Close Combat: Panthers in the Fog – PC Game Preview
Close Combat: Panthers in the Fog. PC game preview. Designer: Slitherine. Published by Matrix/ Slitherine. $39.99
Close Combat: Panthers in the Fog (CC PitF) is the fifth title in the updated series of Close Combat games, produced by Matrix Games and developed by Slitherine Ltd. This preview used a pre-release version and may not reflect features present in the final release.
The game offers beautiful top-down graphics and engaging game play with very high replay value and a short learning curve. On the downside, AI is very weak on the offense, players cannot accelerate time or save mid-tactical battle. Maps are sometimes too big for the small number of units allowed.
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Close Combat: Panthers in the Fog is an interesting, fun and very playable game. Fans of the Close Combat series will not be disappointed, as this game is a worthy descendant to the other fine games in the series. Those players new to the world of Close Combat might find the price a bit steep for them.
CC PitF is a strategic, operational and tactical level game portraying the German Army’s Mortain Counterattack. After Patton’s Third Army broke out of Normandy in OPERATION COBRA, the German High Command ordered a counteroffensive to redress the situation. Using four panzer divisions, the Germans attacked the American 30th Division east of Mortain. OPERATION LUTTICH, as the Wehrmacht called the attack, was designed to drive to the coast and cut Patton’s army off from the rest of the Allied force.
The player may fight single battles, linked operations, or a single grand campaign as either the Germans or the Americans. Strategic and operational decisions, such as where to move and which units to support with airstrikes or artillery, are important and will affect the outcome. The strategic and operational level is turned-base with the player moving his units and making support decisions at the same time the AI does. When both are finished the results are played out at the tactical level. This can lead to some interesting outcomes; German panzer units may put in a full attack against dug-in Americans only to hit nothing, because the Americans made a strategic withdrawal. The player may move into what he thinks is empty ground only to find himself fighting a meeting engagement with a superior force.
After making strategic and operational decisions, the player moves to tactical level combat, which is CC PitF‘s real meat and potatoes, as it is with all the Close Combat games. Players may change their battlegroup’s (Kampfgruppe) makeup by removing and adding units from a menu. Facing an attack from tanks? Add bazookas or panzershrecks. Moving into an unknown situation? Put in recon and scouting units.
Played in real-time, the tactical level is really tactical. Squads, teams, crews, individual guns, vehicles and tanks are at the command of the player. A simple dropdown menu for each unit allows the players to give orders. Units can ambush, defend, creep, move, move fast, or fire. On the move, the player drags a cursor with an attached line to the location he wants the piece to go and clicks again. Orders affect units; running too far exhausts the soldiers. Having squad mates killed or wounded reduces morale; units run out of ammunition and may no longer fire. Terrain features affect line-of-site, units seek cover and concealment in trees and buildings. Squads maneuvered to the flank and rear of the enemy can close and destroy their opponents. This is just like all the other Close Combat games.
Real-time strategy (RTS) games can easily turn into mere click-and-drag fests as the player attempts to speedily outmaneuver the game’s AI. CC PitF avoids this by limiting the number of units and playing out the game in actual real-time, meaning a minute in the game is really a minute, and units move at reasonable speeds. So when the player dispatches a tank through rough terrain it drives slower than it would on a road. Infantry squads in the open move fast but are exposed to enemy fire. It is here that the new feature of mounting and towing comes into play. For the first time, players may put infantry inside vehicles for faster movement while protecting them from small arms or shells fragments. Also, the heavy AT guns can now be moved by hooking up them up for towing. This added element enhances the game play, making it more realistic.
For the long campaign the game aims for historical accuracy rather than balanced game play, meaning that at the start, the American player will be facing panzers with scout cars and infantry. Later in the campaign it is the Germans that will be facing massed Sherman tanks against a few Panthers. But this may the most fun element of the game, as it is a real challenge to win these scenarios.
The game is unforgiving to mistakes at any level. Infantry alone facing tanks are likely to be decimated. If you don’t support your armor with infantry, you’ll watch your tanks burn as they are killed by shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons. Deploy your units out of range of support and you’ll see them be rolled up one by one. But again, having to use good tactics is a nicely challenging element of the game.
Matrix Games claims that: "For the last time, the classic sprite and 2D artwork engine is used." If so, then it certainly is the apex of that technology and, combined with the new 32-bit graphics, a Close Combat game has never looked better. A newly added feature is fog. A kind of haze hangs over the battlefield in the morning and affects range of view. Panthers really do just emerge from the fog. The sound effects are better than serviceable, with rifle shots and machineguns sounding different from each other. The German solders speak German and the Americans English as they cry out various phrases. Also, the sounds give the player information: Units announce they "Can’t take it any more" before they panic, or "We need rest" before they slow to a walk.
However, with no way to compress time, certain battles can be trying; the defensive player must wait until the offense makes contact for anything to happen. The lack of a time-acceleration feature may be the single most frustrating thing about the game. A player may set when a scenario will end, e.g., when certain victory conditions are met, when morale of one side becomes too low to continue, or based on a time limit. Using anything but the time limit is an easy way to waste valuable game-playing time as you wait for the AI.
The AI is the second most frustrating element of the game. When on the offensive it is weak. It seems unable to co-ordinate attacks or even pursue any logically aggressive action. This means the human player on defense is almost certain to prevail unless horribly outnumbered or out-gunned. In those cases the AI merely swamps the defending player with superior combat power. On the defense, these problems with the AI are much less apparent.
To sum up, Close Combat: Panthers in the Fog is a good but not great game, much like its predecessors in the series. The new features of fog, mounting infantry and towing are interesting and enhance play. For fans of the series, this is a must have. For others, the $39.99 price tag might just be a little much.
About the Author
Patrick Baker is a former US Army Field Artillery officer, currently a Department of Defense employee working on games and simulations for training. He cut his wargaming 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 has Bachelors’ degrees in Education, History and Political Science. He just earned his Masters in European History and has decided to use all his education to play more games and bore his family.