Oh no, this isn’t good. The enemy can shoot back now! Combat Mission: Black Sea continues to fascinate me with how different the actual execution of the game is from Shock Force 2. This time set in a fictional (kind of…) invasion of Ukraine by Russia in 2017 where NATO intervenes, Black Sea offers an entirely different feeling of tension than its predecessor. Rather than dealing with the technicals and militias of Shock Force 2, Black Sea brings two (and a half) modern forces together in direct competition. It’s a deadly, frightening affair.
The invading Russian forces are more professional, have access to better weapon systems, and have the kind of support that was reserved for NATO in SF2. But upping the stakes by giving the enemy near parity is an excellent design choice, and one that demonstrates the breadth of what Combat Mission can offer. Black Sea is fast becoming my favourite tactical wargame, and has even prompted me, a diehard historicals guy, to start reading about modern tactics and systems.
To Die Along the Dnieper
Black Sea centers around a fictional invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation. This time NATO and the US step in in an attempt to dissuade Russian aggression. When it becomes obvious that they’re not going to back down, NATO steps up and a full scale conventional war breaks out. There are campaigns allowing players to take control of all three major players, the Russians, NATO, and Ukraine, each of which has access to different vehicles and systems enough to prompt different tactical approaches to each scenario. There are also a pile of individual scenarios to sink your teeth into and of course the usual staples of multiplayer and an editor.
Though there is a real-time mode, the true way to play is the turn based WEGO system. Both sides issue orders to their units and the system plays everything out simultaneously in one minute intervals. It might be a bit jarring for players coming from true IGO UGO or real time strategy games, but after a run though a scenario or two to get sorted, it begins to feel very natural and does a good job of simulating command delay.
Since both the Russians and NATO forces are professional modern militaries, there is a lot to think about when engaging in any type of scenario in Black Sea. Urban combat is a nightmare. Spending minutes agonizing about potential ambush spots, figuring out where to blast holes for maneuver, and in my case at least, running at least one scout team into a wall of Russian fire.
Battles in the countryside are equally as terrifying, with long range, accurate, and deadly fire capabilities on both sides meaning that positioning tanks is just as crucial as squishy transports. In both settings, seeing a plan work out and the enemy shattered before you is a euphoria rarely felt in any strategy game, and that is due in part to the visuals.
Combat Mission is Almost There!
While not dazzling, Combat Mission has enough fidelity in the visuals to become a really immersive experience. Even though there can be a little hiccup here and there with infantry animation, the fact that the whole game contains so many micro-abstractions means it never feels uncomfortable. Instead, I can sweep my camera over a gigantic map and zoom in to see exactly how my observation team is doing on the left flank before flying over to check on the angles of my Abrams. It’s such an nice system, as soon as you learn it.
The Combat Mission system itself is so tantalizingly close to being accessible. Th tutorial requires reading through a PDF which, while it does a good job of laying out the basics, ignores a lot of the nuance that makes the intricacies of Combat Mission stand out against the crowd. I heartily recommend checking out Usually Hapless’ video tutorials explaining some of the basics as it helped me immensely. A better tutorial and a bit more polish all around would go a long way here, but the core is rock solid.
I’m frankly floored that I haven’t tried one of these games sooner. It’s because it took so long for them to come to Steam, honestly, but now that Combat Mission has sunk its fangs into me, I’m going to be making it a regular part of my gaming from here on out. It’s that good. The fact that Black Sea can create such a different feeling than Shock Force 2 is just a testament to how solid the core systems are, and I really can’t wait to check out how it handles combat in the 1980s when Cold War releases.
Combat Mission: Black Sea is an excellent tactical wargame with solid core systems, believable simulations of modern warfare, and enough content to keep players going for dozens of hours. It deserves space on your virtual shelf, even if modern wargaming isn’t your thing. It wasn’t mine until I got stuck in myself.