Game Over Online ~ Close Combat: Invasion Normandy

GameOver Game Reviews - Close Combat: Invasion Normandy (c) Mattel Interactive, Reviewed by - Fwiffo

Game & Publisher Close Combat: Invasion Normandy (c) Mattel Interactive
System Requirements Windows 9x, Pentium 200, 32MB Ram, 100MB HDD, 4x CD-ROM
Overall Rating 80%
Date Published Monday, October 16th, 2000 at 08:26 PM

Divider Left By: Fwiffo Divider Right

As one of the mainstays of the present-day wargame genre, Atomic Games continues to remain as the real-time wargame to beat. Many have said, its V for Victory turn-based series was and still is the pinnacle of war gaming. By the mid 1990s, Atomic turned to Microsoft to publish the first of its Close Combat series. Since then, Close Combat has nearly been a perennial title culminating this year in Close Combat: Invasion Normandy. The first edition started off at Normandy progressing to Operation Market Garden, the Eastern Front, Battle of the Bulge and now, it is back at Normandy again, not on Omaha beach but on Utah beach. Close Combat's longevity is plain indication that they have a winning formula on their hands. Its most innovative feature is the intricate modeling of each and every soldier's psychological makeup, ultimately dictating what course of action each soldier takes on the battlefield in real-time. In its fifth edition though, Atomic faces stiff new challenges as real-time strategy games take on a more tactical approach like in Sierra's recently released Ground Control. These games are fully 3D challenging Atomic's traditional 2D approach. Moreover, clouds loom over the Close Combat series as recent editions have been criticized for a lacklustre AI or unbalanced gameplay. Close Combat: Invasion Normandy aims to erase these doubts and restore the prestige to this proud series.

This series has gone on for so long that the game appears a bit formulaic. Invasion Normandy continues its tradition of bundling a single player, multiplayer and boot camp tutorial all in one. Although veterans will skip over the boot camp, it's nice to see that every new edition, care is put into making the boot camp more accessible and also fit in with the new environments of each subsequent edition. The tutorial teaches everything from simple manoeuvring to infantry and armour tactics. I still found the tutorial rather limited though. The game teaches the principles of tactics but they are always set-up in situations where there really is no decision making involved. This is rather unrealistic as the real battles in Invasion Normandy are chaotic, dynamic and sometimes unpredictable. This complaint is small though, since most people will play the boot camp but once. However, in lieu of the recent RTS craze, I'm guessing Close Combat wants to develop a more accessible game to appeal to a wider audience so the boot camp comes into play there.

Luckily, it doesn't sacrifice gameplay for the sake of simplicity. The single player game is split up into three types of games like Close Combat IV. You have the option of playing a single battle, an operation or a campaign. An operation is a collection of battles while a campaign is a collection of operations. Given that a battle will only last a maximum of 15 minutes, each operation takes around 1-2 hours to finish, depending on the size of the operation while a campaign could potentially take almost a week of regular playing. In each operation, you are allowed to move battlegroups around the map a la Risk style. This option was actually introduced in Close Combat II but reintroduced in Close Combat IV. It creates meaningful battles, as you want to aim to hold key sectors such as important crossroads, beachheads if you depend on naval bombardment or ammo depots. Like Risk, if your frontline battlegroup moves to claim an enemy sector and an enemy battlegroup slips through to the rear, the enemy battlegroup will have free reign hopping around in your backyard. This forces you to think tactically when manoeuvring your troops. Success ultimately lies on the battlefield though. There are three types of conflicts a battlegroup can be engaged in: meeting engagement, attack, or defend. A meeting engagement is when two battlegroups stumble on to an empty sector while attack or defend really dictates what strategy to use. Each battlegroup can be customized with a number of units from the force pool. If you prefer to use AT weapons or heavy armour, you can tailor your platoons to reflect your playing style. In each battle, you have several options to force the enemy to capitulate. First, you can capture and hold as many victory locations on the map. Second, you can force the enemy to surrender by reducing their morale. Finally, you can always opt to wipe the enemy out or drive them from the map. In an attack map, success depends on a quick strike into the enemy defences before they become too dug in. Thus, you'll want to ditch all your massive AT, Infantry, AA guns or any immobile units like heavy machine guns. For defend maps, the heavier immobile guns become much more useful as your nimble units like infantry may not be adequate enough to hold down the fort.

In Close Combat III, Atomic was severely criticized for including way too many armuor. Though it was in the Eastern Front, the home of the largest land-based tank battle in the history of the world, many players felt that armour was too powerful. So powerful was armour, that a group of tanks could wade through infantry like AT-AT walkers trampling rebel infantry in Star Wars. Invasion Normandy seems to have taken this complaint to heart. There are very few areas where you can wield an all armour force. This is probably an accurate reflection of the time period. Most of the time, armour is only used for support. Furthermore, the AI no longer pits ten King Tigers (or equivalents) in every battle. To a lesser degree, this was fixed in Close Combat IV but still the Germans possessed incredible armoury that most often turned the tides of the game. Most irritating were the German rocket launchers, which miraculously decimate infantry and armour alike with impunity. I'm happy to say that in Invasion Normandy, the restrictions imposed on the Germans makes playing the Americans a lot easier. Mortars are actually a lot more useful now. They possess the capability to actually knock out small tanks (Stuarts, Panzer II) and immobilize or damage large ones (Panzer III, Wolverines). You can select units before each battle, restructuring the three platoons in each battlegroup. By default, there are two platoons of infantry and a platoon for support. I often found myself customizing it to my playing style. It would have been better to load a default layout for each battlegroup although I understand this isn't historically authentic. Customizing your battlegroup is restricted to whatever units are available. Often times for US troops, there's really no need to select Green or inferior troops unless you're involved in an extremely long battle of attrition. The German troops however, sport a few more reserves than I would have liked. You most definitely won't be encountering too any crack SS troops.

Invasion Normandy rewards gamers who practice good tactics. In a typical battle, you'll attempt to constantly outflank the enemy and the AI appears to do the same now. No longer will it blindly rush its most powerful units into the fray. The AI attempts to open fire from multiple directions to pin and eradicate your troops. They also ambush quite effectively especially against armour in open areas so well that you'll often wonder where their AT infantry are hiding. Flanking is big part of the game as opening up new directions to fire on the enemy can keep them pinned down or distracted while you move in assault troops for hand to hand combat or reposition other squads in more favourable lines of fire. Think Saving Private Ryan (or at least in the end battle). One of the tactics that I devised in Close Combat III for defence is to use a wall of AT guns, tanks and machine guns with narrow but overlapping fields of fire. This tactic still works and the AI still has problems recovering from these traps. When caught in a three-side crossfire, the AI also has problems moving to safety. Most of the time, it' ll try and actually duke it out in the middle of a field while being fired upon from multiple enclosed locations. This ties in with the AI's inability to retreat in a quick fashion. Many times when you have outflanked the AI with tanks, it will make no effort to relinquish bunkers or move other troops to assist in a controlled retreat. Instead, it'll just let the troops get slaughtered and try to call a truce with you. These are merely minor quirks in the game and as I played the game mostly as Americans I'm sure some of the AI experience is a little biased. That said, Close Combat: Invasion Normandy still carries its tradition AI insignia: the AI is much more adept at defence than offence. The primary reason behind this is their inability to properly use support and armoured vehicles.

The maps provided in this game are a bit more familiar with mainstream audiences. You can elect to start off on the beaches and fight your way inland or you can choose to lead paratroopers deep behind enemy lines. Due to the speed of the game, you won't be getting the same feeling you got seeing the first thirty minutes of Saving Private Ryan. Most of the map will also be empty as you and the AI are hampered by how many units you can put on the map. As such, most often, there is some part of the beach (left, right, centre) that is completely devoid of troops. Playing against a human opponent eliminates these gaps but the AI seems vehement on clustering their troops around one area of the map. I found the number of troops has always been a problematic thing with the Close Combat series. Close Combat IV re-introduced the command of a battlegroup while Close Combat III was much more personal. In the latter, you commanded a platoon, honed and created out of requisition points awarded at the end of each battle. However, after Close Combat III, the series gave you historical representations of not one platoon, but three. Due to the micromanagement involved in the nature of this game, you'll most likely not bother customizing or naming specific units in each battlegroup. In fact, I found myself unrealistically bunching up my Garand, BAR squads as one massive clump of infantry in order to keep things in order.

The situation you fight in also dictates where you will be placed on the map. For paratroopers, you're often placed in the middle of nowhere just off the edge of the map, surrounded by enemies, therefore creating a new type of challenge. Close Combat: Invasion Normandy features a heavy dose of plains fighting, forestry environments and dreadful city ruins as settings for fighting. You can see downed airplanes, dead cows among other objects drawn on the map. The entire game is still drawn via DirectDraw without any 3D acceleration. Some have complained about this since Invasion Normandy's soldiers are a bit small especially at higher resolutions. With games like Ground Control, Dark Reign 2, Force Commander, among others offering "cinematic" view of firefights (those from a single soldier's point of view), Close Combat seems to be surpassed in this aspect. There really isn't anything new in the form of dynamics on the maps. Most of the terrain is still static. Yes, craters and hollowed out armour vehicles still carry over, but the maps lack even the simplest animations for objects like trains or buildings. There also isn't any fighting at night or any lighting effects. Gun tracers are still represented by dotted lines.

That said, the engine is dated but it is by no means inadequate for the task . The speed is relatively fast even on modest machines beyond the standard 800x600 resolution. Every individual soldier is depicted and animated in the game. Moreover, the Germans continue to speak German while the Americans speak English. And you still have the option of hearing the Germans speak English too. The aural cacophony of war drones out the speech though. I found this rather irritating because the speech is useful in pinpointing whether your units are in trouble but the sound effects are at the same so incredible that you don't want to stop hearing them. Close Combat: Invasion Normandy carries sound effects from Close Combat IV and some from Close Combat III (like the squirt of the MG .42). New sounds have been introduced for AT guns like the Howitzer. I've always thought that some of the existing Close Combat weapons fire sound artificial. An 'M1A1 Howitzer' or 'M5 Gun 3 inch' firing will definitely get your attention on the battlefield now. Close Combat has never had any music during the battle itself. Instead of ambient bird or woodland sounds, Close Combat: Invasion Normandy features the distant ambient roar of mortar fire and deep chattering of machine guns. This is a nice addition as it brings realism up one notch in this already realistic game. Again, think Saving Private Ryan. The sounds are setup in a way that you can discern from your ears alone which units are engaged and which aren't as each weapon has a sound unto its own.

In Multiplayer, you can't play an operation but you can play single battles with one opponent in traditional head to head wargaming style. Invasion Normandy allows you to play with the Zone, Mplayer, UDP/TCP or Serial connections. I found the multiplayer features once again lacking. When Close Combat II came out, there was a rumour that you can have up to four people playing at once. Close Combat could really benefit by allowing more than two players duke it out with AI involved. Sid Meier's Gettysburg has this option and the sheer fun of collaborating to beat the AI or beat a group of players is enticing. Imagine being able to parcel out a battlegroup's platoon among other players and watch over each other's flank. Furthermore, the developers could make the Operation map a kind of persistent world where players can war with each other over territories a la Risk fashion but engage in real-time combat when a conflict ensues. Technically, the multiplayer portion is good. It provides near lag-free gameplay even for analog modem users and also helps offset the AI idiosyncrasies. But sadly, Invasion Normandy is only technically superior to the original Close Combat bringing no innovation to the table.

Having played all of the Close Combat trilogies and real-time tactical imitators from other companies, I have to say that this rendition of Close Combat is definitely more polished than previous titles. Though there are still outstanding problems, it's easy to overlook them as the sheer excitement of leading troops into combat in the WWII era is still worthy of everyone's attention. Unfortunately for Atomic Games, I don't think the public will accept another rendition of Close Combat without any significant improvements. Even the die-hard veterans will admit that the "wow" factor of this game has diminished and only time can tell whether the developers can work their magic once again for what's next in line.


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