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Posted on May 23, 2012 in Electronic Games

Combat Mission: Commonwealth Forces – PC Game Review

By Charlie Hall

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 charlie@gamerswithjobs.com. He, his wife, and daughter make their home in far northern Illinois.

16 Comments

  1. To suggest the number of flaws that the reviewer does, and then give a grade of 96%, is so wildly inconsistent as to make the entire exercise of reviewing the game pointless. Put another way – what made the reviewer deduct those last 4 percentage points? The article makes it sound like only the fact he didn’t know what made up a Canadian infantry company stopped him from giving a perfect score. (Incidentally, the location of the HLI of Canada’s most famous battle honour is “Buron”.)

    Maybe AG needs to come up with some actual criteria for how they rate these things, because from reading the article, I couldn’t find a suggestion that they actually have any, other than the reviewer seemed to notice there were infantry in the game, they were armed with – weapons – and they were modelled in 3-D.

    The article reads as a review of the campaigns he played, which he obviously enjoyed. Great. I think what appears here would be most appropriate at videogamegeek, Gamespot, or even battlefront’s forum, in an after action report format. Having it masquerade instead as a 96% review for the game itself is just goofy, particularly without rational substantiation for such a rating appearing in the text of the discussion.

    I rate this so-called “review” two thumbs out of six; one up and one down.

  2. I lost trust in Armchair General’s reviews a long time ago. They are more like extended marketing campaigns for niche market developers than objective reviews. 96% ? On which scale? The pros and cons the reviewer mentions do not justify that score at all. And how can he give such a score without even touching on the game’s mechanics and possible improvements to these?

  3. I am less unkind on the quality of the review – a friend who has the expansion was very impressed and said that with his system the shadow effect problem seems to have vanished or at the least been minimised.

    However I do question his knowledge of the Commonwealth armies: A Bren is an LMG, a Browning is not (which is why it so quickly vanished after Korea), the point being that the latter lacks an interchangeable barrel which disqualifies it from providing sustained fire support – as I am sure those reading are aware; the 9mm is the accepted SMG ammo for all nations (which is why the Germans considered the Sten to be the best captured Allied infantry weapon , the .45 Thompson proving too heavy and with too high a recoil for most purposes. CW battalions have a higher direct fire than US ones – simply measured in terms of their 65-70 LMG and 100 plus SMG and do of course have attached MMG and heavy mortars.

  4. I own this game and believe me, it is an excellent, highly detailed, and realistic model of WWII combat. The individual teams and tanks have their own tactical AI, which is not scripted, that allows them to respond realistically to the situation. The scripts for the AI deal with defining objectives and stances of teams (avoiding contact, actively engaging, etc), which can be quite detailed. I find the AI to be quite challenging in well-designed scenarios.

    • “I own this game and believe me, it is an excellent, highly detailed, and realistic model of WWII combat.”

      I own the main game, and I don’t believe you. Sure, the game is pretty advanced in many of the things that it models and tries to model, but some of the game mechanics just don’t work very well from a realistic perspective. I’ll give you just one example to illustrate the degree of what I am talking about: up until the previous patch cover for infantry(i.e. foxholes, buildings, craters…) simply didn’t work. Some tests conducted by players on the official forums actually showed it was counter-productive to put soldiers in foxholes; they took less casualites in the open!

      Just to clarify, I’m not saying the game is bad, just that it’s far from a 96% score. That score is hilarious for an expansion pack with so little new in terms of functionality. And if _realism_ is your main criterium, then you might very well be disappointed when you discover the many flaws this game has.

  5. Keith’s comments are off base, particularly this:

    “The individual teams and tanks have their own tactical AI, which is not scripted, that allows them to respond realistically to the situation.”

    It’s simply not true. Units have no ability to move unless directed to by the player, or a script. They have a self-preservation mode which permits flight, but that’s it. Otherwise, units sit in place stupidly and do not react to the tactical situation at all. I’m not sure why he thinks they do.

    If the game is giving the appearance of reality, I can only suggest that Keith is easily fooled.

    He goes on:

    “The scripts for the AI deal with defining objectives and stances of teams (avoiding contact, actively engaging, etc),”

    The scripts are all related to the clock, not the tactical situation. There are no event triggers and no situational triggers. No “if x, then y” cause/event type triggers. Everything is geared to the scenario designer guessing what a player might do, and then gearing the AI to combat it. It works, some of the time. It’s better than the first game, where the battalion commander led bayonet charges. But it’s not 96-out-out-100 kind of good.

    • J.R.,

      “The individual teams and tanks have their own tactical AI, which is not scripted, that allows them to respond realistically to the situation.”

      “It’s simply not true. Units have no ability to move unless directed to by the player, or a script. They have a self-preservation mode which permits flight, but that’s it.”

      Sounds like you’re both saying the same thing to me. Tac AI, is exactly that: a self-preservation mode. For example, lesser tanks will pop smoke and bugger out when they see a enemy tank that they know they cannot challenge. The reviewer did not mean that Tac AI will take it upon itself to execute some sort of flank attack.

      • Keith is implying the Tac AI independently responds to *any* situation. I am saying flat out the Tac AI will only independently move units in self-preservation, in other words, one single situation. There is a large difference. Otherwise, computer-controlled units in the game respond ONLY to the preprogrammed instructions which are guided by the clock – NOT the tactical situation. If units move in a certain stance, at a certain speed, or seek certain types of cover, it is because the scenario designer told them to. The AI has limited ability to judge independently whether a move is hazardous or not. About the best it can do is be delayed when it meets resistance and refuse to move to a further waypoint. It won’t pick a flank to maneuver to, or choose a better option as far as speed, type of advance, etc.

  6. I don’t know about you guys out there, but I can’t play the campaigns without a lock-up. After the first series of British mssions, or the first mission of Engel, if I rearrange even A SINGLE unit in the set-up phase, my computer freezes. It can’t be my computer, because single battles are not a problem. I’ve e-mailed Battlefront many times and they acknowledge a bug in the game, but have yet to release a patch. This won’t stop me from buying Battlefront games, but I am dissapointed that they have not yet adressed this serious issue. Anyone have any suggestions for me out there?

    Thanks,

    Steve

    • @ Steve re “but I can’t play the campaigns without a lock-up”

      Hi Steve , contact BF technical support. What you describe is unusual and BF tech support are a good bunch and have great knowledge.

      Re the module: Holding off purchasing Commonwealth personally , long time fan of CM products but i get bored quickly with the lack of continuity between battles in a campaign. IMO there needs to be more done to link battles and to give user a better “feel” for the overall operation. Devils’ Descent user campaign has done this better than anyone else so far but the CMx2 engine is still too restricted to provide enough of this continuity i personally seek.

  7. 96% REALLY?! This expansion gives you all the content you’d expect from a mod or patch, the price is FAR to high especially considering the same graphical, U.I. and audio issues from Combat Mission 2 still haven’t been addressed. There is no value for money in this product. Don’t be a fool, spend your money elsewhere.

  8. After reading some of the negative things here, I felt something else needed to be written.

    My Dad is an amazingly spry 93 year old man with an incredible history. He fought in both WW2 and Korea. His last 2 weeks in the service just happened to coincide with the Cuban Missile Crisis. His war stories are numerous and to the best of my knowledge, true.

    The craziest part is that he’s still a grognard. The game he chooses to play, and the only game(s) he plays is the Combat Mission series. He feels that these games model tank warfare better than most. Who am I to argue? I wasn’t there when Patton pissed in the river, Dad was.

    It’s the coolest thing in the world to watch my father put together a custom map and play a battle he fought in real life. When I play one of his maps he provides a play by play which I cannot even describe the feelings that rumble around as I’m doing the usual sterile act of moving units around.

    While there are some minor technical issue with this series, CMBN and the new expansion are considered by my Dad to be well done with more and better attention to detail than some of the more hardcore wargames. I’ll take his word for it.

    • Battlefront should hire your dad for their marketing campaign ;)

      • Seconded. I can’t imagine how many gamers out there would jump at the idea of a WW2 vet actually finding a WW2 game “realistic”. I have spoken with a few veterans about video games, and most of them find the realism comparison comes only in the audio/visual aspect. As far as the actual strategy, combat mechanics, planning, pace, and patience required, most of them see war-based video games about as realistic as Mario Kart is to vehicle-mechanics.

        Just hearing that a WW2 vet actually plays, enjoys, and finds this game realistic, makes playing it so much more fun. Battlefront, make a commercial with this dude before he’s gone!

  9. Frank, I would like very much to learn more about your dad and his opinions of the game, gaming in general, and life as we know it. Good on ya for sharing this with him. You’re a very lucky man.

  10. Well at least one person who made a comment here is well known for his crusade against CMx2. Personally I love the series just as I love CMBB. Really looking forward to the east front game and the next modern warfare game. No other tactical wargame comes close. Ye sit has it’s flaws and if your a single player then QB’s are pretty much useless. However the game comes with more than enough campaigns and single player scenarios let alone the user mad0e ones. Add the huge selection of graphic mods the game looks superb and has many hours of tactical goodness.

    Saying all this IF I was an RTS gamer I’d probably plump for Graviteam tactics..however as I deeply love WEGO and being able to rewind and watch the action up close then CM (both series) are close to my heart.

    The current version 2 engine improves the game and is well worth the asking price. Again I know Gravtieam tactics adds features and improvements for free but at $10 for the engine upgrade it’s hardly worth crying about.

    I’m very happy we have developers out there like battlefront and look forward to many years of releases and game improvements.

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  1. Holiday Shopping Guide 2012 » Armchair General - [...] Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy – Commonwealth Forces (Battlefront.com) The unique formations that make the Commonwealth and German forces …

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