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Q&A: Close Combat to get new lease on life

Matrix Games and CSO Simtek take the wraps off new-and-improved versions of the classic strategy series.


Independent publisher Matrix Games has let the cat out of the bag--it is working with developer CSO Simtek on revisiting Atomic Games' cult-classic Close Combat strategy series with a new game project that will revise and update the second, third, and fourth games in the series for rerelease.

The original games drew praise for their combination of real-time pacing, great artificial intelligence, and exciting battles. GameSpot sat down with Matrix Games director of operations David Heath and CSO Simtek director Shaun Wallace.

GameSpot: Why revisit the Close Combat series now? Some of the games in the series are a decade old at this point. The series briefly enjoyed some mainstream success, but that was long ago.

Shaun Wallace: There are many reasons to revisit the series now, which I will try to outline here. As a series, Close Combat will be familiar to many older players, but to a large extent, many younger players will be totally unaware of it as a game. This is a game that many publications hold in high regard but many people currently playing PC games will be totally unaware of. There is a large modding community out there which will give a massive boost to the rerelease of the games. With more than 4,000 mods and maps available from full-blown total game conversions to simple data or graphic mods, the series can cover almost every major conflict in recent history.

Close Combat is unlike almost any other game out there, which is why I think there are still sites dedicated to the game after such a long period of time. It's not a real-time strategy (RTS) game in any traditional sense, with no resource building or other typical things associated with RTS games. In its purest form, Close Combat is a tactical simulation. It uses psychological and morale models (designed by a NASA AI specialist) that accurately portray men under battle conditions. Simtek has worked with the US Marine Corps and the British military on combat simulations using the Close Combat engine enhancing the original Close Combat, and they are in use right now, training officers and noncommissioned officers on tactical warfare. We want to bring what we have learned, while doing this, into the Close Combat series.

There will be permanent servers online with campaigns that players can log into and play the game as part of an overall operation with their friends. This will be online and available 24/7. Simtek will be there adding new campaigns. So as either the Germans or Allies, you can play as a group and have an effect on the whole campaign. If you win or lose in your sector, this will affect the overall online campaign being fought. This was not part of the original series but will add much to the online play for Close Combat.

David Heath: Publishers and developers have been claiming for years that this or that is a "Close Combat killer," but nothing has been able to capture the heart of the Close Combat community. I have found that some games just play best the way they are designed and do not need to be in a 3D world to improve them or take them to the next level. When this is forced, the attempt really destroys the true magic of the game. Steel Panthers and Close Combat are two such games that I really feel will not be improved by throwing them into a 3D engine. We felt that by going back to the original and building on that solid base, we could give followers on tactical simulations something to enjoy.

GS: Who controls the Close Combat license today? The series was originally published by Microsoft, but eventually shifted over to the now-defunct SSI, so who owns the code and the name now?

DH: Destineer Publishing currently owns and holds the license for the games and code, with Matrix having a license to publish the titles and CSO Simtek being contracted to develop and work on the games with us.

GS: Will the games be rereleased separately, or is this planned as some kind of larger compilation of the Close Combat games? Also, could you go over which games in the series are being rereleased and what each brings to the table in terms of features and gameplay?

DH: We are considering updating the original games and selling them as one or two bundle packs. The first game out the door will be called Close Combat: Cross of Iron.

Close Combat: Cross of Iron is set on the Russian front just as the original Close Combat 3 was. Close Combat: Cross of Iron is far more accurate when it comes to all the weapons used on the Russian front compared to the original. All the game data has been changed to reflect this. You will see armor and infantry squads not seen in the original.

SW: There is an all-new user interface. But the added value doesn't stop there. We have also included "Close Combat Command Center" that allows players to install mods with the press of a button.

We are also shipping the game with the "Close Combat Battle HQ" multiplayer matching system. With it, players can actually meet online as soon as they install the game. The system is also fully skinnable. We are shipping it with three skins, but this doesn't mean that players have to just use our skins--they can make their own for themselves or their clans.

GS: We understand that the first Close Combat isn't being rereleased. What were the reasons for skipping it over? Sure, it was graphically crude in comparison to its successors, but it was a pretty popular game nonetheless, and it had its own unique charms.

SW: It was felt that given the age of the code, and the fact that the series and game engine changed dramatically after the first iteration and evolved into Close Combat II, there was little point in releasing the first in the series.

GS: The original Close Combat was groundbreaking in that it was one of the very first games to include psychological models of all the soldiers, so they acted more like real human beings than mindless automatons. Will we see any improvements to this morale modeling? Or will you use the vastly superior processing power of modern CPUs to make the artificial intelligence smarter?

SW: We have made some significant changes to an already great psychological and AI model. This will show up in both head-to-head play and against the artificial intelligence. I don't want to say too much about this at this time, as we are still deciding what will make it into the release. We would like players to discover the changes for themselves, but I will say this: Commanders are even more important to your squads now. There are also past issues that always caused problems, such as vehicle pathing, that have been reworked.

GS: Are there any extras planned for these rereleases? New units? Popular user-created modifications for these games?

SW: As well as changes to the interface and other aspects, we have already made updates to a whole range of mods that the modding community has made for Close Combat III. They are now compatible with Close Combat: Cross of Iron. These can be accessed via the Close Combat Command Centre, and they can be installed with a simple mouse click. So, you will be able to change Close Combat: Cross of Iron to the western front, Pacific front, or even the trenches of World War I, to name just a few.

DH: There will be, via the command center, a unified gaming center to play online with a new game client. This will, again, make finding online players for the game much easier. As I mentioned earlier there will also be a new permanent online series of campaigns available that were never part of [the original] Close Combat.

Along with the changes mentioned above, Close Combat: Cross of Iron will include upgraded graphics, a complete series of new campaigns, and operations with brand-new maps not seen before. The replay value of Close Combat: Cross of Iron is enormous given the new maps and such that are shipping with the game and the thousands available for download.

GS: Finally, will the new games be intended for existing Close Combat fans who want to run the games on modern systems, or will there be any attempt to lure new fans to the series?

DH: The new games are solidly intended for both old Close Combat players and new players.

SW: The very fact that so many people are simply unaware of the game and series is something that we are seeking to remedy.

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