The ultra-realistic military strategy game Combat Mission: Shock Force 2 developed by Battlefront.com has finally made its way to Steam, a first for the series, courtesy of publisher Slitherine/Matrix Games. It’s one of the best strategy games for those who crave authenticity and realism, with only a couple of legacy niggles. Despite its title indicating that it’s a sequel to the first Shock Force game, Combat Mission: Shock Force 2 is actually a remake of the original, for all intents and purposes. The original came out back in 2007 and I happened to purchase a physical edition at launch, so you’re in good company here if you’re looking to see if it’s worth picking up (spoiler: it is).
The main campaign of Combat Mission: Shock Force 2, Task Force Thunder, pits you as commander of a US Army Stryker brigade in a fictional 2008 invasion of Syria (Strykers being a modular mechanised infantry fighting vehicle). You are given a pre-campaign briefing with maps and information on the enemy, and then given a similar briefing on a smaller scale before each mission. These tell you what forces you have, what fire and air support you have, and when each of these will become available — because in real life, people don’t all just arrive conveniently at once. You are also given objectives and a time limit (each mission usually lasts around an hour), then it’s off to get planning.
When each mission has loaded, you’re dropped into the level with a bird’s-eye view of the battlefield. You can see the level and its buildings and terrain, but you can’t see any enemy. You can give your troops their initial orders, then press the big red go button. It’s worth mentioning at this point that the game uses both real-time and WeGo modes, both contentious options in the CM community. What these options mean is that you can either it play the game as a normal real-time strategy where you click and things happen immediately, or you can utilise the turn-based WeGo feature, which is how the Combat Mission series has traditionally been played and involves setting out all your commands for the next sixty seconds, pressing the big red button, and then watching helplessly as the action unfolds. I use WeGo because I’m not a heathen.
The gameplay is where this series really shines. Your units are formed according to their respective military organisation TOE (table of organisation and equipment). This is a military jargon way of saying that you have numerous squads that form platoons and platoons that form companies and units that are attached to these companies, like tanks and engineers, and then you have all of the equipment that these units bring with them onto the battlefield. This equipment is modelled down to the bullet, and that’s what makes Combat Mission: Shock Force 2 so special.
Say you have a squad of nine people in a Stryker armoured vehicle. You can see how much ammunition that squad is carrying, separated into calibre and type. Are you expecting to encounter tanks? You can tell your squad to grab a Javelin anti-tank missile launcher from the Stryker and take it with them, though this will realistically slow them down, too. When your squad encounters the enemy, you will see each bullet ticking down as it’s fired. You can also see on the UI every weapon they’re carrying and the attached accessories, all realistically modelled on each individual soldier. Does it say your squad leader has an M4 with an ACOG sight? He will actually have an ACOG sight in-game, and it works.
See, every single projectile is modelled, too, meaning that every bullet, grenade and shell fired has its physics and penetrating power accurately represented. Did your squad see enemies 1000 metres away? Well, they can’t engage unless their weapons can reach that range. Did an RPG hit your tank? Depending on where it hit and from how far, it’s probably fine — or not.
This level of realism extends to the line-of-sight system that Battlefront.com has implemented as well. You can only see what your troops see or hear. If they hear the rumble of a tank but don’t see it, a red tank icon appears with a question mark. Maybe they do see it but can’t make out exactly what type of tank it is: same thing. Enemy units only appear to you when they have been properly identified by your units, and the same goes for inter-unit communications. Just because one unit sees an enemy, it doesn’t mean another unit has. If they’re near each other, the game will simulate them shouting to each other and the other unit will also identify the enemy. This goes for radios, as radio communications are also simulated, so squads can talk to each other if they have the relevant equipment.
Taking all this into account, the campaign also tracks the losses of your soldiers and vehicles. This means that they won’t be available for the rest of the campaign, something that incentivises you to take care in every order you give, and there are many. Normal, quick, target area, cover arc — these are all commands you can give your units. If you move your squads at a normal speed, they will walk slowly but be more aware of their surroundings, whereas quick will allow them to dash across open ground but make them less likely to spot that enemy in the bushes. You can order them to cover a specific area, target an area for fire even if they can’t see anyone, acquire equipment from vehicles, the list is endless.
As well as the campaign, there are also around a dozen “Scenarios.” These are played the same way as the campaign missions but are standalone. You’re given an objective, forces to accomplish it, and off you go. There are also “Quick Battles” which are randomly generated on different maps according to parameters you set. And then there’s the multiplayer. Oh, yes, all of this can be taken online to pit you against real human opponents
Let’s talk about the differences between the original and Shock Force 2. When the original Shock Force released, it garnered mixed praise. It was buggy and had a lot of problems — these are all fixed. The game now runs on Battlefront.com’s Game Engine 4. The company constantly works on engine updates and releases them as retroactive updates to their slew of titles, and they always enhance the experience in different ways. Game Engine 4 adds things like the hull down command, which allows you to tell your armoured units to take cover, leaving only their turret exposed so that it can fire. It’s safe to say that none of these engine updates were available in 2007, and none of the bugs or issues found in the original are present in Combat Mission: Shock Force 2.
For all of Combat Mission: Shock Force 2’s brilliance, there are some aspects that hold it back compared to other entries in this genre. The graphics, for example, although realistic are getting outdated by this point. The character models and animations look stilted and long in the tooth. The reason for this is its legacy nature (Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord, the first in the series, came out in 2000), and because of all those unseen projectile calculations.
Battlefront.com also operates with a small independent development team, so patches and updates are slower than usual. They also work with various defence sectors around the world, using the Combat Mission franchise as a real-world training tool for militaries. Even though most individuals interested in this game likely won’t care about some of these negatives, we have to be as nitpicky as possible for the sake of thoroughness and transparency.
Thought you were done with Combat Mission: Shock Force 2? Think again. It has three expansion DLCs, or “modules.” The British Forces module adds a whole new campaign set in the same fictional 2008 invasion of Syria as the first game, but this time you get to take control of the British army and all their equipment and organisation, like the L85A2 rifle and Challenger 2 tanks. You also get another thirty standalone Scenarios and more Quick Battle maps.
The Marines module adds the US Marines to the mix, and yet another campaign related to the base game’s fictional 2008 Syrian invasion. It makes the most of the marines’ naval nature and the first mission of the campaign has you landing an amphibious force on Syria’s Mediterranean coast — very Saving Private Ryan. Again, you get a slew of some sixteen Scenarios, and also some new Syrian paratrooper enemy types.
Finally, we have the NATO Forces module, which adds the militaries of Germany, Canada and the Netherlands. This time, you get three new campaigns — one for each new faction — and over twenty new Scenarios, plus numerous Quick Battle maps. The DLCs have all the quality of the base game, and it is fascinating to play with different factions and see how their organisation and operation changes — from nine-man US Army squads to eight-man British sections to the oversized thirteen-ish of the Marines. You can buy all of these DLCs as a bundle with the base game, so there’s certainly no shortage of content should this review pique your interest.
There is so much content here, and so much to love if you’re looking for the ultra-realism in your strategy game. Yes, we looked at some negative points, but none of these even come close to tarnishing the experience. Combat Mission, even after two decades, remains the only series that blends the tactical and the strategic so well. Zoom in and follow the story of every individual, or zoom out and worry about where on the map you’re going to send your next chunk of reinforcements and how you’re going to resupply them. And with all of the add-on content available, there’s plenty of strategic fun to keep you occupied.