Today, I am not simply sharing a trailer with the game review. Above you can witness the developer, Slitherine Ltd / Matrix Games show you some gameplay for Close Combat: The Bloody First. I recommend that you watch the video in order to experience aspects of the game before reading the review.
Close Combat: The Bloody First has been in Beta and Early Access for some time, but has officially been released on Steam on 3 October 2019. It is a top-down, 3D Real-time strategy game. It is the 18th Close Combat game in a long series that started in 1996 with the original developers, Atomic Games, with Microsoft as the original publisher.
This is the first time I have ever played a Close Combat game. I mention this, as it is relevant to most of my points of view. For the gamers that have been through the series of games, this game may have been very easy and they may have been used to the game mechanics. Nothing could have prepared me for what I was getting myself into.
In TBF, you take control of the US 1st Infantry Division, who are also called “The Big Red One” or “The Bloody First”. The timeline is November 1942 to August 1944, and the game takes you across Tunisia, Sicily and Normandy. Your opponents include the likes of the Germans and Italians.
Before you start playing, you can go to the Tutorial mode. It is very adept at teaching you the fine points of how to play the game. If you have never played Close Combat before, trust me, you will need this. The controls are nothing I am used to in a RTS strategy game, but more on that later. For now, suffice it to say that the tutorial is sufficient to show you the main aspects of controlling your troops, but don’t expect it to teach you any strategy.
When you start the campaign, you are given a quick briefing. These are notes that give you some detail of the battle you are about to play, as if you are replaying an important battle in history. Once you move on past the briefing, you need to select your squad. More experienced players will read through all the units and carefully select those that will be better at winning the battle. A newbie like me has the option to “Auto-assign”, leaving the game to decide the best squadron for you.
When you are all set and ready, you enter the battle screen. The battle area is a rectangular sheet of battle space, almost as if you are a commander at a war table moving pieces around the board. Before the battle starts, you have the opportunity to issue commands in preparation. And then, you start the battle.
In the beginning, I was pretty much thinking “What the fudge?” Even though I had played the tutorial, nothing could have prepared me for this game. You don’t really see enemy troops on the field unless your troops can see them. For this, you can select a group of soldiers and hold in the Control button, which gives you access to the Point of View mode, where you can see just where and what their field of vision reveals. This is quite an awesome feature in a RTS game, and one that I haven’t really experienced until now. It really gives you that feel for the battle. But it also gives your enemy an edge when they are hunkered down on a hill shooting down at your troops while you try and find cover.
Don’t expect base building like Command and Conquer though, which is my favourite type of RTS game. Rather, expect pawn soldiers running across the playfield like a chess board trying to see who can take out who first. Even on easy mode, where you set the enemies to the easiest setting, you will still be sitting watching two sides of the field throw bullets at each other. I learnt though, that this is no way to win a battle. I played the first battle (yes, the first battle!) I think about twenty times before I finally beat it. That’s how committed I was to just winning ONE battle.
Another aspect that caught me by surprise was the command elements. Instead of just clicking where to go and who to attack, you actually need to issue specific commands. By the use of special shortcut keys, or by right-clicking and selecting an option (Fire, Smoke, Sneak, Fast move, Move, etc), you have a variety of commands literally at the tip of your finger. This is rather unique to this game and not something I have come across before in a RTS game.
Strategy is key, and I mean intense strategy. Knowing when to take cover, when to sneak, when to throw smoke, what angle to attack from, which units to send where: every decision you make is paramount. This isn’t just about sending hordes of troops in and wiping them out like Starcraft. You need to make key decisions, the effect of which you may only realise at the end of the battle.
As you play further, you unlock special attacks, such as airstrike. While fighting, your units will show a small red radar around them, showing you where they are being attacked from. Also, clicking on units will reveal what each soldier in that unit is doing and how healthy they are feeling. Likewise, clicking on the enemy units will reveal how many men and health they have left.
I was amazed at the intuition of the soldiers. While you are in battle with the fore units, there are a group of reserve soldiers at the back, waiting for your command. If your soldiers lose morale in battle, they will just abandon the rest of the units and run away. You may regain control of them later should the tide shift, or you may lose them completely as they escape like cowards. Also, if things get really bad, your reserves will just run into the battle without your command. That’s right! These bitches want to win! I love that they do this, especially when all hope seems lost. I’ve learnt that a key mistake of mine was sending everyone into battle at once, instead of just holding back the reserves for the last moments when I needed them the most.
When it comes to graphics, things are as dull as you would expect a war to be. Brown sands, green and grey uniforms, the sight of a bullet here and there. The map is really handy though, showing you key units locations. The panel at the bottom is kept simple, which is perfect, and holds special abilities and unit information. On the left bottom it even hold vital battle information, like when you click to attack an enemy, and your unit tells you that they cannot see the enemy. It even tells you when someone is abandoning a unit.
The top left of the screen holds all your unit information, and with that you can easy select one instead of selecting on the field itself. I’ve used this more than once, not just to see information on units but also to command them more easily. I must also say how impressed with how ‘realistic’ some of the buildings and structures looked.
When it comes to the sound, expect bang bang and some shouting. The sounds of war basically. There is no script reading, or anyone voicing the texts at the bottom left panel. It is purely the sounds of war everywhere you go, which one would expect from a war game I guess.
Now if I was really unprofessional and based this review on how much I enjoyed this game, I would easily have scored it 1/10, simply based on the fact that I really struggle to play this game and actually win. Holy shit, this game is hard. I am usually very good at strategy games, but this game challenges me more than any other RTS game has. As a matter of fact, it makes me feel outright stupid! And I am pretty good at chess and can solve a Rubik’s Cube in under 3 minutes.
Not this game. Even if you are experienced at other RTS games, you can call yourself a master all you want, this game will challenge your ego. And whatever strategy you discover to win the battle, try repeating that again. The A.I. is unpredictable and you really need to work through each stage diligently to find the best way to defeat the enemy.
I’m not a sore loser, so I will review this game for what it is. A challenging RTS game that is brilliant at its core. Sure, there could have been some things that could have been added or adjusted to make the game easier to play. I fear though that less committed players will easily get frustrated and just rage quit during the first mission. This sheds a doubt on whether the game is worth the price on Steam. If I had not been given a review code, I would have been pissed at having paid so much for the game. However, if you play through it enough to become used to the commands, controls and strategy elements, I find you will be rewarded.
So I’m going to give Close Combat: The Bloody First 6/10. It really is a great game with master strategy elements, but the frustration of replaying a stage a hundred times just to complete the battle gets to me. Easy difficulty should be easy. I feel that if I had played more of the game in the series, I may have fared better. If you are a die-hard RTS gamer that really, really wants a challenge, then this is the ultimate game for you. If not, steer very clear. Your mouse and keyboard will not survive it.
**PLEASE NOTE: AIR Entertainment were supplied with a review copy of the game. This has in no way influenced my views on the game as per our Review Policy**