War game packs 3-D graphics in arsenal


Despite their venerable history, war simulations have in recent years suffered from graphics envy.

While 3-D first-person shooters like "Unreal" have compelled computer gamers to beef up their hardware, war strategy games for the most part have lagged behind in a 2-D world.

News from the front: 3-D graphics have arrived on the battlefield.

"Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord," a new World War II combat simulation from Big Time Software, combines many of the best elements of traditional strategic war gaming with compelling 3-D graphics and painstaking historical accuracy. "Combat Mission" simulates battalion-level battles that took place in northwestern Europe after the D-Day invasion of Normandy, ground covered by many war simulations before. Yet "Combat Mission's" novel approach to game play makes these battles fresh and engaging no matter how many similar war games you've played.

Charles Moylan, president of Big Time Software and "Combat Mission's" lead engineer, said the game started out as an adaptation of "Squad Leader," a board game by Baltimore-based Avalon Hill. When Hasbro bought out Avalon Hill in 1998, Moylan no longer had a publisher, so he decided to complete the game on his own.

The lack of a physical distributor means you can obtain the game only from the Internet at www.battlefront.com (a distribution company Moylan created to fulfill the need).

What you get for $45 is a Mac/PC hybrid CD-ROM and a clear, concisely written instruction manual -- no wasteful packaging.

A Baltimore native who grew up in Guilford and attended Friends School, Moylan said the Mac and PC versions of the game are available simultaneously because he wrote the code on a Mac and converted the Windows version using a software library he created.

"I actually write better Windows code using Mac tools," Moylan said, explaining that he can convert his code from Mac to Windows "in about five minutes." Game developers of the world, take note.

However it came to be, "Combat Mission" makes a powerful first impression. The detailed 3-D environment hits you first. Although the game does not require a 3-D accelerator card, having one enhances visuals such as fog, smoke and buildings.

Also striking is that not only can you look down on the battlefield from above in the traditional war-game perspective, but also view the battlefield at ground level. If you zoom in on a unit (either your own or an enemy's) you see what it sees -- or more often, doesn't see, in the case of spotting enemy targets.

As gorgeous as the graphics are, they aren't a 100 percent accurate representation of what's going on in the game engine. The manual points out that even today's computers can't accurately render an entire battlefield in 3-D, but the mathematical calculations behind the scenes (such as those that compute the trajectory, speed and angle of an artillery shell) are much more sophisticated and precise.

The game bridges this gap by giving you accurate information with a line-of-sight tool (it draws color-coded lines to show which targets are within range while adding descriptions of the target and terrain).

Instead of a "real-time" simulation model, in which players issue orders to units continuously, or a turn-based "I-go, you-go" system, "Combat Mission" has an "orders phase" during which both players issue commands to all their units followed by a 60-second "action phase" during which you can only watch what happens.

The "movie" that the game creates during the action phase can be paused, rewound and replayed from any angle.

This offers a major advantage over real-time simulations such as Microsoft's "Close Combat" series, in which large battles between widely dispersed units are almost impossible to track and control.

Replays also allow players to appreciate the game's keen battle graphics -- from prodigious tank explosions to the puff of smoke expelled from the rear of a bazooka. One of my favorite effects is the shaking of the screen during the impact of artillery shells -- hokey but effective.

"Combat Mission's" greatest weakness is its lack of network play, but the programmers at Big Time are cooking up a downloadable patch that will provide play via a TCP/IP connection -- and which will allow Mac players to battle PC players.

Until then, folks can use the "hotseat" method in which players take turns issuing orders from the same computer or exchange orders via e-mail (as slow as that may seem).

Should you lack a human opponent, "Combat Mission's" artificial intelligence is among the best I've seen. It's not quite as challenging as a skilled human, but it will put up a pretty good fight.

Unlike many other war games, the units in "Combat Mission" usually react as real humans might in a battle situation.

For example, I watched one of my armored vehicles fire from the crest of a hill and then quickly reverse back down the slope to avoid enemy return fire, all on its own.

Moylan said he's already planning the sequel: the war on the eastern front between Germany and the Soviet Union. In fact, if the game is well-received, Moylan said the ultimate plan is to create simulations for all the major theaters of World War II.

So far it looks good: Moylan said "Combat Mission" sold out its first printing in 10 days, not the two months he expected.

PC system requirements: Windows 95 or higher, Pentium 166 MHz with 3-D card or Pentium 200 without 3-D card, 32 MB of RAM, 100 MB of hard disk space, CD-ROM drive, DirectX 6.0.

Mac requirements: OS 7.5 or higher, 133 MHz PowerPC 603e with 3-D card or 200 MHz 603e without 3-D card, 32 MB of RAM, 100 MB of hard disk space, CD-ROM drive.

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