Close Combat: Gateway to Caen – PC Game Review
Passed Inspection: Great graphics; involving game play; high replay value; short learning curve.
Failed Basic: AI is weak on the offense; cannot accelerate time; cannot save mid-battle.
Close Combat: Gateway to Caen (Gateway) is the latest in the venerable Close Combat series of games. Gateway has all the virtues, and sadly, all the faults of its predecessors. That being said, the game is a fun and interesting Real-Time Tactical (RTT) wargame that engages and challenges players.
Gateway is the seventh game in the revised and updated Close Combat series developed by Slitherine, Ltd. and published by Matrix Games. The new series of Close Combat games started with 2007’s Close Combat: Cross of Iron; the last release in the series prior to Gateway was 2012’s Close Combat: Panthers in the Fog.
Gateway portrays OPERATION EPSOM, sometimes called the First Battle of the Odon. EPSOM was the first major British offensive after the D-Day invasion and was designed to encircle the ancient city of Caen from the south in the Odon and Orne River valleys and provide a jumping off point for a final offensive to capture the city. The main Allied unit was General Richard O’Connor’s British VIII Corps consisting of the 11th Armoured, the 15th (Scottish) and 43rd (Wessex) Divisions, all of which were well-trained, but inexperienced units. The British expected their opposition to be the 12th SS Panzer (Hitler Youth), the 21st Panzer and Panzer Lehr Divisions, all of which had been depleted by recent combat in Normandy.
Kicking off on June 26, 1944, the British made good progress the first day despite a determined German defense. But by the second and third days of the operation, the Germans were counterattacking with four SS Panzer divisions, including some units equipped with the dreaded Tiger tanks. On June 30, O’Connor ended EPSOM due to German resistance and the exhaustion of his own units.
Although the British had failed to make a breakthrough, they did manage, inadvertently, to disrupt German plans for a large-scale counterattack to be lead by the SS Panzer divisions. The British inflicted some 3,000 causalities on the Germans and destroyed over 125 tanks, losses in men and materiel the Germans could ill afford. The British lost just over 4,000 men killed, wounded, or captured.
The 32-bit graphics are outstanding. You can almost see the individual leaves on the trees and really can see the individual weapons the soldiers carry. Each terrain type is distinctive, even down to whether or not a field has been mown. Artillery and mortar impacts leave craters in the ground and destroyed vehicles remain in place from battle to battle. Each vehicle is nicely detailed right down to the paint scheme.
The sound is also excellent. The soldiers on both sides shout out phrases in their native language and with proper accents (no Americans in Scots Highlander regiments). Also the soldiers’ vocalizations give the player important information, e.g., their morale is about to break or they cannot make an assigned move. The weapons’ sounds are distinctive as well, with a Bren gun sounding different from a MG-42 machine gun.
The tutorials are easy and useful in learning the game system. The User Interface (UI) is smooth and simple. Orders to the units at the tactical level are given through a right-click, drop-down menu. Squads, guns and vehicles can be ordered to ambush, defend, creep, move, or move fast. When ordering a move, the player clicks on the unit, decides what kind of move to make and merely drags a cursor with an attached line to the location he wants the unit to go and clicks again. Unit path-following is logical, with the men staying close to cover, or following a road if moving fast. Artillery, heavy mortars and air strikes are controlled by three buttons. The player selects the kind of attack to conduct, clicks to place a marker for the attack, and in a few moments the strike takes place.
Players may choose to fight single battles, conduct linked operations, or play any one of six large campaigns. The game also has a nice scenario editor for do-it-yourself battles. Players can fight as either the British or the Germans. They also can select both sides’ levels of force and how much, or how little, of the “fog of war” they have to deal with.
In the operational segment of play, the player issues orders to battalion-sized elements to move, rest, or merge. Fire support missions are assigned or interdiction missions conducted in this segment. Moves on the operational map are resolved simultaneously. Movement on the operational map also determines where and between which units the tactical-level combat takes place.
The tactical level, as with any of the Close Combat games, is where the fun is. The player selects from a menu of available small unit types with which to fight the coming battle. A variety of infantry, guns and vehicles are available. When on the defensive against tanks you want to pick anti-tank (AT) weapons like AT guns, or the infamous Projector, Infantry, Anti Tank (PIAT), or Panzerschreck. Of course, the best anti-tank weapon is another tank. On the attack the player can select more mobile units, like tanks, or armored personnel carriers to move men around the battlefield. Of course, there are limits on the number and types of units that may be selected.
In the course of the tactical battle, the goal is to maneuver your units, engage and destroy the enemy to seize victory points, or break the enemy’s morale and cause them to retreat—maybe even to disband.
The game really shines in its “human factors” modeling. Down to the individual solider, factors such as physical stamina, proximity of leadership, and combat experience are modeled and determine how well a soldier will stand up to the stresses of combat. Making squads run everywhere exhausts them; seeing their squad mates killed or wounded lowers morale; run out of ammo and the soldiers cower and hide, and so on. Sometimes a soldier will go “hero” and do something nearly superhuman, but most of the time they run, or simply give up, or even surrender, if stressed too much. This means that most of the time soldiers cannot be ordered to do stupid or suicidal things, like running across open fields in the face of machine guns. This also means the player must fight smart, move men carefully and pay attention to their welfare.
The replay value is high, with the players able to change sides, adjust force levels and select different units for each battle. Also players may try different schemes of maneuver when replaying a battle, to test if they can improve on their earlier performances.
The AI for Gateway is, unhappily, no better than the AI in the earlier incarnations of the game. On the defense, it is good; it places its units reasonably well and generally will not make horrible tactical errors. But on the offense, the AI is simply not capable of organizing a coherent attack plan and will only win when attacking with superior combat power or if the human player makes some significant mistakes.
Besides the weak AI on the attack, there are two other annoying things about the game. The inability to accelerate time can leave the player waiting around for things to happen, and not being able to save mid-battle is exasperating.
Gateway has new play features such the ability to conduct a rolling artillery barrage and the ability to camouflage and dig-in AT guns and tanks at the start of a battle. It also has some new units, such as Cromwell and Churchill tanks (my favorite being the Churchill Crocodile flame-thrower variant), the M-10 Achilles tank destroyer, the Ordnance Quick-Firing 17-pounder AT gun and others. I also must give kudos to the designers for exploring some of the lesser known battles of World War II in the West, in this case the First Battle of the Odon. It seems most wargames about World War II in the West are focused on the Normandy Invasion or the Battle of the Bulge to the exclusion of other, equally interesting, battles.
The Bottom Line
Close Combat: Gateway to Caen is an involving, engaging and enjoyable game, just like all the other versions of Close Combat. Newcomers to the series will find it a good starting point and old grognards should find enough new features and units for the game to be a worthy addition to their game collection.
Armchair General Score: 90%
About the Author
Patrick Baker is a former US Army Field Artillery officer, currently a Department of Defense employee. He has degrees in Education, History and Political Science. He cut his war-gaming teeth on Squad Leader and Victory Games’ Fleet Series. He bought his first PC in 1990, a Wang PC-240, specifically to play SSI’s The Battles of Napoleon (much to the annoyance of his wife). He continues to use all his education to play more games and annoy his family.