At first glance, Close Combat IIII seems a lot like Close Combat II, which in itself is not a terrible thing. The game runs comfortably on older hardware, and thankfully Atomic hasn't jumped on the "every game needs to be 3D" bandwagon that has become so pervasive in the industry. Graphically it looks just like Close Combat II with photo-realistic terrain and smoothly animated units. The sound effects seem a tad bit weaker than in previous games. They still sound great, but Close Combat III doesn't have quite the symphony of death as the previous installment. It could be because the fighting is more spread out, thanks to the larger maps. The size of the maps, which are three times the size of Close Combat II's battlefields, is the first real gameplay difference you'll notice. They give you more room for maneuvering but at the expense of a lot of hurrying up and waiting. The first general difference you'll notice is the enormous scale of the game. Instead of focusing on one operation, Close Combat III focuses on the entire Eastern Front from 1941 to 1945. This opens up a huge array of weapon platforms and troops for dealing death, and hey, variety is always a good thing in a game.
The interface hasn't changed drastically but has been improved. No longer is a quarter of the screen taken up by the status bar. Instead, a single bar informs you of everything you need to know, though it only concentrates on one unit at a time. There is also an option to expand the bar to include all your forces. Right clicking on a unit brings up the command list, which now includes the "ambush" command. Ambush sets your troops to hide and come out only if the enemy is extremely close. This command and the "defend" command are direction sensitive - a feature that is new to the series. Changing directional facing is handled well. Click on a unit with the ambush or defend command, and a circle appears around it, with an arc highlighting its facing. Drag the arc to where you want the unit to face and click again. This is also helpful in positioning idle tanks so they don't expose their weak sides to the enemy.
Several new gameplay elements have been added. No longer do you have to worry about your troops choosing the most open terrain when you order them to move. Your units can be assigned to move via a series of waypoints, allowing you to pick the most advantageous route. Several new features are borrowed from resource-gathering real-time strategy games such as group numbering, drag selecting, and status bars above the unit. At first they might seem like a gimmick or some sort of attempt to make the Close Combat series appeal to a wider audience. Thankfully the inclusion of these features doesn't mean it has been dumbed down for the mass market. In fact, you'll come to realize that they add immensely to the experience. Group numbering is great for your mortar teams. Number them, and in the heat of battle, instead of trying to locate them on the map, losing precious seconds, hit their number, and you're instantaneously ready to rain death. Drag selecting allows you to easily advance whole sections of your force at once or to lay down a withering barrage of fire. Finally, the status bars help in two ways. Because they can be changed to represent anything from a unit's health to its ammo status, they allow easy situational awareness of your forces. Second, on some battlefields such as the snow-covered maps, the status bars make it easy to spot where your units are located.
Close Combat III allows you to duke it out against live opponents or the excellent AI in single scenarios, operations (a series of linked scenarios), custom-made scenarios, or campaigns. The game really earns its stripes in the campaign mode. Here you start with a small number of units that garner experience as the war drags on. The more battles you win, the higher in rank you go and the more troops you can command. Something new to the series is the inclusion of varying qualities of troops. Now you can choose from conscripts, standard, or elite forces. This really changes the way you plan battles, especially if you're leading a horde of conscripts. In between battles you can rest your forces, refit them with different equipment, or retire them out of the campaign.
If you've never played a Close Combat game before, the battles will probably be quite a shock. You should expect Saving Private Ryan and not Rambo. Some of your troops will become heroes; others will run shrieking from the enemy. The perfect assault will be broken up by that antitank gun you didn't see. You might have expected the enemy to have no tanks, only to find a large contingency of them thundering down on your line. A key leader will die by sniper fire at the most inopportune moment. Unlike other wargames, you won't find your units reduced to attack/defense/movement numbers. There are no hexes, nor are there turns. It's all played in real time, with each shell computed individually, and morale playing a key role. Winning isn't about getting the perfect odds ratio with a terrain bonus; it's about knowing your weapons and troops and commanding them effectively. War is pure chaos, and too many games reduce it to black and white numbers. The Close Combat series is sweet entropy and what every wargame should be.
There are a few complaints, though they should be viewed like winning a Porsche and not liking the color; these aren't problems per se but rather elements that could have been altered to make the experience even better. First on the list is the way artillery is handled. Off-board artillery finally makes an appearance, but it's limited to one type for either side, and the player has no control over it. Being able to buy salvos of various types before a scenario would have been great. Next, you can forget about a Henschel Hs 129 swooping down to devastate Russian armor with its 30mm MK 101 gun. Tac air is once again left out. Finally, the campaigns take place on the same maps as the single battles, which allows you to essentially practice the campaign. It would have been nice to have no prior knowledge of the maps, forcing tactics on the fly.
Close Combat III: The Russian Front is the best Close Combat game of the bunch and personally probably the best wargame to grace your hard drive ever. Like that new album, at first it doesn't seem to differ greatly from previous works. Some of the new features appear to have been thrown in just to follow the trend. Play it enough, and you'll discover all the subtleties that make Close Combat III the magnum opus it is. All developers should look to Atomic Games when making a sequel. Atomic always keeps what works and expands on it with plenty of fresh material. If you want a wargame that tests your tactical skills more than your arithmetic skills, this is that game. It's challenging, engrossing, and shows that you don't need a P2 450 with two Voodoo 2s in SLI to have a good time.