Slitherine's new 3D Close Combat looks just like the old 2D Close Combat

By Owen Faraday 16 May 2014 0
The more things change... The more things change...

And thank goodness for that. Back in 2012 when the wargaming imprint first announced that the classic WWII company-level tactical games were getting rebooted after almost 20 years, I quailed. Close Combat is one of my all-time favorite PC games and it's one that I think has stood the test of time. Why fix what ain't broken? For me, even 1990s-vintage Close Combat games like A Bridge Too Far are still perfectly playable.

Clearly the wargaming public agrees, as does Slitherine/Matrix themselves: their studio has been cranking out new iterations of the game based on the same hoary old (but decidedly functional) engine that has been powering the real-time small unit tactics sim since restaurants had smoking sections. There's been a new Close Combat game on PC almost every single year since Slitherine licensed the intellectual property and engine in 2007, and they've even announced another this week -- Gateway to Caen, which they claim will be the swan song for old Close Combat.

"The engine's just too old, and we've wrung every possible improvement and optimisation out of it over the years," Slitherine development director Iain McNeil told me. The decision was made two years ago that future Close Combat games would be built around a scratch-built 3D engine based in Unity.

That worried me. Sure, the old Close Combat engine is basically a Cuban '57 Chevy at this point, kept alive through MacGyver-like feats of engineering brilliance. The pathfinding AI for vehicles sucks. Hand-to-hand combat is mysterious and arbitrary. But I've played 12 different games in 18 years in that engine. It's not going to be easy to say goodbye to it.

Luckily, Slitherine seems to have agreed. After seeing a demo of Close Combat: The Bloody First, the new 3D Close Combat looks more like the classic CC than I could ever have hoped.

The almost 20-year-old engine, represented here by 2010's Close Combat: Last Stand Arnhem. The almost 20-year-old engine, represented here by 2010's Close Combat: Last Stand Arnhem.

"There's more problems with the old engine than Close Combat fans realise, probably," McNeil says. "The UI, for example, is completely impenetrable. Place a first-time player in front of Close Combat 3 today. It will probably be 10 minutes before they get a rifle team to move."

He's got a good point there. And a slightly spiky user experience isn't even the biggest problem. Sometimes, the UI is just flat out lying to you.

"With the new Unity engine, the game sees what you see," McNeil tells me. "In the old Close Combat there was two seperate layers at work, a data layer and a graphics layer. They didn't perfectly sync up, so there was a slight difference between what the game understood to be happening and what the player saw." That's why sometimes you have a bazooka team where the shooter is in a three-story church tower and the loader is lying in the street -- the game thinks they're both in the tower.

McNeil boots up a very early alpha of the new engine, showing an encounter between an American rifle platoon and German mechanised force somewhere sunny and Mediterranean -- Sicily, maybe.

The models and the terrain are very lovely, but I'm most immediately taken in by how much effort has been taken to make Close Combat vets feel at home. While there's a new gangsta lean to the viewpoint to better show off the 3D models and animations, the game is very much still played from a bird's eye view of the battlefield. The font in the UI is even the same. But while there's nods to old CC, there's no question that this is a modern engine with all the eye candy that affords: there's 3D lighting with real-time shadows. McNeil orders a rifle team to cross a stone bridge and the stream below glimmers in the sunlight. The whole package is a drastic makeover of a beloved classic that manages to feel like a light touch-up. Not bad.

Spoiler: it doesn't end well for this Sherman. Spoiler: it doesn't end well for this Sherman.

"For us, the core of Close Combat is the psychological model, so that's all carried through into the new series," says McNeil. "Every soldier in a squad is modelled for morale, health, and various proficiencies. They break and panic when under fire, they're reassured by the presence of officers."

It's still early days for Close Combat: The Bloody First, but it's scheduled to appear on PC before the end of this year, sporting head-to-head multiplayer and two-player co-op, as well as a single-player campaign that follows the American 1st Infantry Division through its campaigns in the Med and in Normandy. Like almost every current Slitherine project, it's being built with both PC and iPad in mind.

I couldn't get Slitherine nailed down on an exact ship date for an iPad Close Combat, but the hope is that it will follow within a couple of months of its PC cousin.
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