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 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.
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.
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