Combat Mission: Shock Force Q&A - Simulating Modern War

Designer Steve Grammont talks about why Battlefront decided to make a wargame that pits the United States against Syria.

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The Combat Mission games have proved to be some of the best and most exciting wargames in years, thanks to great gameplay. Instead of simply re-creating a board game experience like so many other wargames do, the Combat Mission games use 3D graphics to create virtual battlefields. Basically, you issue commands to all your units while the game is paused, and then the action unfolds in 60-second increments, letting you see the results of your decisions in real time. You then repeat the process until one side has won.

Shock Force will give you command of one of the US Army's new Stryker Brigades as you invade Syria.
Shock Force will give you command of one of the US Army's new Stryker Brigades as you invade Syria.

Combat Mission: Shock Force, due out later this year, is a huge update for the series. Not only will it feature vastly improved graphics, but the game is set in a fictional near-future conflict with Syria. That's quite a change from all the previous Combat Mission games, which were set during World War II. This means that you'll command modern-day military forces in action. To learn more, we caught up with Steve Grammont, the designer of Combat Mission and one of the cofounders of Battlefront, which is publishing the game.

GameSpot: Tell us about the setting and time frame of the game. Why did you choose to focus on a NATO conflict on Syrian soil?

Steve Grammont: We wanted to create a somewhat plausible conflict between the US and a largely conventional military force based in the Middle East. We had three choices: Syria, Iran, or a completely fictional country. We rejected the latter as being uninteresting, so that left both Syria and Iran as logical choices. From a practical standpoint, Iran is untouchable on the ground. Its population, terrain, geographical size, and military strength would require the biggest military buildup in US history since 1942. This is not going to happen. The US would choke Iran off economically and/or bomb Iran into the Stone Age before it even thought of doing such a military action. Therefore, a conventional war with Iran is as likely to happen as a conventional war with Russia or China. That leaves only Syria for consideration.

Syria's military strength is not great, but it is significant. In a conflict there would probably be close to 400,000 armed men opposing an invasion. They are armed with a variety of weapons of various qualities, from very good all the way down to nearly useless. Since the US and its allies can only afford to send a fairly small conventional force into another war, the fight would be quite intense at times.

From a political standpoint, Syria is also deeply involved in the problems in Iraq. Both Iran and Syria are using Iraq as a "proxy battleground" against each other. In fact, the worst damage to US forces in Iraq is coming from Syrian-armed groups. Syria also has a long history of supporting terrorism and without it Hezbollah in Lebanon wouldn't be nearly as powerful. It is this history of supporting terrorism that we are using as the background for Shock Force's story.

In a nutshell, the war is triggered when a number of "dirty" nuclear bombs explode in several major Western cities in 2008. The terrorists are clearly traced to Syria. A US-led invasion force is put together and the player is part of that task force, which is built around the US Army's new concept of a highly mobile Stryker Brigade.

What is remarkable about the story is that it has evolved over time, not only as real-world events in Iraq developed (we began plans for the game in 2003), but also because we've deliberately entered a public dialogue with our fans on the Battlefront discussion forum about what the most likely scenario for a future conventional war could be. This story has been collectively agreed upon by us and our fans, which include casual gamers as well as former and current military personnel.

GS: How will the campaign be laid out? Will it be dynamic and branch out in different directions? How will the NATO campaign differ from the Syrian?

You'll have a mix of infantry and vehicles at your disposal.
You'll have a mix of infantry and vehicles at your disposal.

SG: The campaign will only be playable from the US side. Due to the asymmetrical forces and objectives it really would not be possible to make the same campaign enjoyable from both sides. Playable, yes, but not enjoyable. Players who want to play as Syria will have to revert to the standalone battles and will also be able to create battles with the full-featured map and scenario editor.

The campaign system itself is what we call semidynamic. All battles are premade but the order in which they come up depend on how you do. You also carry the same pool of troops from one battle to the next, though not all at once for each battle. Therefore, losses from previous battles can translate into problems in future battles.

GS: Tell us about the military forces that will be represented in the game. What kind of conventional weaponry and armor will we see? What kind of unconventional forces, such as espionage and modern-day explosives, will we see?

SG: First off, let me reemphasize that Shock Force simulates mainly the conventional phase of a conflict, such as was seen in the first few weeks of war in Iraq. The defender has organized military formations, armor, artillery, and a broader range of combined arms. The defender, be it Syria or another country in the Middle East, will also surely have unconventional forces in the initial battles as well. We do simulate these unconventional forces, but they are not the emphasis of the game system.

The US forces in the game are centered on the concept of the Stryker Brigade, a highly mobile light armor unit that was just emerging when we started planning for Shock Force a few years ago and is now being implemented currently in Iraq and elsewhere. It centers on the Stryker vehicle, a light armored high-tech combat vehicle in a number of configurations--from an infantry carrier, a mobile gun system, a command vehicle, or an antitank platform.

One central element of this concept, which is not immediately visible, is the high-tech communications system built into these vehicles, creating a much quicker and highly efficient flow of information up and down the chain of command (in theory at least). The Stryker concept was quite controversial when introduced, and still is today to some extent, and we found it intriguing to provide a virtual testing field for its employment in the game. For the player, this opens some unique and interesting challenges not found in other games. Of course the Stryker is supported by various other conventional weapons systems, such as the M1 Abrams tank, which will be in the game available in various modifications and subtypes. There are also Humvees, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, heavy trucks, and various air and artillery support units, such as the famous A-10 tank killer.

For the Syrian player, you will usually find various types of Russian-made equipment, such as tanks ranging from the T-54 all the way to the more modern models of the T-72. You will see combat vehicles such as the BMP-1 and BMP-2 armored personnel carriers or the BTR and BRDM APCs in various types and modifications. Not all the equipment the Syrians have at their disposal is outdated, and some of their modern antitank weapons, such as the AT-14 Kornet, are extremely lethal. The campaign will be by no means a pushover for the US player.

The new Stryker vehicle is a versatile weapons platform.
The new Stryker vehicle is a versatile weapons platform.

Like I said initially, unconventional forces (Uncons) will be simulated to some extent as well. Since they are not the focus of the game, though, much of it is going to be abstracted. The abstraction is also a means to make sure that Uncons are not abused by players to do things they wouldn't do in real life, or on the other hand, prevented to do things that they can. Uncons derive their "power" from blending it with the crowd until they strike, and this posed some challenges to simulate realistically in the game.

We're going to simulate IED (improvised explosive devices) and VIED (vehicle-based IEDs), spies, disguised fighters, and so forth using a simple concept: The side controlling Uncons will be able to move them around the map and they will remain invisible to the other side until spotted. The chance of spotting depends on the actions of the Uncon unit and certain other parameters. For example, it's easier to move around a town full of civilians without arousing suspicion than in the desert near a US base. Once spotted, any Uncons units are treated like all other combatants.

Going Ballistic

GS: Tell us about some of the technical enhancements that are being made to Shock Force. What will the enhanced terrain, lighting, and environmental details add to the game?

Infantry are important, particularly in urban fighting.
Infantry are important, particularly in urban fighting.

SG: There is no aspect of the game that has not been significantly improved on. That's the benefit of rewriting the entire game from the ground up. (The downside is the three-year development time!) Each human figure in the game now represents a single soldier with his own unique behavior weapons, ammo, and so on. Vehicle detail is greatly increased, including detailed damage modeling. As for the vehicle models, they often have as many as 30 times the amount of polygons as an original Combat Mission vehicle and come complete with fully simulated suspension, hatches, individual weapons stations, and more. The terrain is now simulated in 8m-by-8m sections instead of 20m-by-20m sections of the original game, and within each of these smaller sections the terrain mesh is 1m by 1m. This means far more varied and realistic-looking maps.

Buildings play a huge role in the game and therefore they are simulated in great detail. There are enough types, shapes, sizes, and heights (up to eight stories) to simulate a dense modern urban city or a sparse rural village. We even have fighting from balconies and rooftops. The list of other things we have improved upon is far too long to list, but some of the major ones are relative spotting, dynamic lighting, highly detailed command and control, totally new artillery and air support system, customizable orders of battle, and an overall major increase in realism everywhere we could think of.

In general, it is our philosophy as a developer to not merely add visual enhancements, which do not also have some effect on gameplay; in other words, we do not simply focus on eye candy alone. We believe that it is what sets a game like Combat Mission apart from others and is mainly responsible for its long-term success and replayability; but it is also a simple necessity. We're a comparatively small development studio and need to manage our development time even more efficiently to have the hope of finishing such a game within a reasonable time. Therefore, all enhancements have to be carefully balanced since everything we do usually comes at the expense of something else we could be doing.

GS: How realistic will the game otherwise be in terms of modeling scale for vehicles and air units, damage modeling, targeting, and so on? Where does the balance between realism and enjoyable gameplay lie?

SG: Shock Force is going to be extremely realistic. We're using real-world data exclusively, tracking each shell, its type, ballistic flight path, armor penetration capabilities, weather effects, targeting effects using various sighting systems, tracking systems damage on each unit individually, and so forth. For small arms, each bullet is tracked, including physics effects such as ricochets off of walls and penetration capabilities. We have a simple but sound physics engine in place to simulate partial and full destruction of buildings and pretty much all other terrain features. Shell impacts leave craters, walls can be blow out, and so forth. I could go on and on. In summary, Combat Mission has set the standard for realistic wargames, and Shock Force is going to live up to this and perhaps raise the bar even higher.

The balance between this realism and playability is very important, and something we've always paid a lot of attention to, as much as we prefer realistic complex simulations over what I would call rock-paper-scissors games. This description applies to most mass-market releases. We also want to create games which are fun and do not require you having gone to West Point to enjoy. Our plan for ensuring a balance between realism is twofold.

First of all, most of what I just described is happening under the hood. The player is not confronted with this myriad of details during gameplay unless he chooses to. Realism is not something that needs to be in your face all the time, and yet it will leave people with a strangely satisfying feeling of "this feels right." Those with military experience might know why, others might never be able to place their finger on it. This kind of under-the-hood realism is unfortunately missing from most mass-market releases, and yet it can be felt immediately, because the real world is so much deeper than anything that can be made up.

Secondly, the player is able to choose from three difficulty levels: basic, veteran, and elite. Behind these three labels are some fundamentally different playing concepts. Basic plays pretty much like a regular real-time strategy game. Veteran introduces some profound differences such as relative spotting and command-and-control delays. And elite gives the player a much more realistic military experience with regard to communications and fog of war.

GS: What enhancements will Shock Force make to Combat Mission's multiplayer play? Any plans for new game modes or expanded game sizes?

SG: Shock Force will come with several modes for human-versus-human play, which include hot seat, Internet play, LAN, and play-by-e-mail. This is made possible due to the fact that you can play Shock Force both in real time as well as in turn-based mode. (In turn-based, action unfolds in 60-second increments, and then pauses so players can issue orders to their troops.) Multiplayer is limited to two players at release. Multiplayer with more than two players, which will also allow cooperative modes with players on the same side, is firmly on the "to do" list. We want to get a solid foundation for the game before piling more on top.

It may feel ripped from the headlines, but keep in mind that the events in Shock Force are fictional.
It may feel ripped from the headlines, but keep in mind that the events in Shock Force are fictional.

GS: Finally, is there anything else you'd like to add about Shock Force?

SG: Just like the previous Combat Mission series got rid of certain misconceptions about World War II combat, Shock Force is going to cause people to reevaluate what they think about modern combat, or of the seemingly overpowering might of US forces. It's going to cause people to throw overboard their expectations of a fire-and-forget war. It will reveal the benefits and also the downsides of a high-technology army. It is going to show that some weapons have increased exponentially in their lethality in the past 50 years, but that some of the basic problems and challenges faced by the company commander in the field remain much the same and are just as challenging and intriguing.

Lastly, we have a few words about the political dimension of all this. We at Battlefront are military historians by hobby and training. We make wargames for their tactical and strategic challenges, to explore what-ifs, relive and reenact military history for entertainment and, in some cases, for education. We focus on the military aspects only and largely leave the political dimension out, except where it is needed to provide a credible background. Shock Force is not a political statement about past or current wars or any future conflicts. It is primarily an entertainment product for those of us who like military games, created with the utmost respect for those who unfortunately have to endure in reality what we armchair generals do from the safety of our desks. None of us would mind if we never again saw another war in the future to use as a model for our games. Unfortunately, this will probably remain wishful thinking.

GS: Thank you, Steve.

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