First Look: Close Combat: The Bloody First’s Bloody Transition to the Third Dimension

Let’s be honest, Close Combat‘s move to 3D will not please everyone. There has been a fair amount of cynicism around this point, much like when Matrix Games announced that Panzer Corps‘ sequel would also be going 3D. Passionate gaming communities are resistant to change, especially changes they never asked for in the first place.

We’ve recently returned from an event where we got to try out a bunch of Matrix Games’ upcoming titles. Armored Brigade  we spoke about yesterday, and today we’re going to tell you a bit about our experience with their new Close Combat title – The Bloody First.

It’s probably worth getting this out of the way now – the build we played wasn’t that pretty. To be fair, it was of a locked quality and there were no graphics settings to play around with. I wouldn’t be surprised if they low-balled the build just to make sure everything went smoothly, but even the screens we’ve been provided for this article look better than what we played. They also highlight some of the teething issues this move to 3D is going to throw up, which will need ironing out one way or another.

It’s all a matter of contrast, really. The new Dynamic Line of Sight tool (a la Steel Division) is very handy and easy to use, but sometimes the light & dark areas (denoting what can and can’t see the current cursor position) blend in a little too well. You really need to be zoomed in to use the tool properly, but by doing so you lose a lot of situational awareness. Units, especially infantry, are also very hard to spot on higher zoom levels, forcing you to rely on the unit counters instead which could also stand out a bit better.

We don’t want to be unnecessarily negative here – I am of the firm belief that Close Combat‘s 3D transition will benefit the series in the long term. But at the moment, it’s hard not to miss 2D CC’s crisp contrast between units, terrain and terrain objects. 2D Close Combat at its best conveyed itself a lot better than 3D Close Combat currently does, but this isn’t the end of the world. These kinds of transitions (especially as The Bloody First moved from one 3D engine to another) could span a couple of games before they get it perfect.

The main protagonists of The Bloody First are the 1st US Infantry Division (known as ‘The Bloody First’, or more commonly, ‘The Big Red One’), a combined arms unit that saw action through most of the European & North African theatres of WW2. The campaign in The Bloody First focuses on three of them – Tunisia, Sicily & Normandy.

The ‘Grand Campaign’ takes you through these three in chronological order. Each individual campaign is made up of operations: Tunisia has 5, while Sicily and Normandy have three. Each operation is then divided up into battle maps: this can be as low as one, and as high as five for a total of 36 spread out across the whole game. It’s unclear how the progression works as you fight out the campaign – do you need to win all battles to win the operation? Can you lose an operation or two but still win the campaign? Do you need to go back and re-fight battles like older games?

The player oversees a single Company of the Bloody First, divided into three platoons with support assets. The platoons seem pre-set in terms of the squads & equipment they contain, but the support assets can change from map to map depending on what’s available and the scenario. The force selection screen shows the overall stats of the three infantry platoons – morale, organisation etc… and then individual unit stats as well.

As units fight they get more experienced and add to the overall stats of their unit and platoon, but as individual soldiers die and get replaced, the new people’s lack of experience drags the overall quality and performance down. Veteran units can also get weary of fighting however, so managing your platoons in terms of rotation (and making sure the right platoon is being used for the right job) should be quite interesting in terms of army management.

Support assets can include everything from a ‘Company HQ’ infantry unit that has an area of effect buff ability, to tanks and mortars. Air support and off-map artillery can also be enabled and deployed depending on the situation (although there’s on-map units like Howitzers as well).

Combat in The Bloody First is very reminiscent of the older games. The 3D engine does bring about some obvious changes – trees look like real trees; the fauna is a bit more dynamic etc… although we’ve noticed that the ground doesn’t seem to react when something explodes on it anymore. No more foxholes dug by mortar rounds, then. Still, you’ll recognise the audio and the weapon sounds. Movement is still done through the action menu – Move Fast, Move, Sneak etc… which gives everything a familiar feel, although your troops are a lot smarter in their pathfinding. You can play in a traditional top-down view, or the new off-centre 3D view, which allows you to pan around. This is controlled by the ‘M’ key, and interestingly enough your last position will be saved in off-centre view, allowing you to switch between the two quite easily.

The AI is quite aggressive right now – a test battle we did in Tunisia saw a German tank charge right down the road at my infantry. I then had to charge my tanks in for a counter push. A second German tank then charged right by my two tanks. I managed to kill them both eventually, but tank accuracy seems quite low at the moment. In another scenario in Normandy, a Tank went right by my entire force and just captured our rear command point. I’d neglected to take any AT with me, so it kind of just sat there until I lost the match for not re-taking the point.

We experienced a small, but broad. slice of Close Combat: The Bloody First. There is still plenty to see and more battles to be fought, but there are also still things that need to be ironed out. The two battles, while enjoyable, were also a tad confusing. On the Tunisia map I had some howitzers, but it was never clear what they could and couldn’t fire at in terms of range, and whether or not they needed direct line of sight. Getting used to the engagement ranges were also problematic – the LOS tool helps, but you need to watch out for the far edges of the map, which you may not always be looking at. The topography view is handy, but not as useful if you’re not an expert in reading those kinds of maps. We could go on listing the pros and cons, but the overall effect is that, currently, the transitions this new game is going through feel less than comfortable.

But this is still Close Combat – this is WW2 small-unit tactics at its finest, and the player’s deployment of those tactics will be enhanced through the new engine and the new tools that come with it. The management layer above the fighting looks incredibly promising – I especially enjoyed A Bridge Too Far‘s force management and persistence elements, and The Bloody First‘s offering looks just as good.

If you’re not looking forward to the 3D transition, I’m not sure The Bloody First as-is is going to change your mind, but for those fans who stick with the series there is a promising future ahead for Close Combat. It might take a while to get there, but, get there it shall.

At the time of writing, Matrix Games were aiming for a release by the end of the year. More information will be announced later.