Combat Mission: Red Thunder – PC Game Review
Passed Inspection: Combat Mission players are taken to the Eastern Front to play with Soviet and German weapons. Game comes with the upgraded “3.0 Game Engine” for the Combat Mission series.
Failed Inspection: AI can be somewhat predictable and is mostly dependent on how well-scripted the AI is for a given scenario. Can be a steep learning curve for some gamers.
The gloves are off, the tanks are warmed up, and your PC/MAC is about to experience brutal warfare on the Eastern Front, through Battlefront’s highly anticipated release of Combat Mission: Red Thunder. Many Combat Mission fans and WW2 wargamers have been anxiously waiting for the popular series to return to this front of the war. Combat Mission: Barbarosa to Berlin, a first-generation gaming engine of the Combat Mission series, was released over a decade ago, in 2002.
In Combat Mission: Red Thunder, players are taken to the battles between the ground forces of Germany and the Soviet Union during the summer of 1944, when the equipment and soldiers of both sides were of about equal quality. As a long time Combat Mission player I was concerned that Red Thunder would just give us more of the same game mechanics from Combat Mission Normandy / Market Garden and Fortress Italy / Gustav Line. I found that to be true to some extent, but Red Thunder debuts Battlefront’s new Game Engine 3.0, which offers some new features including flamethrowers and infantry riding on armored fighting vehicles.
So what can you expect with Red Thunder? In the summer of 1944, German and Soviet equipment were almost equal contenders on the battlefield, making for some interesting one-on-one battles at the tactical scale that Combat Mission: Red Thunder offers. As the Soviets, players can command variants of the T-34 and IS tanks as well as the T-70M. Infantry carrying the Model 1891 rifle, STV-40 rifle, the PPS-43 submachine gun, and the DShK machine guns can now ride into battle aboard tanks and assault guns such as the SU-122 and ISU-152. Anti-tank guns include the 76mm and infantry guns ranging from 76mm on down. A very nice addition to the arsenal, which players will need to use with caution, is the ROKS-3 flamethrower.
The Germans can call upon tanks such as the Panzer IV variants (G, H, J), Panthers, Tigers and King Tigers. Tank destroyers such as Jagdpanzers, Marders, and StuGs also lend their support, along with self-propelled artillery like the Grille and Wespe. Both sides can employ off-map and on-map artillery, including an assortment of rockets, such as the Nebelwerfer and Katyusha, some as large as 300 mm. Both sides have flamethrowers, but use them with caution. A flamethrower attack from a forest against a passing tank set fire to the forest, which panicked some friendly troops.
The designers of Red Thunder have pulled no punches and have given players command of some of the most devastating equipment of the war. You can view the game’s vast array of equipment on Battlefront.com’s site
Campaigns and scenarios
The games of the Combat Mission series typically come with a few campaigns, a good list of individual battles, and a scenario editor for you to create your own scenarios and campaigns. I was glad to see that a “Training Campaign” was included with Red Thunder. Battlefront has not forgotten even gamers experienced with earlier Combat Mission releases will enjoy that welcoming hand to enter the virtual battlefield—especially with the 3.0 upgrade—and newbies to the system require it. The introductory campaign is a short four scenarios covering the basics of the game interface and mechanics, assaulting with combined arms, and defending positions.
The second campaign, “Blunting the Spear,” consists of six missions in which you command forces of the 4th Panzer Division that must seize the opportunity to eliminate the overextended Soviet 3rd Tank Corps as it moves into Warsaw, Poland. The highlight of this campaign is seeing the awesome firepower of Panthers on the field. The third campaign lets you command elements of the Soviet 1st Guards Rifle Division as it attacks during the opening stages of Operation Bagration.
Besides the campaigns, there are 18 individual battles that can be played and the “Quick Battles” play allows players to randomly generate a battle on pre-made maps. Expect to find more battles online as the community creates scenarios and campaigns with the game’s scenario and map editor.
Expect to be given a lot of information about the battlefield, the condition of units, how many men are in each squad, their equipment, how much ammunition they are carrying, and any casualties they have sustained. Almost all of this information is displayed on the information panel on the bottom screen.
Within the command panel you can be as broad or specific as you want when you give orders to a unit. Do you want a selected squad to move to a hill, or do you want them to walk to a certain point and then crawl the rest of the way? This is entirely up to your discretion as commander.
There is a learning curve to issuing commands, due to the number of commands a unit can be given, with the available orders depending on the type of unit (tank, infantry, artillery, etc). Although the game offers a “real time strategy” mode, do not expect to be giving simple move and attack orders; this game is much more in-depth than that and should be considered more of a WWII battlefield simulator. Real-time play will almost always require pausing the game due to the complexity of available choices (although seasoned grognards might be able to run through a smaller tactical battle without pausing).
The AI’s fighting spirit in Combat Mission: Red Thunder varies, depending on the scenario. The six skill levels of units range from conscript to elite and will have a noticeable impact on the outcome of a battle. A company of conscript infantry may easily be routed by a platoon of elite infantry. Also, the scenario design may give units scripted behaviors, such as having tanks move to a location, waiting for targets to cross a trigger point, and then proceeding to another location after firing.
At the same time, the AI has some dynamic behaviors in which units react upon encountering enemy units. A scenario you played once may not play out the same way the second time around. This gives Combat Mission: Red Thunder some fantastic replay value. However, there was an instance when infantry was riding on a tank and began taking fire over a period of time. Not once did the infantry dismount the tank and seek cover; instead, the soldiers were eventually killed. This was a little unrealistic, but there may have been too other many in-game factors to allow for an AI-ordered dismount.
The 3D models of tanks and soldiers are impressive to look at, but the animation could be improved. A nice little addition with Red Thunder is that when tanks receive hits to their armor, the impact sites are shown graphically with “hit decals.” I had one armored unit move right in front of the firing arc of an anti-tank unit, which fired dozens of shells into its frontal armor. The aftermath left my armored unit with front armor scars. However, if a tank’s main gun is knocked out or a vehicle’s treads are blown off, that information is displayed not on the vehicle but in the information panel, which requires constantly keeping an eye that panel. It would be neat and more convenient to have this type of visual damage on the actual tank.
Combat Mission: Red Thunder is a welcome addition to the CM series. It adds new gaming features and introduces players to the equipment and soldiers of the Eastern Front—the game’s biggest draw is definitely the ability to command Soviet and German units in some pretty amazing and cinematic battles. At times, I found myself replaying a combat sequence of a platoon of T-34 tanks at maximum volume. I only wish my neighbors could have appreciated the mighty boom of those cannons.
Gamers new to this series will find a steep learning curve that can be frustrating. They will need to understand the nuances of unit behaviors, the information panels, and why their tank crews will sometimes abandon their tanks. This might deter some gamers who are looking for a game that gives them immediate gratification, but it will draw in those who are looking for a realistic battlefield simulator. This is more a game of chess than a game of marbles. (To reduce the learning curve, check out Armchair General’s exclusive series of video tutorials for Combat Mission tactics, written by Lt. Col. (ret) Jeffrey Paulding.—Editor)
Armchair General Rating: 93%
About the Author
Ed William has his Masters in Library and Information Science and works in public libraries. This allows him access to databases of historical content while reviewing wargames. He took an interest in military history and wargaming as a teenager after learning that his hometown was home to General George S. Patton. Ed is the author of an article that explains how to convert interactive games in Armchair General magazine to PC scenarios using the Combat Mission series.