23 August 2014

PC Game Review: Combat Command: Matrix Edition

Scott Parrino takes command the Matrix Edition of the popular Combat Command series.

Published on 24 MAY 2011 8:34pm by Scott Parrino

Take Command

To those that are unfamiliar with Combat Command in the past, Combat Command: Matrix Edition (referred to as Combat Command  from here on out) takes a classic turn-based strategy game and improves upon it. Like with any other strategy game scenario, Combat Command puts you in command of company-sized units in historical scenarios where you must capture and hold victory objectives until the end of the scenario itself. Not only are multiple unit types are used but also HQ units to assist in support fire and in attacks. Scenarios can last for a few turns in the span of a day or for days, with day and night cycles. During these turns players will have to concentrate on postures, disruption status, command links, movement radius and much more. Combat Command does not split hairs on complexity and might be a tall order for first-time strategy game players. However, the manual that comes with Combat Command is descriptive and comes with a tutorial to help get new players situated in it. For veterans of the genre they can appreciate some of the options given to provide a challenge and the rather classic table-top graphical style and presentation.

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To call Combat Command turn-based is a loose term; a more appropriate name would be a turn-based phase-mode strategy game. I call it this because you do not necessarily move and attack within the same turn but rather after a series of phases within your turn. Those who jump in without reading the manual (shame on you) or trying the tutorial (double shame on you) may get easily confused when their rifle company won’t attack an enemy unit that they have right-clicked on, even when they’re right next to them. With Combat Command you must wait until the proper phase to carry out your attack, which even then is different than most hex-based strategy games.

At the start of the players turn, there is a Supply Phase which checks to see if units are in supply. After that, the game determines which side has the initiative in the appropriately-named Initiative Phase. The previous two phases are some of the phases that are done automatically that don’t require the player to do anything, which is helpful to know that certain checks and notifications occur that the player sees, rather than having it hidden in the background. Combat Command is big on displaying all sorts of information to the player in order for them to make proper decisions (or risks) and to genuinely feel like they are a general pouring over their map to command their units. Next in line for the phases include the Reinforcement (notification of reinforcements arriving on the field), then Command Phase, a very important phase. Combat Command checks to make sure that Divisional HQs are able to reach Regimental HQs, which in turn make sure they’re able to reach their own units as well as other Regimental HQs. This becomes incredibly important in large attacks as units that can be supported in an attack by artillery or other units need to be in “radio” contact in order to coordinate defense and attack situations. This grand feeling of managing HQs and units in combat to coordinate your defense lines or your assaults is a good one, albeit it is difficult to determine and solve why some units can be out of contact for no reason. Aside from this complexity managing a battle gets easier the more you play.

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Eventually you move onto the Assault Phase, where actual combat occurs. Here attack and defense values, including any multipliers is taken into account to get a result. Depending on how much intel you have the enemy unit, you may or may not know what sort of damage you’ve done. No matter the unit though, every unit has three counters that stand for their damage done to them. Once all three counters are red, the unit is completely lost. There is no way to regain the counters or to make more units; once your unit is gone, it is gone for the rest of the battle. This of course forces players to think ahead and whether or not to withdraw from their positions to save units.

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An interesting phase is the Initiative Phase, which in itself is an important phase as it gauges which side goes first during a turn. This adds an element of tempo and momentum as players that can capitalize on successful offensives can see themselves starting a turn each time. This may seem like it can be abused, but in reality it is not. It rewards brilliant commanders that utilize their armies correctly and smartly and isn’t necessarily reserved for offensive types. Defensive commanders can also benefit if they wage their battles correctly. This element of gameplay in Combat Command makes every battle you fight a dynamic one and certainly makes situations of desperate measures (such as my full-scale frontal assault on a hill position that ended in tragedy) ones of nail-biting experiences.

The AI can be a varied mixture. There may seem to be times where the enemy AI will go out of its way to attack a position of low importance to times where you see your flank disintegrate under an armored push. Generally I experienced more “intelligent” AI than I did of “dumb” AI commanders, but of course nothing can compare to fighting an actual human opponent. Complex wargames such as Combat Command can live or die by the AI and in this case, it lives.

For fans of fighting against other human commanders, there is that option (to not have this aspect in wargaming can be such a downer). You have your full choice of play-by-email (PBEM), hotseat or through the Internet. PBEM in some battles can be a bit of lengthy affair but gives you more time to think (or curse). Hotseat lends itself to the feeling of your opponent cheating to see where your units are, but then why would you have such an untrustworthy commander in your household?

There is no in-game tutorial; instead Combat Command offers a follow-along one in its manual where you are introduced to many of the game’s concepts and phases. I’m generally against this sort of tutorial as it involves alt + tabbing back and forth while reading and conducting the battle. Granted, Combat Command is not exclusively meant for beginners, but an in-game introductory course would be infinitely better to get the rust out of the gears for some commanders.


Graphical and Sound Aspect

Wargamers are a breed that appreciates fine art. Combat Command doesn’t use and doesn’t need fanciful graphics with 3D units and lens flares coming out of the sun and animated trees and rivers. The kind of graphics Combat Command has is what I would call fully-functional. Utilizing NATO symbols with a clean interface that gives off a feeling of actually playing a table-top strategy game, Combat Command is sure to visually please the hardcore as well as those just starting out. While the tileset could use some work in terms of contrast and detail to distinguish between landscape types. There is a difference between obvious types such as flatland and mountains, but different types of those landscapes are difficult to look at quickly and knowing which is which. An example would be that there are some mountainous terrain that is rough and some that is not. The visual difference is slight and it isn’t until you mouse over it that you know what it is. Having multiple units occupying a hex (you’re allowed to stack a certain amount) can also make it difficult to see what kind of terrain you are on as well.

I was able to run Combat Command comfortably on my HP Mini laptop; however some battles that are considered medium to large in size of units and map did cause a struggle. Battles of that size may see players computers stutter and lag as it loads up or goes through the actions of a turn. Of course playing on a small laptop is an exercise in frustration due to screen size (small) and horsepower (weak), those with PCs with decent RAM and processor horsepower should see no issue whatsoever.

A nice touch that I liked was the inclusion of wartime propaganda posters that cycle through after a few minutes on the interface. It certainly adds to the atmosphere and helps in giving some life to space that isn’t utilized as much.

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Combat Command doesn’t feature much in terms of sound effects, save from the usual suspects of gunfire and explosions. I played without sound and it didn’t affect my experience at all in any negative effect.


An Editor That Impresses

Combat Command comes with a robust and easy-to-use editor that allows anyone to make any type of map with any type of unit composition they desire. Not only can you make any map you want (doing one of my old stomping grounds is my current project) but you can also create any type of unit you want. You can create a Rifle company that is ridiculously over-powered or a push-over or follow the basic guide in the manual (you ARE reading it, right?) to create the typical assortment of World War II units. Not only are you able to create the map and units, but you can tinker with AI behavior as well. This allows for a multitude of situations a player can create for himself or for friends.

All of this is done rather easily with simple point and clicks or inputting some numbers. This is a great feature to have for any war game and having it with Combat Command will definitely please a lot of players that want to try their hand at mission creating or taking up other challenges that others have created. Aside from having an awkward time laying down roads and rivers, the editor is solid and intuitive.


My Final Word

If you’re a fan of table-top wargames but don’t necessarily have the table space (or your friend is out of town) and want to satisfy that thirst, Combat Command will quench it. While it can be a challenge to dive into, getting to know it is worth the time. I would definitely recommend Combat Command to experienced wargamers that may want a different, more in-depth turn-based strategy game. To newcomers, you will have your hands full but it will certainly open your eyes to the world of complex military wargames.


Review written by:  Scott Parrino, Editor in Chief