The Combat Mission series is in an interesting position in terms of gameplay. The turn-based WEGO/ real-time style of the game is approachable to outsiders, yet the game has many grognard-like tendencies that make it hover between the fields of “accessibility” and “nerddom.” This is by no means a bad thing, as what Combat Mission games do, provide small to mid-sized unit tactical battles in (mostly) hypothetical scenarios, they have no peer. Shock Force 2 is no exception, providing another exceptional module of modern combat that any wargamer should check out.
First off, big ups to the fine folks at Battlefront games for narrowly avoiding prophesying another conflict with this game. As some of you readers may know, Battlefront developed Combat Mission: Black Sea, a game about Russian aggression toward Ukraine, in the years leading up to the skirmishes and fights over Crimea with Russia. Oopsie daisie! In the case of Shock Force 2, where players take part in either invading Syria as part of a US-led NATO task force, or defending it as the Syrian army, they managed to dodge the bullet by correctly pinning down the country that would see combat, but not the belligerents. Close one, guys!
Anyway, there’s the setting, but for any newcomers to Combat Mission, you might be scratching your head at the “turn-based WEGO/ real-time” reference I made earlier. To explain that, Combat Mission games are playable in two ways: in real-time like most RTS games, giving orders to units as time passes in real life, or in the WEGO style, which means both players will give orders to their troops, press the “End Turn” button, and both sides execute their plans over the course of one real life minute. Many Combat Mission players (including myself) recommend the WEGO style as it gives you time to think and give orders to the sometimes very large number of troops you can have, not to mention that waiting a minute in between giving new orders is an excellent simulation of command delay.
The typical scenario for SF2 will take place over a period of 30 minutes to an hour and 30, meaning you have about 30 to 90 turns per scenario. During that time, you can set up complex waypoints and maneuvers for your units to complete, ranging from simple move orders to in-depth and specific firing arcs, movement styles, deployment of weapons.. It’s a lot to take in, and your turns can take a long time, especially with all of the information you have to parse out. However, given that the maps can be quite large and your units move at real-life speeds, there will also be several turns where you have your units continue their previous routes, so while initial micromanagement can be painful, it’s not terrible from turn to turn.
These aforementioned scenarios are plentiful and have many different goals for each side. Typically, the attacking side will be BLUFOR (the US) against defending REDFOR (Syria) troops, who, to make up for their technological disadvantage, will typically be entrenched. This is not always the case, but these form the bulk of the scenarios, and it’s engaging to fight house-to-house in towns, rooting out enemy units that are hiding the next building over. I’ve found that fighting as the frequently outnumbered and under-equipped Syrian forces offers some of the most thrilling scenarios SF2 can offer, because it’s up to you as a player to position and order your troops wisely to make up for the fact that you will not win a one on one fight.
All this being said, there’s a few gripes I have with Shock Force, similar to my gripes with Black Sea, the previous instalment. There are some… dated parts of the Combat Mission module, including things like the lack of a volume slider, the very limited amount of available resolution sizes (though the good news is the game will probably run on an Austro-Hungarian toaster), and most damningly, the way the tutorial campaign works. You have to open the PDF and use the written tutorial as a guide for the in-game tutorial, which is just incredibly silly these days. Even then, there are so many parts of the game that the tutorial doesn’t cover, such as explaining morale steps or some of the various movement types, that you probably won’t be done learning until you’ve completed several scenarios. And that’s fine, but the addition of some tool-tips to explain exactly what a “panicked” squad will do would be an extremely welcome addition to the game. There’s so many details that most players won’t understand the importance of due to the UI, and I feel this could be helped with just a slight tune-up.
There are a few other places where I wish Combat Mission went just a bit further. There are a handful of excellent, multi-scenario campaigns available out of the box, but i can’t help thinking that allowing for a dynamic campaign creator (akin to what we see in the excellent Field of Glory 2) would beef up the replayability of the game. Also, speaking of replayability, the ability to watch replays of matches would be tremendous. A lot of the community posts AARs of their matches and there’s been interest from my non-wargaming friends to see what the hullabaloo about these games is about, would be great to show them a heroic stand my fighters made in town, or a daring assault from the attacking force’s perspective.
I have to be clear though: Combat Mission Shock Force 2 is a fantastic game. I have small, niggling concerns and complaints but really, the game stands out in its field as one of the best representations of modern combat available. The learning curve can be tricky, especially for a new wargamer, but I heartily recommend Shock Force 2 to any wargamer, newbie and grognard alike.