Combat Mission: Commonwealth Forces – PC Game Review
Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy, Commonwealth Forces Expansion. PC Game. Battlefront.com. $35.00 expansion; core game required.
Passed Inspection: The unique formations that make the Commonwealth and German forces fight differently are modeled here in great detail. An ounce of study will yield a pound of success when you field a new army against your adversaries in single or multiplayer, and that fact reinforces the historical accuracy of the CMx2 game engine. Two new campaigns, more than 30 one-off battles, and dozens of new vehicles and small arms make this a significant expansion on the original. New and lavish scenery brings northern France to life. The flawless play by email (PBEM) system is present here
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Failed Basic: There are literally dozens of quick battle maps available for scrimmages online and off, but viewing them before launching the game is a tedious affair. Enemy scripting in single-player missions can at times show poor AI. Did my two-man scout team really just take out an entire platoon of veteran infantry? Or was that platoon just stuck looking in the wrong direction for too long? No significant increases to the Axis forces.
When Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy (CM-BN) was released in May of 2011 Battlefront.com offered a pre-order bonus, a metal tin that held the game disc as well as up to three expansion disks. It looked like HBO’s Band of Brothers packaging, something you could be proud to have on the mantle. These went like hotcakes, running out mere weeks after they went on sale. The promise had been made, however; there would be expansions. But what did that mean? Developer Battlefront.com was initially tight lipped. With the release of the Commonwealth Forces (CM-BNCF) we now have an idea of the direction they’re taking.
The Sherman V Firefly, sporting a 17-pound gun. Quite the tank killer. The wave pattern on the underside of the barrel was intended to hide its length: German crews were taught to take out Fireflies first, and this marking scheme helped the British sneak Fireflies closer when mixed with short-barreled Shermans.
But you can’t look at this package without considering what came before.
When the original Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord (CM-BO) launched in 1999 it was focused on the battles between the US, British, and German forces on the Western front. To a lesser extent Free French, Polish, and Canadian forces made an appearance, but they were mostly re-skins of other units. The game effectively modeled three distinct armies, each with unique formations and accompanying doctrine and related adaptations. Later expansions switched to the Eastern Front and added the Soviet Union, Romania, Hungary, Finland, Poland, and Italy for a total of 6–8 factions, depending on your opinion on the orders of battle and how they differ.
That is a huge body of work for one game system, and the dividends of that work are still available for purchase. You can, of course, download all of these games from Battlefront.com, but much of that content can be also found, for pennies on the dollar, on Amazon and Ebay right now in "Special Editions" or the massive "Anthology." On the shelf in my office is a special edition Combat Mission: Afrika Korps (CM-AK) that boasts seven multi-battle campaigns, 80 stand-alone battles, and more than 800 units, as well as a full multiplayer solution for TCP/IP and play-by-email (PBEM). I’ve never had to open it, because I still have yet to wring all the value out of my Beyond Overlord Special Edition, itself chock full of all manner of combined arms goodness.
The community-driven modifications, campaigns, and individual engagements evolved with the game and were eventually included in the later retail packages. They were the result of years of work and support by dedicated players inside the proprietary CMx1 game engine. But when CM-BN was announced there was a bit of a cry from the community. The core game would only contain US and German forces. Nary a Brit? Sans Canadians? Whither the Poles? Since they were included in the original CM-BO some players felt a bit slighted at their perceived removal. A flourish was made about the CMx2 engine, an amazing re-engineering of the system that kept whole what made the original games so special while adding more detail to almost every facet of the game.
If the CMx2 engine was a consolation at release, then the Commonwealth Forces expansion is the formal apology. Frankly, they had me at hello.
The bespoke Commonwealth forces in this module are the British, Canadian, and Polish. The British receive the very best treatment of the three, in my opinion, and adapting my play style when fighting with them was made all that much easier this time around because of the CMx2 engine.
The Americans are present, too. The Germans have to batter their way past Yanks, Canadians and Poles as they try to escape from the Falaise Pocket in the "Kampfgruppe Engel" campaign, the best campaign I’ve played in the Combat Mission series to date.
The American forces I had been playing with up until now in the base CM-BN game had around half their men packing Springfields and Garands. Their core infantry units were additionally bolstered by a smattering of Thompson sub-machine guns, Browning Automatic Rifles (BARs), and the odd .30 cal. machine gun. These heavier weapons gave each individual platoon a weight of fire sufficient to keep most enemies’ heads down for a significant period of time. When my first British platoon popped up on the map the CMx2 engine and the improved interface (common to both the core game and the expansion) showed all of my little Limey’s weapons, modeled both in 3D and on the HUD. A quick glance and I realized I had at my disposal only two automatic weapons per squad, a Sten and a Bren.
Bullocks, I said. The Sten was usually in the hands of unit leadership, but their twee little 9mm shells were a poor substitute for good, heavy .45 cal rounds out of the "Chicago typewriter." The Bren gun, on the other hand, had an advantage over the BAR, that being a much larger magazine. I could, and did, rain British .303′s down on German positions well above the duration of time that a BAR could match before reloading. Unfortunately, this led to a severe ammunition shortage, and restocking my platoons involved manually splitting off a scout team to fetch more tins of ordnance from the idling lorries. To make matters worse, those machine-gun teams that were attached to my infantry units were, more often than not, just another few blokes totting Bren guns. British formations are seriously lacking direct firepower—but they more than make up for it with indirect fire. Bringing in a battery of half a dozen 25-pounders from off map before sending my men coursing through the bocage is an experience.
Six 25-pound rounds splash down almost simultaneously on a bocage row, liquefying the machine-gun teams and snipers arrayed against my Brits. Eight minutes of game time spent waiting for them to get dialed in, but well worth it.
To make up for the lack of heavy machine guns and crew-served automatic weapons the British did bring with them the adorable little 2-inch mortar. The platoons I ran around France each had one of these little beauties, served by a gunner and an ammo bearer. At less than two feet long it was barely more trouble to hump around than the Bren gun. And the speed of it was impressive. I could run up a mortar team right to the front line, pop off a few rounds after mere seconds spent setting up, and be suppressing Krauts in no time flat. Add to that the rogues’ gallery of infantry support tanks and other vehicles and you have quite a collection of suppressing units to play.
My critiques are few. Of this expansion in particular, I must say that the Polish and Canadian forces are a bit anemic. They play a bit like re-skinned Brits, which may reflect the reality of the situation to some extent. I’m not educated enough on their historical orders of battle to speak with authority on it. The fact is that they do not get a campaign to themselves, although they have some fantastic battles to their name. Chief among them is "The Main Event," in which the Highland Light Infantry Canadians (HLIC) take the town of Buren with the help of their Panzer-killing Firefly Sherman variant. The Poles also play a role as the stiff opposition late in the German campaign.
Of the CMx2 engine I have somewhat less to say. The critiques of it are well known. The AI scripting is somewhat didactic. If you don’t follow the orders you are given in the mission briefing you will at times make the computer-guided enemy look silly trying to follow theirs, especially when you flank them and they make little to no maneuvers to protect themselves. Additionally, there is something intrinsically flawed in Battlefront.com’s implementation of shadow effects, which even at the highest settings default to "off." And for good reason: flip it on and some mid- to high-end systems will grind to a halt and crash to desktop. The "wego" system wherein each side gives orders and then a full minute of battle plays out before your eyes is a unique gaming experience, and I spend most of my game time watching and re-watching turns unfold from every angle, sometimes sharing my men’s view down the sights of their guns. But I tire of having to be not just the force commander but every commander beneath him. From the lowest non-com on up, I have to be the brains. This results in some maps taking hour after patient hour to complete. CM-BNCF makes no attempts to change these handicaps, but I love this game all the same.
The German forces get little in the way of new units. A tank or two is added here, some scout cars there, as well as the Wespe self-propelled artillery. New skins and orders of battle accompany the troops of the Waffen SS and Luftwaffe infantry. What we do get is a fantastic German campaign.
"Kampfgruppe Engel" is a semi-historical story of an elite, mixed unit conglomerate cleaved off the sharpest edge of the Second Panzer Division in Normandy France, August 1944. Kampfgruppe Engel, named after you its leader, represents a complete fighting force of infantry, armor, and artillery. You have the unenviable task of paving the way across the Seine, over Major General Raymond S. MacLain’s 90th Infantry Division, around the First Canadian Army, and through General Stanislaw Maczek’s Polish 1st Armored Division. You must lead four German panzer divisions out of the Falaise Gap before it closes, trapping some 100,000 men. The campaign briefing, even for a Combat Mission game, is far and away the very best I’ve ever received. And the individual battle briefings give you more than just the direction of the wind and a butt-pat out the door. They give you detailed orders, which gracefully match the clever scripting at work on the Allied side. The British campaign may be longer and have a few more branching paths, but the German offering is the best I’ve played in the game series to date. And for a game with such a storied past, that’s saying something.
Armchair General Ranking: 96%
About the Author
By night Charlie Hall is a writer for Gamers With Jobs (www.GamersWithJobs.com). His relevant interests range from pen-and-paper role playing games, to board games and electronic games of all types. By day he is a writer for CDW Government LLC. Follow him on Twitter @TheWanderer14, or send him hate mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He, his wife, and daughter make their home in far northern Illinois.