Combat Mission: Shock Force: Shocked, I tell you! Shocked!
TomChick - News - 07/25/07 - Link

Hereís one for the game of the year list: Combat Mission: Shock Force is, at this point, a shoo-in for Most Disappointing Game of 2007. Battlefrontís presentation of modern combat is a serious letdown, partly for its design, but largely for the state of its release.

The design is still built around the original Combat Missionís World War II era warfare. Iím not convinced that this is a good level to present modern combat with the Saggers and Javelins that make warfare an Ďif I can see you, youíre deadí affair. Firstly, the speed at which armored vehicles are destroyed is a whole other kettle of fish from jockeying for an angle on the side of a tank peering out from the edge of a hedgerow. But in order to present a challenge here, the limiting factor tends to be the number of available HEAT rounds balanced against enemy armor, an equation that will be contrived at best. In modern combat, unprotected armor dies fast unless youíve taken steps to protect it, steps that usually occur outside the scope of these scenarios and are therefore relegated to abstractions or scenario designer choices. A half-hour or hour-long slice of time has to be carefully and conspicuously jury-rigged so that itís not a foregone conclusion.

(And where, oh where are the helicopters? Presenting modern tactical combat without helicopters is like doing World War II without tanks: itís possible to do, but itís a stretch and itís bound to disappoint fans.)

Shock Force takes two approaches to this. The first is to present battles between US and Syrian forces as if they were roughly equals in terms of equipment. Ha ha. Itís been a long time since we looked with trepidation at Iraqís million-man army and their Elite Republican Guard. So when youíre given a meeting engagement scenario like Trident Valley in which equally matched platoons of US and Syrian forces race to secure three objectives, itís almost quaintly nostalgic. The gameplay is there. The foundation in reality isnít.

Shock Forceís far more interesting approach is to present asymmetrical warfare, which is where this could have been a trenchant new twist in wargaming. Instead, you get a half-assed under-the-hood stealth calculation that means insurgents have a chance of being invisible, supposedly modeling their ability to blend in with the civilian population (not pictured). In the heat of battle, IEDs stand in for minefields and no human player is going to roll through an ambush once the game clock is ticking. In the end, Shock Forceís presentation of asymmetrical warfare is mostly like a Combat Mission scenario with French partisans against SS troops: just make sure to give the partisans twice as many troops and youíre good to go.

But beyond these innate problems with the design, the bigger issue is the state of the release, which is nothing short of deplorable. Battlefront is not new at this, but youíd never guess from a gander at Shock Force, which feels like a beta of something from a first time developer in search of a publisher.

The graphics are sluggish and ugly, rippling with strange shimmering artifacts and wonky shadows. Camera movement is agonizingly slow, even on a powerful rig that eats Company of Heroes for breakfast and then has a little cranked up STALKER before lunch. And considering how youíre supposed to play the game Ė angling around for the best views during a replay, eyeballing line of sight since thereís no LOS tool in the interface (!), checking for where are the windows and doors and how tall the walls Ė a smooth and easy camera is crucial. The cruelest joke is that now you can supposedly play Combat Mission in real time, giving orders as you go along. Not bloody likely, with combat this fast, a camera this slow, and graphics this rough.

Those of us coming from any modern RTS simply will not tolerate this hackery. Let us hold down the ALT key and look around, free and fast and unfettered, and without a blurry skybox mushed in along the hard edge of the end of the map, please. Is this really as far as youíve come, Battlefront? You used to be beautiful, man.

James Allen, one of the scenario designers (who incidentally gave the game a review with an 8 out of 8 score on his site, Out of Eight), mentioned on another blog I read that there are problems with nvidia cards that should be addressed in a later patch, which will be along after the patch currently being prepared for the game. If this is true -- if this is merely a matter of some chipset oversight or driver compatibility -- the current state of the game is all the more pathetic for being released this way.

The interface is absolutely wretched, with no tutorial to bring new players into the game. Shock Force was obviously created by and for people whoíve been playing Combat Mission all along. The rest of you need not apply. There are no tool tips for the numerous icons and weapon silhouettes, which gives the whole thing a clunky 20th Century ĎWhere did I put the manual and what page is the legend on?í vibe. Thereís a noticeable lack of feedback, particularly during the replays, which are also buggy. A new turn starts with guys who will be killed already dead and ammo that will be expended already shot. It's time travel to the future in sixty second increments.

The unit info and commands are spread out across multiple tabbed displays, which means very few commands have consistent hotkeys. Most orders are a two-stroke affair, and you have to be careful making assumptions about which orders tab youíve got called up. Oops, you meant to tell that guy to hide and instead youíve given him quick movement orders to the other side of the map. Hopefully, you'll notice and fix that before ending your turn. Many of the orders wonít queue up, which seems to suggest Battlefront expects you to play in real time.

And finally, thereís that favorite whipping boy of any of us whoíve been playing computer wargames: AI. Why is it that glib action RTSs like Command & Conquer 3 manage both a tactical and strategic level AI, but the games that takes things seriously still canít be bothered? Frankly, I'm tired of hearing guff about how hard it is (note the manual's justification for their goofy stealth rules for unconventionals). Isn't that your job? Because you know what else is hard? Parting with $50 for a game that doesn't work. Itís absolutely pathetic that Battlefront hasnít provided single-player wargamers with a worthy opponent that isnít scripted by scenario designers. To be fair, this is nothing other wargamer developers arenít providing either, so maybe this is a complaint that should be shelved under "everybody's doin' it!" until this niche rises to the occasion.

The good news, if there is any, is that this is clearly a first iteration game. With sequels, Battlefront can hopefully play us into more considered representations of modern combat, asymmetrical or otherwise. And maybe with copious patchwork, this one wonít be a total waste. But right now, I can think of fewer games I would be happier to uninstall.

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