanced along Route 113 in the face of 29th PzG Division could have provided a suitable backdrop for historically based scenarios and a campaign, but again was not included.
I wonder why Battlefront.com chose to firstly focus on the American involvement In Sicily? The 8th Army and Canadians were tasked with leading the offensive and the Americans were allocated with the subsidiary role of guarding the left flank. I feel that Battlefront.com, by emphasising the American experience, put themselves under pressure to flesh out a historical wargame with a much smaller bank of historically based scenarios. I’m not saying that the fictional scenarios aren’t fun, they are, but from the US perspective there was good historical scenario material that could have been used. That criticism aside, Battlefront’s scenario list has put together some interesting fictional and a few historical tactical challenges (mainly confined to the first few days and the latter days of the campaign), which in turn are complemented by the quick battle generator. I found that the Italian forces give very much more of a fight than they did historically, but it does make for a more fun game.
I cannot help feeling that this game would have had a lot more going for it if the British and Canadians had been represented as well as the Americans. However, I may be a little harsh on the developer to expect this from the outset. Battlefront.com is an Indie developer with limited resources and they take the view that including the Commonwealth forces would have added 50% to the cost and taken a further six months to deliver. It’s a practical consideration. A price reflecting a greater development cost will be an unattractive prospect for many gamers and the delay would have commercial implications for Battlefront. Hopefully, the absence of the Commonwealth forces will be addressed in a future expansion. For those who have played Battlefront’s other World War II offering, Combat Mission Battle for Normandy, Fortress Italy, despite the similar engine, has its own unique feel which is quite refreshing.
The real litmus test of any review is whether you recommend it or not. I do. I have some misgivings over the limited choice of forces and historical scenarios, particularly the missed opportunities I’ve mentioned. Nonetheless, the fictional scenarios are generally fun and are a challenge in their own right. For a new player prepared to get to grips with the learning curve of the game, Fortress Italy is a rewarding experience because on balance Combat Mission is a challenging and visually entertaining game. It’s not a difficult game to play, but it takes some effort to play it well. For experienced Combat Mission players, Fortress Italy provides a very different flavour to Combat Mission Normandy. Grognards may be a little disappointed at the limited selection of forces and historical scenarios. However, if Battlefront.com develops Fortress Italy as they did with Battle for Normandy this will be addressed with a future add on. On the plus side, the interface has been streamlined, the scenarios provide some interesting challenges and of course the quick battle generator provides for a wide variety of tactical experiences.
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