Close Combat took the wargame world by storm when it was released in 1996. In addition to being one of the first wargames to pick up on the burgeoning real-time strategy craze, Close Combat was so bold as to claim to be a historically accurate simulation of war. And while Close Combat's focus on the Normandy hedgerows wasn't unprecedented, the game's style, which emphasized infantry morale, was quite out of the ordinary. It's little wonder that publisher Microsoft and developer Atomic Games reprised the title twice. Now publishing through SSI, Atomic has tried to make the magic last through yet another sequel and has succeeded once more. Close Combat: Battle of the Bulge will appeal both to Close Combat veterans and to those simply looking for a good real-time strategy game with historical overtones.
The fourth Close Combat centers on the battle in which Hitler threw his last reserves at the Allies in a desperate gamble to shatter the Western Alliance and bring about a separate peace. While the plan failed - it never really stood a chance - it did make for a miserable Christmas of 1944 for thousands of GIs stuck in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium and Luxembourg.
Close Combat is a series of squad-level World War II tactical combat games that simulate the behavior of individual men and vehicles. However, you control the games on a squad level, in that you give orders to groups rather than to their individuals. Yet the games keep meticulous track of each individual soldier's actions and capacity to fight, and it's this excellent simulation of soldiers' behavior that makes the series truly stand out. A squad that takes too many casualties will eventually go to ground and refuse to obey orders to advance and may even rout off the battlefield. Unlike a traditional real-time game, you can't just send your units off to slaughter and have them keep coming back for more.
At heart, the fourth Close Combat is very similar to more traditional real-time strategy games: You assign your units various orders such as move, fast move, sneak, lay smoke, ambush, defend, and fire by right-clicking the mouse, and you give your units a target or destination by left-clicking. It's that simple. The game keeps track of all your units for you, so you just manage their various formations on the battlefield rather than wallow in details like making sure a certain soldier is reloading his mortar. The game's vast breadth of units is another key feature, as all sorts of historical vehicles and unit types are present, from single snipers and machine-gun teams to heavy mortars, flamethrowing engineers, and Panther tanks. When the units clash in tactical combat, the effect is intense and never cartoonish. Close Combat: Battle of the Bulge models warfare and does a damn good job of it.
One of the problems with the campaigns in last year's Close Combat III was that you didn't feel like you were influencing the greater course of the war in any way by winning your battles. This was only to be expected from a historical standpoint, as the small sqauds depicted in the game could hardly hope to determine the course of Operation Barbarossa. Nevertheless, the single-player mode consequently felt like a set of strung-together scenarios rather than a more cohesive and meaningful campaign. Close Combat: Battle of the Bulge redresses its predecessor's problem by implementing a strategic map in which you can move your forces and initiate battles. German and American units can be moved around a map of the Ardennes that consists of more than 40 areas. When hostile forces coexist in an area, combat occurs. Because the strategic map is used to determine supply, positional objectives become very important. This new strategic element is well designed and has a great effect on gameplay.The strategic overview and the tense nature of the Bulge campaign make the fourth Close Combat a pulse-pounding game that forces you to do more than just fight the next battle. But the real appeal of the game is the tactical combat itself. Panthers race up forested roads to engage American armor, bazooka teams lie in wait in snowy Belgian hamlets, and even air and artillery strikes are available to the commander trying to force that crucial breakthrough, or prevent it. The fact that every battle actually has relevance to the overall strategic situation makes the game far more interesting than it would have been as a typical World War II battle simulation. Like any successful sequel, Close Combat: Battle of the Bulge doesn't merely rehash the features of its predecessor, but adds to them.
However, Battle of the Bulge doesn't escape some of the problems that cropped up in previous games in the series. The most notable of its problems is the computer opponent's artificial intelligence, which can be downright abysmal when it's playing as the Germans, especially in regard to the pathfinding of armored units. In fact, the pathfinding can be so bad that it's pretty much pointless for you to play as the Allies in any scenario that requires the Germans to attack first; the computer is simply incompetent on the attack. Fortunately, the computer is much more capable on the defensive.
Close Combat III: The Russian Front also had a tendency to become too focused on armor. Infantry units seemed unusually weak, which encouraged you to bolster your forces with tanks whenever possible. Battle of the Bulge avoids this problem by beefing up the staying power of infantry, as well as by eliminating its predecessor's unit-purchase system altogether. Instead of using experience points to buy new units, you are given replacement pools from which to choose units, and additional tanks won't be available if a given formation already has its full complement. The replacement pools make the game correspond more closely to the actual campaign, and they are a solution to the Close Combat III pitfall that eventually led to all-armor formations as the game progressed, although the preset replacements hamper the multiplayer mode, since you can't really customize your forces.
Battle of the Bulge also has a few strange order-of-battle problems, such as ubiquitous flamethrower- and rocket-halftracks, which were never so abundant in reality. Despite its general historical accuracy, the Close Combat series has always played a little loose with vehicle and ordnance details. However, the occasional historical inconsistency never really detracts from the games: Just like its predecessors, Close Combat: Battle of the Bulge is ultimately very enjoyable to play.
In fact, it's so fun that Close Combat: Battle of the Bulge will prove to be one of those games that you'll fire up again and again, and each time you'll come away having enjoyed yourself tremendously. The new strategic element gives the fourth Close Combat a whole new dimension that more than makes up for the weak artificial intelligence and reduced multiplayer options. Some historical warfare simulations are long on history and short on fun. Close Combat: Battle of the Bulge has a dash of the former and a huge dose of the latter.