5 German soldiers walked in front of a BAR.
Type: Single-player, Multi-player
Developer: Slitherine Ltd.
Publisher: Slitherine Ltd.
Release date: 3 Oct, 2019
If you’re the kind of person who’s sick and tired of hearing that joke, then this game is for you. No need to read the review, just go and buy it. Anyone else should keep reading.
Close Combat is an old series. The first game was released in 1996, and things did not change much since, apart from a somewhat misguided tactical FPS that was released in 2005. Heck, they’ve even been sticking with the same game engine all this time, although obviously with some upgrades along the way. With The Bloody First, Slitherine is trying to take the series forward, keeping what made people like the old games while also fixing some of the issues they had and finally bringing the series into the 3rd dimension.
As the name of the game implies, the game follows the exploits of what’s probably the most famous US division of World War II, The Bloody First, officially known as 1st infantry division, as they fight their way through Tunisia, Sicily and finally Normandy.
Story & setting
I’m sure everyone already knows the basics of World War II. While there might be some debate over the details, like exactly why did France fall so fast, which tank was the best and so on, and some details seem to have been conveniently forgotten when old allies turned into enemies, like the US/Soviet lend-lease, the overarching series of events should be known to everyone, particularly those interested in historical wargames.
The story of the Bloody First might not be as well known. They were part of the first major engagement between US & German forces, the Battle for Kasserine Pass, and were also among the first to land on Omaha beach and, between that, they were an instrumental part of taking Sicily, where they were part of the initial landing force. Needless to say, they were one of the most important US divisions of World War II, and a lot has been written about them. This game deals with their major engagement, where they fought against the German and Italian troops, and this game does a pretty good job at representing this.
The different regions all feel very different. Sicily, Tunisia and Normandy are all presented a way that feels authentic, even if you are of course only seeing small snippets of what’s going on. Tunisia is more arid and has large hills with relatively gentle slopes, and little cover, Sicily is more craggy and has terrain that makes life hard for armored vehicles, while Normandy has a lot of mostly flat terrain, with hedges and small forests that offers plenty of places to hide.
This game is based on history, but it’s not a slave to it. While historically the allies lost the Battle for Kasserine Pass (it was not a crushing defeat, but still a loss), you can win it. Or you can turn history on its face, and play as the Axis. While the grand campaign and most operations feel like they were made for the American side first and foremost, everything is still playable from the Axis side.
Graphics & sound
Close Combat is finally in 3D! While this is probably something that should have happened in 2000, it’s still nice to see the series finally has a 3D engine. This is still a niche game, made by a smaller studio than most AAA games though, so you can’t really expect it to look like the latest AAA game. The 3D models are simple, although as you can’t zoom in very far, this won’t really be noticeable most of the time. Ground textures do look alright, but not much more than that, and a lot of places, particularly the inside of houses, look eerily empty, as there are no clutter objects. A few tables and chairs would have gone a long way here. But the worst problem this game has with its graphics is the harsh lighting. Particularly during daytime missions, the lighting makes the game look a lot worse than it really should. Long term fans of the series probably won’t mind, but it might turn off a few new players.
With the new engine, it is a lot easier to tell what a unit can see than in previous games. You can tell exactly how tall a hill is, or if a hedge is big enough to hide a tank behind, and holding down ctrl will also show the exact line of sight from any given location. This tanks the framerate, but as you’ll likely not use it very often, that’s a minor annoyance at best.
The sound is a bit more subdued than I think most people who are used to RTSs would expect. While there are loud bangs when artillery shells hit, and you can heal soldiers calling out when they’re afraid, you don’t get the loud and bombastic Hollywood sound that more arcadey RTSs tend to have. And for a game like Close Combat, it works well. I do suspect that they’ve re-used a lot of sound effects and voice clips from earlier games though. While all the Italian voice lines are brand new, I think I heard the US & German voice lines back in Close Combat 2. This is not something that really detracts from the game though.
Something that did surprise me was the music. It was good, really good actually. While I wish there was a bit more, the composer did an excellent job here, and I really hope to hear more from them in future installments of the series.
If you’ve played any previous Close Combat game, the gameplay will feel immediately familiar. While the new engine does bring with it some changes, the basics are the same. You’re leading a small force, and it’s up to you to make sure that they stay alive as they push the enemy off the land.
And taking care of your troops really is the name of the game. Unlike in most other RTSs or RTTs, Close Combat keeps track of the mental state of your soldiers. All of them. The driver in a tank might start to panic when the tank gets hit by a shell, even if it bounces off harmlessly, while the rest of the crew is doing fine, a single soldier in a squad might decide to leg it after seeing another squad get gunned down by a machine gun, and soldiers might flat out refuse to follow orders if they’re too afraid. The designers of the game seem to want you to think of your soldiers as people. People who really don’t want to stand out in the open in front of a machine gun nest, or charge a well-fortified position while they themselves have no real cover. And when you’re playing through the grand campaign or an operation, you’re also encouraged to take care of your troops, as they carry over between missions. Sometimes it might even be worth losing a mission if it means preserving your troops.
Speaking of operations and campaigns, Close Combat offers you a remarkable amount of flexibility in how you want to approach it. You can play through the entire grand campaign, which will take you through most of the operations, and at some points, depending on your performance, you might get to chose where you want to fight next. You can play through just the campaign for one of the three major regions, individual operations or single battles. And all of this can be played from both sides. And the game also doesn’t always expect you to crush your opponent right away. You might play a battle and gain some ground, but not push the enemy off of the land, so then you get to play another battle on the same map, but now you get to deploy further ahead, as you managed to capture certain some ground. This is also true for the opponent, any land they managed to capture will be part of their deployment area in future battles.
Much like in previous games, you also have a fair bit of control over how you move and position your soldiers. You don’t just tell them to “go there”, you say how they should go there, be it a normal cautious move, a fast move or they might try to sneak, all of which obviously have their own advantages and disadvantages. Telling your soldiers to leave caution to the wind and run across an open field is a surefire way to lose them, as the enemy will have no problems taking them out.
Fights are rather slow-paced. When soldiers are in cover, which they should be most of the time, they’re hard to hit, so when two infantry squads are exchanging fire, they’re unlikely to inflict much damage on each other, and at best they’ll get the other to keep their heads down. In order to dislodge an infantry squad in cover, you usually need to either flank them or hit them hard with mortars. A lot of engagements boil down to who can cover their flanks the best, while at the same time sneak up on the enemy, and exploit any weaknesses in their lines. And it feels really satisfying when you finally manage to dislodge an enemy that has taken up positions on a well-defended hill while taking minimal losses in return.
But for all the good things The Bloody First does, it also does some bad things. The pathfinding can be really wonky, and soldiers sometimes end up taking strange detours. I’ve even seen soldiers run in behind enemy lines for no apparent reason. The game can also be really finicky about where it allows you to tell soldiers to move. If you tell your soldiers to move somewhere, and your mouse is over a small rock, they might tell you that there’s no clear path there, even though when you give a move order, every member of a squad will try and find cover on their own once they get close to where you told them to move and won’t try to go exactly where you had your mouse pointer. This can get really annoying when you have to give orders to a lot of units at once, and it’s even worse when trying to order a vehicle to go somewhere, as they have a larger footprint. I can’t remember any of the older Close Combat games having this issue.
Reviewing a game like Close Combat is always a bit tricky. It’s a niche game, with a very specific audience. A lot of people will be turned off by the slow pace of the game, but then there are those who would not want it any other way, and love the slow and methodical gameplay.
Close Combat: The Bloody First is a good game, a really good game, but it has a few issues that are hard to ignore. Slitherine is usually pretty good at supporting their games post-launch, so in the future the pathfinding issues and the issues that arise when you try to tell your troops to move through rocky terrain might no longer be there, but at the time of writing they to mar what’s otherwise one of the most interesting real-time tactics games to be released in some time. I do hope that this game ends up selling well enough for Slitherine to continue to make Close Combat games, and that the next release manages to iron out all the issues this game has. But as for now, I’ll cautiously recommend this game to anyone interested in it, and who don’t mind slower paced tactics games, but who have not played any of the previous games. Existing fans of the series will most likely love this game.