Walter Kunkle, 5 April 2023
No Casuals in a Foxhole!
A Steam port of 2011’s Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy series has hit the market. But how well does this twelve year old game really hold up, and is worth your time and money? You get access to five campaigns with your purchase of the base game: one of which is a very short tutorial campaign. Five additional campaigns locked behind DLC. The game also comes with ancient PDF manuals which it encourages you to reference as you play, although some of the instructions and grainy pictures contained in these were less than useful.
Publisher: Slitherine, Ltd.
Topic: World War II, Milsim
Price: $60, up to additional $95 of paid DLC
Battle for Normandy has the same faithful mechanics as the other games in the long-running Combat Mission series. It is a dedicated military simulator for tactical ground combat. The game offers both real time and turn-based game modes, although, for reasons I will get into further along, turn-based gameplay works far better. Turn-based action pauses the game every minute and allows you to reissue commands or change tactics. This allows for less responsiveness than other turn-based wargames games like The Troop, where you choose the order your units activate and shoot. This is a very nice system, and one that is much more reflective of how an actual combat scenario would probably play out.
click images to enlarge
Battle for Normandy hews very close to historical accuracy, and the designers will regularly admit when a battle in a campaign is fictional, but could have happened. In one neat little example—American Sherman tanks in some campaigns are equipped with Rhino devices, which were historically invented to allow the vehicles to bulldoze the thick and obscuring hedge that littered the battlefields of north France. Early on in the campaign, though, these devices were not in US hands, and your tanks will be presented with a very rough time trying to overcome these obstacles. The game offers a scenario editor with a lot of depth in it, and offers a play-by-email multiplayer system similar to other turn-based gems like Dominions 5. If you’re willing to stick with singleplayer, campaigns are rewarding and your unit casualties will carry over from battle to battle. Replay value is very high, and the game offers one-off scenario or random battles that can be very challenging.
If you have never played a Combat Mission title before, then you are in for a hell of an introduction. The game makes no attempt to court any kind of casual fanbase. “You’re going to hide face down in this field, behind this bocage, for forty minutes,” Combat Mission tells the player, “and if you leave, you’re going to get shot.” The game is piled with different types of minutiae that are critical to success, and the tutorial missions in game are not the best way to get to grips with many of them. While the manual was helpful half the time, YouTube tutorials were what really saved the U.S. war effort in Normandy.
Great attention is paid to how units maneuver around the battlefield—your basic infantry squadron has six different ways to move, for example, allowing you to execute rather complicated and involved movement chains. When they advance, your infantry will seek cover–sticking to walls like shy eighth graders at a school dance–and if they’re pinned by enemy fire, they won’t readily execute any commands. Fog of war is portrayed very realistically. You will usually only ever see two or so enemy soldiers in a squadron at one time; the rest are hiding. In-game artillery is directed by a spotting system, and your FOs are vitally important to winning battles.
For all its realism, the game does not feel unfair. Whatever the enemy can do to you, you can also do to them. On one particular dirt road, my men set up an ambush from each side and killed upwards of forty German soldiers. I, in turn learned to fear German anti-tank capability. But while the arms the Germans possessed may have been hazardous, my men had to face an even more insidious threat to their lives: being placed under my military command. Even during the easy tutorial campaign, I quickly became confronted with the limits of my own ineptitude. I recalibrated my internal casualty tolerance to “broad.” At one juncture, facing a fortified German house containing–by my estimate–every machine gun the Ruhr had ever produced, wave after wave of American boys pointlessly threw away their lives. Tank crews, in particular, had a mortality rate of close to one hundred percent under my tenure. Every road intersection from Utah Beach to Sainte-Mère-Église was garnished with one– sometimes two–destroyed Shermans.
While I wasn’t the best commander, the game has its fair share of problems. While you issue orders to your squadrons with a cool detachment reflecting True Military Genius, your troops execute these orders almost maliciously, like the capricious fairies of Irish myth. When they reach points where you have ordered them to pivot, your infantry will spend a vital couple of seconds standing still and looking at dandelions while the enemy shoots at them. Simple user interface changes would go a long way to improving gameplay—such as representing the ammunition each unit has as a visible slider, instead of a number. Unit icons are sometimes hard to discern, and the infantry icons in particular can look very samey.
The pathing in this game leaves much to be desired, and this is exacerbated in real-time mode, where there is even less time to correct your mistakes. Trying to move multiple units at a time will almost always result in some kind of sub-optimal or downright confusing decisions being made. Your armored vehicles will scatter like pool balls if you order them to all move at once in real time, and you will have to corral them together in a vexing minigame. You are really, in pretty much every case, better off assigning orders to one squad at a time, and this turns anything but the smallest real-time battles into chaotic and largely reactive affairs.
Turn-based worked far better for me, but it, too, was not without issues. In a baffling design choice, the red “stop” button that starts the minute-long turn countdown has to be pressed at the start of each unit’s turn, too, before you can assign orders to them. Sometimes, however, the game will operate by a logic all its own and start another minute of combat when you press this button. If you had troops in a bad position, you now have to wait another minute before you can issue new orders to them.
Despite these flaws, Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy is fun. At one point in my playthrough, a well-timed mortar strike destroyed a German machine gun nest that had been pinning down an entire flank. The feeling of happiness I felt at that moment was indescribable. But the logistics that underpinned that successful mortar strike–packing up the mortar, moving the team, deploying it, realizing it didn’t have line of sight, packing it up, moving the team again, and deploying it again–ate up an enormous amount of time. And this was for just one unit in my force—I still had about twenty-five more units to order around. In this sense, the game is realistic. But this enormous and weighty realism filled me with a slight sense of resentment whenever the AI blew up one of my vehicles, or massacred a poorly-positioned squad. The computer didn’t have to endure the tedium and frustration of constantly moving around units or repositioning them. The machine didn’t have to constantly pan, zoom, and twiddle its thumbs while everything got into place.
Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy has its highs and lows, but ultimately I would recommend it for the dedicated military simulator enthusiast. If you’ve never played any game in the series before, World War II is perhaps a much easier place to start than the more recent titles, where widespread missiles and withering small arms technology make for a far more lethal and decisive battlefield. The game and its DLC come at a pretty steep cost for a title this old, and I recommend dipping your toe in before shelling out for the extra content. And speaking of shelling, I have a day at home today, and the vineyards of Normandy are calling my name.
Thank you for visiting The Armchair Dragoons and saddling up with the Regiment of Strategy Gaming.
You can find our regiment’s social media on Mastodon, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. (We have an Instagram page and we never use it.)
You can support The Armchair Dragoons through our Patreon, also, and find us at a variety of conventions and other events.
Feel free to talk back to us either in our discussion forum, or in the comments below.
IF YOU ENCOUNTER A COUNTER CASTING A HEX IN A HEX
AND YOU COUNTER THE HEX WITH A COUNTER-HEX IN THAT HEX DURING THE ENCOUNTER,
AND YOU HAVE TO COUNT HOW MANY HEXES ARE IN THE HEX DURING THE ENCOUNTER
ARE YOU PLAYING A HEX-AND-COUNTER WARGAME?