Combat Mission Cold War : Review
Combat Mission Cold War fills a fairly wide open niche between the World War 2 titles and the ultra deadly combat of Combat Mission Black Sea. Built upon the same engine as the previous releases it is showing its age but also is very functional. With a few mods it can look as good as any AAA title. Of particular interest is the partnership with Matrix Games which is bringing us a new PBEM server system, a much needed improvement to the clunkiness that currently exists. Lets dive in to the world pre-Berlin Wall topple!
Note : This review follows the new review structure, read more here.
Subject of the Game
Combat Mission Cold War is the newest of the Combat Mission games that builds on the same engine as all of the modern titles. Battle for Normandy, Fortress Italy, Red Thunder, Final Blitzkrieg, Black Sea, and Shock Force. If you are already familiar with these titles then it is the same functional game, for better or worse. It finds us at an interesting point in the Cold War where the US had switched doctrines and just released the M1A1 Abrams. But the Abrams is not ubiquitous and at that point was an untested beast.
Another unique point is the addition of the NTC (Fort Irwin) maps. NTC was a novel concept that trained a fairly lackluster and demoralized US Military that was still recovering from the trials of Vietnam and drawdowns that followed.
Scope, Scale, Level of Play
The scope of CMCW covers the era from 1979 to 1982 in Western Europe and Fort Irwin, California. The scale ranges from several platoons all the way to a Brigade / Regimental action. Control is, in every case, unit formations as small as a pair of Snipers to a squad. Vehicles are modelled individually with crews able to be dismounted.
You, the player, act as an omnipotent command giver who is responsible for providing orders to every unit under your command. These units will attempt to follow your commands until morale, losses, or death prevents them from doing so.
You may play this game either in Real-Time mode, where you may pause and give orders, or in Turn Based Mode. In Turn-Based mode you give all of your units orders and the game plays through for 60 seconds without you being able to give any additional orders. At the end of your round you can replay and focus on moments throughout your turn. Then, at completion, you get to give orders for next turn.
Learning this orders system and how best to juggle fast paced combat can be difficult. For example setting a tank to perform a pop-up and reverse attack from a prepared position is difficult to do right. In some cases you watch as a tank executes an attack only to hang around and eat a T-72 round. For the earlier titles set in WW2 I think Turn-Based is exceptional, but losses can prove frustrating and I found myself using Real-Time in Cold War. (Note, I play Shock Force and Black Sea Real-Time.)
If Combat Mission was a tabletop game it would have hand painted armor and individual units. Stock from the developers the game looks pretty good. German flags flutter from the side of buildings and the towns feel stereotypically West German. The units themselves, ranging from a lowly Soviet grunt, all the way to an M60A2 (!) look pretty good.
Effects such as cluster munitions also look really great. The eruption of artillery tosses dirt everywhere, and this damage persists throughout the battle. Unfortunately my screenshots are lackluster due to ShareX causing a re-render, but before it completely renders it snaps the screen shot. Some of these are shot with ShareX, others with the Nvidia internal capture.
Not only is there stock scenarios but you may play “Quick” battles where you toss two forces at each other of any type you choose. Beyond that is a full scenario creation suite to design specific scenarios.
The designers have focused on a tactical level game that models everything from the individual soldier, physics, sound detection and command structures. You’ll find brutal street fighting right next to a long range tank battle, all the while seeing misses, imperfect detections, and artillery delays. At times it absolutely feels like a chaotic battlefield. Supply is modelled at the individual level, what a unit carries is what is available. If they need more they must acquire it themselves.
Overall System Description
The whole system comes together as a plausible method to attempt to model ground warfare in the era prior to Desert Storm. Both the US and Soviets had issues at this time, the Soviets learning there own lessons in Afghanistan in 1979, while the US also realizing the issues post Vietnam.
The game system is well played and fairly self explanatory without much digging into nuance. A Quick move order is easily distinguishable from a Fast move order. Objectives tend to be clear cut with color marked zones on the map. You are restricted to a narrow time frame from 1979 to 1982, but instead of hampering the game I think it set a very sharp focus.
Some scenarios are called out as one either the US or as the Soviets. Others specify Head-to-Head play as being preferred. The AI is passable but you will be rewarded with a very unique gaming experience if you play against a competent opponent.
Principal areas of reality represented in the game
CMCW focuses on the ground combat. Air units are present but these are, beyond the impacts, 100% abstracted. You will find armor that may suffer damage, components that will be destroyed, and units that lose function man by man. An isolated squad will perform worse, and break sooner, than a squad in a solid command structure.
You will watch as tanks become stuck in soggy soil, or as infantry climb up into a bell tower. It behooves you, as the commander, to understand the nuances of your equipment as the game models it well. TOW launchers for example do an admirable job of firing, guiding, and reversing away from danger.
Air strikes and individual air units are the biggest abstraction. You’ll see your SAM’s or MANPAD’s engage a target but will never see an aircraft loitering above the battleground. You may hear it, especially the tell tale sound of Apache’s or F-4’s.
The effects of jamming is definable and plays an impact while NBC is not modelled here. You do not see units in MOPP4 running about as would be likely in this conflict. This is an unfortunate oversight that really misses out on a critical expectation of this theatre. Even if unlikely, it would still make for a very interesting what-if.
Intricacy of the system and mechanical ease of play
The system itself is simple. Each unit may be given orders and they will follow them as they can. If you path a unit through an area they cannot reach they will attempt to reach it on their own. Units will automatically fire at targets unless restricted to a zone of fire.
You can use hotkeys or select a unit and press the space bar for quick order entry.
Orders may be stacked though you can’t set situationals so a unit may continue on with a move order even if it puts them in a very bad position. This is where intervening in Real-Time mode works well.
The intricacy of the system comes from your unit availability, terrain, objectives, and OPFOR composition. Juggling a large OOB can become an exercise in tedium but smaller scenarios typically flow very well. It will take a special sort of player to dig in and really play a Regimental action to a high level.
Evaluation of the systems success at achieving the designers goals and representing the real situation
The system does a fairly good job of representing what you would expect for tactical combat. You will absolutely be rewarded by using intelligent small unit tactics. Tanks moving across the map in bounding overwatch will be 100% more likely to succeed then those moving in a mass. The included scenarios do a great job of portraying those first few days of Cold War gone hot.
Difficulties arise when you must control a large quantity of units. There is no delegation. You are the Battalion Commander, the XO, the Company Commander, the Platoon Leader, even the section leader. Should you want to focus on one hot-spot… too bad. However for those who want to control every aspect and not let some half-baked AI drive your tanks into a ditch, then this is for you.
Some scenarios are more open ended than others which leads to one battle feeling like a pigeonhole puzzle and another giving you complete operational freedom. This is not a downfall of the engine but of the interpretation of the scenario designer. One designer may wish you to feel complete freedom, while the other could be exploring a particular situation.
Contributions to the wargaming state of the art
The art of the game is fairly unique. Other games occupy a similar scale but without the attention to detail or realism. The other competitor in the niche, Graviteam Tactics, is an excellent game but is not on par for usability. The narrative arc of the engine allows for storytelling unlike anything else in the niche. You’ll watch as a hero soldier holds off a superior force by sheer luck. You’ll see your only tank get stuck in a swamp yet still manage to knock out enemy units. You’ll cheer as artillery rains down and perfectly knocks a track off an enemy tank.
The realism it strives for is in far contrast to most games. While it feels clunky at times it succeeds where most games hand wave the realism for ease of use.
The Game in play
There are 40 scenarios that come pre-made. Some are based at NTC while the bulk are Western Europe.
Each scenario has a fairly comprehensive mission description with map and designer fluff. Some of the more interesting scenarios I’ve played so far have involved the M60A2 “Starship” and an escape scenario where you had to extract a company of engineers and supporting infantry through heavy street fighting. My personal favorites are those with smaller focus where you really get a good feel for units. (I learned the M60A2 is fairly crappy).
The Quick Battle screen allows you to fight random battles at a time, place, and composition of your choosing. These can be a lot of fun when you’d like to just jump in and smash units.
There is 5 campaigns, 2 US-Western Europe, 1 US-NTC, and 2 Soviet. Campaigns are survival dependent, what forces you survive with will be available in the next. To be honest the scale of these missions are beyond what I enjoy so I did not play the Campaigns.
The player is an omnipotent commander that sees everything the units under their command does. You are not represented on the map. Your scope of command is all encompassing from top to bottom. That said preserving the chain of command is important for morale.
There is no delays for orders propagations except in the case of off-map artillery or air strikes.
Types of decisions required
You will be required to decide unit placement, fire arcs, deployment of weapons and infantry, and how best to use the force at your disposal. In one battle you may have to determine where to have your Engineers blast walls. Another you may have to define proper use for your cluster munitions in support of TOW defenders.
In some maps freedom of operation is 100% yours. Where to move, and how to best engage the enemy, is up to you.
Effects of the game systems mechanical requirements on the players decision making
You have, in most scenarios, freedom to do as you please. Some scenario designers will offer paths or choices that thematically require a certain course of action for success but these tend to be in the minority.
Evaluation of the players experience
Overall the game is enjoyable and offers a unique experience. Watching as your American forces evaporate under heavy artillery to barely stave off the Soviets is immensely rewarding and feels right. On the Red side you absolutely feel like a heavy Regiment rolling through Germany tossing T-62’s where you need them and damning whatever doesn’t work.
Real-time mode offers more control but playing as turn-based is one of the most cinematic and unique gaming experiences out there. WEGO is amazing in this respect, just be aware of the limitations especially in a fast moving battlefield. I think the engine would better be served with 30 second turns.
One great example is a scenario that, at first, looks like a turkey shoot. You move up a massive line of Soviets and fire into a column of US troops. However this is short lived as US air superiority takes a toll. Finally what seems like an easy victory turns into a sobering situations as M1 Abrams tanks arrive and thoroughly outclass the T-72’s. Couple this with the excellent ATGM actions on both sides and you have a terrible and bloody engagement where both sides are mauled.
Does the game work?
Yes. And it works well. It works best on the tiny to medium scenarios. The control scheme becomes tedious once you are juggling more than a company. Determining the best path for every tank, truck, squad, and commander can be a frustrating exercise but watching it all unfold is completely unique. Being able to replay those moments is even more amazing as you get to watch that T-72 miss and the TOW missile strike it a second later.
On a solo level the game is enjoyable and very much replayable. Against another human is a challenging war game with few counters. If you do venture into the PvP venues, be sure to clarify your familiarity with the system as a skilled opponent can thoroughly destroy you. Once the new Matrix-Steam PBEM system is in place I hope to see much more PvP battles out there.
Is it a good game?
Yes. It is a good game. It has some flaws. Some are technical such as the all seeing M113 that is soon to be patched. Other flaws are more difficult to address such as the omission of NBC or the inability to delegate, but these have been issues (features?) of Combat Mission games for years. At this point it is wishful thinking as the engine is mature.
I’m not a big fan of the NTC maps but they distill the essence of the situation without distractions from buildings or excessive terrain. You can’t complain that tank was hidden behind a tree when there is no trees. For just practicing maneuvers it is a great map. For getting your ass kicked, it is a great map. It serves that amazing purpose to sweat in training so you don’t bleed in war. It’s just not a terribly beautiful map compared to the others.
Much also relies on the quality of the scenario designer. One lackluster scenario does not represent the potential of the engine.
Who would be most interested in the game?
Wargamers who want to go beyond hex-and-counter or who want ultra-realism. Also of note is those who wants a cinematic experience as there are few games like this. If you grew up reading Team Yankee or the Ten Thousand then you’ll want to dig into this game.
There is a robust modding community that enhances the game models for even more detail. Add to it the potential for excellent 3rd party scenarios and you have some excellent future game play.
Is the game a good value?
As of today (June 2021) it is a solid $60. With the recent move to Steam and partnering with Matrix you will likely see periodic sales after 6 months or so. It will also be on the Matrix storefront so if you have a Matrix Anniversary discount you can use it there.
If you are a student of Cold War combat than I see this as an excellent value. No other game covers it in the same scale or scope. My hope is we’ll see future expansions for both units and scenarios such as a Bundeswehr pack or an Exercise Reforger pack.
The game is a particular value if you plan to play against other humans. It’s worth doing once with an understanding opponent. Check out the Few Good Men forums for an opponent.
NOTE : Please let me know what you think of the new review format. My goal is to up the quality and focus on a more useful critical path.