It's time to go back to Normandy again in Squad Assault: West Front, a real-time tactical wargame that bears more than a striking resemblance to the classic D-day-based wargame Close Combat. That's not too surprising since Squad Assault designer Eric Young worked on the Close Combat games. That also explains why, aside from the graphics engine, virtually nothing has changed. In fact, considering that Squad Assault covers the same ground that the first and fifth Close Combat games did, it might almost qualify as a remake of those games. While Squad Assault captures the intense and realistic feel of being a company-level commander in the heat of battle, it may also feel like familiar territory.
You command Allied or Axis forces in a series of tactical engagements that represent the Normandy campaign, from the landing on the beaches on D-day to the eventual breakout by the Allies. There's a wide selection of battles available, from the brutal beach landings to close-quarters combat in the bocage, the thick-hedgerow country that made the campaign a nightmare for the Allies. The campaigns are dynamic: You start with a core group of units that you carry with you through the campaign, and if they're lost in combat, you can requisition new troops using a point-allocation system. In keeping with most wargames, there's an impressive amount of historical detail; squads are properly outfitted with the appropriate weapons, and vehicles are represented by the many different variants.
The game mechanics and interface are pretty much lifted straight from Close Combat, including the simple and elegant point-and-click command system. All you have to do is select a squad or vehicle, pick an order from the menu, and then click on the map. You can pause whenever the action becomes overwhelming to issue orders. Your troops are usually smart enough to comprehend your commands; give them an order to assault a building, and they'll throw smoke grenades to cover their attack and then charge.
Squad Assault also incorporates the morale model that Close Combat was so famous for; soldiers each have a detailed psychological model so that they behave like real human beings rather than mindless automatons. If a soldier sees all his buddies cut down around him, odds are he'll panic. Apply enough pressure, and he may snap and go berserk, launching himself at the enemy in a suicide-like charge. Give a soldier an order that will most likely result in certain death (for instance, an order to charge a German machine gun nest head-on), and he may very well ignore you and cower behind cover. It's a great system because it forces you to recognize the limits of your men and to work around them, like a real commander. Unfortunately, sometimes it feels like your elite troops can break a bit too easily in Squad Assault, and you'll often see them trying to flee off the map in droves. Thankfully, there is an option to make your men follow your every command so they don't bolt.
The key to success, like always, is to employ proper tactics. Squads should always travel in pairs, with one covering while the other bounds ahead. Suppression fire, mortars, air strikes, and naval gunfire should be used to disrupt enemy attacks and pound defensive positions. Armor should be used in support with plenty of infantry protecting their vulnerable flanks. If you're an avid wargamer, these concepts are second nature to you, but if you're new to the genre, they're painful lessons to learn, and if you don't learn them, the game will most likely be a frustrating experience. Squad Assault does introduce a new 3D graphics engine to the Close Combat formula, and there are a number of advantages to going to 3D. One of the longtime problems with Close Combat was that it was very difficult to read the terrain. You'd maneuver units only to discover they didn't have a line of sight on an objective. The 3D engine changes that, as now you can maneuver the camera anywhere. You can zoom down to get a grunt's-eye view of the action and see the terrain, or you can switch to the traditional top-down view, which is easier for issuing commands. The 3D engine also means that buildings can be destroyed and trees can burn, which gives you a much stronger sense of the battlefield.
However, Squad Assault's 3D engine is also the game's biggest weakness. It's a very lackluster graphics engine. Ground textures are very low-res and blurry; units are a bit blocky and unit animations are jerky; and trees and buildings are very basic. There's also no attempt to hide the map's edge, so it's as if the battlefield exists in a vast, blurry plane. Obviously wargames don't have the budgets they used to (Microsoft was the publisher of the first three Close Combat games), so production values across the genre have declined as a result. But there's still a lot of room for improvement in Squad Assault's graphics. Though they won't be a detriment for wargamers who are used to not having fancy 3D graphics, they will certainly be a turnoff for casual gamers and newcomers to the genre. The poor aesthetics also affect gameplay. Due to the sparse amount of detail, many maps are just wide-open kill zones with little cover on them. Because of this, units have considerable line of sight in most directions, allowing them to mow down opponents from hundreds of yards away. Even the bocage offers little cover and concealment at times. Also, buildings are only modeled with ground floors, so there's little point in occupying a three-story building for line-of-sight advantages, because the upper two floors don't exist. The sound effects vary in quality. Weapons and vehicles sound authentic (the MG-42 does indeed sound like cloth ripping), and soldiers cry out when they're hit or panicking, but the voices sound like they were recorded by a couple of guys in a garage.
The AI is generally pretty solid on the defense, but it can seem a bit hesitant on the offense; sometimes it won't press the advantage and deliver the killing blow. There is support for two players in multiplay, and that can be a very rewarding experience, since there's no computer AI that can match the cunning and guile of a human opponent. Your soldiers perform pretty well, but they're also plagued with an inability to conserve ammunition. It's frustrating to watch an entire squad waste all its ammo on extremely low-percentage shots. Soldiers in the Close Combat games were smart enough to know when they were running low on ammunition and to reduce their rate of fire, but there's no sign of this kind of behavior at all in Squad Assault. And while Squad Assault borrows many of Close Combat's interface conventions, it also omits a few of the really useful ones. For instance, you can't click on a message to center on the unit it concerns. You'll be told a soldier is running out of ammo, but unless you happen to remember which squad he belongs to and where that squad is currently on the map, it's pretty much useless information.
Squad Assault is an engaging, realistic tactical wargame, but it also doesn't stray far from the Close Combat formula. While there's nothing wrong with that, there is a definite sense that we've played this game before. It would be nice to see some innovation in the gameplay. Though the 3D engine does represent an advance, it's hampered by the poor presentation. There is certainly potential, though. Developer Freedom Games plans to turn Squad Assault into a series of games, like Close Combat. Hopefully, they can build on the groundwork they've laid down in Squad Assault.