The Close Combat series has been in development just about as long as World War II lasted. In that time, the series went from the hedgerows of Normandy to the floodlands of Holland, out to the snowy steppes of Russia, and into the snows of the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge. The fifth Close Combat game takes the series back to where it started: in Normandy during Operation Overlord - the D-Day invasion. However, Close Combat: Invasion Normandy isn't actually billed as Close Combat 5. It's very similar to its predecessors, and longtime fans of the series might just as easily mistake its contents for those of an expansion pack to the existing games. Then again, because the gameplay is mostly identical to the preceding games, all the intensity of the Close Combat system remains in Invasion Normandy - and it's this hallmark of the system that will bring players back for yet another round of real-time World War II combat.
The basic Close Combat system is notable for its attempts to portray the effects of morale on soldiers in battle. The game is played in real time, and you issue orders using a conventional mouse-driven interface, with the caveat that your units may simply refuse to do what you tell them if your orders would lead them to their destruction. Units that take excessive casualties (or become isolated or are simply inexperienced) will bolt for the rear, often leaving your lines in disarray. It's this depiction of the human element in warfare that makes the Close Combat series so interesting, and Invasion Normandy is no exception.
The first three Close Combat games offered linear campaigns, while Invasion Normandy's predecessor, Battle of the Bulge, introduced a strategic layer to the tactical combat. This changed the game from just a series of individual encounters to one where you had to manage a strategic overview and account for things like maintaining supply lines and keeping your units from getting cut off. Close Combat: Invasion Normandy doesn't change this in any fundamental way but does slightly alter the way in which you choose your forces for an upcoming battle. In the previous game, battle groups (the grouping of up to 15 individual units) were fixed. In Invasion Normandy, there is a force pool for each battle group from which you can select which units will fight in a particular battle. This allows for much more flexibility than in the previous system.
One of the most glaring flaws in Close Combat: Battle of the Bulge was the poor artificial intelligence for vehicles. Tanks were often completely incapable of carrying out simple movement orders or of finding their way from one side of an obstacle to another without excessive micromanagement. A subsequent patch corrected some of the most egregious behaviors, but the tank pathfinding remained problematic. Unfortunately, it seems that Close Combat: Invasion Normandy hasn't improved the pathfinding any further, as tanks in the game will still become hopelessly confused by simple move orders. A tank will often just move back and forth over short distances while turning from side to side, unsure which flank to present to a potential enemy. At worst, this can paralyze your vehicles and prevent you from extricating them from dangerous situations, or it can delay crucial reinforcements while the tanks dillydally in another part of the battle.
However, these problems had a bigger impact on gameplay in the previous game. Despite the many similarities and mostly cosmetic differences between Close Combat: Invasion Normandy and Close Combat: Battle of the Bulge, the gameplay is actually somewhat different. Battle of the Bulge involved a lot of armor and vehicles; yet while it wasn't as focused on armored vehicles as its predecessor, Close Combat III: The Russian Front, the combination of vehicles and restricted terrain accentuated the poor pathfinding and made the whole game seem rather disjointed. Therefore, the fact that there are fewer vehicles in Close Combat: Invasion Normandy inherently shifts the focus to the infantry, which happens to be the Close Combat system's strong point.
While this might sound a lot like the original Close Combat - especially since the location is basically the same - the gameplay has been greatly improved since then and seems much more dynamic than it used to. Much of this is due to the vehicles and varied terrain, but it's also because the strategic component allows for choices that simply didn't exist in the previous linear campaigns. However, the flexibility of the campaigns is undermined by the fact that the strategic element is still rather primitive and doesn't allow for basic things like entering a map with forces coming from multiple directions or even having multiple battle groups per map. These types of additions to the strategic layer would have gone a long way toward improving the game.
Multiplayer Close Combat gives you the chance to fight a human commander instead of the computer, and it's here that the Close Combat series really comes into its own. The game plays smoothly and is quite stable even when both players are on 56K connections. In fact, the multiplayer mode is probably the best part of Close Combat: Invasion Normandy, and it helps make up for the fact that the computer opponent in the single-player mode tends to be passive and not particularly smart. Single-player scenarios often have the computer opponent needlessly exposing his troops or simply charging across open space in the face of murderous fire. The computer is much better on defense, but the troops still tend to be predictable and make little attempt to stay out of the line of fire or to flank you.
There are a few new twists to the game: Because it portrays an invasion, Invasion Normandy includes artillery support from naval vessels. There are also paratroops in the game that start behind enemy lines and have to link up with friendly troops before they run out of supplies. You'll also have the opportunity to make beach landings as in Saving Private Ryan. But these are minor additions and are no more than what you'd otherwise expect to find in a low-priced expansion pack.
Close Combat: Invasion Normandy isn't likely to surprise anyone. All the old elements remain, the graphics are basically unchanged, and while the venue may have moved, it still seems very familiar. Nevertheless, because Invasion Normandy incorporates the combined improvements of the previous games and shifts the emphasis back to the infantry - where it belongs - the latest in the Close Combat line seems like more than just a rehashed version of Close Combat: Battle of the Bulge. Granted, it doesn't seem like much more than that, so those players who expect a serious improvement in the new Close Combat game will be disappointed. But for those who haven't yet played a Close Combat game, or for veterans looking for new maps and scenarios for this outstanding series, then Close Combat: Invasion Normandy provides plenty of new challenges.