Combat Mission: Black Sea hits home the realities of fighting a peer enemy

Another of Battlefront’s popular WEGO military sim/wargames, Combat Mission: Black Sea (CMBS) is being released on Steam today. It’s the second of the company’s stable to make this leap, following Combat Mission: Shock Force 2 (CMSF2) which was released late last year thanks to a new publishing partnership with with Matrix Games/Slitherine.

CMBS was first launched in 2014 and covers a fictional war in Ukraine between NATO, Russian and Ukrainian forces. Like CMSF (which takes place in Syria) it was developed before the real conflicts in the Ukraine and Syria took place and doesn’t represent the real war. These suspiciously prophetic coincidences do suggest, however, that if Battlefront ever does a game about a zombie apocalypse then it’s probably time to run for the hills.

The backstory to the game was altered to fit with recent events and sees the Crimea splitting from Ukraine, the Ukrainians joining NATO, Russia forcefully objecting and all hell breaking loose. The plot is very well developed and frighteningly plausible. An interesting feature is that it gives alternative paths for NATO and Russian success. Arguably a back story isn’t required for a game like this, but I do think that it helps the player to feel involved and this one is a very good example.

The nations involved in CMBS are the USA (Infantry, Armoured and Stryker brigade combat teams), Russia (Motor Rifle and Tank brigades) and Ukraine (Mechanised and Tank brigades). The game scale is individual vehicles, infantry squads and teams for ATGMs, etc. There is a wide range of vehicles and other hardware in each nation’s inventory and if you’re like me you’ll need to keep either the manual or Wikipedia open to figure out where a particular weapon needs 5.56mm or 7.62mm ammo (ammo depletion and resupply is an important part of the game).

The game comes with 21 standalone battle scenarios that vary from platoon scale to nearly reinforced battalion scale battles. The battlefront version of the game has an additional ‘Battlepack’ that adds an additional six battles, and this has also been ported over to Steam. Another expansion that includes the US Marines has been rumoured, but hasn’t appeared yet. CMBS also has a scenario editor and a quick battle generator. Four short multi-battle campaigns are included too – a tutorial ‘campaign’ and one each for the USA, Russia and The Ukraine, and the battlepack adds two more. Finally, because the game has been out for six years, there’s a lot of user generated content available on the internet too.

CMBS and CMSF2 now share the same engine, and so the interface to control the game is virtually identical with only cosmetic changes in the images used in the loading and menu screens. In theory this means that, if you’ve played CMSF2, you should be able to jump straight into CMBS – at least that’s what I thought until I started playing.

When I was asked to write this article, It was suggested I look at how the game had changed from release. I had to confess to him that I neverbought the original game and might not be the best person to do this! The reason I didn’t buy CMBS is that I’d already spent a fortune on CMSF2 and all the add-ons. I reckoned that the time periods weren’t too different (CMSF is set in 2008 and CMBS in 2017) and that one modern tactical tank game was probably enough for me – I still haven’t finished all the battles and campaigns in CMSF2. So instead of looking at the development of CMBS I suggested that I could look at the differences between CMBS and CMSF and reflect on whether I had made the right decision in not picking it up.

The first thing that struck me on starting the game up was how green everything was. CMBS is full of trees, hedgerows, bushes and grass. Some buildings in CMBS are quite attractive too, much different from the ramshackle structures that appear in CMSF2. The different scenery gives a real sense of place and that you are no longer fighting in the desert. From a gameplay perspective the new scenery hugely multiplies the places things can hide.

Editor’s Note: If you want to read our original review of Combat Mission: Black Sea, written by Jim Cobb, go here.

As I mentioned earlier the game interface in CMBS is identical to CMSF2 and so I started the game and kicked off the first scenario, playing as I usually played in the other game. I got massacred. OK I thought, maybe I’m a bit rusty, and so I moved onto the second scenario – same thing happened. I worked my way through the first eleven battle scenarios in the game using my CMSF2 tactics and lost every single time.

There are a couple of things going on in the game that I think causes this difference between CMBS and CMSF2. The first is that many vehicles are equipped with active protection systems (that shoot down incoming missiles) and/or or reactive armour (that disrupt the HEAT warheads used in infantry weapons). In CMSF2 firing guided missiles or even RPGs is pretty much one shot/one kill but this is no longer the case in CMBS. The other big tactical difference is that autocannon and grenade launchers on APCs now seem to be absolutely lethal. An infantry squad shooting a missile at range can now be pretty certain of being clobbered within 30-90 seconds.

I adjusted my tactics a bit by leading more with tanks, being very careful with positioning troops and setting up target arcs in defence and I began to achieve more success. There was a real feeling that I was having to adapt to a new set of circumstances that doesn’t usually happen when I play games based on the same engine (e.g. Waterloo and Gettysburg seem pretty similar in the Scourge of War engine). Although I was really impressed with the game play there were some things that started to annoy me a bit. Some of the scenarios are really big and there is no way to tell a group of troops not to shoot ‘until you see the whites of their eyes’. Instead you need to set up target arcs for every single unit individually. This undoubtedly gives the best results, but it’s incredibly tedious. It would be nice if there was something like Command Modern Operations weapon release authority that let you specify general engagement ranges for particular weapons, but allowed adjustments for important positions.

Given that infantry and missile squads in exposed positions get targeted and killed quickly after firing there really ought to be a ‘shoot and scoot’ command. It’s possible to fake this with vehicles by moving out of defilade pausing for a few seconds and then reversing back, but this doesn’t work with infantry as they are going to be spotted moving into position and they’ll take a while to get setup – the chances are they will be dead before they shoot.

Another thing that annoys me, and this applies to CMSF2 too, is the way helicopters are treated. In every other game I’ve played, and I believe in real life too, attack helicopters fly close to the ground and use terrain for cover. Many real helicopters are able to fire guided missiles from full defilade by using mast mounted sights. In CMSF and CMBS helicopters are treated as just another form of air support that tears across the battlefield and is a target for every air defence system the enemy has.

The last three paragraphs are pretty much everything I didn’t like about Combat Mission: Black Sea. Everything else was good, even amazing at times. The game offers a much different, and more enjoyable, experience to Shock Force 2 (which I still like) and I do regret not picking it up earlier, having taken it for a spin.

Combat Mission: Black Sea releases on Steam today.

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